Partner and creative director Jean-Laurent Py talks about crossing borders and cultures before finding his current home at the French agency Babel.
Translation can be tricky. For example, when I read that the French agency Babel described itself as an agence globale indépendante, I assumed it was an international operation with a French accent. Ironically, given the agency’s name, I was wrong. In fact, explains partner and creative director Jean-Laurent Py, the word “global” is deployed in a more holistic sense.
“We cover a wide range of disciplines, from design to advertising, PR, consulting, contents and production, among others. It’s that diversity and integration that I find interesting here, as well as the fact that we do a lot of public interest work,” he says. “We’re tackling societal problems and trying to change behavior, which requires a great deal of tact. This part was quite new for me when I arrived at Babel, but I find it fascinating and rewarding. In a lot of ways, what we learn with public interest work makes us better for regular ‘commercial’ advertising.”
It’s also a large independent agency – perhaps France’s biggest, with a staff of around 170 – and is ten years old this year. A quick glance at Jean-Laurent’s LinkedIn profile shows that during his career he’s worked at big agency networks like Havas, Grey, McCann and Publicis as well as indie outfits like Herezie – which he joined from day one as part of its first creative team – and Babel. Does he find the independent environment more comfortable, finally?
“The advantage of an independent agency is that you feel more implicated in the journey. Herezie could hardly even be called an independent agency at the beginning – there were only five of us, so it was more like a start-up! On the other hand, the advantage of a group is that you have more resources and the ability to go after really big clients. I think it’s important in a career to experience both. What I like with Babel is that I find a bit of both. But anyway, personally, what I’m looking for each time is a challenge.”
He particularly relishes the challenge of working in other cultures: as a child he lived in places as far apart as Cameroon, Luxembourg and Normandy, and the nomadic trait stuck. As well as working in Canada for four years, he spent almost two years at McCann in London. As a Brit myself, I can’t help asking what he thought of the advertising culture there.
“Well it’s pretty multicultural, so they didn’t mind my accent! In fact it has something in common with Canada. The hours tend to be more conventional: you’re at the office at nine and you might skip lunch, but then you’ll all go to the pub at six. Although mentalities are changing in France, in the past there was a bit of presenteeism: staying at the office late for the sake of it. In England you work hard during working hours. It’s still a fun job, it’s a unique profession, but you work. At Babel, I try to take the best out of all my experiences to help create a place where our job is still about passion, without sacrificing our personal lives.”
He remembers something McCann ECD Rob Doubal telling him: “One has to be less serious – but more serious.”
“It means nothing and everything at the same time, that’s what I love about it. For me, it meant you have to take a light approach to your work in order to be creative, while also having a professional rigor.”
He also enjoyed the strong planning culture in the UK. “I like working with planners and I’ve got a planning side myself – I like to think things through strategically.”
An obvious question, but one that always generates interesting responses: why did he go into advertising? “Actually I started out at film school. I did a work placement in Canada, where I interned with a documentary film-maker who shot everything from school events to Ultimate Fighting. I followed him on shoots and helped out with editing. Sometimes it was a little boring, so to fill the time I began dreaming up ads – I remember giving the M&M colors different back stories – and I thought it might be something I’d like to do.”
The activity sparked a memory: during a school careers forum when he was a kid – barely 11 years old – he’d met some people who worked in advertising and found the job appealing. “I always thought it would be cool to do a job where you’re paid to have ideas,” he adds. (He found it.)
I always thought it would be cool to do a job where you’re paid to have ideas
Not always paid, though: Babel graciously took on the call for entries campaign for AdForum’s recent PHNX Awards on a pro bono basis. What was the appeal of the project? “I like the values of the prize. It was created during lockdown and it’s all about the resilience of creativity – so it’s really focused on celebrating the work. I also like the idea of entries being free until the shortlist. OK, like all awards shows it sets out to make a little money, but it also shows a genuine love of creativity.”
Some agencies regard awards with a touch of suspicion, but J-L is clearly proud of his numerous wins.
“You can criticize the ego-boosting element of awards, but then again our ego is often what motivates us as creatives. Plus we’re battered by a lot of criticism during the day: by the creative director - which I keep in mind since I became one - the account director, the client…and sometimes it hurts because an idea isn’t just an idea, we’re putting a bit of ourselves on the table. So a prize can be a recompense for all that.”
Plus, he adds, there’s the career-building factor. Award-winning creatives are job-worthy creatives. “It’s easy to say you’re not going to enter any more awards when you’ve made it to executive creative director. Having said that, I agree that winning awards shouldn’t become a fixation. Plenty of superb ideas don’t win prizes.”
I ask a standard question about how the pandemic affected the agency – but the reply is unexpected. “We actually won the ‘public health risks’ brief from Santé Publique France (the French national health authority) a few months before a global pandemic. So during the early part of the emergency we were working day, night and weekends producing print, digital and TV assets to keep the public informed, all in lockdown conditions. It was interesting, to say the least.”
A challenge – always greeted with a smile.