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The head offices of Canal+ and its advertising agency BETC are at opposite ends of Paris – Boulogne-Billancourt and Pantin, respectively – but these two behemoths are joined at the hip, the lip, the head and the heart. 

Oh, and at board level, too, both being part of the vast Havas Group. 

Between them, they have created some of advertising’s most audacious and memorable spots that push key brand messages right through – about the universal power of story and the channel’s passion for the craft of film – riffing wittily on some of its inner processes.

Littered with rampaging Visigoths, movie-directing bears, hairless unicorn balls, story-chasing clowns... the partnership’s success turns on a series of brilliant eye-opening insights.

Littered with rampaging Visigoths, movie-directing bears, hairless unicorn balls, story-chasing clowns and young men trapped in bedroom closets hewn from the towering pines of Scandinavia, the partnership’s success turns on a series of brilliant eye-opening insights, from which flows everything else – character, story, pay-off and the kind of double takes that carry the brand message home on waves of laughter and recognition, as well as delivering the crucial end result of getting bums on seats for Canal+. 

Canal+ – Visigoths

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And the person at the centre of this maelstrom of singular insights from which comes everything else? A big hand, please, for Mr Stephane Xiberras, BETC president and longtime leader of the Canal+ account. 

“The parallel between Canal+ and BETC is super obvious,” he says, “because they have to survive in the same place where Amazon is, where Disney is, but they have to keep their creative DNA. And it’s the same thing for us at BETC.” 

“Sometimes you have a special feeling for a brand, and I have this special feeling for them. I can feel it, I understand it. I am the target audience.”

Once a writer for the very brand whose campaigns he has steered since the very first Canal+ spot back in 2003, Xiberras is an industry legend. Why? Because he’s a creative and an executive who’s not forgotten who he’s talking to – not the client, not the executive floors, but the audience, of which he is a member, so he’s talking to himself. First sign of madness? What else to say of a man who gave us The Bear, belly flopping Napoleons and unicorn balls in the confines of Noah’s Ark? 

Canal+ – The Bear

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He’s been with BETC since joining as a copywriter in 1999, becoming its president and chief creative officer in 2007, but his creative spirit remains grounded among the people his campaigns want to reach. And because of that he has maybe the longest reach in the industry. 

“I’d say, without arrogance, there is something sympathetic between me and the brand,” says Xiberras of his 16-year partnership with Canal+. “Sometimes you have a special feeling for a brand, and I have this special feeling for them.  For me, its super-natural to talk about this brand. I can feel it, I understand it. I am the target audience.”

“The original creative director was quite angry with the client, saying it was impossible. She said to me, 'please! I'm giving you Canal+, do something!'. I thought, okay, why not.”

His latest campaign Canal+ Biiip (French for ‘beep’) is a three-part mini-series of spots launched in October to announce Canal+ becoming a 21st-century content platform, leaving behind its 20th-century legacy as France’s premium paid-for television channel, in the process merging with what would otherwise be a feared competitor – Netflix – and bringing on board a whole new demographic of Netflix natives, tempting them with the delights of Canal+ staples such as Engrenages (Spiral), Versaille, and The Young Pope

Canal+ – Unicorns

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Getting one of France’s best-known actors, Kad Merad, to play himself in the spots, confused by the basic premise of advertising this new “platform continu” without mentioning N*****x, was Xiberras’s meta-way in to resolve a very tricky brief involving two big media companies. Because the constraints that surround this latest campaign are more or less the same Xiberras had to find a way around when he first took up the reigns in 2003. 

“The original creative director was Michelle Cohen,” he says, “and she was quite angry with the client, saying it was impossible to do things, because basically advertising for media is super complicated. She said to me, 'please! I'm giving you Canal+, do something!'. I thought, okay, why not.”

“I said to Canal+, I’m not the advertising agency, I’m for the public, for the audience. And after that I had the most incredible freedom, not selling the product but selling a 'je ne sais quoi'; a state of mind; an ethos."

Why not, indeed? First off, advertising Canal+ on other channels in France was a no-no, in the same way you rarely see ads for ITV on Channel 4. “Okay, I said, it is legal?” Yes, in fact, it was. “And they are supposed to refuse the commercial? Really?” Then make them an offer they can’t refuse. 

Which brings us to the second hurdle, and the fact that as a premium content provider, Canal+ are rather good at fashioning story, drama and suspense themselves, meaning BETC had to pull something very special from the box. 

Canal+ – Biip - The Shoot

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With Xiberras in control, that is what happened. He had done it before, starting off with 2002's Visigoths hurling themselves around before a director calls ‘cut!’, and its follow-up, Black Bands, whose slapstick horsemanship riffed on the letterboxing of big screen formats on domestic TVs. 

“I said to those guys at Canal+, it’s going to be a sample of what you’re able to do. And I’m not the advertising agency, I’m for the public, for the audience. And after that I had the most incredible freedom, not selling the product but selling a je ne sais quoi, a state of mind, an ethos. And the thing is, I was an author for Canal+ before I came to BETC, a sketch writer. So for me it was super-easy to do funny things.” 

"We pretended to launch a war between the two brands, with Netflix beeped out, and in the conclusion, like in a series, it was a case of ‘okay, we’re friends and we’ve made peace’."

He recalls the first time he came to Cannes, bearing Visigoths. “Rémi Babinet my boss said, ‘Did you sell that to the client... Dead people? What is the meaning of that? Where is the strategy?’ Oh I dunno … I thought it was funny. It was saying, we are different.” 

That difference – a total commitment to storytelling and cinema – fuels more or less everything the brand and BETC made over the next 16 years, whether in print, on social or on TV, celebrating the power of storytelling in myriad humorous ways, and saluting the tricks, the passion and the craft that go into filmmaking itself, revealing a few of its mysteries along the way. 

“It’s always about this,” says Xiberras. “The question of, ‘How do they do it?’. Being the best partner of cinema is in Canal+’s DNA.”

Canal+ – Biip - The Family Dinner

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For the three spots announcing Canal+’s metamorphosis into a 'platform continu' and its climbing into bed with Netflix, Xiberras returned to the ‘behind the scenes’ ethos of Visigoths and The Bear (there’s even a self-referential nod to the latter embedded in the opening spot). 

But this time he had a real ace up his sleeve in signing Kad Merad to represent Canal+’s large audience of boomer males as they get to grips with their favourite channel turning into whatever a ‘platform continu’ actually is. 

“The target was the older guy,” says Xiberras. “And for those guys, Kad Merad is the perfect average French guy. He is them. They are the ones who pay, and for them and forever, Canal+ is a channel. They know about Netflix but it’s not super-clear for them. So I say to the client, the only smart way to understand something is to compare them. You’ve got to talk about Netflix.”  

“A lot of people go out of their way to watch Canal+ ads, because they have such a high quality and they have done for such a long time. How many other brands can do a mini series on its own? It’s quite unique. People pay attention.” 

Cue a meeting with Canal+ boss Maxime Saada, who reveals that there have, indeed, been discussions with Netflix, and that saying the unsayable is going to be possible, after all. “So we pretended to launch a war between the two brands,” says Xiberras, “with Netflix beeped out, and in the conclusion, like in a series, it was a case of ‘okay, we’re friends and we’ve made peace’. That’s why it seemed so natural having one brand talking about another, when it’s not natural at all, especially in France.”

Working with Xiberras from Canal+ was its new brand director, Emilie Pietrini. “We had two objectives,” she says. “First, to become a content platform. And then hooking up with Netflix, which is a big event for us, and it’s a difficult objective, because we are competitors at the beginning. So we had to find a new way to say that now, if you take Canal+ you have Netflix.” 

Canal+ – Biip - The Big Set

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The resulting campaign uses humour and insight to engage with its target audiences – the older generation that knows and pays for Canal+, and the younger digital-first tribes that roam the likes of Netflix as if it was their natural habitat. 

In the first spot, The Shoot, you have Kal Merad on the set of a TV ad getting bleeped out every time he asks about f******g N*****x; in the second, Family Dinner, a mildly confused Dad and sassy, all-knowing daughter discuss the previous ad in a finely crafted bit of meta-storytelling, before the finale, The Big Set, reveals the new partnership with a plethora of characters from Netflix and Canal+ big hitters coming and going behind the key players. 

It feels so natural as to be pre-ordained. And that, as Emilie Pietrini points out, is what the talent of Stephane Xiberras is all about.

"We need to create specific relationships with our subscribers, which means the storytelling is more and more important. And Stephane knows all about that.” 

“It really counts,” says Pietrini. “A lot of people go out of their way to watch Canal+ ads, because they have such a high quality and they have done for such a long time. How many other brands can do a mini series on its own? It’s quite unique. People pay attention.” They are ready to pay good money, too. “After launching Canal+ Biip, we doubled the number of subscribers in one month,” she adds, “which is incredible.” 

However the story of the newly conjoined brands develops, the kind of storytelling Xiberras and BETC have fashioned for Canal+ will continue. “It depends on the subject and Stephane’s idea,” says Pietrini of future plans. “First of all, we [focus on] the idea, and if it's a good idea, we’re going to work on where it goes. We need to create specific relationships with our subscribers, which means the storytelling is more and more important. And Stephane knows all about that.”  

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