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French advertising great Olivier Altmann, Co-Founder of Altmann+Pacreau, is the creative brains behind scores of award-winning French commercials for brands that include Manix condoms, Renault, Orange and Coca-Cola. 

For our continued feature, in which we ask some of the industry's most recognisable figures to interview - and be interviewed by - an up-and-coming member of the industry, Altmann speaks to former colleague and copywriter, Dimitri Lucas, now working at Rosapark Paris

Thirty-year-old Lucas has worked for brands such as Skoda, Perrier and Nike and, below, the pair discuss the work that drew them into the business, why life is too short to work with assholes, how they are both still riven with anxieties about their work, and why it’s now society that influences advertising rather than the other way around.

Above: Dimitri Lucas, left, and Olivier Altmann.


Dimitri Lucas: If you had to advertise advertising, what would you say?   

Olivier Altmann: I’d take a selection of the best ads in the history of advertising (sourced on shots, of course) and project them in cinemas everywhere. Rather than a big speech, I think there is nothing more exciting than sharing a big idea to make people love advertising.

Dimitri, what made you want to do this job?

Gabriel [Gaultier] is crazy in a good way, I saw him hire someone just because he had a funny name, another because he made lace cuttings out of slices of ham.

DL: This VW ad [below]... 

When I was 25, I came back from a year in a foreign country (just like everyone did else at my age) and I was completely lost (just like everyone else was at my age). I had studied literature and I liked writing but I didn’t feel that I had what it took to become the next Dostoyevsky. As I was wondering what to do with myself, this VW ad came to mind. Years earlier, my girlfriend (who is now my wife, and to whom I owe absolutely everything) was studying visual communication and Patrice Dumas came to do a workshop around the legendary campaign for that Volkswagen Van. It was the memory of that ad, its point of view and remarkable copywriting, that pushed me to type ‘advertising agencies’ into Google.

And, just like that, I came across [French agency] Leg’s crazy site and all their unbelievable Eurostar ads, which seduced me. So, early in the morning, I went knocking on the door of 36 boulevard Sébastopol to meet [French creative leader] Gabriel Gaultier (he liked to arrange meetings at 7.30am). I was mega stressed. Gabriel was intimidating. I was very polite and formal. Then, when he realised that we had done the same literary classes, it turned out fine. That was enough for him. I started my internship the next morning. Gabriel is crazy in a good way, I saw him hire someone just because he had a funny name, another because he made lace cuttings out of slices of ham.

So, Olivier, would you prefer to hire a brilliant creative who is a total asshole or a not so great creative who is an adorable person?

Above: Lucas was inspired to try advertising after seeing this press ad for VW.


OA: I want to say neither. As someone once said “life is too short to work with assholes”. A brilliant creative is often a creative who works harder than the others, who doubts, who explores, who is curious, who listens, who has convictions, for sure, but who knows how to share them. Nowadays, unbearable divas don’t fit with team work and, for the most part, the greatest creatives that I’ve crossed paths with have been good people. However, a creative with an adorable personality but devoid of talent wouldn’t survive for a long time in a good agency.

Dimitri, are you finding it more and more difficult to work for companies that you don’t respect, or is it your job to be the best brand advocate regardless?

As someone once said “life is too short to work with assholes”.

DL: I’ve always had the feeling that I’m working for people not companies. I like agencies with a personality and I was lucky to be able to choose to work for people that I respect and admire. I’m a bit scared of faceless companies, like the big international networks where decisions, sometimes very tough ones, descend on us from their ivory towers. Who would want to be on the front line for a colonel that you’ve never seen, and who gives his orders sitting comfortably in his office in New York? Effectively, my job is to defend points of view that are not necessarily my own. I’m paid to do that, it’s the contract and I totally accept it. Obviously if I’m going to influence behaviour, I would rather influence it in the right direction.

That’s the whole issue in our line of work. There is a real mistrust from consumers towards advertising because it has become the symbol of over consumption and superfluous desires. Even if this rejection is sometimes excessive and a little simplistic, it’s far from unjustified. 

Contrary to what our critics say, today it’s society that influences advertising rather than the other way around.

Before, advertising was ahead of its time, today it’s behind. We’re no longer communicating on current products, we communicate on ethical transformation targets to be achieved by 2030 or 2050 and that doesn’t make for good campaigns. Contrary to what our critics say, today it’s society that influences advertising rather than the other way around. Basically, I find this transformation rather positive, but I hope we will digest it quickly enough to be able to lighten up and have some humour, which is sorely lacking at the moment. 

And you, Olivier, what keeps you motivated to do this job?

Eurostar – A Trois Heures de Paris

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Above: One of Leg France's Eurostar spots, A Trois Heure de Paris. 


OA: It’s like an emotional roller coaster where there are moments of jubilation and frustration. You’re happy when you know you’ve sold a good idea and then you find out that the client wants to make changes. You get all excited about going into production but then, on set, sometimes we have to fight to get what we want. We’re thrilled when we win a new client and devastated when we lose a pitch. You have to be very resilient and know how to constantly re-motivate yourself.

Personally, I think that what still motivates me is a blank page. The idea of knowing that anything is possible as soon we start looking. The feeling that each assignment is a challenge to solve an often complex equation with creative solutions. What also motivates me is the trust that is placed in me. The more I feel that a client expects a great idea from us, that they respect our work and our expertise, the more responsible I feel for not disappointing them. When I used to ask my former client at Manix condoms which route he preferred, he always replied: "It’s you that knows", and that forced me to be even more responsible. I couldn’t disappoint him. Clients who understand this often get the best from their partners.

Do you sometimes get stressed, or anxious about not finding anything and finding yourself ‘naked’ in front of your Creative Director?

Manix – Manix: Water Bomb

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Above: Altmann worked on spots for Manix condoms and felt more responsibility for not disappointing a trusting client.


DL: Sometimes? Always!

I’m a bit of a teacher’s pet. The fear of getting detention because I haven't learned my lesson has never left me. It has always blown my mind to see creatives with an overly relaxed attitude, ones who are capable of saying to their creative director: “Sorry, I didn’t find anything." Maybe I'm a little jealous too, because for me that's impossible, and it ruins my life! Even after years of working for the same creative director, even after doing a lot of good campaigns, even after winning awards, with each new brief I'm afraid I won't find anything and that they’ll say "hold on, this guy is a phony”.

With each new brief I'm afraid I won't find anything and that they’ll say "hold on, this guy is a phony”.

So, it's great fuel to ensure you never give up but it drives you crazy. The brain never disconnects until the idea has been found. You might turn off the computer and leave the office but that doesn’t mean it stops. It's an obsession. In the metro, in the evening before falling asleep, in the morning in the shower, you’re always searching. It's very hard on family life because you’re in a bad mood when you can't find the idea and you’re often still thinking about the office when you get home. This is really something that I try to work on because I no longer want to listen to my kids tell me about their day with one ear while trying to find the ending to an ad for a new model of electric car. In reality, taking time to disconnect is essential and beneficial to creative work. It’s most often when we finally relax that we find the solution. I know this from experience, but it's stronger than me.

The pleasure of finding the right idea is proportional to the pressure you put on yourself to find it.

Given my years of experience, I should be able to put it into perspective but actually the stress increases. When you start out, not that much is expected of you. You are often on briefs along with senior teams. So, you’re motivated by the desire to create a surprise, but when you become the senior team you have to live up to your reputation and you are also aware of the issues that depend on your ability to find or not the right idea. Fortunately, the pleasure of finding the right idea is proportional to the pressure you put on yourself to find it. Without a doubt this is why we submit to the torture of it again and again. 

Even if I am not sure that for two anxious people like us it would be very beneficial to discuss our anxieties, I would still like to know: What is worse, the creative’s worry of having nothing to present to his Creative Director or the Creative Director’s worry that his/her creatives have nothing to present?

Nike – Barbershop

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Above: Lucas worked on Nike's Barbershop spot while at French agency, Leg.


OA: I think that being a creative and expected to come up with the goods is often more stressful because it involves your personal ability to find good ideas or not. That said everything depends on the individual. Some have a very high self-image and think that if they can't find anything it's because the brief is bad. Others believe they are paid to find something good even if the brief is uninspiring. 

The Creative Director is certainly always a little feverish and excited upon discovering the first ideas but he/she normally has other teams and freelancers who can come in to help when things get stuck. I would say it’s mostly a question of timing. The closer the deadlines get, the more tension rises. Gone are the days when we could call the client, without batting an eyelid, to tell him that we’ve nothing and that we will come back to him when we’ve found something, that creativity is not an exact science and takes time. 

I would love to be able to do my job by just saying "that’s rubbish, get back to work’ but the term Creative Director doesn't just mean being the boss, it means leading, directing, guiding, inspiring.

Most of the time the Creative Director is a former creative so it can be hard not to look for ideas too, to try to overcome the teams’ difficulties. Personally, I have always forbidden myself (but I do not always succeed) from competing directly with the teams that I supervise. It’s best to discuss and reflect with them, and not do it behind their backs. However, everyone has the right to have a good idea and the hardest part is to be critical of your own proposals. I tend to tell myself that if the creatives can't find the idea, it's because we haven't done our strategic work well enough beforehand. The downside to this approach is that the teams end up relying too much on their Creative Director and don’t put enough pressure on themselves.

In short, if things do get stuck, it’s often best not to accuse anyone but to share the difficulties and use them as a springboard to continue to explore different angles. I would love to be able to do my job by just saying "that’s rubbish, get back to work’ but the term Creative Director doesn't just mean being the boss, it means leading, directing, guiding, inspiring.

How do you explain that, despite the advent of digital, creatives often regard film as the most exciting exercise and that it is the one most entrusted to seniors? We don’t see as many creatives jostling to make Facebook posts.

30 Millions d’Amis Foundation – The Innocents

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Above: Altmann+Pacreau's recent campaign for the 30 Million Friends Foundation. 


DL: First of all, I think there is a generational thing. For me, it was films and posters that made me want to make adverts. So, I've always wanted to make films and posters as good as the ones I admired. The new generation have come to advertising seeing big digital or integrated campaigns. They grew up with digital tools and have a much easier time handling them. But this generation is not yet in power. The Creative Directors, and especially the clients, are often older (or at least not so young) so there is a gap and sometimes a lack of knowledge. Also, I have to say that digital is still considered by advertisers (except those who have a very young target) as the last place to put their investment.

Perhaps that’s also due to the media agencies who insist that nothing beats the impact of TV. But the result is that very often we are content to do a little digital bonus activity as an extension of the TV campaign. How many times have we heard "we didn't have time to present the slides on digital"?  How many times have we heard "they loved the idea but it's too expensive"? Because there is that too; that if it's on the internet it shouldn’t be expensive. So, as you say, we end up “making Facebook posts” but digital can be much better than that if people are ambitious. A digital brief is less likely to see the light of day, so it's less motivating. 

The future of this business is that in advertising you always have to be cutting edge, but the [digital] ideas weren't always there.

It must also be said that many of us in the creative department dream of making (real) films. So, making commercials feels like making a little bit of cinema. Film is a format that remains legendary. However, we must not oppose film and digital. Today, there’s nothing better than a film that lends itself to a social media campaign that is just as strong. For me, film is still a preference but that's also because I feel more competent in that domain. The future of this business is that in advertising you always have to be cutting edge, but the ideas weren't always there. Today, I find that social media brings something very interesting. A more direct link with the consumer and above all interaction. Although nothing, for me, will replace the emotion that a good film can bring. 

What was the TVC that made you feel the most?

Coalition for the Homeless – Homeless

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Above: Altmann was inspired by this Coalition for the Homeless spot.


OA: There are so many. But I have two memories that come to mind. Both were TVCs that I discovered in Cannes during the advertising festival in the large amphitheater. It was in the dark of the room, with the sound blasting, and the indefinable vibration that you get when there are a lot of people gathered together sharing the same show. 

The first is the commercial for homeless people of New York. They are singing, a capella, the famous New York song by Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra [above]. The song comes to a halt and the final words "it's up to you" appear on the screen in chilling silence. In this commercial we get a sense that the homeless are real and the emotion of seeing one of them wiping a tear is poignant.

When I saw this spot I was stuck to my seat.

The other film is in a completely different register, much more joyful, but again, even if the special effects are breathtaking, the real emotion comes from the song The Rhythm of Life, by Sammy Davis Jr. It's the Guinness Noitulove commercial shot by arguably the best advertising director of the time and former creative: Daniel Kleinman

When I saw this spot I was stuck to my seat. The idea was powerful because it elevated the concept of ‘Good things come to those who wait’ to a level never reached before. The brand became the ultimate goal of our human evolution. The production was masterful, especially the payoff which gave off a crazy energy with the visual and musical finale. In seeing the brilliance of this spot, you say to yourself that advertising is a major art form.

Dimitri, as we are in shots, and we often have the same tastes, I’m allowing myself to ask you to finish with the same question: What was the TVC that caused you the most emotion?

Guinness – Guinness: noitulovE

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Above: Guinness's Noitulove was a "joyful" and 'breathtaking" spot to see for Altmann.


DL: I totally agree with you on the homeless New Yorkers commercial. By the way, this was a strong source of inspiration for our film We Are the Champions, for the 30 Million Friends Foundation. Otherwise, I think the first ad that struck me was probably the one for Sony Bravia with the bouncing balls. I don't know what year it was [2005], I must have been a teenager. Anyway, I wasn't interested in advertising at all so I discovered it on TV in my spare brain time. Now it's not the style of advertising that I like at all because you can't say that the idea is remarkable but there was something hypnotic about this spot. It was pleasurable as a kid to watch this poetic eye candy.

Advertising is pop culture that expires in two weeks.

Then, once I was in the advertising profession, I developed my advertising culture. Inevitably, I got a shock with The Independent’s Litany. It has everything for me; the form, the substance, the power of words, the sublime black and white, the simplicity, the pay off and the message that makes you want to change the world. It is unsurpassable. The second you see this, you understand it’s a timeless masterpiece. Advertising is pop culture that expires in two weeks but this ad hasn't aged a bit. If it came out today, it would have the same punch to it. So, when you come across that, it takes you a little while to get your courage up to present a script ...

And finally, more recently, there is the Lacoste TVC spot, The Big Leap [below]. The strategy the idea, the execution, the music, everything is perfect. In the end, we’re not aware of all of that. We feel. It’s pure emotion. The advertising that you forget is advertising, is good advertising. 

Plus, it's French, for fuck’s sake!

Lacoste – The Big Leap

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