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If you’re looking for someone to envy, you might start with any of the 700-plus people fortunate enough to be work­ing at the French agency known as BETC. To begin with, not only do they work in Paris, they work in a light-filled cathedral-like building with a rooftop terrace that offers a 360-degree view of the city. They also get to dress up for splashy office theme parties such as a recent Mad Men event, for which everyone was given 1960’s-style wardrobes and hairdos for a day. Oh yes, and they get their honey fresh from an in-house beehive (and so far, no reports of anyone getting stung). But most importantly, they get to work on some of the freshest, most interesting advertising that’s being produced these days. It’s just not fair.

Nor is it expected—because France, known for everything from fashion design to New Wave films to fine wines, has never been thought of as an advertising hotbed. In fact, the French themselves have no great love of advertising, notes Stéphane Xiberras, president of BETC Paris and the agency’s chief creative officer. Even many people who actually work in advertising in France “consider it a bit of a dirty business,” Xiberras says.

Yet in spite of this, BETC—headed up by founder and chair­man Rémi Babinet and partner Mercedes Erra, along with Xiberras—has been sweeping international award shows and drawing attention with its work for clients such as Peugeot, Evian, Air France, McDonald’s and Canal+. In 2012, BETC was named Agency of the Year by The Art Directors Club, and its campaign, “The Bear” for Canal+, won a Grand Prix award at Cannes while being named as one of TED’s 2012 “Ads Worth Spreading.” All of this comes on the heels of BETC’s phe­nom­enal 2009 TV spot “Roller Babies” for Evian—which became the world’s most downloaded com­mercial. (And how could it not? It features babies on roller skates!)

Along with the creative acclaim, BETC has enjoyed remark­able growth during a challenging period in the European busi­ness market. The number of people working at the agency has almost tripled over the past decade. Annual revenue has more than tripled since its opening in 1994, and now stands at around 100 million euros. Things are going so well that the agency, which is backed by the French holding company Havas, just opened a spin-off office in London and plans to create a BETC mini-network in the next few years, with offices in Brazil, Asia and the US.

Though it has become more well-known internationally in the past few years, BETC is no overnight success story; it has been a dominant force in the French ad market practi­cally since opening eighteen years ago. At the time, Babinet and then-partner Eric Tong Cuong, both of the French agency BDDP, took up the challenge offered by Havas “to build a new agency from scratch, on our own terms,” as Babinet recalls. Originally founded as Babinet Tong Cuong, the agency soon added a third partner, Mercedes Erra, and changed its name to BETC. (In 2003, Eric Tong Cuong left the company.)

BETC got off to a quick start because of strong early work for Evian, and had a major breakthrough when it won the Air France account in 1998. For both Evian and Air France, as well as for Peugeot cars, BETC pro­duced stunning highly-visual work, particularly in print and posters—often featuring one arresting image and mini­mal copy that tended to pro­vide a clever twist.

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But if it was ever in danger of having a style, per se, that changed as the agency began to broaden its client roster and the types of campaigns it produced. In 2001, BETC led a successful rebranding of France Telecom’s mobile telephone division. It was a huge project that required the agency to create a whole new identity and brand—called Orange—for the country’s largest telecom. The success of that campaign was cited as one of the main reasons BETC was named European Ad Agency of the Year in 2001 by Ad Age. The agency produced cinematic commercials for Orange, and for Peugeot as well. And it proved it could create a big-splash viral commercial—Evian’s “Water Babies,” the 1998 pre­cursor to “Roller Babies”—back before there even was such a thing as “viral videos.” In the years that followed, as the web began to exert its influence on advertising, BETC proved it could play on that turf, as well: Innovative digital campaigns for Canal+ and other clients established BETC as an agency that could create a buzz in any medium.

To accommodate its rapid growth, by 2000 Babinet was looking for an impressive new space—and found one in the heart of the Paris garment district (BETC previously oper­ated from Havas’s headquarters on the outskirts of Paris). Working with top-name architects and designers, Babinet set out to reclaim and restore a one-time department store that had been abandoned through the years. The goal, accord­­ing to Babinet, was to “produce a work environment that resembles a giant atelier, in full open space and with maximum natural light.”

Babinet felt that getting the environment right was critical to BETC’s continued success. “A workspace is the reflection of a company’s culture and ambitions,” he says. “We chose first of all to be in the gritty heart of Paris, near the train stations and air­port links connecting us to London and the rest of the world. We are in the buzzy, run-down 10th arron­dissement renowned for its rag trade hustle, African hair­dressers and Turkish restaurants. The neighborhood has changed over the years, but it has been a genuine source of energy, reality and inspiration—the beat of the city is at our front door.”

Today we are experiencing an astro­nomical proliferation of surfaces and channels for con­tent to be experienced, which paradoxically runs the risk of ren­der­ing it invisible”—Rémi Babinet

As for the building itself, the two qualities that were most important to Babinet were “light and speed.” The five-floor facility features an open design, yet it also incorporates sound-proofed individual work spaces for meetings.

The open environment matches up well with the way the agency works—in an open, non-hierarchical manner. Xiberras says, “Decisions are made quickly and on a collective basis. The structure of the agency is the opposite of the classic pyramid, which makes us very agile.” He also points out that the agency strives to hire people from diverse back­grounds, often outside of advertising. “Whenever we hire some­one, the agency gains a new expertise, a new point of view,” he says. “I like people who help us transform and evolve.”

Adding to the buzz in the Paris headquarters are the afore­mentioned bees, kept in hives that are maintained in an area on the roof. “The bees are part serious and part fun,” says Babinet. “The serious part is that we have put in place a broad program of social responsibility across all the agency’s activities, both internally and externally. Bees are missing in Paris, so trees and flowers are dying. Bring­ing bees back into the city is a good thing for the environment.” But on the fun side, he adds, the agency wanted to make its own honey (so far, the bees make on average 3,000 pots per year). And now that hops have been planted on the roof as well, the agency dreams of making its own honey-flavored beer.

Whether or not it succeeds as a brewer, the agency has shown that it can do much more than just advertising. It has been evolving to take on wide-ranging challenges such as designing the first- and business-class seats of all Air France planes, as well as designing new bottles for Evian. The agency has been doing music publishing for in-house and external clients, and it has launched a new consulting division called Start Up Lab that works with entrepreneurial start-up companies to help them get off the ground.

A workspace is the reflection of a company’s culture and”—Rémi Babinet

One of the more quirky creations to come out of BETC recently is the CAI advertising robot—which is actually original software designed by the agency that uses “Creative Artificial Intelligence” to make rudimentary ads. Anyone can use it: You select the type of product you wish to advertise and provide info about the demo target, your objectives (gen­erate awareness, create loyalty, etc.) and product benefits. The software then crunches the data and produces ads—albeit the sort that tends to be bland and a bit predictable. In cre­ating the software, BETC was making a both a light­hearted joke and a serious statement. “I wanted to show that we could never ignore the importance of human talent in our aim to touch other humans,” says Xiberras. (The point was apparently lost on some: “It’s funny because I have been contacted by a few people who seriously asked me if I would sell the software to them,” Xiberras says. “I’m afraid they didn’t understand the purpose of the machine.”)

BETC doesn’t believe advertising robots are much of a threat, but the agency sees plenty of other formidable challenges that the industry faces. “Today we are experiencing an astro­nomical proliferation of surfaces and channels for con­tent to be experienced, which paradoxically runs the risk of ren­der­ing it invisible,” Babinet says. At the same time, clients’ needs are changing so rapidly that it’s incumbent on agencies to keep developing new skills and innovating. And everyone, Babinet notes, “is in love with high-speed technology and pro­gram­med obsolescence. It is new for newness’ sake, throwing out the ‘old’ faster than yesterday morning’s croissant.” But none of that changes BETC’s primary focus: “Let’s keep hunting for the ideas and their eloquence,” Babinet says. “The rest is secondary.” ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.

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