No strategy please, we're French

Why does planning not have the same prestige in France as in the UK? And is this an untapped opportunity for agencies this side of the Channel, James Swift asks.

No strategy please, we're French

Last week, VCCP opened a new agency with offices near St Pancras International and Paris Nord stations. At the same time, it reignited the debate about planning and the French. Namely: do they bother?

VCCP Saint Pancras is built to serve luxury and premium brands (its founding client is Courvoisier), and Adrian Coleman, VCCP’s group chief executive, emphasised combining "the best of creativity from France with top-class British strategy".

International clients had complained, he said, that strategy departments in French agencies weren’t cutting it. To this end, Coleman hired the BETC Paris creative director Florence Bellisson to be the executive creative director and relocated VCCP Berlin’s managing director, Charlotte David, to be the managing partner and the London strategy partner, Zoe Hamilton, to be the planning partner.

No-one disputes that planning was invented in England. But can it be the case that France has failed to catch up?

You might think it impossible to tackle such a broad question. Not so. Many people who would rather eat glass than be heard stereotyping entire nations seem happy to let loose on the French.

"Clichés about the French often turn out true, in my experience," one senior strategist in London muses.

"Flair and joy in aesthetics are often what drive the creative work, but the strategy tends to be a lot of adjectives. Utter bollocks, basically."

"It’s a very different advertising culture in France," Craig Mawdsley, the joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, adds. "French creative teams are so dominant in what they do that planning never gets a look-in. I have employed some French planners that were really good but, somehow, they don’t get the same traction in French agencies."

Of course, some are adamant that writing off France’s planners is absurd.

"That’s like saying there are no good French directors or engineers. It’s not true," Tracey Follows, the chief strategy officer at JWT London and chair of the Account Planning Group, says. "But any planner in any market needs to be well-connected to or educated at a planning centre of excellence – which, undoubtedly, London has been historically."

But it would be easier to dismiss the argument if French strategists themselves weren’t sympathetic to it.

Jerome Courtial, the head of strategy at We Are Social, told Campaign that, when he was starting out ten years ago, he had to move to the UK because there were no opportunities for him as a strategist in France. Only account management jobs were on offer.

"I think it’s because every Frenchman thinks of himself as an intellectual," Courtial says. "We don’t like having a job that comes with the label of ‘the smart one’."

Another strategist at a top French agency, who asked not to be named, agreed: "The big difference is that strategy belongs to everyone in French agencies, which can be difficult for planners."

There are many theories about the gap between English and French planning. Russ Lidstone, the chief executive of Havas Worldwide London, puts it down to a combination of things: the greater number of multinational businesses in London, higher digital and mobile penetration in the UK and regulatory issues.

"That’s often the argument made about Cannes," Lidstone says. "A lot of award-winning work couldn’t run in the UK. The rigours of planning are so much more adhered to in the UK."

David, who is French herself, says: "British planning is much more rational, sharp and concise. I attribute that to the raw material of our industry: language.

"French is more about imagination, but English is about symbols and ideas. The French are much more flourishing, the English more sharp. That’s the difference."

François Grouiller, Fred & Farid’s global strategy director, sees the issue differently. For him, it is that UK planners continue to trade on the nation’s legacy. "British planners ruled the world like the British Empire did at the beginning of the 20th century," he says. "It’s starting to fall, but they’re trying to hold their position. English planners are everywhere.

"We’ve got some planners in China and Brazil and they are doing great things and deserved to be recognised, but English planners are too good at seducing people with their accents."

Perhaps the problem is one of perception: that too many people see the British way of planning as the right way. It’s not as if the French ad scene is struggling, after all.

And, in the case of VCCP, it’s hard to fault the logic of Mawdsley when he suggests the UK style of planning could be wrong for luxury brands.

"If you look at the luxury sector, it is all just beautiful," he says. "You’re buying a creative person’s aesthetic vision, and that’s why agencies have struggled to get a foothold in the sector. Maybe we’re wrong to try to add strategy to it. Maybe it just makes the dream worse."