Letter From Paris: The French Exception

The battle to preserve French tradition had entered a new arena. After six years of living in France, I heard a member of the nation’s cultural elite complain that French advertising was being swallowed up by imperialistic global forces.
This esteemed group labors tirelessly to protect its cultural traditions from ill-bred infidels (read Americans). The powers that be object to our unstoppable desire to export culture, from Air Jordans to $300 million Hollywood shipwrecks to Egg McMuffins.
In a country where advertising is widely appreciated as a reflection of modern culture, the French have successfully held their own. And while globalism here may grudgingly be seen as inevitable–in advertising as well as business–many consider it an obscenity. The French, like other Europeans, don’t want to be engulfed by an American omnipresence on home turf. They want to steer a different course.
It’s understood that the French will never cede their glorious cultural identity. They will always cherish a chateau in Bordeaux more than the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland Paris. In advertising, however, France may already be charting a new destiny. If Christopher Lambert, the 33-year-old chief executive officer of BBDO Paris, is right, the “French look” in advertising–cynical, arty, sexy–isn’t just different from American or European ads, it’s passe.
In fact, Lambert’s holding company has changed its name–from La Compagnie BBDO to BBDO Paris; more importantly, creative sensibilities are changing, too. “We are in the process of constructing a European style of advertising. Advertising which bypasses cultural references based strictly on their own national identity,” Lambert explains.
“The page has been turned,” he predicts. “French advertising is dead and will not be back, except for small brands and agencies.” In essence, creative work for such clients as Danone foods or Total oil, not your classic image-driven brands, must now work as effectively in Germany, Portugal or Norway as it does in France.
Of course, the concept of pan-European advertising is hardly groundbreaking.
H…agen-Dazs and Nike, to name only two brands, have been successfully pitching their products across Europe for years. So what’s different this time?
Lambert, one of France’s key advertising executives, argues that giving up the “French look” does not have to adversely affect an ad’s intrinsic quality. On the contrary, in today’s increasingly global environment, it’s critical to forfeit national boundaries for international ones.
For instance, Lambert suspects that the French have traditionally closed their mental borders to others. “France is late in advertising in that it didn’t anticipate Europe,” Lambert says. “It doesn’t understand the idea of European brands. It still lives under the illusion of French advertising and a closed French market.”
In the two years that Lambert has been at the helm of BBDO Paris, however, this new European strategy appears to be working. Revenues, he says, have grown from $43 million to a projected $71 million in 1998. And out of a staff of 450, some 60 are foreigners. Lambert maintains that growth is being driven, in large part, by the agency’s evolving creative approach to project its message beyond regional borders, such as its work for Kooka•.
“What is interesting is that creativity is winning,” he says. “There were years when everyone said the idea of Europe was bad for creativity because it would lead to the lowest common denominator advertising.
“The Europe that is being built [now] is at the highest common denominator, and this allows for big ideas,” Lambert adds. “Look at the 10 best films of the year made in Europe. You can no longer discern which countries they originate from.”
Despite Lambert’s enthusiasm, not everyone agrees that a European style is emerging. “I always want to have advertising that is English or French in attitude,” says John Hegarty, chairman and creative director of London’s Bartle Bogle Hegarty. “I don’t want to turn into bland creators of Euro ads. And I don’t sense there is a European style as such. It’s just that we’re learning that good ideas cross borders.”
In France, Pierre Berville, co-president and creative director at Callegari Berville, a Paris agency that does Europeanwide creative executions for Nivea, among other brands, says he shares some of Lambert’s ideas, but not all.
“Clients today are more interested in exportable creation than agency size,” Berville admits. “At the same time, SEAT wants us to give their French car campaigns a local flavor because the car market here is different from the car market in Spain or Italy.”
Berville says that sometimes, evoking a particular cultural sensibility is an added bonus in advertising. “There are international campaigns which work only because they have the distinct feel of a certain country, such as perfume ads from France.”
For his part, Lambert explains that his agency’s expanding creative focus is part and parcel of BBDO Worldwide’s strategy for Europe.
“The decision was made at a higher level after long discussion,” Lambert says. “There will be 10 agencies in Europe which will be the leaders in the market. The goal of BBDO is to place at least three of its agencies among these 10: ourselves, AMV BBDO in London and BBDO D†sseldorf.”
Indeed, long-term objectives call for local accounts to comprise only 30 percent of agency business within three years. But what will happen to the creative strategy for domestic clients, such as Krys opticians, that do not plan any international growth?
In the case of BBDO Paris, Lambert says domestic clients, which currently represent 60 percent of the agency’s billings, will receive the same creative approach for purely domestic campaigns that will be used for international work.
“When BBH does creative for beer strictly in Britain,” Lambert observes, “they live up to the BBH standard of creativity, not some lower standard because it’s a domestic brand.”
But what about the elite’s much-feared loss of French culture? Will more ads produced by French agencies sacrifice traditional hallmarks and style in order to fit under the banner of exportability? This intense reaction to globalism at all costs may not be realistic.
Anne de Maupeou, CLM/BBDO creative director, says she isn’t worried that French culture is disappearing.
Quite the contrary.
“I cannot imagine the Americans or the British doing the Kooka• campaign. It wouldn’t be the same,” de Maupeou says. Nevertheless, she does admit that European differences require a more visual, less text-heavy approach to future creative development.
The question remains: Is it possible to keep the French mystique in a world where language–arguably the key component of any culture–is becoming less important?
“Of course, visually it’s possible to keep the French spirit,” concludes de Maupeou, undeterred. “We will always be French. We can’t change this.” Her optimism should provide some comfort to her countrymen who feel that France is being consumed by forces outside their control. But just to be on the safe side, it might pay for someone at BBDO Paris to learn how to write, “Vive l’Europe in Esperanto.”
–Daniel Tilles can be reached at 100442.1706 compuserve.com

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