A few weeks ago, a small group of French journalists, advertising people and other media types started getting e-mails referring to a mysterious entity called La Chose ("The Thing"). What was La Chose? What could it do for you? Where could you find it? The messages were all equally cryptic, as if sent by an alien with a warped sense of humour. One of them, sent on 1 April, read: "La Chose is not a fish."
Quite a few people, of course, feared a virus and deleted each new mail with a grunt of irritation.
They were wrong to do so, as it turned out, because the mails answered a question the French advertising community had been asking for some time.
Namely, what was Pascal Gregoire going to do after unexpectedly quitting the presidency of CLM/BBDO? Answer: La Chose, a new multimedia agency that Gregoire has set up with a group of industry pals. It is the latest in a series of refreshingly innovative outfits that have recently opened their doors in Paris.
"A few people accused us of sending out spam, but in fact it was a highly effective teaser campaign," Gregoire says a few weeks later, outside a cafe around the corner from his new office. "If we were setting ourselves up as an agency that would offer alternative media solutions, we felt we had to practice what we preached. And you have to admit, it caused quite a buzz."
Perhaps not as much of a buzz as Gregoire's announcement he was to quit as the president of CLM/BBDO after three years. "Well, you know, running an independent agency is an old dream," he explains. "I felt I had to do this now, before it was too late. I felt reassured that I could leave CLM in a healthy state. We'd gained Total and we'd lost none of our emblematic accounts. I could go without guilt."
Gregoire says CLM was his "career birthplace", because he cut his teeth there as a young creative years ago. The experience led to an agency called Le Belier (where he was the creative director at only 26), and later to setting up Euro RSCG GBHR. After that, he ran the Paris office of Leagas Delaney, which the British agency closed shortly after losing the Adidas business to TBWA in a global consolidation. That was when Gregoire returned to CLM.
On that occasion, Gregoire took the Ikea account with him. And it looks as if he may do so again, having become strongly associated with the brand's quirky French campaigns. "I love Ikea's image of friendly rebellion," he says. "It's an innovative brand that seeks daring creative solutions."
Gregoire's new life at La Chose sees him teaming up with Eric Tong Cuong, another high-profile Parisian media figure. A co-founder of BETC Euro RSCG, Tong Cuong is best known as the founder of the hip record label Naive. Now he is surfacing after two rather bruising experiences at the helm of EMI France and then Young & Rubicam, neither of which seem to have been a good fit. Acquaintances say he is an innovator who performs best outside a corporate structure. To help La Chose on its way, it has fused with the digital media agency Pekin, meaning it begins life with a staff of 35 and billings of about EUR4 million.
"What we're experiencing today is a major revolution, analogous with the launch of television," Gregoire states. "But while everyone is saying this, no-one seems to be conscious of the speed at which things are changing."
This last statement is debatable, considering the burst of activity the usually sluggish French advertising scene has experienced recently. In the past few months, a clutch of agencies have opened for business, seemingly as a rebuff to the belligerent French resistance to change. Marcel, M&C Saatchi.GAD, Naked ... all claim to be overturning the system and offering new approaches to brand building.
It is a breath of fresh air in a market where independent agencies have traditionally fared badly. "The French have never been enthusiastic entrepreneurs," Gilles Masson, one of the co-founders of M&C Saatchi.GAD, says. "In the past, bureaucracy made it difficult to get a business off the ground and although the situation has improved, many people are reluctant to let go of the security of a big group."
Yet Masson and his partners, Antoine Barthuel and Daniel Fohr, own 20 per cent of the capital of their agency and regard it as their financial responsibility. Marcel is a different story, as it is strongly tied to its parent group, Publicis. But the fact that this comparatively edgy start-up won the France Telecom account - its international Orange campaign is now on air - shows French clients are seeking new solutions.
The media scene is experiencing a convulsion, too, with the arrival in Paris of Naked Communications. Not long ago, the French had barely heard of communications planning, the discipline Naked specialises in. But the Paris branch's two-man team, Nicolas Bard and Gregory Duquesne, are convinced French clients are experiencing the same confusion that has gripped Anglo-Saxon brands faced with a fragmented media landscape and a dispersed marketing industry.
"When I heard about Naked, I actually called to ask them how I could get involved," Bard, previously a director at Initiative 354, says. "It seemed to be successfully doing what I'd been trying to achieve for years, without quite being able to put my finger on it."
His associate, Duquesne, was the planning director at FCB for four years.
"We'd never worked together," Duquesne says. "And yet the two agencies had clients in common and were based just up the road from one another. I think that's the perfect illustration of the situation. Advertising has turned into such a labyrinth that you need someone on the outside to define the communications strategy."
So far, the pair have worked for Gap (trying to reposition itself in France), Kijiji (the online small ads service) and 118 218 (the new directory service). But they stress that more, much more, is to come.
"I would say we have three different kinds of clients," Duquesne says.
"Big brands that are trying to make their various partners work more effectively together; brands who want to explore new communications solutions; and small clients who are looking for imaginative, cost-effective ideas."
Bard adds: "If you look at what Naked has achieved in the UK, I'd say there is also a group of big, opinion-forming brands that want to overturn the system and are tired of waiting for their agencies to do it."
So where does all this leave the big traditional agencies such as CLM/BBDO, which suddenly found itself decapitated following the departure of Gregoire? CLM has bounced back with a new management team and the French press has made much of the fact it is all-female. Valerie Accary, named the BBDO Europe president last August, has taken on a double role, becoming the president of CLM/BBDO at the same time. To back her up, she recruited Bertille Toledano, the strategic planner from Young & Rubicam, as the vice-president. Anne de Mapeou, who remains the vice-president in charge of creativity, completes the line-up.
"Actually, the all-woman team angle never occurred to me until the French press started talking about it," Accary confides, with the unspoken criticism that they have missed the point.
"I want to reinforce our position as great, major agency," she says.
"Take a look at our client list - Mercedes, Auchan, PepsiCo, Masterfoods ... clients like this need the reassurance of a big agency. There are not many big French brands, which is why independents have always struggled here. They must content themselves with smaller clients. The market is bigger in the UK, so independents are more likely to survive."
Accary adds that the French market is particularly tough at the moment, "with very few pitches and ten agencies on the list when one comes along".
Not only that, but there is not much growth in the market to speak of, with the typically optimistic Initiative predicting the market will expand by 3.8 per cent this year.
But how does she feel about accusations from new outfits such as La Chose that the old agency system is antiquated, particularly as media has become too divorced from creative?
"It's something we're addressing. We're bringing more media planning people back inside the agency, and we're working increasingly closely with Proximity BBDO. There's now hardly any division between the two of us. We're like mirrors of one another."
Gregoire (and probably Naked, too) would claim this rapprochement between the constituent parts of marketing is happening too slowly, and that large agencies are too unwieldy to manage it successfully. "The internet has already changed everything: the way we shop, the way we listen to music, and certainly the way we consume advertising," he says. "Now there is going to be a very important acceleration in terms of video-on-demand. We wanted to do something right now, rather than merely talk about the need to adapt. That's why we took the decision to acquire Pekin, which is doing terrific work in digital media for clients such as Orange and (music store) La Fnac."
La Chose is already on the pitchlist for "four or five" accounts, although Gregoire admits that it may take time for larger clients to appreciate its business model. "In this new era, choice of media is incredibly important, and it has to be fused completely with the creative," he says. "So we have everybody under one roof and we all get involved in everything. There are no defined roles or territories. There's one client, one team and one bill. When you look at it that way, La Chose is really quite simple."
LA CHOSE: THE LOWDOWN
Founders: Pascal Gregoire, former president of CLM/BBDO, and Eric Tong Cuong, co-founder of BETC Euro RSCG
Clients (through merger with Pekin): Orange, BNP Paribas (finance), Martin Margiela (fashion), La Fnac (music and electrical retail)
Positioning: "La Chose is reinventing the metier of advertising"
Other agency links: Pekin, a digital media agency
Billings: EUR4 million
What the agency's rivals say: CLM/BBDO: "La Chose is a brave experiment, but it's extremely difficult to thrive as an independent agency in France."