By Michael Lee
I recently posted who I thought were the best ever creative directors in advertising. One of those creative directors was Remi Babinet (below), the Chief Creative Officer of BETC in Paris.
I have known Remi since the early ’90s when we were both part of EURO/RSCG’s (now HAVAS) Worldwide Creative Board. I have been a fan of Remi and BETC since those early days. Recently I asked Remi about the body and quality of work the agency had produced over the years. They have produced some really remarkable work for many clients, in many different categories. Of all those campaigns, I asked, which are his favorites? Does he have a favorite son or daughter? He thought at length and came up with these three examples of BETC at its best.
Michael Lee: Of all the campaigns you’ve worked on, which are your favorites?
Remi Babinet: Evian is one of BETC’s historic accounts. Our approach with this brand truly represents what we like and are good at: using advertising as a tool to give a particular style to a brand, to build its reputation and help it become a pop culture reference.
From the very first campaign that we made in 1998 for Evian, with the swimming babies, we tried to go beyond the classic TV ad and create something much more entertaining. We didn’t want to simply sell a product; we wanted to make something that stood out from other ads. We therefore made a music video. This is almost commonplace now, but back then it was groundbreaking. The inspiration for this first video came from Esther Williams films, creating this odd yet irresistible aquatic dance performance.
It was at that moment that babies became the symbol for Evian, synonymous with eternal youth. Once this was established, anything was possible and we pushed it as far as we could. With the following campaigns, we continued making music videos featuring babies. They were all successful and became viral hits, quite like how a popular musician would keep delivering hit videos.
Bit by bit we created an Evian universe, launching a series of branded merchandise. We made t-shirts, pins, vinyl discs, singles (our remixed track of Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You’ sung by kids sold more than 500,000 copies). We even went as far as creating flip-flops with special soles that left baby footprints when you walked on the sand with them. That was branded content before there was branded content.
Looking back at all that makes me think that we worked with Evian in exactly the same way that we would have worked with a rock band. We had a hit song, a music video, merchandise with the t-shirts and the pins — small media moments that spread the message and the energy of the brand. We triggered a significant following for Evian, establishing a fan base who were proud to wear the t-shirt of their favorite water bottle brand, selling more than 15,000 pieces of apparel.
We always ensure that we maintain quality of execution in all the work we do and a high level of craft. Ultimately, this is what gives the work its value, and I’m convinced that this quality of thought is recognized by the public. That’s why we need to appeal to and respect their intelligence and sensitivity. The Evian success story is excellent proof of why this is the correct approach. We have won 214 awards for the different executions of the Evian brand platform, with more than 86 million views for the Roller Babies film (the most viewed commercial online according to the Guinness Book of Records), 138 million views and more than five million shares for the Baby&me video.
Lee: I’ve always loved the Evian work. Such a simple strong strategy kept fresh by innovative execution. It’s not a brand that is jumping around trying to find a strategy. Great start, what’s the next one?
Babinet: CANAL+ is a French TV channel that has always positioned itself as being alternative, with a hint of counterculture and irreverence. It’s miles away from the political correctness of prime-time television. People even refer to the ‘CANAL spirit’, a symbol of provocation, humor, satire and offbeat, sometimes trashy alternative culture.
CANAL is also regarded as THE movie channel, kind of like a French HBO, and is the home of quality film and television content creation and programming. It is a premium network where movies and television series are broadcast first.
Our job was not just to promote the channel but also the whole CANAL culture, that is unapologetic and open, while at the same time being extremely demanding on the level of quality of the films and series that it produces. With CANAL, we had a vision to defend.
Our idea was therefore to create TV ads with the same high standard as CANAL creates its own content. The messaging was simple: ‘This is where you get to see the best movies first’ or ‘At CANAL, we know how to tell compelling stories.’
It was with this in mind that we created short branded films that are similar to how CANAL creates its own exclusive series, with special focus on the script writing and direction. So the CANAL TV ad, through the quality of its cinematography and production, is the brand platform. We went from the usual TV commercials of ‘This is what you can watch on our TV channel’ to ‘This is what this TV channel is.’
With work like ‘The Bear’ we went beyond the traditional commercial with production standards that rival movies, while at the same time keeping the humor that we have brought to the CANAL brand since the beginning. The public loved the film, as did advertising juries. It won 79 awards – including 6 Cannes Lions, 2 One Show Pencils and 4 D&AD Pencils – to become the most awarded TVC ever since the launch of the Gunn Report.
Lee: Canal+ is a network we don’t see to much of in the US, but it looks a very provocative network. I like the way you take on the essence of the brand when doing work. BETC work and Canal+ work are cut from the same cloth. The advertising is the brand and the brand is the advertising. I always loved ‘March of the Penguins’ personally. And the last one please Remi?
Babinet: When we talk about Air France we’re talking about a brand that carries the name and colors of its home nation with pride. It’s no less than an embassy, an itinerant, nomadic, mobile French embassy that allows its travelers to experience our universe, the expected ‘je ne sais quoi’ without setting foot in France. It’s the story of a meeting between a country and its public in the suspended moment of a flight.
France stands for so many things: elegance, fashion, freedom, gastronomy, poetry, humor … But if we had to pick one word, it would definitely be culture. And with culture comes artists. This is the brand platform that we created for Air France. Air France as a modern cultural embassy, developed through collaborations with French artists with international renown, such as the director Michel Gondry, who won an Oscar for his acclaimed movie Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, the dancers and choreographers Angelin Prejlocaj and Benjamin Millepied, the up-and-coming directing duo We Are From LA, who were awarded a Grammy Award for their ‘Happy’ music promo for Pharell Williams, the musicians Phoenix, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sebastien Tellier. We have created a dream team of artists around the brand.
We also enjoyed using unexpected communication platforms, like in-flight safety videos. These are often really boring so we completely revamped the format to make an entertaining, colorful, funny and quirky film that deserves to be watched!
Being surprising, gathering French talent and celebrating France’s art-de-vivre are the key components of making Air France the coolest embassy, à la française.
Lee: Some fantastic work, at a very high standard, over a long period of time. For very different clients and categories. But in each case uncovering a unique point of view executed with great style and French panache. Not an easy task. And one to be admired by both agencies and clients alike.
But, that’s all well and good, great ideas you loved, the client loved, were put into production, everything went well and even the consumers, press and award juries also loved, but was there one that didn’t get that far. For all your skills, passion and experience, was there an idea for some reason didn’t make it to the finish line, whether that was because of a change of strategy, budget issues, management changes at the client, or simply some bad luck. But one that you still wake up every now and again and say “holy c..p…. if we’d have made that idea it would have been great.”
Do you have one of those? What was the one that got away?
Babinet: I always wanted to enrich BETC’s client portfolio with a beer brand. We took part in many beer pitches in France, which is often frustrating creatively, as French regulations are strict when it comes to advertising alcoholic beverages.
Finally, an international competition for the brand Carlsberg came up. For the very first time in a long time, we felt like we would be fighting, not only to win a beer brand, but also to challenge ourselves on a creative level. It was great to be part of an international competition and to work beyond the scope and limits of the French hexagon and legal regulations.
BETC London had been open for a couple of years. We brought together our Paris and London teams, creating an international dream team of strong international creative talent. Everything seemed possible, we felt extremely free. It was exhilarating and exciting.
This pitch saw us go the furthest we’ve ever gone in brand content innovation.
We even wrote a book about Carlsberg that I would have loved to publish but that we only created a few copies for the pitch itself. We were convinced that we had won, we were sure of it. We were obviously extremely disappointed when we found out we lost.
Lee: I would have loved to have seen that work. So what did you learn from that experience?
Babinet: The love for competition, the joy of winning, the fear of losing, is part of the daily life of an advertising agency. Our creativity, our driving strength, allows us to bounce back and never be completely defeated.
Lee: Creativity: A driving strength. Good to hear that. And as ever it’s never giving up that makes a great agency. I’ve never known a great one that did.
Meanwhile, beer brand CMOs. It sounds like you have an open invitation from BETC to come, crack open a brew, and have a chat.
I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.
Salut Remi, et merci mon ami.
This article first appeared in Forbes.