Raising the black flag: Carre Noir’s CEO interviewed
This year Christophe Fillatre celebrates his tenth anniversary at Carré Noir. Andrew Thomas caught up with the president of the personality-driven French brand agency.
With its distinctive black, square marque, there are few brand agencies with an iconic visual identity as striking as Carré Noir (literally translated as black flag). Yet Christophe Fillatre, president of both Carré Noir and Publicis Activ, feels strongly that a designer or a brand agency’s work should never eclipse the personality of the brand for which it works. “If you ask many people who is the designer for Apple nobody can remember his name,” says Fillatre (conceding that, because of his nationality, many in England would be aware of Sir Jonathan Ive). “Whereas,” he adds, “People talk about the Phillipe Starck toothbrush. Few can remember that Starck is just the designer – the toothbrush is made by Fluocaril. The right thing is to serve the brand not the designer or the agency.”
Carré Noir has a lengthy history of serving brands in France. Founded in 1973, the agency has worked with Lafarge, Adecco, the European Space Agency and Michelin. Acquired by the Publicis group in 2001, it now employs over 200 staff with a global footprint that spans Spain, Germany and Beijing as well as its home ground in France. Between 15% and 20% of the agency’s revenues come from outside of France, a figure Fillatre feels should be bigger. “It is not enough,” says Fillatre, bluntly, adding, “Business comes from Germany, Italy, Barcelona of course, but it is still not enough. Much of our work originates from France, even if it is with international clients. So, for instance, we work closely with Nestlé in China.”
Fillatre thinks the French connection is important. “To be French is, of course, an asset for Carré Noir. I know that [Publicis CEO] Maurice Levy sees it this way for Publicis Worldwide too.” This seems stronger in certain markets. “We are working on some special, and confidential, projects in China and we find that, in China, to be French is really an asset.”
“We try and consider brands to be like a person. I think we succeed when you are able to recognise a brand without using its name but with its style or with its tone of voice. A brand needs to be recognisable with or without the brand system or the brand mark.”
Fillatre’s background isn’t brand, strategy or design, but advertising. The first 10 years of his career were spent at BDDP, acquired by Omnicom which merged it with TBWA in 1998, Fillatre’s penultimate year. He reported directly in to Jean Marie Dru, who famously developed the communication concepts of disruption. Dru was obviously a major influence on Fillatre, who grew quickly within the organisation; before leaving he had responsibility for SNCF, BMW and McDonalds.
For Fillatre, McDonald’s was particularly interesting. It was an integrated account with responsibility for marketing as well as advertising, a major skill he was able to employ when he joined Publicis Executive in 1999. Here he was taken on to handle the Renault account for all the agencies throughout the Publicis network. This was the biggest advertising account in France and Fillatre had responsibility for all of the aspects of advertising, communication and design.
He ran the account for the next six years before Maurice Levy rewarded him with the role of managing strategy and development of Carré Noir in 2005, a move that was followed with the presidency of the agency in 2009.
Fillatre has a tendency to talk about brands in the first person. Much of this is because of the way Carré Noir positions itself. “We try and consider brands to be like a person. I think we succeed when you are able to recognise a brand without using its name but with its style or with its tone of voice. A brand needs to be recognisable with or without the brand system or the brand mark.”
The aim of Carré Noir is to create a personality from the brand, but Fillatre also thinks that the agency has a signature of being the only brand of brands in France. “It is so important to build this personality, to be different. But it is also important to make the personality have truth. Society is particularly critical and can see through brands when there is not that truth. We have to be brand manager of this true personality. Marketers and communication directors don’t always have the time to do it and sometimes they don’t have the competency to do it.”
While Carré Noir has managed many brands under Fillatre’s stewardship one particular project he feels particularly proud of, and feels represents best the Carré Noir approach, is the work they did with SNCF. “SNCF’s past was riddled with brand problems. They had strikes, social problems and all sorts of issues from the ’70s and ’80s. However the bigger problem was that, from a brand perspective, they had a very complex system. They had so many brands and sub-brands. Which it turn, meant that they had so many marketing directions, so many communications directions and so many design directions. There was one brand for the suburbs, one for national routes; one if it was about speed you have another brand and so on. As you can imagine, it was a real nightmare in terms of identity and in terms of organisation. We arrived to give them advice and straight away we could see the problem. They need to position themselves that in one country there had to be one brand. That was the way to simplify it. So we told them they had to reconstruct SNCF, and kill off all of the other brands. I am most proud of this work. We had to redefine SNCF, implement a new brand platform and created a very precise brand territory and so on.”
The SNCF work wasn’t undertaken overnight. “The work for this began in 2008 and only now you can see the differences, on the train, on the communication territory; and all the work is only now being implemented. But what I think we have brought to SNCF is a truth and an authenticity.
Although for Carré Noir this authenticity has become a vital part of its positioning, Fillatre finds it interesting that different clients can view the agency in different ways. “It is interesting, when we are pitching on domestic accounts, for French business, most of the time we are facing local competitors; Dragon Rouge, Saguez and Partners and so on. Yet when we pitch for global business we compete with international agencies such as Futurebrand, Interbrand, Landor and so on. There is rarely any crossover.”
While the competition for clients may seem polarised, the competition for talent is more straightforward, though not easier. “In advertising I know exactly where to find the right people, but in the design world it is much harder. Sometimes I’m looking for brand architects, other times for strategists and other times for designers. It is a challenge because where are the resources? It’s true we have colleges and it’s really important for us to identify the young people from college and to hire them. But sometimes we need to hire more experienced staff, and they’re harder to find. Of course we do have the advantage of being able to identify people through the Publicis.”
Fillatre thinks that this approach from all brand agencies to hiring staff has raised the understanding of brand design. He certainly sees those with brand responsibility sitting higher within their organisations. “Over the last 10 years those who have been involved in talking about brand design are at an increasingly higher level within the company. There is this understanding that it creates value. That it creates persistency. That it creates long-term vision. So that is why I tell you that I am sure that design has a very clear and bright future because it is becoming more and more important within the company and the pricing strategies.”
It is in the future that Fillatre feels most confidence, “People understand now what brand design can achieve. They understand that design ensures the brand identity, and that it intervenes upstream the value chain and creates the foundation of a global communications program. This identity must be the irremovable basis of, what we call at Carré Noir, the design of truth. I always say that it’s crucial ‘To define who I am before to define what I want to say.’ Our role as a branding & design agency is to stay the course for all the communications stakeholders, that downstream, will work for the customers and apply this strategy on different channels (advertising, marketing services). We must be brand angels. Customers understand that design is key and that it creates brand identity.”