“Humour is in our DNA”: an interview with Canal+ creative director Olivier Schaack

French TV brand Canal+ is famous for its witty advertising. Creative director Olivier Schaack explains why humour is so important to the broadcaster and how its in-house creative department operates

Canal+ was founded in 1984 as a premium cable service modelled on US channel HBO. There are now more than 20 Canal+ channels, covering drama, sport, film and entertainment.

The brand is known for commissioning ads with an unexpected comedic twist. 2011’s The Bear and last year’s Unicorns combined silliness and cinematic production values to hilarious effect, while seasonal spot Best Friend used a wild boar to demonstrate the perils of buying Christmas gifts on a whim. All three were created by BETC Paris, which has a long-standing relationship with the brand – but this sense of humour also extends to creative produced in-house.

“Canal+ was created on the model of HBO, and if you look back to HBO’s advertising they had always been using a lot of humour,” says Schaack, who joined Canal+ in 2000 and has been creative director since 2007.

As Schaack points out, Canal+  was the first TV channel in France to broadcast adult films (shown late at night on the first Saturday of each month), and from the outset, positioned itself as a more risque alternative to existing broadcasters. Humour was crucial to establishing its provocative, alternative image – “this really became the DNA of Canal+, bringing high quality premium programmes, the best of movies and sports but in between, never being serious with ourselves,” he adds.

“When it comes to our communication, of course we cannot make jokes all the time but … I think with the French, and maybe the French who like Canal+ culture, we grew up watching British movies and series, you know Monty Python… Canal+ launched a cable TV channel called Jimmy [set up in 1990, it was devoted to comedy], which made us discover series like Bottom and the New Statesman, and so this is really part of the culture. When we communicate with the brand, we want to keep this in mind all the time.”

As a result, Canal+ has more freedom than most when it comes to advertising. Few clients, perhaps, would readily embrace the idea of an ad like Unicorns from the outset. “I think to us, it’s not a risk anymore,” says Schaack. “Maybe for other channels that are always serious, when they want to go out of their usual road, then they have to go through committees, and really think about it, but us, we have to go there. There is no choice. I think if we started to have [a more serious approach to] communications, we would lose people,” he adds.

While its big budget promos and idents are produced by external agencies (Holman + Hunt, DBLG and United Visual Artists worked with the broadcaster on a lovely series of idents for Canal+ Sport this year, shown above) much of Canal+’s day-to-day creative work is produced in house. The creative department is responsible for promo creation and managing each channel’s identity on and off-air.

“The big ads with the huge budgets, they’re not done in-house, it’s BETC, but we do the rest,” says Schaack. “95% of our job is to do regular promotions with editing, and 5% is more creative stuff. Even with editing jobs though, we will try to be a bit different,” he adds. A recent tongue-in-cheek Formula 1 promo for example, broadcast on TV in France, pokes fun at the flashy nature of the sport and how famous its stars have become by showing F1 drivers riding on speedboats and popping champagne: “We did one regular promo with a lot of tension, a lot of track footage, but we wanted to show how Formula 1 has become such a show. Those drivers are like Hollywood stars,” adds Schaack. “We are always looking for new ways [to present content].”

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Spoof poster for Le Cube (The Stone), part of a campaign promoting Canal+’s wi-fi box

Most of the creatives at Canal+ are freelancers, working between 10 and 12 days per month for the channel, though there are some full-time staff. “I have one section who is charge of identity and on-air branding, one is in charge of promotions, which is the biggest one with 75% of our activity. Within this, there is one team in charge of what I call the flood, where we have to be really reactive [for example, when editing footage from live sporting events],” he explains. Another team works on stock programmes, creating lower budget work for smaller channels.

Creatives employed at the group previously worked on just one channel, but Schaack says he is trying to create a model where staff can move between large and small-scale projects on different brands. “For a long time, they had different contracts because our cable TV channels are belonging financially to another company. I’m managing both [teams] but I’m trying to break this, to make everybody involved in the whole thing, and there’s no team A and team B, everybody can have an idea,” he explains.

The Formula 1 spot, for example, was devised by someone who usually works on a smaller Canal+ sports channel – “but he came to us with this idea and I said yes, please do it.  I think it will motivate those who only work on the small channels, to [have the opportunity] to come to the big ones, and for the guys [on the larger channels], I think if they go to smaller channels, they can bring a lot to them. So I think creative must be mixed and think together.”

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Ads promoting satirical puppet show Le Guignols (via Canal+)

When it comes to larger series – for example, teasers promoting Canal+’s Olympics coverage or major campaigns – Schaack says he will brief one external agency and his in-house team, and the best idea wins. “I don’t do a pitch with many agencies, just one. This is really  motivating for our team and for the agency too, because they know they are not big [budgets] – it’s like 30,000 Euros for a campaign, between 30 and 50, so to pitch with five agencies for such a small budget, would not be so interesting, so they are alone against just the in-house team.

For last summer’s new season promo (an annual spot introducing the new season’s shows and their stars), Canal+ commissioned broadcast design and production company Gédéon to create a trailer using 8-Bit pixel animation in the style of retro video games. The spot was designed to appeal to audiences on social media, particularly younger viewers and non-subscribers:

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Still from Canal+ 2015 new season promo

Set to a rendition of Gala song Freed from Desire sung by a London children’s choir, it featured animated versions of athletes, reality TV stars, comedians and actors from French and international series. The spot had 1.4 million views, including more than 700,000 on Facebook, and was covered in GQ, Grazia and gaming sites in France.

Creating footage specifically for social channels is now a key focus for any TV channel’s creative team, and the success of the video highlighted the value of making content designed with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in mind. In an ideal world, Schaack says Canal+ would create separate content for TV and social media – but admits that this isn’t always possible.

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Still from Canal+ 2015 new season promo

Talking about the differences between classic promos and videos for social, he says: “People from the digital teams [at Canal+] … they will say we need a really strong image in the first five seconds so people click on it, and the sound isn’t so much of a thing … on TV, sound is essential, it still captures people’s attention, so to do the invert thing on digital, it’s a bit tricky…. I think we should think of specific promos for digital, but we don’t always have the budget. It means a different way of production, a bit more time,” he adds.

Olivier Schaack was speaking to CR at TV marketing and creative conference PromaxBDA in Barcelona. For details, see promaxbda.com

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