What is it About French Advertising?

January 26, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Paris agencies discuss the unique power of their advertising community.

The London ad community can be a bit navel gazing at times. As a hub that’s admired for the quality of the work it puts out, it’s easy to forget about the other good stuff out there, especially from outside the Anglophone world. And since Brexit happened (although the fun’s really only just begun with that one!), global eyes are paying more attention to markets across the Channel.

There’s something special about the French advertising industry. The country is host to the business’ most important festival and award show in Cannes and is consistently one of the most awarded markets there. Last year France took fifth place, making it the second most awarded nation in Europe after the UK. That kind of international influence is noteworthy, considering about 660 million more people speak English than French worldwide.

So what makes France so dominant? While visiting in Paris recently, I decided to ask a selection of French agencies what about their country helps them to do it so well.

At first they thought it was a stupid question. It is a bit. Advertising works on the same principles the world over. This is the 21st Century – everything is globalised and the same business principles often apply everywhere. “I don’t know if there is a real difference between French advertising and the rest of the world,” ponders Olivier Apers, Executive Creative Director at BETC. “I don’t know if our advertising tastes French.”

Obviously we couldn’t stop there though. We need to go deeper, Inception style. So let’s start by gathering some raw materials: the best of French advertising – and the Frenchest of good advertising. For the most part big French brands, no matter how international their markets, use famous French agencies.

Publicis and Havas are the leviathans of the market, but BETC are the agency du jour for that contemporary French flavour. New Zealander Mark Forgan, Creative Director at Rosapark, came to France seven years ago and from his foreigner’s perspective BETC is the peak of French advertising today. “It’s typically French but international,” he says. “I feel like it’s the point where fashion meets advertising. It’s really modern. Even when they do Evian, although it’s quite international it has a bit of French taste to it. Then they have CANAL+ and of course Air France.”

Air France is about as French as it gets, according to everyone I speak to in Paris. “It’s selling the French lifestyle,” suggests Bruno Lee, Deputy Managing Director at Sid Lee. Frenchness is their product.

Evian is an example we can perhaps learn more from. Their relationship with BETC goes back to 1994, and since then it has stuck with the same strategy, trying to own the idea of youthfulness. This thread continues today, and their babies have become iconic. The campaigns are more than a little weird, but they work. This demonstrates something that French agencies do better than anyone – long-term development of a creative concept. It takes perseverance and conviction that most agencies fail to demonstrate. “It’s typically French,” says Olivier. “And maybe that’s our own particularity regarding the agency and the French market. We do not try to reinvent a strategy each year for a brand. When we find something that we believe in, we like to build on it.”

What about the bad side of French advertising? I asked what the lowest common denominator was. Those clichés particular to French culture? It was easier for Mark and Jamie Standen, his creative partner at Rosapark, with their immigrant perspective. “When you turn on the TV in a hotel, in the UK you see a bunch of ads for short term loans,” says Jamie. “In America it’s pharmaceutical ads. In France it’s mass-produced food like cheese or yogurt.” He describes the typical scene of two women by a swimming pool enthusing about how surprisingly delicious their 0%-fat yogurt is. Bruno agrees that dairy products are particularly guilty. “If there is a French cliché of advertising it would be for this sort of brand,” he says. “Like people enjoying a yogurt in a really ecstatic way, or kids in the countryside watching farmers milk cows.”

But even ads for these mass-produced brands don’t feel cheap in the way British or American commercials often do. “In America, it’s like someone’s yelling at me all the time from the TV,” says Mark. And one explanation for this is the common assumption that the French are more attuned to style than other countries. “The reason we were attracted to come and work in Paris in the beginning was because they did advertising with such precision,” he says. “The art direction and look of everything was incredible.”

It seems impossible for the French to ignore design. “Our approach is to work like advertising designers,” says Olivier. “To imagine what the core message for each communication is, but at the same time what is the style, what is the mood?”

Paris is famous for its style, and there’s no way the ad industry there is letting go of that reputation. Art direction is paramount.

French creatives have the attitude to fit this reputation, too. Somehow they’ve escaped the shame that seems to hang around a career in advertising for the Anglophone world. The old line “please don’t tell my mother I work in advertising – she thinks I play piano in a brothel” wouldn’t make sense in a Paris agency, where creatives consider themselves legitimate artists, despite the commercial ends of their work.

“A lot of creative teams see themselves like poets of daily life,” says Bruno. “That’s probably an important part of the DNA of the French market. The culture of the creative is totally different from places like London, the Nordic countries [or] the US. Here you feel that being a creative is a gift, not work.”

Mark and Jamie have witnessed this difference. “In New Zealand and Australia people would never consider themselves artists,” says Jamie, “because in those countries it would be too pretentious to imagine. Here that’s not a problem.”

So the French take their advertising seriously. I get the impression that Olivier, the Frenchest of my interviewees, considers my line of questioning a little frivolous. He’s right. And maybe that’s just how Brits approach advertising. We have to make a joke to justify our selling. The French do funny advertising too, of course, but it’s less subtle. “The French don’t get irony,” says Mark. “[They] need to know when to laugh.”

Culturally, the French retain a value that’s generally dying out in our collaborative, Silicon Valley influenced business landscape – the culture of competition, even within companies. “I think in France there is still the notion of getting respect for a fight,” says Bruno. “It’s a culture of confrontation.” This can be between clients and account teams, fighting for the right idea, between account teams and creative teams or creatives and strategists.

“You hear stories about teams being too scared to print their work because another team might steal their ideas,” says Jamie. Of course, all the agencies I visit tell me they’re totally collaborative – exceptions that prove the rule, I’m sure – but it’s easy to see why it might work. When you’ve fought for an idea, it’s been rigorously stress-tested, so is hopefully more effective.

Then there’s Paris itself. A city with so much allure it has its own psychological disorder. And ad agencies there are proud of their home’s electricity, drawing people in like moths to a neon windmill. It’s always been a city synonymous with fashion, film, music and art.

Even BETC, who recently moved to the underprivileged suburb of Pantin to build their own creative neighbourhood, remain proud Parisians. “We keep our link to Paris because [it’s a] very powerful battery,” says Olivier. “It’s necessary for us to go back to take a little bit of the electricity of the city.” Creative ideas need fuel, and there’s plenty in France’s capital to stoke those fires.

Paris isn’t like other capital cities though, because it’s so dominant compared to other French cities. In the USA the big agencies are spread between New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and elsewhere. In the UK we even have a few notable ones outside of London, and historically our culture has been spread throughout the various cities. Paris doesn’t have that kind of competition. “France is dominated by Paris,” says Jamie.

Maybe that’s why French advertising has such a strong identity. Practically everyone who creates culture works within a few miles of one another. And that spot on the map has become a stylish, artistic nexus.

French advertising is special. It’s fun to try and work out why, but that secret ingredient remains a certain je ne sais quoi to me. One thing is certain – it deserves more attention from the English-speaking world.

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