The World: Three Frenchmen not in search of a philosophy

M&C Saatchi.GAD doesn't hold with convoluted ideologies, arguing that the work will speak for itself.

It seems appropriate that the first account scooped by M&C Saatchi.GAD last September was Havana Club rum. Based in the heart of Paris - opposite the French stock exchange and moments away from some of the city's liveliest arteries - the agency itself feels both clubby and spirited.

Perhaps that's because the co-founders, Gilles Masson, Antoine Barthuel and Daniel Fohr (GAD is their first initials), have known each other for 15 years, and see themselves as friends first and colleagues second.

"We don't intend to create a large agency," Barthuel says. "We're about 20 people now, and we expect to grow to 50 at the absolute maximum. But we'll have an informal external network of 200 or so people whom we can call on." Associate club members, if you like.

Everything about the Paris agency is pared down and minimalist, including the furniture. As for their philosophy: they have none. "There's too much bullshit in advertising these days. We'll do what's best for each individual client, without trying to apply some convoluted agency ideology," Masson asserts.

Indeed, their only mission statement is "brutal simplicity", a phrase originally coined by M&C Saatchi's Jeremy Sinclair, and enthusiastically adopted by the Parisians.

The three are clearly delighted to be working with such a well-known British agency brand, although they retain a typically French sense of independence and amour propre.

"M&C Saatchi wanted to create a network of entrepreneurs - people willing to start from scratch," Masson says. "We own 20 per cent of the capital of the agency. As far as we're concerned, it's our agency. We won all our own clients, and they came on board because of the team sitting here before you. Then we've exported those wins to the rest of the network. The relationship works bottom-up."

This explains their insistence on the GAD suffix, rather than calling the agency M&C Saatchi Paris. "We felt it was important to create a brand," Barthuel adds. "Saatchi & Saatchi is well known in France because it is part of the Publicis group, so the arrival of M&C Saatchi was bound to cause confusion. We needed an extra element that would allow people to retain our name. It has nothing to do with ego."

In fact, they insist they are not interested in playing the PR game, preferring to let their work tell the story. "When the media come to us, we're happy to talk to them," Masson explains. "But fame is not a preoccupation."

In previous jobs, the team has been behind some of the most visible French campaigns of recent years, having worked for Air France, Peugeot, Renault and Evian, among others. This is the natural result of having worked at some of France's biggest agencies.

Masson was the development director of BDDP before helping to found BETC Euro RSCG. Later, he worked at Publicis Conseil. Barthuel also worked at BDDP, teaming up with Fohr in 1994, when they were made joint creative directors of Bates France. The pair later joined BETC Euro RSCG. In February 2004, the GAD trio arrived at Leo Burnett: Masson as the president, and Fohr and Barthuel as co-presidents in charge of creativity.

They had just started raising the agency's creative game when they were approached by Nick Hurrell, M&C Saatchi's European president, who wanted them for his Paris start-up.

Hurrell recalls: "I was deeply impressed by the turnaround that they had achieved (at Leo Burnett) in only nine months. New business was booming and they had leapt up the creative rankings league."

At first, though, the trio hesitated. Hurrell says: "Burnett was a work in progress that the boys had not been planning to leave. But, after much persuasion, they gave in to what they called 'the entrepreneurial virus'."

That was on 1 September. Seven months later, the trio has landed accounts including Havana Club rum (in ten countries), the tequila brand Olmeca, the S'Miles customer loyalty card, the Bordeaux winemakers' collective and a new Paris museum, the Musee des Arts Premieres, due to open in June.

"We are well ahead of our objectives," Masson says. It's all pretty impressive in a market with a sclerotic economy.

Perhaps a smaller structure suits them better. Fohr admits: "Working at a big agency is interesting from a creative point of view, but you aren't in control of the agency's destiny. You could be told to fire a whole bunch of people in France just because the network has lost a big account in Sweden."

Hence the self-sufficient structure of M&C Saatchi.GAD. Fohr adds: "We're completely free of middle management. When a client calls us, they get us."

One of the agency's propositions is a brainstorming session called the Pentothal Meeting, named after the truth serum sodium pentothal. "It involves sitting with the client and telling them exactly what we think of their brand, even if some of it is negative. We want to be totally honest with our clients, because we do not see ourselves as suppliers but creative partners," Fohr says.

This partnership embraces every aspect of the brand. M&C Saatchi. GAD has a design lab busily producing everything from Havana Club swizzle sticks to toys based on the animated characters it has created for the S'Miles loyalty card.

It is the integrated branding approach offered by large agencies, on a smaller scale. When you hear them talking about such innovations, it sounds as if they have discovered a new toy.

Hurrell agrees: "The chemistry between them is natural and persuasive. When they pitch, you see three friends who want to share their new-found enthusiasm."

They also have a self-deprecating sense of humour. In their slide presentation, their agency's British heritage is represented by the Health Education Council's "pregnant man" ad. France is symbolised, naturally, by a frog.

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