The past year has been a turbulent but ultimately triumphant one for Olivier Altmann. Only a few months ago, it looked as if his agency's position as the creative engine of Publicis in France was being undermined by the return to Paris of Fred & Farid. Fresh from their experience at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, the Gallic dynamic duo were not only welcomed into Publicis Groupe, but handed their own agency, Marcel.
But any anxiety Altmann might have felt is in the past. He has just been named chairman of the Publicis worldwide creative board, giving him international clout.
Publicis Conseil's popular Wonderbra campaign won the outdoor Grand Prix at Eurobest, as well as a top prize at Epica. And to top it all, the agency came in at number two in Eurobest's annual rankings.
"You can't see into the future," Altmann says, "but these events have certainly made me feel confident and optimistic."
Altmann stresses that he does not exactly replace Dave Droga, who quit as the worldwide creative director of Publicis in August to start his own agency. Rather, his role is to "maintain the commitment to creativity within the board and the network".
His new post is not expected to be undermined by the appointment of a new worldwide creative director: Publicis is looking to replace Droga in New York, but that role will be limited to the US.
He adds that his new role, which, includes helping in the hunt for creative recruits across the network, does not mean he has relinquished his job as the executive creative director of Publicis Conseil, working in partnership with his fellow agency boss Christophe Lambert. "I'm committed to raising the creative bar in Paris. We've made considerable progress, but we're still at a mid-term point at the moment."
Compared with the uncompromising Lambert, Altmann is considered one of the French advertising industry's nice guys. "In fact, I'm as ambitious as anyone else: I just have a different way of going about it," he smiles.
Altmann considers that Marcel's role is to pitch for overseas clients who are looking for a small, flexible agency ("the kind of clients that might previously have gone to Mother or Wieden & Kennedy"), while Publicis Conseil will concentrate on boosting the creative firepower of bigger, more institutional French clients.
"The great thing is, all our clients expect us to deliver more and more creativity," he says. "If you look at the campaigns that have been well-received, they have come from a wide range of brands: Club Med, Renault, Wonderbra ..."
The Wonderbra campaign has been one of the year's creative surprises.
Publicis Conseil won the work just before Sara Lee sold its European lingerie arm to the US investment group Sun Capital. "The brand was still quite famous, but it hadn't communicated effectively for many years," Altmann says. "It still stood for enhancing women's breasts and very little else.
In any case, the images that were considered provocative in the 90s are commonplace now, so we had to take a different approach."
Altmann says the current campaign "empowers" women. "Of course, we denied ourselves the opportunity to photograph beautiful women almost naked - but you can't have everything," he jokes. A Frenchman through and through.
The interview ends dramatically, when a fire drill forces us to exit the building. It's worth remembering that a blaze at Publicis in 1972 sparked Maurice Levy's rise to stardom, when he had time to save the agency's computer files. Is Altmann in line for the throne when Levy retires? He chuckles. "Nobody knows who will succeed Maurice, and he certainly isn't telling. Besides, I don't think he'll retire for a long time yet - do you?"
THE LOWDOWN Age: 41 Lives: Marnes-la-Coquette, a chic Paris suburb Family: Married to Helene ("my beacon"); children Leonard (nine) and the twins, Samuel and Joseph (seven) Favourite ad: Guinness "noitulove": "A terrific piece of advertainment that comes from the root of the brand." Outside interests: Scuba-diving, skiing Big break: "Being asked by TBWA to start my own agency (BDDP & Fils) at the age of 30 was both scary and enormously exciting." Advertising icon: "Bill Bernbach had a particular Jewish, New Yorker, self-deprecating approach to advertising that can work extremely well." Motto: "Actually, there's a Publicis motto: 'Fortune favours the brave.'"