TAG Heuer’s new CEO is applying innovation lessons from Facebook

How to keep mechanical watches relevant and desirable to young customers in an increasingly digital world? This is the question that keeps watch executives up at night. Frédéric Arnault, who at the age of 25 stepped up to become TAG Heuer’s CEO on July 1, may have a better idea than most about how to navigate the industry’s biggest challenge since the “quartz crisis” of the 70s, which many thought would finish off fine Swiss watch manufacturing for good.
After stints at Facebook’s AI division and at the management consultancy McKinsey, he joined TAG Heuer as head of connected technologies before becoming digital and strategy director. During that time he was responsible for overseeing the brand’s digital transformation, including innovative social media campaigns, redesigned immersive web and e-commerce platforms, and leading the development of TAG Heuer’s latest luxury smartwatches – a category the watchmaker pioneered five years ago with the launch of its first Connected.

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“When I joined there were many questions,” says Arnault on the impact of the smartwatch revolution. “Is it going to be a temporary gadget that will not last? Or will it be something revolutionary that will make the mechanical watch obsolete? I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle: it’s a new category that will be a strong player for the long term. However, at the same time, the mechanical watch is here to stay and will continue to appeal to younger generations.”
His experience in the AI department of Facebook taught him the importance of data gathering. “First of all, the products, specifically the Connected watch, gather a lot of data,” says Arnault of the key insights from his time at Facebook. “We will be able to run algorithms on this data to ideate on and keep improving our product while also offering insights to our users. We can also use such techniques to improve our operations, especially in our marketing and targeting strategies.”
Arnault also learnt much from the tech titan’s approach to innovation and management. “If you want innovation, you cannot adopt a classic top-down management style,” says Arnault on the subject of fostering creativity within a company. “These products are so technical, the ideas have to come from those closest to them in order to get the best ideas and most relevant insights. And how do we give enough freedom to those people? So it’s all about agility and how we manage agility. When it came to the visuals of the website for example, the teams involved with the products were the ones driving the roadmap.”
While the brand has been swift in its efforts to adopt Silicon Valley’s attitudes, it says it will never do so at the expense of TAG Heuer’s heritage as a maker of mechanical watches. “For us, brand authenticity is paramount, and that’s built over time. We’re committed to staying true to what made us successful in the past,” says Arnault. “For instance, the Carrera was launched almost 60 years ago with specific design codes and a specific history; our new models express these same values, in a contemporary way. Today, with everything moving so fast and changing all the time, younger customers respond strongly to this authenticity.”

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While he is very much a member of his generation, Arnault is also a man of refined tastes. For instance, he is a classically trained pianist who has performed with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. “I used to play every day, but now it’s three times a week. I enjoy the Russian composers, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.” So while keen to embrace the latest technology, he also has a keen understanding of what makes the past important and relevant to today.
This blend of modernity and classicism is what drives the new Carrera collection, in which a vintage touchstone is updated and made germane for the present day. “We took inspiration from the first launch which was in 1963, but made improvements on the materials and added new design codes which make the watch look even better, but in a subtle way that our customers might not notice at first. It just feels better.”
This year, the Carrera plays a starring role in the 160th anniversary of TAG Heuer, with two limited releases – a remastered version of the 1963 original, and an homage to the colourful Heuer Montreal – in addition to the eight new evergreen chronographs. Powering them all is the sophisticated Calibre Heuer 02 in-house movement, which offers several performance-enhancing advances.
These include an 80-hour power reserve, a thinner 6.95mm movement to allow for a more slender case design, a vertical clutch which improves the precision of the start-stop functions and chronograph second hand, and a column wheel to improve accuracy and precision – something that’s especially noticeable in the smooth functioning of the pushers.

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Developing a product with such heritage is quite a responsibility – so what has he learned about good decision-making? “I believe strongly in intuition,” he says. “And not always trying to be analytical is very important. We can buy data and analyse the competition, but in the end we have to follow our intuition.”

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