Once upon a time, before the pandemic was even a whisper and when the world was full of possibility, I had a long lunch with Alexandre Hervé, now co-founder and executive creative director of the agency Romance in Paris. I can’t remember what we talked about – only that the conversation was relaxed and amusing. Perhaps I felt at home because the bistro was tucked away behind Place de Clichy, about two minutes from the street where my girlfriend (now my wife) lived back then.
Last week we had another long conversation – and this time I took notes. I’ve noticed that some advertising people seem vaguely embarrassed by what they do, as if they really want to be artists or charity workers. But Alexandre is proud of his work. Even passionate about it, which is appropriate given the name of the agency.
He wanted to work in advertising from the start. He grew up in an era when lavish spots were directed by the likes of Jean-Paul Goude or Ridley Scott. “I used to go to the cinema looking forward to seeing the ads as much as the films,” he recalls.
His career path began at the age of just 20, leading him to Euro RSCG, then Leg, famous for its Eurostar campaigns. DDB Paris was next, in 2003, as creative director. Under his watch it picked up a cargo load of Lions, as well as being named “the most awarded agency in the world” by The Gunn Report in 2012.
“Goodwill and mutual respect”
Romance was founded in 2015, with Christophe Lichtenstein. So why that name? “We came up with a lot of names, but most of them were already owned. I also felt we were no longer in an era where your name had to be aggressive. Romance was on the shortlist – and I liked the idea of creating some love between the audience and the advertiser. I don’t know if it’s the name that’s affected us or vice versa, but we try to do things that are sensitive, positive, without irony or sarcasm. We end each presentation with the words ‘Let’s start a romance’.”
The agency was originally created by DDB to pitch for the Audi business (DDB has a historic relationship with Volkswagen, as I’m sure you know). But these days, although it’s still part of the Omnicom group, it operates independently. “We’re separate agencies. Technically we could even pitch against one another, but there’s a goodwill and mutual respect between us that means we avoid being in competition.”
Romance works for many leading brands – Ricard, the sports store Decathlon and of course Audi – but it’s most admired for the series of films it has created for the supermarket Intermarché. The first was “L’Amour, L’Amour” in 2017. Rarely has an ad for a supermarket been so soaked in…well, romance. But it also reflected a reality, as each film illustrates an engagement by the retailer itself. The concept that inspired the first spot was “Helping the French eat a little better every day.”
“My two sons were teenagers at the time, and if you wanted to get people to eat better, they seemed to be the first group you’d need to convince. How do you do that? By telling them a story that touches them. After that it was just a case of acknowledging that when you’re a teenage boy at the supermarket, you tend to choose the prettiest cashier.”
The film was launched during TV talent show The Voice, when millions of French people had smartphones or tablets to hand. The social networks were soon abuzz with comments about the spot. “Rather than make an ad for social media, which people can easily ignore, we made a film for TV that they could talk about.”
The film was directed by Katia Lewkowicz, who Alex had worked with before on a Volkswagen spot. She was chosen over another contender: British director James Rouse (“Sorry, I Spent It On Myself”, for Harvey Nichols.) And in fact she and the rest of the team have returned for all of the more dramatic spots in the series.
Alex says: “I wanted to go back to telling stories, which you don’t see as often in advertising these days.” And he wanted the stories to be specifically French ones, avoiding the neutrality caused, unconsciously or not, by wanting to please international awards juries. “You can’t forget your target audience. Mine is the French public. That’s why we chose Katia – she understands French attitudes to food.”
Ironically, the very Français Intermarché spots have a universal appeal. “I think it’s because they deal with emotion. There are many different forms of humour, and many different ways of being funny. But emotion – love, joy, sadness – unites us all. We’re moved by the same thing.”
All the spots have been tender, but the series hit an emotional high with “C’est Magnifique”, a Proustian tale in which a widower evokes the spirit of his late wife via her lost spaghetti sauce recipe.
“It was risky, because we were making a film for a mainstream retailer that dealt directly with death, probably for the first time in French advertising. Just like with the first film, we were walking a tightrope. If it had been badly done, it would have flopped. But we’re so demanding about the quality of the script, the cast and the directing that, in both cases, it worked.”
Popular French musician Benjamin Biolay provided the song, and everyone had a good cry. Music can be an expensive element of a commercial – and here it’s integral to the series. Alex points out that “L’Amour, L’Amour” by Mouloudji was not incredibly well known, which made it more accessible. Since then, the saga has become so renowned that musicians are keen to take part: the emerging rock band Terrenoire – fresh from their first album – barely hesitated when they were asked to contribute their song “Jusqu’à mon dernier souffle” (“Until My Last Breath”) to the Christmas spot.
This was not your average Christmas ad, either: it depicted the challenges faced by frontline medical workers during the pandemic. “I would have found it bizarre this year to make a typical Christmas ad with Santa Claus and so on. This is what we’ve all been going through. The medical workers were the heroes of the year – and I felt it was only right to pay homage to them.”
As usual, the film’s theme touched on Intermarché’s own policies. At the start of the pandemic, the retailer strengthened its commitment to supporting local suppliers. It distributed masks free of charge to hospitals and created priority checkouts for frontline staff. It also let shuttered bookstores sell books via its own website. And this Christmas, it gifted 100,000 boxes of chocolates to medical workers as a “thank you”.
The Intermarché campaign is so popular that there’s a Facebook group of viewers who reunite to watch each opus together. “Intermarché is now the preferred supermarket of French consumers. The business results have been incredible,” underlines Alex. “But we couldn’t have made these films if Intermarché was only concerned with profits. Behind the messages are genuine values.”
In fact, he says, Intermarché’s communication and social responsibility engagements are intermeshed. “We won’t work with clients who only care about money. When you can work in partnership with a client like Intermarché to shape a business model that actually gives something back to people, then you’re really doing your job as an agency.”
A laudable mission. Maybe even a romantic one.