Letter from Paris: Creative Eclipse

The phrase french advertising creativity has become an oxymoron, according to some of the industry’s leading creative luminaries in Paris. This stinging observation cuts most deeply in summer, when the French pit their ads against the best in the world during the Cannes advertising festival. Apparently, the world’s leading copywriters and art directors-the Cannes jury members-agree with their Gaulic brethren.
The number of gold, silver and bronze Lions awarded to France for print and film ads in 1997 was pitiful-worse than ’96 and just slightly better than ’95. What’s wrong with French creativity?
In fairness, not everyone believes groundbreaking creativity is essential. “The point of advertising is to sell,” says Jacques Bille, vice president of the AACC, the French advertising trade association. “So what if [an ad] doesn’t win creative prizes? Does Diesel Jeans [this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winner] sell more because it wins creative awards?” (Leo Burnett says the answer is yes.)
Of course, Bille does believe that creativity has a role to play in advertising. “I agree that creative acceptance by your peers is important,” he admits. But if Cannes was the sole barometer by which any country’s output is judged, the French would discover a crowded loser’s tent. Germany and Italy are just two of the festival’s perennial underachievers.
Still, the French have experienced greater success in creative competitions outside Cannes, including the EPICA festival, a Europeanwide contest judged by journalists and held every autumn in Paris. In short, Cannes is not the only measure of a nation’s creative muscle.
For the French ad industry, however, the past few years have precipitated an annual binge of near self-loathing. “I don’t have the impression that there is anything new,” says Benoit Devarrieux, creative director at Devarrieux Villaret and a film jury member at Cannes this year. “The ads are like life here-a little sad and confused.”
The results speak for themselves.
France won just one silver and one bronze Lion out of 394 press and poster entries and two silver and two bronze Lions out of 215 film entries in ’97. By contrast, Sweden won a campaign gold Lion and two single ad silvers from 272 press and poster entries. Out of
157 films, it took home the Grand Prix, one gold Lion and a bronze.
Some French ad agency executives, notably Jacques Seguƒla, vice chairman and chief creative officer of Havas Advertising and the “S” of Euro RSCG, have charged that Cannes juries are biased toward Anglo-Saxon work.
“That is false. I say this as a Frenchman,” explains Roger Hatchuel, the festival president. “There are and have been French jury members who say it’s clean. You can’t have the French saying at the same time that juries discriminate against French work.
“The problem for certain French-and this starts with Mr. Seguƒla-is the following: Because the festival is held in France, they would love, as if by some magic wand, to have more Lions than they deserve.”
Seguƒla’s response?
“Creativity in advertising is suffering here because France is in a social and spiritual crisis. But Cannes is prejudiced against France because the festival is Anglo-Saxon. Advertising is a very Anglo-Saxon industry,” he says.
“I think France is penalized each year because of a lack of understanding of the subtleties in its advertising,” Seguƒla says. “Cannes ought to award the best advertising for every continent, not just the best of the Anglo-Saxon world.”
Christophe Lambert, chief executive officer of CLM/BBDO in Paris and a 1997 film jury member, claims accusations of bias are an illusion. “I thought that before going to Cannes. Now that I’ve done it, I don’t believe it anymore,” he says.
So what accounts for France’s poor showing at Cannes? The answer, says Lambert, is twofold: “creative factors and environmental questions. We make advertising different here just to be different. But before making different advertising, you have to make it good,” he says. “Good advertising is like good literature. You have to follow certain principles. Here, we have forgotten how to tell stories.”
French ad people claim the current economic and social climate has kept French creativity bottled up as well. Though most agree the early ’90s recession is over, the almost 13 percent unemployment rate, the march toward monetary union and the domestic spending austerity required to qualify for the Euro have clearly battered consumer confidence.
And the French remain disconsolate about their loss of status in the world, envious, even bitter about the concomitant rise of U.S. power and influence.
Pascal Grƒgoire, of Euro RSCG GBHR in Paris, adds, “France is ambivalent toward commerce-to sell is not chic. Anglo-Saxon countries accept commerce and come up with simpler ideas,” he says. “At Cannes, simplicity wins. The French think we have to do something elitist. We need to accept we’re here to sell yogurt.”
Consider EURO RSCG’s ad for RATP, Paris’ mass transit. A bison rides the metro; the caption says: smart. The image is based on an Indian character the highway authorities created to convince people to use secondary roads. The RATP used a bison, hoping Parisians would use the subway instead of a car.
“It’s a clever idea but requires too much explanation, and the visual pun is obscure,” says Andrew Rawlins, head of the Paris-based EPICA. “Agencies send this stuff in and wonder why nobody understands it.”
“Advertisers don’t want to take risks. They don’t believe advertising can transform an image,” Grƒgoire maintains.
Rawlins adds, “When times are tough, clients take refuge in the traditional values of French advertising: aesthetics, intellect. “Compare this with the UK,” says the expatriate Englishman. “When it has a recession, the [agencies] are much more caustic and provocative. They know advertising is there to sell.”
Then why have French advertisements-which led the list of EPICA winners in ’96 with 11 awards-performed so much better in the European-only competition? “Perhaps you need to be European,” says Rawlins, “to appreciate French creativity.”
But can the French win over Cannes? Lambert and Grƒgoire say they believe things will eventually improve. “We have to be better, more combative,” Lambert says. “The solution isn’t to give up because things are hard.”
Hatchuel seems to have a clear idea of what the French need to do. “A number of years ago, French advertising won Lions,” he begins. “But there were plenty of people who didn’t win-the Japanese, the Brazilians. These delegations assiduously watched and tried to learn what worked.
“It’s like a university,” Hatchuel says. “When you go to class and listen to the professor, you gradually become as good or better than the professor. If you cut class, you don’t understand why you fail.
“Fifteen years later, the Japanese win the Grand Prix; the Brazilians collect Lions,” he notes. “The problem in advertising is the same in life-complacency.”
Hatchuel says the lesson is clear: “Living on past glories is lethal; you forget to be self-critical. Instead, you must work hard and understand what’s going on.”
Daniel Tilles can be reached at 100442.1706 compuserve.com