Situated on the banks of the Canal de l’Ourcq in the Greater Paris district of Pantin is a vast former flour and grain warehouse, imposing and grand. Built in the 1930s, Les Magasins généraux, as it has always been known, has in recent years lain dormant, slowly wasting away and becoming a haven to local graffiti artists, who turned it into an impressive urban canvas. In 2013 though, the ad agency BETC Paris – the company behind iconic ads for Evian, Canal+, Air France and many more – took out a lease on the space, and over the past three years has transformed it from a desolate outpost of the city into a modern, beautifully designed set of creative offices.
Up until recently, Pantin, which is placed outside of the Périphérique, the symbolic border of the ‘real’ Paris, might have seemed an unlikely candidate for hosting a creative revolution, yet that is what is slowly unfolding in the area. Artists, designers and craftspeople have been drawn to the eastern suburbs for the reasons that they were once drawn east in London and Berlin: space and affordability. And then there are the institutions: the Centre National de la Danse has been in the area since 2004, and the upmarket contemporary gallery Thaddaeus Ropac opened a major space in Pantin in 2012; and now comes BETC Paris.
“We are in a big moment in time for Paris,” says Rémi Babinet, founder and chairman of the agency, and the design mastermind behind its impressive new space, alongside art director Aurélie Scalabre and Paris-based design firm T&P Work UNit. “Paris is not like London, New York, Shanghai … but it could go in this category of ‘megalopolis’. The moment is really important because we can stay as the most beautiful city of the world, like Venice … or we can become a very big Paris with a huge project in the suburbs. For the next ten years, that’s the big challenge.”
Devising a new kind of office space
Office design matters in the advertising industry. A company’s space becomes its calling card, a symbol of how cool/creative/innovative its work will be. For fans of design porn, there is therefore much to drool over in BETC Paris’ new space: it has quirky bespoke contemporary furniture mixed in with carefully chosen vintage pieces, and an elegant mix of materials, keeping the concrete structure of the building clearly on show but combining it with calming wood and clever outdoor spaces with plants. Floor-to-ceiling windows appear throughout, allowing spectacular views of the surrounding area, which still contains plenty of urban grit.
What sets the office apart from some of its more trend-driven competitors, however, is the depth of thought that has gone into its design. The building has no air-conditioning, instead favouring windows and utilising the natural cooling system provided by the concrete, and its roof is covered with solar panels. The agency’s new font is used throughout the building and in terms of work spaces, variety is the spice: staff can sit anywhere, choosing to work in isolation or surrounded by others, inside or outside, as is their need. Hotdesking is nothing new, but whereas in the past this has often been driven by cost-saving, here double the space needed for each person is available and the intention is to truly encourage interaction and collaboration.
Now artists in France begin to understand that they don’t always lose their integrity with busines
Babinet sees the offices as providing BETC with an opportunity to become a wider and more serious creative player. The agency already has small-but-growing advertising outposts in London and São Paulo, but the Paris office is a clear flagship, containing all of the accoutrements required to produce a broad range of creative work, including film, music, design and digital studios, an epic events space and even a radio station.
It is also the first time that all the agency’s creative enterprises, which include design and b music arms, have been located together under one roof. While these additional projects have in the past been add-ons to the main venture of creating advertising, Babinet hopes to see them grow and develop. “We made some things around the agency – many, many things – but small things compared to the main part of our business, which is about advertising, of course,” he explains. “That was a way of explaining our open-minded way: to music, design, fashion and art. But now the future of the agency is about that.”
Babinet is not turning his back on the ad industry, far from it, though he does hold some of its current fetishes in disdain. He sees the Cannes festival – increasingly essential to much of the industry – as “not interesting”. “I like awards,” he says. “We try to stay in Cannes, to send work to Cannes. But to be honest, if that was not so important for creative people in the agency, I would stop that, it’s not the right place to be recognised”, and he is clearly weary with adland’s obsession for “bullshit content”. “Many people have spoken for the last ten years about ‘content, content’ but nobody does new things.”
Despite how this might sound, Babinet says he’s “never been so excited by what we have to do as an adman”. “For me it’s about reputation, and reputation is so important today … with all the noise, all the information, the skill of making reputation is key. We can help.” And he is acutely aware of how important it is to bring all of his team with him into any new creative horizons. “Ad people are – in a good way – so focused on advertising and when you open the door, that’s good for me, but you have to convince them that you don’t lose your interest for advertising,” he says. “Trust is key.”
If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere
Babinet does feel that the world is ready for a more plural creative industry now, in a way that might not have been possible in even the fairly recent past. In part this is due to changes wrought by digital, but also because of a realisation that no section of creativity is immune to market forces now, for better or worse. “The separation between ‘art’ and ‘business’ is totally disappearing in the world,” he says. “That could be a bad thing, but for me it’s a good thing, you can do very huge things if you understand that. Especially in France – it’s a good torture test, it’s a good benchmark, because it’s very hard but now artists in France begin to understand that they don’t always lose their spirit or integrity with business.”
The ad industry in France has always been different to the UK and the US. Whereas the latter are currently wrestling with a creeping sense that the industry’s best years may be behind them, in France it was never a particularly desirable industry for creative people to enter. “It was the last place you would want to be,” Babinet explains. “We are very prepared for the bad image of advertising.”
This has had certain advantages. With the only way being up, BETC Paris has slowly won over those who have been most resistant to the ad world’s charms. The agency now works with many of Paris’s key cultural institutions, including Philharmonie de Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France and Musée d’histoire de l’Immigration. “That was the result of many years of work,” explains Babinet. “It was impossible for these people to imagine working with an advertising agency. And now they talk about us and say ‘oh, they are fantastic’.”
So while the wider industry frets over a talent drain, Babinet and BETC Paris appears unfazed by such issues. Instead Babinet is preoccupied with how to achieve the myriad creative projects they are envisioning, from this spectacular new home. A home that is at the centre of a whole new Paris.