For someone with talent, there is no better laboratory than a good ad agency.
Rémi Babinet is the founder of BETC Paris, France’s leading agency, and Global Creative Director of the Euro RSCG Worldwide network. Now fifteen years old, BETC holds a unique place in the industry. Named “European Agency of the Year” by Ad Age Global in 2002, and “most creative French advertising agency” eleven times in fifteen years, BETC boasts an impressive roster of clients – Evian, Air France, Peugeot, Canal+, Petit Bateau, Lacoste. for each of which it regularly scoops international awards. It is one of only twelve agencies in the world to have been ranked in the annual Gunn Report for six straight years. Rémi’s recent achievements include the Evian “Roller-babies” campaign, which has spawned the most viewed online ad of all time – 45 million views and counting. Michael Weinzettl met up with Rémi Babinet in the agency’s spectacular location, a former department store in the French capital’s bustling 10th arrondissement, to talk to him about his impressive career.
L.A.: Mr. Babinet, do you remember any of the ads that made an impression on you when you were growing up?
Rémi Babinet: When I was a kid, there was an advertisement painted on the inside of the subway tunnels: DU BO … DU BON … DUBONNET (Beautiful … Good … Dubonnet). It goes back to prehistoric times but it gave a rhythm to the journeys between stations. I didn’t know that I was going to go into advertising but I loved it. Posters for oil in the parking lots. A campaign for ELF with huge, mysterious, red spots that invaded the landscape. The one that really made me want to do it was an ad for a perfume with a very sexy girl sitting on a chair against a white background whose blouse was half torn off with these words: a perfume that questions the values of civilization. I cannot remember the name of the perfume but I do remember the name of the agency: Reference. It was the first agency I showed my portfolio to.
L.A.: So that is how you got started in advertising?
Rémi Babinet: I started working in advertising in the late 1980s. I was planning on being a teacher, but I decided to find another path. Back then, I didn’t have the faintest idea what an advertising agency was. I didn’t even suspect that they were responsible for the ads or posters that I saw in the street. I did a few odd jobs and one day, by chance, someone told me about what was happening in advertising agencies, the extraordinary high standards and obsessive creativity that governed these unique companies. It took me three months to make my first portfolio and I knocked on dozens of doors for interviews, which was often painful. I had no idea how to get an internship but I had huge aspirations. A year and a half later, after three internships – Saatchi & Saatchi, Y&R and BDDP (which later became TBWA Paris) – I was hired. It was one of the best moments of my life, like the beginning of a cultural revolution, a chance to establish myself in another world – more alive, more contemporary, more demanding and more collective than what was waiting for me with teaching or architecture.
L.A.: So what was it like at BDDP, an agency that was quite new at the time? And did you have any role models?
Rémi Babinet: I’ve never had a model for my career or for my life. It is still some-thing I lack. I’ll never forget BDDP (now TBWA). They taught me a huge amount. Its founders, Marie-Catherine Dupuy and Jean-Marie Dru in particular, and many of my colleagues at the time, made cre-ating this agency a unique adventure. It was THE agency at the time and we were all proud to be working there. I had the good fortune to enter as a beginner just as the agency was taking its own first steps. I walked there every morning; the agency was based in the former head offices of Citroën in the middle of a large vacant lot along the Seine. There was an atmosphere of desolation and transformation. The building looked like a great ocean liner from the 1920s, there must have been about 40 of us on a single set in a deserted building, and we were all overexcited because we felt like we were going to conquer the world. Everything moved very fast for me since I went from intern to creative director during those few years.
L.A.: What made you decide to found BETC? Can you remember the decisive moment when you said, yes, let’s do this?
Rémi Babinet: To be honest, our dream at the time with Eric Tong Cuong was to take over the running of BDDP. We had had discussions with the founders on this subject. And then things turned out otherwise. It was a great opportunity since we had the chance to found an agency on a completely new and unchartered basis, which always requir-es you to excel. Initially, the agency was called BTC (Babinet Tong Cuong) and it got off to a flying start. We grew very quickly and we soon brought on a third partner, Mercedes Erra, and the name of the agency became BETC.
L.A.: What is the work as a copywriter that you’re proudest of? Which campaigns would you single out and why?
Rémi Babinet: In BDDP, we did a lot of things with my art director at the time, Philippe Pollet-Villard, but if I had to pick just one standout moment, it would have to be the launch of Virgin Megastore in Paris. A typical challenger campaign, aggressive and impactful, that left its mark on the times. It showed a beautiful woman but who wasn’t a typical sex symbol then, nor would she be today –Anne Zamberlan. I remember the struggle to impose this image, both inside the agency and with the client. Today, among the agency projects closest to my heart are the Evian “Rollerbabies,” a digital campaign that broke all the records since we are now at more than 100 million views and countless online remixes. I am now preparing the next installment of the saga, an international print campaign. There is also the latest Canal+ film, “The Closet,” which follows “March of the Emperors,” which is really fun, because it is a veiled reference to all the incredible scenarios that creatives produce every day. What I take more and more to heart, what I spend most of my energy looking for at the moment, is to imagine campaigns that stretch the limits usually imposed on advertising. One example is the campaign we have just done for the clothing brand Petit Bateau, where we made a pure rock video, based on a simple idea – the unfolding of a person’s whole life based on their age in months, like on the labels for children’s clothes (3 months, 6 months, etc.). The promo has just launched on the web and on MTV.
L.A.: From the roof of your agency, one has a fantastic 360° view over Paris. How did you find the location? Can you tell us something about its history?
Rémi Babinet: It was an old empty shell with three underground car parking levels, which my CFO refused to let me visit at first. A black block without light, full of dead pigeons in the 10th arrondissement. It was love at first sight. We spent two years devising the best way to turn it into a workspace, and everyone was involved: people from the agency, the architect and a group of designers not yet known at the time – Konstantin Grcic, the Bouroullec brothers, Jurgen Bey, Radi Designers, and Frédéric Ruyant. We all had a dual objective: light and speed. In the end, it’s a total luxury: we have an agency that is not only beautiful, but that is also in Paris’ most lively and interest-ing district, while most Parisian agencies are in the chic and expensive western suburbs, where not much is going on.
L.A.: Can you tell us about the Passage du Désir, the art space attached to the agency?
Rémi Babinet: It’s a gallery, a passage, a catwalk, a studio, a nightclub, a showroom, a stage, etc. It is a transformer that breaks the traditional boundaries between artistic disciplines: it can host dance, design, video, fashion, land-scapes, stories, contemporary art, a brand launch, or an exhibition on concentration camps. When it isn’t hosting any external events, the agency uses it as a studio. “Dysfashional,” the exhibi-tion which recently finished here and will open in Berlin this month, was devoted to fashion, but from a different angle. Fashion designers like Hussein Chalayan, Maison Martin Margiela, and Gaspard Yurkievich, were invited to step outside the fashion world and produce installa-tions or creations that express their imagination, Chalayan bringing us Airmail dresses and Margiela the Maison Installation. It’s pretty amazing! What is the relationship with advertising? None, most of the time. But today, more than ever, an agency comes across all sorts of subjects on its path and, consequently, it should have all sorts of strings to its bow.
L.A.: You are known for challenging the traditional limits of advertising, and opening this agency up to new creative fields. There is also a great interest in the alternative rock and electronic music scenes. Can you tell us about this and the Panik parties you started in 2001? Are they still going?
Rémi Babinet: Panik has become a label. Its essence is simple: a big party to get everyone to take off on rock and electron-ica. All the artists that we have invited have spread this idea through their live sets like Sebastian, The Shoes, Yuksek, Brodinski or their DJ sets like Justice on the Panik stage, two years before their summer smash of 2007. The label has now been exported to New York, Bamako, Berlin, Madrid, Istanbul, and Reykjavik. Again, on the surface there is no relationship between advertising and Panik. It’s a matter of taste and of people; these are things that we launched because they make us happy. Afterwards, in the day-to-day work of the agency, these links with the music scene help us to offer our clients “intelligent” marriages with talent. A few of the latest examples: Peugeot with Yuksek, Petit Bateau with Izia, Evian with Dan the Automator. This can go all the way up to the musical selection on board of the Air France aircraft. L.A.: I heard you’re very interested in architecture. Why is that and what, to you, are some of the best examples of outstanding contemporary architecture?
Rémi Babinet: What is fascinating is the initial creative impulse upon which every-thing else is built. For better or worse. It’s the equivalent of an advertising idea on which you can build a lasting brand. I love the idea of this decisive moment. It may seem paradoxical given the speed of things today, and the potential for infi-nite changes with digital technology, but I think that “consistency” in time is crucial for a brand, and advertising can bring a lot to this. It’s this “architectural” aspect that can build a brand. Also, like advertising, architecture is commissioned work with many constraints, and this works well for me because I believe that the best work comes from commissions. Once that is in place, it’s the quality of those involved and the creative expertise that make the differ-ence. With architecture, there are, first of all, the masters of modernity, Mies van der Rohe, Prouvé, Frank Lloyd Wright. What I like today, forgetting rather a lot and in no particular order: the strong and radical gestures of Nouvel (the Copenhagen Concert Hall), the contemplative and immobile calm of Zumthor, the light and surprises of Herzog & de Meuron, and the poetic lightness of Japanese practice SANAA, or Toyo Ito in New York.
L.A.: Would you agree that, over the years, there has been a shift from concept-based advertising to art-direction-based ads?
Rémi Babinet: Yes, that’s my impression, unfortunately. I only believe in ideas in advertising, and for me there can be no major campaign without ideas. It is the grail that clients are willing to pay a lot for. It would be a bad sign for the industry if innovation and the generation of new ideas were only reserved for a Titanium category. For me, it is print more than anything that is beginning to slip a little, with so much copying and conformism in both art direction and execution. It’s a bit like “international fusion food”: there are no surprises or risks taken with the flavors, and you get the sense that it’s coming out of a kitchen where all the chefs are trying to imitate each other.
L.A.: John Hegarty has said that, nowadays, all advertising has become more like fashion advertising since so much of it is mostly about emotions and entertainment. Do you agree?
Rémi Babinet: I agree with him, but maybe not for the same reasons. When you see what advertising the fashion and luxury industries produce you have to admit that it is deeply boring and repeti-tive: a girl and a bag, a bag and a girl, a girl and a bag … where you could expect a freedom in tone, innovation and provocation. It’s the same for 95% of adver-tising which is apparently done so that nothing gets noticed and everything looks the same. Spectacle and emotion has always been a method of advertising. The problem today is that the temptation to use spectacle is much stronger because spectacle is much cheaper to produce. Yet another factor that can put ideas at risk.
L.A.: There is a huge interest in all things digital now, also in advertising, of course. Does this interest, this turn towards digital, come at the expense of other media – creatively as well as financially? What about print advertising? How do you see the future of that?
Rémi Babinet: We are in the middle of a general restructuring. A digital one. No sector can get away from it. What is interesting about the period is that, culturally, it straddles three generations. The “oldies” who stayed in the “other world,” an intermediate generation which grew up in paper and analogue but who do use digital, and the “native” gener-ation who are totally immersed in this new world. The problem is that, among these three generations, the generation who is in charge most of the time, both with clients and in agencies, is the oldest one. To come back to the impact of digital on other media, there are two major factors to consider: first, the paradox that television continues to prog-ress – even children watch it more and more. We all still have the need to get together at the same time and spend time together (Michael Jackson’s funeral, the World Cup final ...) – these are quasi-religious moments. Secondly, we see the harshest impact in print, where important print brands must mutate and profoundly transform themselves, and where there can’t be a simple transition from one technology to another because there is a paper culture and a digital culture. For the moment it’s tough. Internet has expanded by 10% worldwide, the press has fallen by 20%. Beyond the problems of culture and technology, the press – the printed page – has not yet found the right “format” on the web – unlike film, which moves easily from one medium to another. The iPad could be an incredible opportunity to reinvent the attractiveness and value of press.
L.A.: How did you feel about the film winners in Cannes last year? Are the best ideas to be found on the net nowadays – as some have interpreted the jury’s decision to award the Grand Prix to a web-based film?
Rémi Babinet: Let’s start with the Obama effect all the way to the Croisette. It’s as if the entire profession wanted to be associated with some decisive accomplishment that would determine the future of the planet. It was legitimate because it rewarded an unprecedented practice and the advent of social media in communications. This was a prize for efficiency and innovation more than creativity. I loved the BBH campaign for Oasis and “The Best Job in the World.” I was less convinced with the film Grand Prix, not because it was a web film but because the idea did not seem obvious, even if the spectacle was good.
L.A.: Can you tell us what you think were the most important campaigns (TV, print) of this millennium’s first decade?
Rémi Babinet: There is T-Mobile “Dance” for its complete integration – event, web, buzz … a film where we can lose ourselves. We don’t know if it is real, fake, orchestrated, who is an actor and who is simply a passerby. Then, to go back to the beginning of the first
decade, Budweiser’s “Whassup” for its amazing buzz. It was contagious, everyone wanted to be a part of it and make it their own. We are far from a tradition-al film scenario; it’s almost a live film. It was the beginning of a new aesthetic, which looks like what we see currently on the web. The Vodafone films “Gay,” “Son,” “Wedding,” etc. (JWT London). It’s fascinating because 50% of the energy of this profession is devoted to being as succinct as possible, and this film estab-lishes a new record. The press ad VW “Cops”: it’s delightfully classic, a faultless piece of print, perfect to hang straight up as a poster in the bedroom. The inte-grated campaign HBO “Voyeur”making the HBO brand itself as addictive a show and a game as its programs are for the people who watch them. A brilliant demonstration where viewers become the key players of the narrative. A spectacular way to entrench the supremacy of HBO, definitely the most innovative name in TV programming.
L.A.: What does an average day spent at the agency look like for you?
Rémi Babinet: I live a hyperactive life for someone who was born to be contemplative. I must have gone through the wrong door. I get up early and I go to bed late. Between the two, I just have chaotic activities that pile up dangerously. I rarely have time to go out to eat, and the only place where I can order my thoughts is in the toilet. Because the entire agency is an open space, I consider that the toi-let is my one and only office. Small, but incredibly efficient.
L.A.: How has French advertising changed since the days of Frédéric Beigbeder’s –admittedly satirical – portrait of it in “99 Francs”?
Rémi Babinet: I remember a description where Beigbeder portrayed advertising as a technique of generalized cerebral intoxication, organized by advertisers betrayed by their bellicose vocabulary: campaigns, targets, strategies, impact, waves, fear of cannibalization, as if a cult was at work for a third world war of a new type. Maybe this will worry you but none of these words have changed and the goal is still the same: to be on target. What this French romanticism has forgotten is that advertising is as old as the market. Since time immemorial and, luckily, for years to come, merchants must present their goods, make small talk and attempt to attach a certain charm to what they are selling to suggest what it’s worth. It’s called the joys of trade. It is true that sometimes there will be meetings where very serious people come up with gibberish silly enough to make you want to cry. And, suddenly, you feel like you’re in a bad film. This makes things even more spicy.
L.A.: Where would you like to see the agency ten years from now? Your work has won tons of awards, your Evian “Rollerbabies” commercial is even in “Guinness World Records” as the most-viewed commercial on the internet ever. Is there anything left to achieve?
Rémi Babinet: BETC is sixteen years old. It’s a teenager. But, in this short period of time, we have gone from being a small challenger to holding a leading position in the French market – by focusing on quality and creativity, and successfully nurturing the development of predominantly French global brands. What remains to be done is to become a global BETC brand, developed in key places around the world, based on digital technology, social media and content production. A real adventure for the agency because that won’t be easy.
L.A.: Especially in the current economic climate, I guess. How would you describe the effect the economic crisis has had on creativity in advertising? Is there better stuff out there because creatives have had to become more resourceful, or has it become worse?
Rémi Babinet: It is always an effective stimulus. When everything goes wrong, everyone buckles down. But does that give good results? I don’t know. I feel like there is still so much bad advertising and too little good, yet this is
a constant and nothing to worry about: it’s like this everywhere, in all areas (architecture, design, literature, etc.). What changes is the speed, accuracy, range and economy of what creatives do. And it is digital technology that is at the heart of this revolution. If it can be seen as one of the accelerators of the recession, it can also make up for some of its effects. Take the Evian “Rollerbabies” campaign, launched on the web: more than 100 million views, less than one million euros in production, reaching every country in the world, unprecedented interactivity with hundreds of spontaneous remixes from Afghanistan, China, Turkey, etc. It is worth noting that, only eleven years ago, with the Evian “Waterballet,” made with the same production and media costs, we were only present on the French market, with a higher contact cost and lower quality of contact.
L.A.: Do you think advertising – print and film – still attracts as many talented young people as it used to, or could it be that they’re going elsewhere: digital, design, etc.?
Rémi Babinet: In France, there is a slight tradition of ad-phobia, which is found even in some art schools that consider it more prestigious to guide their students towards design, graphics, video games, architecture etc., rather than advertising. On the other hand, there are schools specialized in advertising that are not necessarily the best training ground because their teachers are far removed from the reality of the agencies. Overall, I think the talents that it takes to make good creatives are so unusual, and so extraordinary, that there is no one path to follow. When you look at the big bosses and agency creatives, none of them followed the same path. To come back to the vocational issue, I find it ridiculous to undermine the advertising industry. My belief is that, today, there is no better laboratory than a good advertising agency for someone who has talent: by engaging with all types of media and all forms of expression, this is where you can learn and invent modern ways of being eloquent.
L.A.: Where does the inspiration for your own work come from?
Rémi Babinet: The street, the neighborhood we’re in (the agency is located in an incredibly fast-paced, lively and mixed area), conversations, the Métro, news, history, the web, something beautiful, bullshit ... everything is good for inspiration. There is also, and obviously, every-thing that must be imagined to get past the constraints (format, brief, the law), a taste for transgression, the excitement of competition, which are forces of inspiration. I don’t know if what is called the “personal world” has much to do with my inspiration, but there must be something there because when I look at the work of the agency over its sixteen years of existence (which I did when I read the BETC book), I realized, and I was told, that there is an identifiable agency style which must somehow be related to me. Which makes me despair because an agency must be able to constantly reinvent itself, obey no habit of expression, and always stay surprising. That’s the way it is.
L.A.: How does Rémi Babinet relax?
Rémi Babinet: I like to sleep from time to time; it relaxes me a bit. But I always have slightly insane projects on the go, mostly architectural, which relax me a lot but that wake me up at night. There is a relocation project and a magazine project for the agency that are exciting me at the moment.
L.A.: What advice would you give to a young ad creative starting out? Would you say this was a good time to go into advertising?
Rémi Babinet: To be honest, times are hard and there are more graduates on the market than there are jobs in agen-cies. There will, of course, always be room for great talent but as there is no official defined way into advertising, we never know from where this talent will come from. A piece of advice? Quickly unlearn everything that you have learnt at school, pursue ideas under every form like the grail, don’t give in to despondency and the easy way round, refuse to do all that isn’t simple, strong, different, and engaged. A final piece of advice? Take the time to think, take your own time: in these speedy times. It’s a luxury and a weapon that few people allow themselves.