Global viewpoint from France
A view from Alastair Maclean

Global viewpoint from France

Last month, they projected "Paris is Charlie" on the Arc de Triomphe just over the road from the agency.

In France, as anywhere else, our profession has a tendency to be really clever in a small way, but, in the face of insane brutality, we and our clients have had to put this on hold.

Four million people came out to march against these attacks and say NON to racism and NON to silencing press freedom. On the day, we just stood there and couldn’t move. With solidarity, we cheered the riot policemen. And we did all we could to ensure that this movement could not be seen in any way Islamophobic. It all happened in total calm.

In a small, clever way, I could talk about the power of crowdsourcing, or the sharing of movements across the world, or the impact of a single visual idea. But maybe there is a more general message to say to our clients.

Sometimes, just silently turning up to be counted is the most vocal thing you can do. Sometimes, NON is the most positive word to say.

Nearly 20 years ago, Franck Riboud, the chief executive of Danone, talked about the "porosité" (porosity) of the enterprise, of the fading of the barrier between who the company is and the product that you choose as a consumer.

French corporate culture included a notion of brand purpose before it became part of the vocabulary

This was before the internet made the moral scrutiny of companies accessible from your lap and it feels like a century before Lehman Brothers or Occupy asked some serious questions about the whole system.

In some ways, French corporate culture had always included a notion of brand purpose before it became part of the vocabulary of brands and marketing and agencies.

Why was this? A collective taste for existentialism, an ambivalent relationship with capitalism, the relics of old corporatism and pride in a "métier" (craft) all bundled together in a notion of company "raison d’être". Something that was and is bigger than shareholder value.  

When a company is attached to its roots, its founding family or its home market – and, in the case of a Legrand or a Renault, its founding town – this "raison d’être" did not need a code of conduct.

When you look at how France is a country with an unfair share of global companies, managing the tension in any business culture between integrity and ambition is part of the success story today.

So while, economically, France may look like the sick man of Europe – with its political sclerosis, bureaucracy and morose consumer culture – our enterprises, young or old, may just have a head start on building cultures that will sustain and bear the scrutiny of an empowered and informed global audience. All this because they ask themselves the right questions and are willing to take no as an answer.

Alastair Maclean is the head of strategic planning at Publicis Conseil