International Agency of the Year: Havas-Owned BETC Pushes the Envelope and Breaks the Rules

From Disneyland Paris to Pornhub, it's been a fruitful year for BETC

a group of four people dressed in all black
Creators of ‘exhilarating’ ads and keepers of ‘the best lemon cake in the universe.’ Photo by Marcel Hartmann
Headshot of Minda Smiley

Lego, one of the world’s most beloved brands, has an internal agency that handles much of its creative output. But when it came time to launch a massive global brand campaign, the Danish toymaker’s first in 30 years, it was BETC that Remi Marcelli, Lego’s svp and head of its 500-person in-house agency, hired to get the job done.

The campaign, which involved a Tom-and-Jerry-esque chase around a city made of Lego bricks, was a highlight of BETC’s year, but hardly its only piece of standout work. Twenty-five years since its inception, the Paris-based agency that’s arguably best known for putting the Evian babies on the map is stronger than ever.

Armed with an eclectic mix of local and international clients, Adweek’s 2019 International Agency of the Year is in the midst of a growth spurt. Since the fourth quarter of last year, it’s won new business from French supermarket chain Leclerc and luxury fashion brand Givenchy, among others. It was also named Michelin’s global creative and strategy agency in July of this year, beating out Ogilvy for the account.

The crux of Lego’s global brand campaign is a nearly two-minute film that takes viewers inside a child’s imagination, where the streets, storefronts and people in a city are all made of the brand’s signature bricks. The campaign also includes some fun print work that subverts gender stereotypes—like a bride carrying her groom, instead of the other way around.

As a result of the winning streak, Havas-owned BETC has made 200 new hires over the past year to support the accounts, all while continuing its brand of irreverent, often envelope-pushing work for established clients such as French television network Canal+ and Lacoste.

“Our business is fundamentally composed of innovation, surprise and impact,” says Stéphane Xiberras, co-president and CCO of BETC France. “From this foundation, anything is possible at BETC. Rules are there to be broken, and what already exists is a springboard for imagining what’s never been done.”

This can-do attitude is appreciated by the agency’s clients, many of whom look to BETC year after year for ideas that will help cut through the clutter.

“They aren’t afraid to try something new, something different and unexpected,” Emilie Pietrini, communications and brand director at Canal+, says. “They create exhilarating, unique ads, something that is increasingly rare these days. At the same time, they understand our brand and our vision, and make sure to keep that in mind throughout the creative process.”

The stats

  • Key Wins (Q4 2018 through present): Danone-owned Danette, Givenchy, Leclerc, Michelin, Mondelēz-owned Prince
  • Revenue: BETC France grew 7.9% between September 2018 and September 2019
  • Strategic Moves: Florence Bellison rejoined the agency as president and creative director of BETC Etoile Rouge, the shop’s luxury, fashion and beauty division.

A busy year

In addition to a flurry of new business, BETC’s year has been marked by work that ranges from heartfelt to completely off the wall. Set to Redbone’s catchy “Come and Get Your Love,” BETC’s 2018 Christmas ad for French telecom Bouygues featured a father whose awkward dance moves are initially a source of embarrassment for his son, but ultimately come to be appreciated.

In French telecom company Bouygues’ 2019 holiday spot, a little girl dials the number of Santa Claus to recite her Christmas list—or so she thinks. It’s really just her dad, who goes to great lengths to convince his daughter that she’s managed to get her hands on Santa’s personal cell (he steps out of meetings, and even out of the shower at one point, to take her calls).

Just days into the new year, the agency released yet another heartwarming ad—this time for Disneyland Paris—that told the story of a duckling who fulfills his dream of meeting his longtime idol, Donald Duck.

But don’t let the sentimentality fool you: The shop’s wry sense of humor is likely why Pornhub tapped it for “Beesexual,” a campaign full of short videos of bees doing the deed (pollinating plants), complete with voiceovers by popular porn stars. Each time someone viewed one of the videos on the site, Pornhub made a donation to a bee-saving nonprofit.

Less racy but equally funny, the agency’s recent tongue-in-cheek campaign for Back Market, a company that sells refurbished smartphones, had some fun with old celebrity tweets. For instance, seeing that Kylie Jenner tweeted her excitement for the impending iPhone 5 in 2012, Back Market responded a mere seven years later to let her know her wish would finally be granted.

Other pieces of work rounding out an incredibly fruitful year for BETC: a nearly two-minute love story for Lacoste, as well as a campaign for Canal+ that humorously attempts to liken the company’s own streaming platform to Netflix (the caveat being that it can’t actually say Netflix’s name, for legal reasons).

In a spot for Lacoste, a couple fights as the world literally crumbles around them: The building they live in splits into two, serving as a metaphor for the intensity of their argument. But it’s not long until the pair, hopelessly in love, choose to reconcile—and make their way through the rubble to embrace. It’s the latest iteration of the brand’s “Life Is a Beautiful Sport” campaign.

A solid foundation

Much of the creativity that informs BETC’s work stems from a leadership team that’s essentially synonymous with the agency itself. Two of its founders, Rémi Babinet and Mercedes Erra, serve as executives of BETC Group, which includes the agency’s additional offices in the U.K., Brazil and China (the group also encompasses Rosapark, Adweek’s 2018 International Agency of the Year). Both share the role of president of BETC Group, while Babinet also serves as creative director.

Xiberras joined the agency in 1999, while Bertille Toledano, who serves as co-president of BETC France, has been with the agency for nearly 10 years. The two of them oversee operations within BETC France, which includes the agency’s design, luxury, digital and communications arms.

Under the foursome’s leadership, BETC has won a bevy of awards from the likes of Cannes Lions, D&AD and The One Show. But what’s perhaps more impressive is the fact that many of its clients’ tenures with the agency are increasingly rare in today’s revolving-door environment: BETC’s founding client, Evian, remains a client to this day, while Canal+ has been with the agency since 1997 and Lacoste has stuck around for 16 years.

According to Toledano, it’s BETC’s “authenticity and sincere commitment” that keeps brands coming back. “We tell them the truth, even when it’s difficult to hear,” she says.

Erra believes that brands appreciate the agency’s relentless passion for the work, even when it can be exhausting on both ends. “They see us as brave and stubborn, and sometimes find us tiring,” Erra admits. “Sometimes they probably want to say, ‘Hey, relax; it’s just advertising.’”

This sentiment is seconded by Babinet: “I think they like our rigor, though it can sometimes make relationships difficult.”

Arguably, it’s these very qualities that make BETC an invaluable asset for its clients.

“When you work with a team at BETC you feel as though your brand is also their brand,” says Sandrine Conseiller, who recently left her role as marketing and branding director at Lacoste to become CEO of footwear brand Aigle. “Their skill in crafting, attention to detail and hard work to execute an idea is without precedent from what I’ve seen in my career.”

Want to do your part to save the bees? Then head on over to Pornhub, where a series of videos under the genre “Beesexual” shows bees getting it on with plants (otherwise known as pollination). Comically raunchy, the effort supported a good cause: For a limited time, Pornhub donated to bee-conservation nonprofits each time someone watched one of the videos.

Crafting culture

Erra is very much of the belief that creativity should permeate everyone’s role at BETC, regardless of their position. She’s quick to point out that, following a test that assessed the levels of creativity among the executive committee, it was the agency’s chief financial officer who came out on top.

“We don’t think creativity solely belongs to our creative staff,” she says. “In a creative agency, everyone should be creative.”

To keep the creative spirit alive within the agency’s walls, its leadership has done everything from harvesting honey from its rooftop bees to routinely inviting guest chefs in to cook in its canteen.

Three years ago, BETC moved its headquarters to what was once a graffiti-laden former grain warehouse in the Paris suburb of Pantin. The newly renovated building boasts an entire floor dedicated to production, a recording studio for the agency’s record label, Pop, and a media library where staff can borrow books and magazines.

The Evian babies made a splash 10 years ago with their dance moves and rollerblading skills, and have since made a number of appearances in the brand’s advertising. Most recently, the babies starred in a spot featuring a hip-hop version of “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book.

The ground floor is open to the public, which houses BETC’s restaurant partner, Dock B, and a large exhibition space that hosts DJ sets, talks, charity clothing sales and more. A recent exhibition, called “Futures of Love” and produced in collaboration with Tinder, featured almost 40 international artists whose work explores love and sexuality. According to BETC, the months-long exhibit attracted more than 30,000 visitors.

“BETC isn’t merely an agency,” Babinet says. “It’s an exhibit on the future of love, and a cafeteria that welcomes a new chef every week. It’s over two dozen postproduction studios, a music label and experimental podcasts. It’s a space for fashion shows, concerts, the best lemon cake in the universe and a giant library-restaurant-café-meeting room available to all.”

The hope is that this creatively driven and artistic environment will drive work that keeps raising the bar.

“No one at BETC will ever be punished or shamed for taking an audacious creative risk. Courage is necessary to creation, and the best ideas are always the fruit of bravery,” Erra says. “I think that’s a nice way to describe us: collectively brave and obstinate.”

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.