Philippe Bernard is trying to work out whether he is the first boss of a creative network to hop across the great divide and take a top slot at a media operation. "In any case," he says, "if I do happen to be the first, I certainly won't be the last."
Bernard has just been named the European president of Initiative, taking over from Sergio Lorca. He was previously the European president of Lowe & Partners, as well as the president of Lowe France, and he has worked on the creative side for most of his career.
He believes the distance between the creative and media worlds has become too great. "It always frustrated me that I couldn't achieve a good working partnership with a media agency. The situation has deteriorated from wary acceptance to hardly talking at all. Perhaps it takes somebody from a creative agency background to rebuild the bridge."
Although technically Bernard is Catalan, a more accurate description might be "cosmopolitan". He has an English wife, three bilingual sons, and glides easily between cultures. This bodes well for his new identity as a media man. Indeed, to a certain extent, his new role takes him back to his roots. As a young man, he wanted to go into publishing.
"My idea was to copy the success of The Sunday Times magazine. I went to the local (Perpignan) paper and pitched the idea of a colour supplement, which I would produce. They loved it, but they said: 'We'll do it when our rivals start doing it.' It wasn't that they lacked money - they were just lazy. I decided I couldn't work in an industry that was so short-sighted."
Bernard started his career at the media department of Havas "because it was an obvious link with what I had originally wanted to do". But he was lured away by Lintas, where he "discovered the advertising world" and found that it was to his liking. "Even though I started out rather late, at the age of about 26, it's a very young industry and it didn't take me too long to become an account director."
At 29, he was offered the chance to set up the Lintas network in West Africa, based in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast. "I spent two extraordinary years there, working with clients such as Unilever, Nestle and Coca-Cola. I was at that age when you think you know everything, but of course you don't. I was forced to grow up very quickly. It was in Abidjan that I learned how to do my job properly."
He finds it depressing that the region has now plunged into internecine religious rivalry. "It's hard to believe, but when I worked there the place was as calm as Switzerland and full of hope. I can't see any there at the moment."
A subsequent posting led to the contrasting location of Belgium. There, Bernard got an insight into "what the European advertising industry would become". While the Belgian agency was producing great creative work on a local level, "all the international clients were taking campaigns from the UK, France, Germany and Holland, and adapting them".
Next came Madrid, and then the pan-European role, based in London. After a brief sabbatical in Paris, he seems happy to be going back to the UK. "I like London, despite the fact that it's extremely expensive. And, of course, British advertising is the best in the world."
Part of his mission at Initiative, he says, is "to make great creative work go further". Elaborating on what he means, he says: "It's true that the advertising networks built their empires on the basis of one country, one agency. But when you look at the number of campaigns that run unchanged across the world, you have to question that model. The media networks, on the other hand, are vital distribution channels."
But he adds that those networks - and Initiative in particular - must re-emphasise their place in the brand-building process. "We provide the tools and the strategic thinking that can take a creative campaign and make it work harder. The media and creative worlds appear to have forgotten that they are working towards the same end."
To demonstrate his philosophy, Bernard tells a story. "I once visited Rembrandt's studio in Amsterdam, and it occurred to me that all his genius, all his creativity was contained in one room. In his time you had to grind and mix paint from diverse ingredients. It wasn't transportable. Much later, the Impressionists were able to get out into the landscape because paint came in tubes. That simple medium freed them from containment. Media agencies can do the same thing for great creative work. We're the tube. We have the means to turn Rembrandts into Impressionists."
PHILIPPE BERNARD CV
1979-1980: Junior media planner, Havas-Conseil
1980-1982: Account executive, Lintas, Paris
1982-1984: Account supervisor, RSCG
1984-1986: Account director, Havas-Conseil
1986-1989: Managing director, Lintas Abidjan
1989-1992: Chairman and CEO, Lintas Belgium
1992: Founder, Bernard & Storch
1993-1997: Managing director, Lintas, Paris
1997-2001: Chairman and CEO, Ammirati Puris Lintas Spain
1999-2001: Chairman and CEO, Lowe Lintas France
2001-2003: President Europe, Lowe & Partners; chairman, Lowe France
2004: CEO, Initiative, Europe