You'd expect an ad man to be good at selling himself, and Rémi Babinet is cool, charming and engaged. Only for a moment during this shoot, when it looks as if he won't be allowed to be photographed wearing the suit he most likes, is there a brief glint of steel behind his smile. Then order is restored, Babinet laughs, and his charm triumphs.
At 56, Babinet is the chairman and creative director of BETC, the advertising agency he founded in 1994. Now one of the best-known in France, it runs worldwide campaigns for brands such as Louis Vuitton, Lacoste and Air France, and has reaped copious international awards. "This has been the big adventure, more than I could dream."
Most famous are his campaigns for Evian, BETC's first account and "the water of life" for the firm. Its quirky "Rollerbabies" advert in 2009 featured roller-skating, breakdancing infants and won a place in the Guinness World Records as the most viewed online ad. In this year's follow-up campaign, "Baby & Me", adults catch sight of their baby selves reflected in a mirror; both start dancing together. The result is innocent, funny and full of life. The music is great, too.
The Evian ads work so well as global campaigns because they need no words to explain them. The message reaches beyond France, Babinet says, "and the ads just make people happy".
The shiny world of commercials grabbed him early. As a child at the cinema he remembers finding the adverts "astonishing, surprising, smart, funny, shocking". He pauses. "And then came the big film." He laughs. Babinet's parents were university teachers and business was "a new continent" to him: "The mix between the very rational and mathematical, and then the emotional, the appeal to the senses—that is what I found fascinating." Once he got his foot in the door of advertising, he went from intern to creative director in seven years.
Babinet talks of advertising as an art. "You are like an acrobat—you have to make the show, you have to take your risks." And he openly admits that his ambition is to build a cult around a brand, like a religion: "People have to be linked by the same emotion or the same beliefs. You have to create some reason for people to keep following you—to create fidélité." What he labels art and religion, some would simply call selling stuff. "I am totally comfortable with that," he smiles.
Babinet likes to meet clients in jeans, T-shirt and brown suede shoes. "If I wear a suit it is for the joy of it," he says. "I might wear it at the weekend, with friends. I am the opposite of the norm, no?" He enjoys the sharp, elegant lines and "London cool" of the dark, Paul Smith suit we picked for him. The heritage of formal dress is appealing, he adds, "but I like that now you can't tell what someone does from what they wear". He is pleased with the Converse sneakers ("I have ones like this"), less so with the bag: "In general I go out with nothing in my pocket, just my hands. And my phone."
Charcoal grey suit, £769, by Paul Smith London; white shirt, £65, by AllSaints; black Converse sneakers, £48, from Office; leather medicine bag, £990, by Bill Amberg; Infantry Mechanical watch with silver mesh bracelet, £610, by Victorinox