France: Creative Revolution

French advertising is changing and the world is beginning to take notice, as Gallic ads attract attention on the international stage. Lucy Aitken reports.

Don't choke on your pain au chocolat, but there's a recent press campaign for Wonderbra by Publicis Conseil without a scantily clad woman in sight. Surely the French haven't passed up an opportunity to photograph a sexy woman in her underwear for an ad campaign?

Mais oui! The ad, shot from the Wonderbra Woman's point of view, focuses on the reactions to her enhanced curves rather than her breasts themselves.

In "bar" and "restaurant", all the customers' heads simultaneously turn in the same direction (apart from a stroppy looking girl glaring at her boyfriend), while in "escalator" eyes pop out on stalks (apart from one girl who's looking daggers). Two final ads show men with enlarged hands to cope with the bounty inside a Wonderbra.

It's a brave idea from a client that isn't renowned for its subtlety, and is one of a handful of campaigns that demonstrate that French ad agencies can produce some of the world's most stylish, subversive and surprising advertising.

The team behind the Wonderbra campaign - the writer Olivier Camensuli and the art director Frederic Royer - believe French advertising is finally getting the recognition it deserves on the international stage. They comment: "When French campaigns and French creatives are awarded at Cannes, it really gives them a confidence boost. And, over the past few years, French creatives have realised they are capable of reaching a high standard within international awards."

TBWA\France's recent creative performance has helped it pull in the awards, its Sony PlayStation work in particular. "We prefer to enter international awards because advertising is an international business," Marie-Catherine Dupuy, the agency's vice-chairman and chief creative officer, comments. Aside from having confidence that her own agency will perform well at Cannes, she reckons BETC Euro RSCG stands a good chance in the awards stakes for its "La marche de l'empereur" ("the march of the penguins") for the TV channel Canal+. The ad won the cinema and TV gold in the recent Club des Directeurs Artistique Awards (the French equivalent of D&AD), and also picked up the Grand Prix at the Meribel French Advertising Festival. It draws on Canal+'s cinematic heritage and makes a play on the word "empereur", which means both "emperor" and "penguin".

Other creative directors agree with Dupuy's prediction, although Emmanuel Collin, the joint managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi, is unsure that it is a dead cert for an international award. He says: "It's an outstanding campaign and the tone of voice is clever and original. But seeing as it's based on dialogue and a play on words in French, it's difficult for an international audience to understand it."

This problem besets all non-English speaking markets. Alexandre Herve, the executive creative director at DDB Paris (France's most-awarded agency in the CDA Awards) says the problem arises in part when international awards juries look at campaigns for country-specific brands. DDB Paris last year produced an integrated campaign for SNCF Voyages - the flight-booking division of the national railways, SNCF. It centred on a hoax that a train would link Paris to New York under the Atlantic. This year, print work builds on the campaign, showing SNCF Voyages' flight destinations with French spelling, for instance, Nouillorc and Qauncoune.

Herve says: "In France, we know US culture so we can appreciate work from Crispin Porter & Bogusky, TWBA\Chiat\Day and Fallon, but they don't share our culture. Everyone knows Burger King, but no-one knows SNCF, so it's quite hard to win international awards."

DDB Paris' work for VW Transporter, Nike, the newspaper L'Equipe and Stihl Power Tools impressed the jurors at the CDA Awards and are also firm favourites for the Cannes festival, according to other creative directors such as Remi Babinet, the president and creative director of BETC Euro RSCG. He comments: "DDB Paris really stood out this year. The agency's work for L'Equipe and Stihl proved its skill in thinking up big ideas."

In Babinet's opinion, Leg, an independent agency, was slightly less impressive than last year, but still put in a strong showing. Babinet particularly liked Leg's Eurostar campaign, which took first prize in the poster category at the CDA Awards. The posters show children who've been abandoned by their parents for the weekend thanks to a Eurostar offer to London. Collin also has a soft spot for the radio spots in the Eurostar campaign.

Babinet, in his capacity as the CDA president, however, decries the practice of scamming, whereby executions that have never really seen the light of day are entered for - and sometimes even win - awards. In his introduction to La Bible, the CDA annual, he rails: "The mobile walls of an exhibition hall, the wall space of an office or the corridors of an agency are becoming the ultimate form in media creativity for ads whose only clients are the jury panels of international advertising awards."

TBWA\France's Sony Play-Station work has come under some scrutiny here in the UK. It swept the board at countless awards events - including Cannes - even though some executions have in fact had very little actual media spend, and so have not really been exposed to consumers.

Of course, the French aren't the only advertisers guilty of this practice, and Babinet believes a good awards juror will be able to "sniff out a scam ad a mile off". But one way in which a campaign's integrity could be better secured, he suggests, is if media plans were counter-signed by both agencies and clients on awards entries. His introduction to La Bible makes the point that: "A good design is a public product; the requirements of a client embodied through the talent of an agency. And it is these products that create the value of agencies."

Herve agrees: "It's up to us to solve clients' problems, not to win awards."

Herve believes the French advertising market, which has been dogged by recession for the past few years, is starting to change, and not before time. He thinks that for the past few years the advertising scene has been dominated by the same agencies - DDB, Publicis, TBWA and BETC Euro RSCG. He welcomes competition from newer agencies (see previous feature, p26) and points to digital as a way of separating the good from the great.

Indeed, some agencies are restructuring themselves to provide a better digital service, TBWA among them. Dupuy says: "The onus is on us to find the best creative people to work in those media, because the creative is absolutely fundamental - if it's shit, people will get fed up."

Many creatives agree, however, that French advertising still has a long way to go before it is entirely comfortable with digital. Jean-Francois Goize and Stephan Ferens, a creative team at Leo Burnett, observe: "There is not enough good work beyond press and television. Below-the-line communication isn't something the French turn to naturally, although they're beginning to understand its importance."

In terms of ads from other markets that have impressed French agencies, Sony "balls" by Fallon is being strongly tipped by many creative directors in Paris as this year's Grand Prix winner at Cannes, and there is also a great deal of respect for Wieden & Kennedy London's Honda "choir". "This ad was built to go to Cannes and I think it will be very successful," Collin says. "It's entertaining, clever, subtle and, quite simply, an extraordinary performance. Honda is doing extremely good work at the moment."

Olivier Altmann, the chairman of the Publicis worldwide creative board and the executive creative director of Publicis Conseil, agrees: "When you see commercials like Honda's 'impossible dream', Guinness' 'noitulove' or Sony Bravia's 'balls', you can really measure where we are in terms of the level of confidence between the advertiser and its agency." Despite the progress being made, Altmann thinks there is room for improvement: "We've learned to produce work that can cross cultures; work that is simpler, more visual and more insightful. However, the majority of the work remains very classical and it's still not innovative enough. France has the talent to do great work, but we're still lacking the international brands that build the future of advertising. French advertising is at a turning point."

For a market that has been suffering of late, it certainly seems as though the end is in sight, if only psychologically. A new national president will be elected next year and the time is ripe for change. Last year's riots and the rejection of the European Constitution spoke of mounting dissatisfaction with a government that is increasingly perceived as anachronistic. Valerie Accary, the president of CLM/BBDO, reflects: "There is a feeling in France that we are coming to the end of an era."

Over at Leo Burnett, Goize and Ferens are confident that this change will trigger more interest in France's creative output: "Historically, we French have always looked at what other countries were doing. The UK and US Art Directors' Club books can always be seen on our shelves. But when we go to the UK or to the US, the French CDA books are nowhere to be seen. French advertising didn't used to interest anyone outside of France. But things are starting to change, and the Brits and the Americans had better think about finding some room on their bookshelves."

Fighting talk indeed.

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