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5 Minutes with… Olivier Altmann


Olivier Altmann, Co-Founder & CCO of Altmann + Pacreau on setting up shop, beginner’s luck and the challenges and opportunity facing French advertising

5 Minutes with… Olivier Altmann

When Olivier Altmann announced that he was stepping down as the CCO of Publicis Worldwide to set up a new agency, it took the advertising world by surprise. But, looking a little closer, the clues were there. He was approaching his tenth anniversary with Publicis and his 50th birthday – the time was right to try something new. And not only has he given it a go, he’s positively flourished with his business partner Eduoard Pacreau. When they opened its doors, their fledgling agency won all of its early pitches and they’ve produced some truly beautiful creative for the likes of Stihl, and Mr Moustache. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Olivier to find out how the first seven months of Altmann + Pacreau have been…

LBB> Of course this isn’t the first time you’ve co-founded an agency – you set up BDDP & Fils in 1998. How has the environment changed for fledgling agencies since then? What challenges have you had to navigate this time around that perhaps you didn’t have to face back in 1998?

OA> Everything has changed. In 1998 I was only 34 years old, now I’m 50. I’m much more experienced and a lot less careless. BDDP&Fils was a spin-off of BDDP (now TBWA Paris) – I had a minority stake in it and some clients were given to us as a sort of marriage dowry. Altmann + Pacreau is an independent agency that we started from scratch, and the majority stake is owned by its founders. In 1998, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter didn’t exist, so you can imagine how much the advertising landscape has changed since then. Above all, 9/11, the financial crisis, the recession have all had effects on the political and economical environment (even more so in Europe). So building a profitable and creative business in our industry has become much more challenging than it was before. But it’s still worth the thrill, the freedom, the excitement, the long nights and the working weekends that go along with it.

LBB> How long had you been toying with the idea of opening a new agency before you launched Altmann + Pacreau?

OA> I was with Publicis for 10 years – I started in 2004 as Co-Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of the Paris flagship agency then moved on to the position of Chairman of the Creative Board, then Worldwide Creative Director of the network in 2009. The whole time I was hands-on, working alongside creatives and clients. But after a while, I started to fear that I was losing the opportunity to prove to myself that I could be my own boss, that I could run a place the way I wanted to, even if I knew it would be risky. Nearly a year passed between the time I spoke with Maurice Lévy in mid-2013 about my intention to leave, and my actual departure in June 2014. The day I left was quite emotional for me and many people at the agency – you can’t spend 10 years working together without establishing a strong bond. 

LBB> And why was it the right time to take the plunge?

OA> I don’t know why but I believe in coincidences. After 10 years at Publicis… my turning 50… I believed that those numbers were signs to try something new before I was too old or lost my nerve. I didn’t want to have any regrets – I’ve been dreaming of having my name on the door since I was 16 years old. I also knew that the future of Publicis would be different, so it was now or never.

LBB> I’m guessing it goes without saying that going from a massive global role to running your own shiny new shop must be a big change for you! How did you adjust to the changes, personally? And how has heading up a hungry young agency changed the way you feel about the industry?

OA> It was indeed a big change. After a few days of excitement about settling into the new place, designing our brand identity, the first round of recruitment, it dawned on me that now I have myself and my partner to rely upon. We no longer have 500 people at our disposal to help out with the work, write the PowerPoint presentations, call the rough-men, even the mundane tasks like photocopying… And when the first pitch came in, I freaked out a little bit. But it was very satisfying to realise that despite all that, we had already won out over some well-established and creative agencies just by having the right answer to client’s problems. In fact we went on to win all of our first pitches and we were lucky enough to make our numbers in the first four months. I guess this is what they call beginners’ luck. Our vision of the industry didn’t change much but we realised that, despite our personal reputations, we needed to start over when building an agency reputation. Surprisingly our first clients were not people we had known before, but people who were intrigued by our new proposal and who wanted to meet us to see what we were about. It reassured me that this business is still about people, smart thinking and clever ideas. In a big network your responsibility is diluted. That goes both ways – if you fail in a big agency, it’s easier to blame the organisation but if you fail in your own agency you only have yourself to blame. On the other hand, if you win, if you do great work, the satisfaction is huge. High risks, high rewards.

LBB> I’m intrigued by the positioning as ‘an agency of ideas’. What do you mean by that?

OA> The digital revolution has not only changed the media landscape, it’s also blurred the frontiers between disciplines. We’ve moved from the era of advertising to the era of creativity. Now you can propose ideas for a client for a new TVC or poster, as well as a new service, an event, a website, a documentary, a web-series, a new experience, a new app, you can even redesign the product itself sometimes. As long as your ideas are relevant for the brand and build a consistent and coherent territory, the possibilities seem endless. In the past, creatives were supposed to fill the blanks in media space that had already been bought. Now clients are open to reconsidering a lot more of their brand architecture than they were before so as to stay ahead of the competition and generate conversations. So even if we can’t be specialists in everything, we’re still specialists in ideas. We, the ad men, are trained to have this unique skill, which is synthetic thinking and conceptualisation. If we collaborate, and if we don’t forget that technology is just a means to an end, then we can become a creative business partner and not just an advertising supplier.

LBB> When you launched the agency, did you have a particular kind of client you wanted to go after?

OA> No. I don’t believe some clients or brands are more interesting than others. What is interesting is the challenges they present in terms of communication, the ambition of the advertisers, and more importantly the person who runs the business. A great brand can do shitty work with a shitty client but a shitty brand can also do outstanding work with an outstanding client.

LBB> You’ve known and worked with Edouard for years – why do you think the two of you gel so well? How do your personalities complement each other?

OA> I believe that you have to know your partner very well before starting a business together. There will be some ups and downs and your natural reaction could be to start blaming others before blaming yourself. As in football, you can bring the best players together but still have a lousy team, because the key to a successful team is actually how the players complement one another. Edouard has risen through the ranks with one of the most talented French creative bosses in our history: Philippe Michel. This man was the founder of CLM/BBDO in France and invented modern advertising, always betting on the intelligence of the consumer. As a result, Edouard respects creative work a lot, which is essential when you launch a creative agency. He’s also very good at listening and understanding clients, as well as managing people. When he was at Publicis he built an integrated agency within an agency for Renault, overseeing more than 50 people in all disciplines (advertising, digital, events, edition, retail, etc.) for this global account. He grew the business organically and was respected and loved by all the people who worked with him. He really liked the team-building spirit and every time we had a tough moment in front of the client he always stood up for me. Advertising can be like war sometimes. You need to be sure that your partner will cover your back and that you will do the same for him when the bullets start to fly. 

LBB> The work that’s come out of the agency in its first six months or so has been really exciting to see – we really enjoyed, Mr Moustache and Stihl. How have you been able to hit the ground running?

OA> Thank you. We wanted to set up a new agency where we could be proud and truly happy with the work we were doing. So Edouard and I have decided to work with clients who really get the power of creativity. We believe that if you listen to clients, understand their problems, and establish a relationship based on trust and a fearless attitude it will help deliver good work. So far we have been lucky to be selected by smart clients who are not only searching for an agency, but a close one-on-one relationship at the top level. Of course, I’m sure that we will have to compromise here and there in the future, but if you are really sincere and give it your best effort, the level of creativity will always be higher than average.

LBB> And which recent creative projects have been most exciting or interesting for you?

OA> It’s always the next project that’s most exciting because you’re starting with a blank sheet of paper. It’s like when you fancy a girl. You can dream of perfect love before you know exactly who you are really dealing with. As I said before, it is less the brand or the product that excites us than the challenge that we have to solve. It’s like having a Rubik’s Cube when all of the colours are mixed up and then being able to put everything in order. For me, creativity is not at all about wild inspiration. It is a very logical thinking process, like mathematics. But you need a ‘Eureka’ moment to find the magic formula.

LBB> How big is the agency now? And how do you see it evolving in the next year or so?

OA> We just settled into our office seven months ago, so the agency is still quite small, fewer than 20 people. But for me the ambition is to grow in terms of attractiveness and reputation, not necessarily in term of size. We prefer to build our business on a solid foundation, with controlled growth, rather than as a rocket that can’t find the time to manage clients the way it should. I think that if you do great work, money will follow. But if you’re just chasing money, no one will run after you.

LBB> I wanted to pick your brains about the state of the French industry in general at the moment… what’s the market like at the moment? Fairly healthy? Challenging? Are there any particular social or political issues that are having a big impact on the local industry right now?

OA> The advertising business in France is directly linked to the French economic and political climate. After two years of back and forth decisions between socialist and liberalist attitudes, and after a huge increase in various taxes, our government seems to have realised that it needs to enact some radical reforms if it wants to adapt our social system to the modern and global world. What the French people really need right now is a clear and positive vision, and ambition for the country. The good news is that the European economy started to recover in 2015, but it won’t be enough to reduce unemployment without strong measures. Almost 25 per cent of the young people in France are unemployed, one out of four! So we need to make difficult decisions. But French people are individualistic; they always say they want to change things… until it concerns their own life. There are also a lot of public lobbies that can paralyse the whole country if they feel threatened. One other thing to worry about is the rise in terrorism. The recent murders of journalists and Jewish people have shocked the whole population. ‘Je Suis Charlie’ was a true moment of national unity against terror and racism. Unfortunately communism, extremism, racism and anti-Semitism are still growing in the country. Especially on social networks. This uncertain environment has had an impact on consumers’ morale and clients’ attitudes. Everyone is worried about the future and there lacks a positive attitude. 

Clients are more and more demanding, they cut fees and look for partners who can help them adapt to the new digital world. They fear being out-dated by new competitors or missing a strategic opportunity. They put more and more pressure on their agencies in terms of spending and timing. It also seems like the advertising market is split in two with Publicis and Havas owning almost 50 per cent of the market having built strong partnerships with global digital and media networks for global clients. 

Yet you still have a bunch of comparatively newer independent agencies that are managed by creatives and that have tried to shake up the market. Most of them are quite successful, so it’s encouraging for an agency like us. The difficult position seems to be for medium-sized international agencies, which were making their numbers by adapting local campaigns globally. On the creative side, France is not doing so badly considering the pessimistic mood right now. French agencies are well ranked at Cannes and young creatives are embracing the digital world and branded content more and more with smart ideas, even though this young generation is less trained in handling strategic thinking, copywriting or beautiful crafting in print art-direction.

In short, the years to come appear to be the most exciting ones for creativity but also the most challenging.

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Altmann + Pacreau, Wed, 15 Apr 2015 14:50:42 GMT