campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 20 October 2006 12:00AM
The message could not have been plainer. When the Publicis Conseil president Christophe Lambert and the creative duo Fred and Farid dramatically announced that they were quitting the Publicis group to start their own agency, the name of the new operation said it all: FFL. Fred Farid Lambert? Of course - but, in France, the initials are generally associated with Forces Franaaises Libres, the celebrated French resistance group.
The trio's bid for freedom was a blow for the Publicis Groupe chairman, Maurice Levy - not least because he had created a bespoke spin-off agency, Marcel, for Frederic Raillard and Farid Mokart fewer than 18 months before.
Levy must have harboured hopes for Marcel to name it after the Publicis founder Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet. To rub salt into the wound, 30 per cent of the breakaway agency will be owned by the rising media tycoon Vincent Bollore, the president of rival group Havas.
For Fred and Farid, the move was driven by a desire to run an agency that genuinely belonged to them. "Marcel is a 100 per cent Publicis-owned operation," they observe. "We wanted to work for ourselves, outside a big network. Clients today know that it's not the network that counts, it's the talent. And we want to create a home for talent."
Fred and Farid (who always insist on being quoted as a unit) describe the new operation as "entirely free". "Vincent Bollore will never own more than 30 per cent, we will run the agency independently, and if we feel like it we can sell it to whoever we want. The three of us have equal shares."
As for Lambert, additional factors may have influenced his decision. Often mooted as a potential successor to Levy, his position was made more fragile by the recent arrival of Olivier Fleurot, the former chief executive of the Financial Times, to head the Publicis Worldwide network (Campaign, 13 October). In addition, Lambert is said to have had a tense relationship with Olivier Altmann, the co-president and creative director of Publicis Conseil.
News of the breakaway took the industry by surprise, not least Levy himself. In a widely leaked internal document, he told staff that the trio barely waited to hand in their resignations before "launching their press campaign". Reassuring employees that business would continue as normal, he referred to the trio's behaviour as "not conforming to the norms of the industry".
Fred and Farid say of Levy's reaction: "Obviously it wasn't an easy thing for him to hear. But it wasn't easy for us to say, either. It was an emotional moment because we had lived and breathed Marcel for a year-and-a-half."
They insist that they have achieved their objectives at Marcel. "The agency was created with accounts worth EUR3 million in billings. We have transformed that into EUR18 million in France and EUR30 million in the rest of the world, if you include bringing the Orange account into the network."
Marcel won the Orange account (alongside Fallon in the UK) against considerable odds in March. Other notable account wins include Coca-Cola Blak and Classic in France and a product launch for United Biscuits.
For the time being, the FFL founders say they do not plan to take any accounts with them. Fred and Farid will work a three-month notice period at Marcel and say they have no intention of "letting the agency die". "There are about 80 people here and we have a great deal of respect for them. We want to assure a smooth transition and find people to take over from us. Just because you divorce your wife, it doesn't mean you want to kill her."
Meanwhile, Lambert leaves at a sensitive time for Publicis Conseil. The agency is currently repitching for one of its biggest clients, the French telecom brand SFR - which put its account into play in a fit of pique when Orange went to Marcel. It is also competing for the energy utility EDF and transport authority RATP.
In corridors and cafes across Paris, the industry is still debating whether FFL's founders are heroes or villains. Were they negotiating with Bollore for months behind Levy's back? Apparently not - Bollore says the deal was struck rapidly. Fred, Farid and Lambert handed their resignations to Levy during the afternoon of Monday, 9 October. According to Bollore, he met Lambert for the first time over lunch on the previous Thursday.
"He told me he wanted to build his own agency because he wanted to be independent," Bollore says. "I'm independent myself. He said he would love me to become a shareholder, and I thought it was a good idea."
Bollore consulted senior executives at Havas over the weekend and got their approval before signing a deal on Monday. "It was all a bit of a rush, but I believe this is a good opportunity because these are three very talented people."
Fred and Farid said: "Bollore has the same attitude as us: he wants to go for it. He wants to conquer the media industry just as we want to conquer the advertising business."
The start-up will be backed by Bollore Media rather than Havas, although all those involved have spoken of potential synergies. FFL will be able to take advantage of Havas' international presence as well as its media planning and buying capabilities.
Away from the controversy, FFL looks like an intriguing proposition. Fred and Farid did some of their best work under Lambert's watch (notably for the domestic appliance brand Brandt) when he was the president of CLM/BBDO. And they have global ambitions.
"We want to become a major French agency, the biggest new agency in the market since the days of BDDP. But at the beginning it will be just the three of us, starting from nothing. And that's exactly the way we want it."
Leader, page 22.
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk