Q&A: Rémi Babinet – ‘It Has Never Been so Difficult to Create Surprise’

As the ‘B’ in BETC, Rémi Babinet is one of the most respected, longest-lasting, award-winning and independent-thinking creative heads in the world. The Cresta Journal recently caught up with Babinet for to talk about BETC, how COVID has affected the agency world, his thoughts on creativity, and more.


It is over a year since the Covid lockdowns took effect in Europe. How has this time been for you and BETC? Are most of your team still working from home?

Rémi Babinet It has been a tough year in every aspect. It’s the first time that humanity is going through the same events at the same time. It is probably the only positive facet of this pandemic, yet no one seems to talk about it: the whole world is focused on the same topic of discussion at the same time. That should make communication easier!

At BETC, we are more mobilised than ever. In the last three months specifically, we have had an exceptional ‘new business’ activity. It’s exhausting but heartening for what lies ahead. As a first encouraging step, we are very pleased to have been designated as the agency for the Paris 2024 Olympics.

 
 

Most of our teams are working from home, with the possibility to come one day a week to the agency for those who want to, and more for our youngest employees whose living conditions are not optimal when it comes to working from home. Here we have big spaces and high ceilings.

The magnificent les Magasins généraux is important to BETC and its culture. Has it been possible to maintain the essence of BETC without being in this base as much as usual? And are people looking forward to returning to the office soon?

Les Magasins Generaux in Pantin: Babinet believes being ‘around the same table’ is vital

We can’t wait to come back to les Magasins généraux more often: to work and think together, but also to enjoy a chef’s meal, to have a coffee or to visit an exhibition… It’s very difficult to create and work without being physically together.

 
 

When it comes to meetings and adjustments we manage to compose, but for creativity it’s essential to be around the same table. Meanwhile, it was fundamental for us to create new ways to gather online, to maintain the link between us. Every Monday, we gather 40 managers to talk about all our subjects. It created some new links between people and subjects, that never happened before.

What’s the secret behind BETC’s continuing (and some might say growing) creative success even 25 years after it was founded? All too often great creative shops that become part of holding companies can begin to lose their creative edge, but it seems that joining Havas has benefitted both partners…is that true?

Since the beginning of the agency, we’ve believed in the transformative power of ideas to build competitive differences for brands. 25 years after and we still believe it, even if our industry is facing quite a huge turmoil.

In these unprecedented times for the communication industry, we are happy to belong to a group: Vivendi. We’ve recently had the opportunity to help them rewrite their purpose ‘Creation Unlimited’. Not only are we on the same page, but the music, TV, edition, live show industries are super interesting for us as an advertising agency to invest in and explore.

We’ve always naturally explored those sectors and our clients are more and more interested.

BETC seems to take a different approach to expansion from other networks, building new offices more as though they are creatively led start-ups. Why is this?

Since our creation, we’ve been very inspired by the startup mindset. A few years ago, we created BETC Startup Lab to support young startups and help them with their brand positioning.

Another example of it would be the way our LA team has worked with choreographer Benjamin Millepied to develop a new approach to fitness through dance. We were pleased to see that he made it fully come to life during the lockdown.

How important to creativity at BETC is the idea, as expressed by you in a Forbes article, that: “Our creativity is not only in advertising… but in art, talent, musicians, photographers, film directors, technology, even food.” And how does this work on a day-to-day basis with the creative teams?

This vision was also summed up in an article in Creative Review titled “Also an ad agency”. I liked the idea that, while our reputation as an advertising agency was quite established, someone saw us in a new light. Something different, bigger, smaller, larger, weirder, more engaged, more innovative than a ‘classic’ advertising agency. Or the idea people have of it.

Our vision has an implication on a day-to-day basis. In les Magasins généraux, our production team is located at the heart of the agency. Les Magasins généraux is not only our office, but also the name of the cultural centre we created.

We are experimenting with new models for culture by developing original contents, with no limit of form — cultural seasons, festivals, exhibitions, residences, encounters, workshops, performances, concerts, parties, outdoor projects and editions — with creators from all horizons: artists, architects, designers, musicians, dancers, chefs…

In order to encourage synergies between art, society and economy, we often associate brands with our cultural content. Two years ago, our exhibit Futures of Love was about anticipating the upcoming love and sexual life linked to new technologies, the advent of robotics and artificial intelligence, scientific advances and the evolution of society standards and values.

We collaborated with Tinder to amplify the event by giving carte blanche to artists giving their vision of love through impressive art works.

Is there any work from BETC in the past year that you are particularly proud of?

I’m particularly proud of the first campaign we did for our new client, Michelin, that we won in a new business pitch against TBWA in 2019. The brand has one of the most famous logos in the world. It is recognised by everyone and has become iconic.

But if an agency came up with that logo in 2021, I bet they would get fired. And actually, no one knows that their logo represents stacked tyres. We’ve built on this heritage and developed a simple graphic system where every vehicle tyre becomes visible instead of invisible.

I also wanted to talk about our brand campaign for Sephora: ‘The Unlimited Power of Beauty’.

It delivers a strong, ambitious and all-encompassing view of beauty. It creates room for self-expression, showing the variety of authentic and powerful beauties that make up today’s world. This new vision also aims to build Sephora’s cultural footprint.

On another note, we had a very unique experience with Bouygues Telecom last winter. A specific line from our Christmas film: ‘My cousin will bring oysters. I know you like adventure, but I wouldn’t recommend it: every year someone gets sick…” offended some French oyster farmers. And they dumped kilos of oyster shells in front of a Bouygues Telecom store in Lorient, Brittany.

The Bouygues team at the agency reacted and in a few hours we were able to re-edit our film. But we wanted to go beyond and show that we had heard them and that our work as creatives could also be applied in terms of ‘crisis”.

So we lightened the mood and made peace with them by inviting the same oyster farmers to sell their oysters at the front of the store. With this operation, customers left with oysters and a brand new phone case.

BETC has, we are delighted to say, been a long term supporter and entrant at Cresta. What do you look for when deciding which awards to enter?

We enter national and international awards with high creative standards.

Winning awards gives validation and recognition that the work you are producing is the best you can do. It’s a great way to see how your agency is performing against your competitors. It’s also one of the best ways to attract and retain talent.

CRESTA derives from the words CREative STAndards. What does the phrase ‘creative standards’ mean to you, and are they important?

Today, one can have the impression of a degradation of judgement criteria, especially when one sees the multiplication of the categories in creative prizes. I will let you be the judge of that. For me, the criteria of good creation have not changed much: originality, simplicity, impact and accuracy. Contrary to what one might think given the multitude of channels to communicate on, it has never been so difficult to create a real surprise in communication.

Like many, we have missed visiting Paris (and France in general) enormously over the past year. When the world re-opens post-Covid where would you send a visitor for a contemporary but uniquely Parisian experience?

We would take a walk on the canal de l’Ourcq, bringing us from Paris to Pantin without even realising it. We would stop by la Philharmonie de Paris, a building by architect Jean Nouvel that transformed the landscape. Alongside the canal, we would cross La Villette and would stop by Les Pantins’ terrace to enjoy a delicious lunch.

We would then enter the Centre National de la Danse to look at its 70s brutalist architecture. To end on a good note, we would go to les Magasins généraux to attend our next cultural season: Hotel Sahara. A multidisciplinary exhibition bringing together ten young artists and creators from Africa or from its diaspora, imagined during a week-long residency in the Moroccan desert.

I think this walk around the canal would be a testimony to Paris’ most significant evolution in the next few years: its expansion and merging process with its nearby cities and the birth of Greater Paris.

I’m personally very attached to this exciting topic which is why I’ve accepted to become President of the endowment fund of the Grand Paris Express – the future subway network connecting the cities within the Greater Paris (68 new stations and 200km of new lines).

There is a strong and unique cultural dimension alongside the future transport system. This endowment fund was set-up to enable private-sector participants to help carry out this ambitious cultural and artistic project, with festive events accompanying the construction phase and artists collaborating with architects to imagine the 68 station-project as an open-air museum.

If you crave more Greater Parisian experiences, we are launching in May the second edition of our Greater Paris Guide. Together with the media Enlarge Your Paris, through this 208-page publication, we are trying to bring a fresh perspective on the French capital by introducing a brand new map of the city, redefining the traditional Parisian areas and cultural scene.

This was originally published by The Cresta Journal.

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