France: Who's big and who's clever

With the advertising industry in France dominated by a few big multinational networks, being a truly independent agency is a difficult challenge. Pippa Considine examines the ad agency scene.

In fashion, it's Chanel, Dior, Gaultier. In advertising, it's Publicis, Euro RSCG, DDB. As a French agency, it helps to have a French pedigree, but the labels of international networks are an important currency, French or not.

Of course, it's true of all major markets that being part of an international network is more the norm for the bigger agencies. But in France, there are fewer than a handful of independent agencies in the top 20. There are a few small creative shops making waves, but the upstarts on everyone's lips are backed by the same international networks.

The top French agencies are indisputably Publicis Conseil and the Havas-owned BETC Euro RSCG. Havas and Publicis have been dominant players in France ever since to the 50s and 60s.

Neither agency likes to be thought of as intrinsically French, having developed their international networks in the past couple of decades.

Christophe Lambert, who heads Publicis Conseil, says: "I've never considered myself as running a French agency. I'm running the flagship agency of an international network."

Both continue to win big new accounts. In the past year, Publicis Conseil picked up Sanofi and BETC landed Carrefour. On a creative front, BETC has kept itself in the French advertising limelight with an outstanding creative record. The agency has topped the creative ranking in the French advertising title CB News every year since 1994 (based on the number of awards won), bar one. A large chunk of the best-known ads in France have come out of BETC, its print work for Petit Bateau being among its freshest and cutest, featuring a child in its "child-proof" clothes playing hide and seek.

Publicis is trying to bolster its creative credentials and is giving Publicis Conseil a creative kick up the backside. Last year saw a flurry of musical chairs in the French advertising arena, with Lambert moving from CLM/BBDO to become the head of Publicis, swiftly followed by Olivier Altmann, another French advertising star, joining him from BDDP & Fils as Publicis' creative director.

Not far behind the two giants in the running come TBWA\Paris and Louis XIV DDB. Then there's a strong showing by CLM/BBDO, now being run by Pascal Gregoire, a co-founder of the successful French office of Leagas Delaney.

TBWA\Paris as it is today is the result a merger between BDDP and TBWA.

The agency's aim of keeping both the authority of BDDP in the French market and the "disruption" philosophy of TBWA seems to have paid off. It has a particularly strong creative reputation and was the number-two agency in the world in the 2003 Gunn Report. Its entries for Cannes look tasty bets to win Lions by the end of next week, with a mixture of consistently memorable work for PlayStation and more amusing, daring efforts for the likes of the condom brand Hansaplast.

DDB Paris merged with Louis IVX three years ago and it hasn't been plain sailing. The chairman and chief executive of the DDB group in France, Herve Brossard, says he is "not particularly satisfied with the position we have in Paris".

There's room for improvement and Brossard has his eye on a spot in the top three. He wants DDB in France to be "big and creative, creative and integrated", in line with client demands for both creativity, evidenced by its work for Kinder, and effectiveness.

One of the agencies to benefit from a few disaffected clients at DDB has been Agence V. Headed by Christian Vance, the former DDB creative director, this agency, still owned by DDB, has picked up Volkswagen, among other former clients, from its larger sister agency.

There are other small, young agencies challenging the big shops in France.

Leg is one that has created a buzz in the market, having been the most-awarded agency in the French D&AD Awards for two years in a row. Leg's president and co-founder, Christophe Lichtenstein, and his colleagues have an admired entrepreneurial verve. "We admire people changing the heart of markets fundamentally," he says. "We respect people breaking the status quo, independent or not." Leg itself is receiving a bit of help in the shape of backing from Young & Rubicam.

Even with backing, being a newcomer with strong creative talent is perhaps more difficult in France than in other European countries. Remi Babinet, the president and creative director of BETC and the president of the French Art Directors' Club, concedes it's not just the big agencies that are delivering creative clout, but says of the French: "They are afraid of an entrepreneurial spirit and a new offer more than anything."

But surely the few larger independents in the top ten are giving the network agencies a run for their money? Well, not really. Most of them are established shops with very little added razzmatazz. It's not just the degree of conservatism in the country that makes them more solid and, perhaps, less interesting. Most of the French clients are smaller than in, say, the UK or the US, so to make money you need to have a broad appeal.

Brossard cites strong independents such as Australie, but points out another hill for them to climb: "The trend is to be international. If you are totally independent, you can't fight with the same weapons as your competitors."

FRANCE'S BIGGEST AGENCIES

Rank Agency Billings, millions

of Euros

1 Havas Advertising 434.3

2 Publicis Groupe 313.8

3 TBWA France 212.5

4 DDB France 202.4

5 Ogilvy France 111.7

6 McCann Erickson 111.1

7 Young & Rubicam France 92.8

8 BBDO Paris 91.3

9 Lowe Alice 86.2

10 J. Walter Thompson 43.0

Source: CB News, 2003

FRANCE'S MOST CREATIVE AGENCIES

1 BETC Euro RSCG

2 TBWA\Paris

3 Publicis Conseil

4 Louis XIV DDB

5 CLM/BBDO

6 BDDP & Fils

7 Saatchi & Saatchi

8 Young & Rubicam

9 Enjoy Scher Lafarge

10 Agence V

Source: CB News, 2003.

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