Of all the creative industries, advertising is perhaps the most maligned. Of all the creative industries, advertising is perhaps the most maligned. Its brashness, the wild variations in its quality, and its blatant manipulative intentions mean that other artistic forms such as music, theatre and art don’t want to play with it, at least not where others might see. But the advertising industry is changing, and is slowly realising that developing subtle, intelligent ways to approach consumers can be enormously effective. As branded content becomes increasingly popular, the divisions between advertising and other creative endeavours will inevitably begin to blur, in turn making the demands on what a modern advertising agency must deliver for its clients ever greater.
For one agency, these developments are old news. betc in Paris, part of the Havas network, has been dabbling in areas outside the official remit of advertising since its inception, 14 years ago. The agency has its own design arm, runs club nights in Paris and elsewhere across Europe, creates a line of city guides for Louis Vuitton, and even has a contemporary art gallery in its basement, which is also regularly used to hold fashion events. Alongside all this it’s also created some pretty stunning advertising campaigns, for brands including Air France, eBay, Evian and Canal+.
To celebrate its adolescence, betc has put together a book documenting the history of the agency, its creative work, and its philosophy towards advertising. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the latter is rooted in style. “Advertisers are authors, they sign a work,” writes Rémi Babinet, who founded the agency in 1995 with Mercedes Erra and Eric Tong Cuong. “Spectators deluged by ads will soon sort good from bad. They will go for the advertisers who prove to be the best authors, who amuse or intrigue them or whose style impresses them. By general consensus, issues such as style or form are considered to be secondary, for it is the message that counts above all else. To the contrary, we think these issues are essential…. A brand’s first priority is to find its style, otherwise what exactly does a brand stand for?”
Finding a brand’s style might seem an elusive proposition (and, as Babinet himself acknowledges in the book, a very French one), yet if you flick through betc’s work, it appears simple. Many of the campaigns are classics, from the Evian swimming babies and the cool elegance of the agency’s print work for Air France, to the wit of commercials such as the Peugeot 407 spot where all other cars but the 407 are wind-up toys, or the more recent Canal+ ads where confusion between two friends discussing a movie gives way to hilarity.
An aspect of the work’s quality comes from betc’s knack of picking good collaborators, with the credits for their campaigns reading like a who’s who of some of the best photographers and directors of the last decade – Michel Gondry, Philippe André, Frédéric Planchon, Traktor, The Glue Society, Nadav Kander, Steven Klein, Stefan Ruiz, Jonathan de Villiers, Marcus Tomlinson, Phil Poynter, Mert Alas & Marcus Piggott, and Paolo Roversi all make appearances, amongst many others.
Even more impressively, the exhibitions held at Passage du Desír, the agency’s art gallery, have been equally well judged, with world-renowned contemporary artists such as Rineke Dijkstra, Darren Almond and Joana Vasconcelos having shown in the space. Talking to cr, both Babinet and creative director Stéphane Xiberras acknowledge that their involvement in the art world has helped to form the strong creative relationships in their advertising work. “The people we manage in advertising – photographers, illustrators, directors and so on – they are confident in the agency,” says Babinet. “It’s very difficult to be confident in commissioned work with agencies – you often can’t recognise your work at the end, it becomes shit. They see what we do with artists and that this is a production of the agency, and they are confident to work with us.”
“When I call Michel Gondry, I say ‘come on, let’s do something’ and he says ‘great’,” says Xiberras, before Babinet finishes, “if you are totally new you cannot play with Gondry and other artists.”
In the book, Babinet emphasises how the gallery has positive effects on betc’s staff too, who now number over 600 people. “Advertising people, who are under contract to come up with simplicity and happiness, often envy artists and their right to say complicated things, their opportunity to express sadness, despair, depression and mourning,” he writes. “This proximity does more than make advertising people dream. It is positively good for them.”
But not all of betc’s more artistic projects are extracurricular. The agency has always had its own designated design arm (originally named Absolut Design, it connected with betc officially in 2000, and was renamed betc Design in 2003), which has designed products including a business class seat for Air France and the new Orange Livebox (out at the end of this year), as well as the branding and corporate design for Macif Insurance and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Back in 1994, it was even the unlikely creators of the Parisian Metro rubbish bin, which is still in use today.
BETC’s largest design project of all, however, was the creation of its own offices. The main building, in the 10th arrondissement in Paris, has a long and unsettling history, having first operated as a department store in the early 20th century, before later being used as a labour camp by the German army during the occupation of Paris in World War II, where inmates were forced to sort through belongings stolen from Jewish families in Paris. When Babinet stumbled upon it, it had been disused for 15 years and it appeared an insurmountable project to turn it into a usable office space.
“It was impossible to do. Impossible,” says Xiberras, with a shake of his head, when the subject of the building comes up. “It was like an oven, very hot and very dark,” Babinet reveals. “No windows. We destroyed everything and just kept the structure and we rebuilt it. The place had a very heavy story.”
Babinet was able to see beyond the building’s history and dilapidated state to what it could become. “For us, it was simply a treasure,” he writes in the book. “The generous proportions, the imposing presence of its successive floors, the height of the ceilings. The whole building seemed to emit a feeling of enormous strength and outstanding possibilities. Not to mention the all-round view of Paris to be had from the rooftop terrace. A powerful site in a buzzing edgy neighbourhood, this building instantly fired our imaginations and we have poured all our energies into to it, in the full knowledge that we would be repaid a hundred times over once the work was completed.”
Once again, the team made excellent choices in their collaborators on the project, with architect Frédéric Jung working on the building itself, and designers including Gilles Rosier, Jurgen Bey, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec and Konstantin Grcic contributing furniture and other product designs.
“Working under tight constraints, for clients like betc, is what I enjoy most,” says Grcic of the project in the betc book. “As I see it, creativity can only develop within precise confines. To be creative is not saying whatever you want, doing whatever you want. Freedom in design is very difficult to manage. In this instance, it was even more important to set limits because there were several designers at work and we couldn’t just consider the space before us as a giant creative atelier. It’s an office. Bringing in different designers on a project like this was a fantastic idea. Rather like building a town with different architects involved, putting together different neighbourhoods and different worlds that people gradually grow into.” The resulting building is light and open, but with numerous quirky design touches, and this aesthetic has also been applied to betc’s other offices, of which there are now five across Paris.
betc’s approach to advertising seems unusual, not only in its devotion to creating consistently top quality work, but also in the seriousness with which it takes the industry. Babinet and Xiberras clearly recognise the importance of looking ahead to how brands may develop in the future and the agency has already begun creating integrated work for its clients, with successful campaigns recently completed for eBay and the French Sci Fi tv network. Other future ambitions for the agency include wanting to further expand their client list beyond French brands, into other global propositions.
Whatever work betc does, however, we can be sure that it will be done with style, and with creativity at its core. As Babinet sums up in the book: “As far as advertising is concerned, things have always been simple and transparent, the deal with consumer clear. All that has changed today are the means and the media of expression. Voice and gesture are no longer enough; to convey a message successfully, we need to find modern forms of eloquence, practice a new art of conversation, create images, compose music, make films, stage events, involve, dramatise and orchestrate the whole thing.”
BETC Paris, the book of the agency, will be published by BIS Publishers at the end of the year