The coupled dynamics of two conjugated liquid layers of disparate thicknesses, which coat a solid substrate and are subjected to a transverse temperature gradient, is investigated. The upper liquid layer evolves under the short-wavelength Bénard–Marangoni instability, whereas the lower, much thinner film undergoes a shear-driven long-wavelength deformation. Although the lubricating film should reduce the viscous stresses acting on the up to one hundred times thicker upper layer by only 10 %, it is found that the critical Marangoni number of marginal stability may be as low as if a stress-free boundary condition were applied at the bottom of the upper layer, i.e. much lower than the classical value of 79.6 known for a single film. Furthermore, it is experimentally verified that the deformation of the liquid–liquid interface, albeit small, has a non-negligible effect on the temperature distribution along the liquid–gas interface of the upper layer. This stabilizes the hexagonal pattern symmetry towards external disturbances and indicates a two-way coupling of the different layers. The experiments also demonstrate how convection patterns formed in a liquid film can be used to pattern a second conjugated film. The experimental findings are verified by a numerical model of the coupled layers.