Design Plus: Pioneering French ad agency turns to product design
by Mark Tungate (@MarkTungate) After Buzzman, the ground-breaking French agency, comes its spin-off unit Productman. Why has the agency turned its attention to product design? We chat to vice president Thomas Granger.
Gone are the days when advertising agencies just made ads; now they also design objects ranging from charm bracelets to amphibious prosthetic limbs. Working as a creative technologist at an agency could be considered as cool, if not cooler, than being a creative director.
The innovative French agency, Buzzman, was an early adopter of this trend, and has now gone as far as creating a spin-off operation called Productman. After touching on the subject during our interview with Granger in Cannes, we decided to catch up with him in Paris and find out more.
“Genuine market demand”
It’s perhaps no surprise to find that the agency is overtly design-friendly: its offices in the 10th arrondissement are full of well-chosen pieces of mid-century furniture. But Productman didn’t spring out of a love of pretty objects. Explains Granger, “It’s important to say also that this is not about ‘productising’ — a product created to drive an advertising campaign, like our own ‘Insomny’ coffee for Canalplay, which allowed viewers to binge-watch series. No, Productman is about creating products or services which respond to a genuine market demand.”
The difference is a matter of scale, he says. “Here we’ll be operating at a more-industrial scale. It’s not a case of producing a limited edition object for the period of a campaign. The purpose of Productman is to create objects or services which will exist for the long term.”
So what was the spark that led the agency to create a whole new unit devoted to product design?
“Several factors came together,” he says. “The first element is the sort of talent we have here. Our creatives regularly invent products in response to a communications brief — like the ‘Lovkit’ in collaboration with Ikea for Valentine’s Day.”
Another example is the jokey but technologically sophisticated Nosulus Rift for Ubisoft, a face mask that allowed users to “smell” a video game — in this case a South Park character’s noxious farts.
“We only made 150 examples, but now we have the know-how; if somebody want to push the button and make 150 000, they could. Imagine the applications for the fragrance industry, for example? That’s exactly what Productman will be about.”
He adds that there’s a demand on the part of the clients, some of whom fear the ‘Uberisation’ of their sector. “They’re concerned that an entirely new player may come onto their market with all the data and advantages of the digital world integrated directly into a new proposition. As many of them are large businesses born before the digital era, they face several constraints that make them less nimble when it comes to research and development. So, given the nature of the talent we have here, we feel that we’re in a position to help them.”
In short, clients can potentially collaborate with Productman on innovative products that they may not have the time, the budget or the in-house talent to develop. The agency will be remunerated for its time, the ceding of IP rights, and potentially with a cut of sales.
Breaking the mould
But the unit has other goals, beyond helping the agency’s existing clients. “It can help us with prospection, too: if we invent a product or service that may be valuable within a certain market, and we don’t have client in that sector, it will enable us to make contact with potentially interested parties.”
Thirdly, Productman intends to create its own products and services, for which it will retain the intellectual copyright. “That will take a bit longer, because obviously we’ll put our clients first. But, for example, we’re currently working on a product linked to climate change, which we’ll bring to life ourselves.” He stresses that Productman doesn’t intend to become a manufacturer. “Obviously, if you want to produce and distribute consumer goods on an industrial scale, it’s a heavier load to bear. But, if you’re talking about an API or a 100% digital service, it becomes much easier.”
For the time being, Productman has three projects in the works, although he can’t reveal too much about them. “Two of them have a digital focus, but the third, for a cosmetics brand, is not digital at all. We’re not giving ourselves any barriers. We take the pain point that the client brings to us, we analyse it strategically, and then we decide on the most-relevant solution.”
He points out that Buzzman is now ten years old, and was one of the first agencies in France to break the traditional mould. “We threw open a few doors. And, if the doors were closed, we’d climb in through the window. So it’s logical that we would try this here.”
Interesting HR questions
Productman is not experimentation for experimentation’s sake, he underlines. “Everything we create will address genuine client problems, or real market opportunities that we ourselves identify. It’s a reflection of the fact that the daily lives of consumers have fundamentally changed and will continue to do so.”
The evolution raises interesting human resources questions. Is there a new generation of creatives who naturally brings design skills to the table, or is Productman looking for designers?
“It’s a little of both. It’s true that the startup mentality, if we can call it that, has given rise to a generation with a wider range of skills, particularly in UX design. At the same time, although we’re not specifically looking for designers, we are interested in creatives who are able to ‘think’ product and service.”
He grins. “In short, we’re looking for the best — and, in general, the best are able to do many things.”
Mark Tungate (@MarkTungate) is the editorial director of the Epica Awards (@EpicaAwards), the only global creative prize judged by the specialist press. A British journalist based in Paris, Tungate is also the author of seven books about branding and advertising, including Adland: A Global History of Advertising and, most recently, The Escape Industry, a journey through the business of travel. Over his 30-year career, he has has written for leading newspapers and magazines in the UK, France and the US.
In this series of articles called Design Plus, Epica highlights creativity in the design field.