Interview: Marc Hayek, Blancpain President and CEO

How a major luxury watch name has turned its branding into a rallying cry for the oceans

author icon By APB Staff | 12 February 2021

The Hayek family has controlled the Swatch Group of Swiss watches since the 1980s. Marc Hayek, a scion of the family and president and CEO of Blancpain, one of the group’s most important watch names, has placed ocean conservation front and centre of its marketing and philanthropy since the early 2000s with the creation of the Blancpain Ocean Commitment.

It was Hayek’s storied grandfather, Nicolas Hayek Sr, who saved the Swiss watch industry in the 1980s, revamping and consolidating Swiss watch companies, boosting the technology and building up the luxury brands that are so widely known today.

The Antarctic seascape by Laurent Ballesta, Gombessa III expedition, 2015

Marc Hayek is a keen diver with an eye for the beautiful and awe-inspiring. What has emerged from years of funding are inspirational photos from under the waves. Blancpain has co-financed 19 expeditions, which have helped create 11 marine protected areas (MPAs) covering four million square kilometres.

A recent study even examined the impact of Covid lockdowns on sea life.

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity; all images courtesy Blancpain)

Asia-Pacific Boating: What prompted Blancpain to focus so closely on ocean conservation?

Marc Hayek: Blancpain has had an incredibly close relationship with the ocean and diving since the early 1950s. It all started with Jean-Jacques Fiechter, Blancpain’s CEO at the time, who was a sport diving pioneer.

After running out of air and being forced to make an emergency ascent during one of his underwater adventures, he realised that a diver’s life depended on a reliable timekeeping instrument. He created the Fifty Fathoms, the first modern diver’s watch, which made diving safer and therefore opened up the underwater world.

Fiechter was convinced that the Fifty Fathoms – followed a couple of years later by its smaller, civilian version, Bathyscaphe – had a role to play in raising people’s awareness about the ocean’s beauty and its importance for our civilisation.

Marc Hayek (r) with Laurent Ballesta during the Gombessa II Expedition in French Polynesia, 2014

As a diver myself, passionate about the ocean since I was a small boy, when I arrived at Blancpain and discovered the original Fifty Fathoms and Bathyscaphe, I immediately fell in love with these watches. The beauty of these pieces was just stunning; it was timeless. I thought we had to bring it back to life.

And to stay faithful to the history and heritage of the Fifty Fathoms, we had to re-vitalise our connection to the ocean. It started with Fiechter in the 50s, who helped to discover the underwater world. That was the first step. But I wanted to give something back to the ocean: try to help, try to educate and motivate people to protect and preserve its beauty.

The Gombessa V expedition is exploring the deepest parts of the Mediterranean Sea, 2019

We have to keep in mind that taking care of the ocean has a positive impact that goes far beyond the underwater universe. The ocean regulates our climate, drives weather patterns, and reduces the impact of climate change by absorbing more than 25% of the carbon dioxide we produce. Ultimately, it is one of the world’s major sources of nutrition.

APB: When did the Ocean Commitment actually begin? How has it changed or evolved over time?

MH: For me, it started as early as 1953, when the Fifty Fathoms was launched. Fiechter’s pioneering efforts brought Blancpain into close relationship with other ocean pioneers: divers, scientists, underwater photographers and environmentalists.

In 2003, when we released the 150-piece limited edition Fifty Fathoms, celebrating the watch’s 50th anniversary, it seemed logical to me to honour the significance of the Fifty Fathoms by doing something more than “just a watch”.

Laurent Ballesta during the Blancpain Diving Experience, 2018

Hence, we decided to launch Blancpain’s first ocean preservation initiative, followed by many more initiatives in the following decade. In 2014, we gathered all these initiatives under one label, Blancpain Ocean Commitment (BOC), to achieve synergies between our numerous partners and projects, and to reinforce our communication efforts around these initiatives. I am proud to say that the BOC has achieved the status of a proper brand, serving as a platform to raise people’s awareness on ocean issues.

APB: How would you describe the scope of Blancpain’s ocean conservation activities?

MH: The Blancpain Ocean Commitment is centered on three axes:

Beauty – to enable people to discover what the underwater world has to offer

Knowledge – through exploration and scientific research, because you first need to know what to preserve, which are the most important areas

Protection – notably through advocacy efforts, to ensure efficient ocean conservation

Therefore, Blancpain’s initiatives go from underwater photography exhibitions to multi-year exploration and preservation expeditions. For instance, from 2008 to 2021, we have released Edition Fifty Fathoms, an annual publication dedicated to the most stunning underwater photographs, in order to reveal the ocean’s beauty and share our passion for the underwater world.

In parallel, from 2011 to 2016, Blancpain has been the founding partner of the Pristine Seas expeditions conducted by the National Geographic Society, an exploration, research and media project to find, survey, and help protect the last wild places in the ocean by inspiring the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Sharks photographed in French Polynesia during the Gombessa IV Expedition, 2017; photo by Laurent Ballesta

In 2012, we became founding partner of the Gombessa expeditions led by biologist and underwater photographer Laurent Ballesta, and to which we have been dedicating an increased support over the years. Here, the focus is mainly on research and discovery.

APB: How does the Ocean Commitment work within Blancpain, ie, as a separate division or entity, or as an integrated part of the company?

MH: The Blancpain Ocean Commitment is a subdivision of our marketing department. It is integrated into the marketing department, but at the same time independent, in order to be as transversal and global as possible.

The Blancpain Ocean Commitment is a subdivision of our marketing department. It is integrated into the marketing department, but at the same time independent

The BOC represents our company’s philosophy, and it must be reflected in every field of activity at Blancpain. A brand like ours has the opportunity to reach influential individuals. I feel that it is our duty to take advantage of all the means at our disposal to promote important topics and motivate people to give back to our planet.

Thus, we have opted for a specific marketing approach, where the BOC holds center stage. Instead of devolving the entirety of our marketing budget to advertising investments – which would be good for Blancpain but would not make any positive difference to the world – a massive amount goes to the BOC. At the end of the day, selling a watch or playing a role in convincing someone to stand for ocean conservation gives me the same satisfaction.

APB: How does Blancpain assess projects to support?

We offer support to what we feel is meaningful according to our three axes. I believe in ocean positivity, and I think that most people react much more to “this is something to save” than “this is something you are not allowed to do”.

A rare Coelacanth fish photographed off South Africa during the first Gombessa Expedition, 2013

So again, a decisive aspect for Blancpain is to contribute to an improved knowledge of underwater life by arousing interest. Learning about marine ecosystems and their complexity and fragility, is a key lever for action.

Projects are also evaluated based on their overall relevance and credibility, as well as with regard to their potential to yield concrete and measurable results. However, we are not interested in seeking immediate and short-lived impacts, but rather value a long-term vision.

And of course, when we talk about long-term projects, we are talking about common values, a strong mutual sense of trust and engagement, without which a successful collaboration wouldn’t be achievable. Blancpain is not only financially involved; We are an active partner engaged with heart and motivation in the projects we support.

I am proud to say that the Blancpain Ocean Commitment has co-financed 19 major scientific expeditions, helped create 11 marine protected areas (MPAs), and contributed to significantly increasing the surface of marine protected areas around the world

APB: What would you say is Blancpain’s best or crowning achievement so far in ocean conservation work?

MH: I am proud to say that the Blancpain Ocean Commitment has co-financed 19 major scientific expeditions, helped create 11 marine protected areas (MPAs), and contributed to significantly increasing the surface of marine protected areas around the world, with an addition of more than 4 million square kilometres.

Researchers using laser photogrammetry to measure a great hammerhead shark in French Polynesia as part of the Mokarran Protection Society initiative, 2020

These figures come largely from the success of the Pristine Seas expeditions, which proved to be a special and very effective project, the strongest we supported in terms of ocean protection policies.

But of course, this would not have been possible without showing the beauty of the ocean, associated with economic arguments to inspire communities and governments in favour of MPAs. Thus, every single project – even the smallest – has a special meaning for Blancpain.

Marc Hayek, President and CEO of Blancpain

APB: What are the key requirements for ocean conservation to be successful in future? What needs to happen to ensure a healthy ocean for the future?

MH: It’s not about spending money; it’s about acting. We should all, at our own level, make a contribution to the ocean, keeping in mind that small actions that may seem insignificant individually can have a considerable impact when cumulated and repeated. And of course, we have to believe in what we do. Doing things with conviction and authenticity is the best way to achieve great results.