Jean-Claude Decaux: tributes to shoe seller's son who changed the face of advertising

Tributes to Jean-Claude Decaux, the founder of JCDecaux who died last week, have underlined the significance of his contribution to global advertising.

Jean-Claude Decaux: tributes to the adman have come from the current French PM and Nicolas Sarkozy
Jean-Claude Decaux: tributes to the adman have come from the current French PM and Nicolas Sarkozy

The 78 year old, whose death was confirmed by the world’s largest outdoor media company late on Friday, is credited with pioneering the first bus shelter billboard and the development of what is now known as "street furniture".

His death has prompted tributes from the French establishment. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former president of France, said of Decaux: "More than a great business manager, he was above all an outstanding inventor who contributed to the influence of France. Self-taught, his work is an inspiration and courage to all young entrepreneurs, which France has. My thoughts are with his family and relatives."

And Manuel Valls, the prime minister of France, described Decaux as having "the fibre of large industrial, innovative, conquerors" and said the company he built had become a "symbol of France".

The son of a shoe salesman, Decaux was still in his teens when he set up a company to erect roadside billboards, which later folded when billboards were banned on major French motorways. It is believed that his enthusiasm for strong visuals was forged when arguing with his father over the window display in the family store.

Undeterred, Decaux came up with the idea of using bus shelters as an advertising medium, having seen people waiting miserably for buses in bad weather.

Beginning in Lyon in 1964, Decaux was soon offering his bus shelters-cum-billboards to city bureaucrats across the country without charge in return for lengthy concessions to sell advertising panels on their sides.

There then followed an aggressive global expansion of JCDecaux, partly through acquisitions of small advertising companies, including in the UK, where in 1989, JCDecaux launched with a mere 37 poster panels in Kingston upon Thames.

In the UK, it is now the biggest of the big four outdoor advertising companies and operates in more than 54 countries and 165 airports. The group now employs more 12,000 people worldwide and in 2015 reported revenue of €3.2bn.

The importance of bus shelter advertising in particular came to the fore last year when JCDecaux won the world's biggest such contract – worth an estimated £500m over an initial five years. The account, previously held by Clear Channel since 2005, involved maintaining more than 30,000 bus shelters and bus stops in London, while selling advertising on 5,000 sites.

Following that win, JCDecaux is now carrying out the world's biggest digital screen rollout in London, a project that has been hit by significant delays, with 200 screens to be installed by the end of June (less than half the 500 planned).

Decaux stepped down as chief executive in 2000, handing the reigns to his two sons, Jean-François and Jean-Charles and serving as honorary chairman of the board since May 2013.

Jean-Emmanuel de Witt, the chief executive of Russ Outdoor, JCDecaux Moscow, said: "Jean-Claude Decaux was a great man. But the page does not turn because it was as a father who has transmitted his capacity for work and his values to his sons."

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