Bao Tu-Ngoc and Guillaume Rebbot walk LBB’s Alex Reeves through the innovations that have inspired some of the Paris agency’s most futuristic creative projects
Air France, Evian, CANAL+. BETC Paris has some of the most iconic French clients, known around the world for their slick, cinematic TV advertising. From its gargantuan brutalist headquarters just outside of the Parisian Périphérique, the agency creates traditional advertising that builds its clients’ brands over the long term. But those who’ve been looking closely will have seen a lot more besides this. BETC may be known for its mastery of the TVC, but many of its most interesting projects have been underpinned by emerging technologies, engaging with today’s behaviours and social trends.
Two figures who’ve been key to keeping the agency and its clients in touch with this world of innovation have been head of digital and integrated production Bao Tu-Ngoc and creative director Guillaume Rebbot. LBB’s Alex Reeves took some time with the pair to take a tour of the most future-facing concepts they’ve worked with and learned from in recent years.
Guillaume> The electrical vehicle is a major topic for all car manufacturers and, of course, for our client Peugeot. To accompany the launch of their e-208 100% electric model, Peugeot asked us to work on an activation campaign around the concept of silence, which is one of electric cars’ biggest advantages. The creative team (Eva Sgarro and Jules Rethy) had already heard about an acoustic piezoelectricity project under development; there are buildings in Bangkok which are electrically self-sufficient thanks to the noise generated by the city’s sound pollution. Using city noise to create electricity which helps to charge silent cars seemed, to us, like a relevant idea that was consistent with Peugeot’s vision of “Unboring the future”.
LBB> What were the technical challenges in making it work?
Guillaume> It is a promising technology but still in its beginning stages, hence the desire for Peugeot to bring attention to it. The goal was not so much to charge the entire vehicle but to put a spotlight on technology that has potential.
The main challenge was to optimise the sensors’ efficiency to successfully create the energy mix that allows the car to be charged. With the number of sensors on the two billboards being limited, we had to be smart to optimise the yields of each one of them. Our partners Makemepulse had to be really innovative to produce electricity and make it compatible with a conventional charging station.
Bao> To advance a product without knowing its potential. It was an exciting challenge as it is still in the research and development phase. Since it is a new technology, we had to test it and problem solve all the details by ourselves—we couldn’t rely on previous documentation for support because it doesn’t exist yet.
LBB> Why was the idea such a good fit for Peugeot?
Guillaume> The automotive industry is transforming—energy transitions, autonomous cars etc. At the heart of this transformation Peugeot is fighting for an “unboring” vision of the future. All of its research and development aims give drivers experiences that offer maximum pleasure and enjoyment. Contrary to this sterile and frankly boring vision that we can often have with electric vehicles, this innovative e-208 activation campaign perfectly illustrates an approach that aims to constantly innovate and push limits further. It is also a beautiful demonstration of Peugeot’s vision: to serve the pleasure of driving. In our noisy cities what could be more valuable and satisfying than the silence brought by the e-208 and acoustic piezoelectricity?
LBB> What developments need to work to make it a viable source of energy for electric cars around the world?
Guillaume> As I said, piezoelectricity is still in its infancy, but great strides have been made to improve its performance and many researchers are beginning to take an interest in it. Several major projects are emerging around the world (watches, sidewalks, roads). Acoustic piezoelectricity is not yet very developed compared to "classical" piezoelectricity, but it is growing more and more. A start-up has even managed to place acoustic piezoelectric sensors in a nursery’s walls to produce energy.
The advantage is that noise is a source of infinite energy and it’s free. So, even if today only a small amount charges a vehicle, that’s a win!
On Artificial Intelligence
LBB> You've worked on projects like AiMEN (a couple of years ago to promote The Young Pope), which use AI for advertising applications. What do you think have been the most relevant breakthroughs in AI for brands to put to use in their marketing?
Bao> When we talk about AI in marketing, we immediately think about these algorithms that analyse tons of data to help brands understand their consumers and their businesses in order to retain markets or to conquer new ones. But today, improvements and advances in the field of AI allow them to exploit two new major opportunities:
1. To use conversations to sell products or services:
By conversations, I’m not talking about the ones you can have with your search bar and its “keywords” language; I’m talking about a natural conversation you can have with your real friends in the real world (thanks to semantic analysis). Because when it comes to finding information about a product or a service, consumers are becoming more interested in simply asking for it, rather than using keywords or graphical interfaces (websites or apps). Conversational user interfaces using AI offer many advantages over other interfaces: they help users find information quickly and, perhaps most importantly, play on the human brain’s natural inclinations for conversation. During the last three years, the increase of chatbots (with their product pushes) was the first observable sign. In the years to come, we might talk about conversational commerce instead of “e-commerce”.
2. To scale these conversations to target the entire world:
The good news for the future of AI is that it could have a conversation like a human without being human. So, it allows brands to scale up and simultaneously target a large number of consumers from different segments with their specificities, without the need for hiring an entire army of salesmen. And the beauty is that smaller companies can now compete with larger ones.
LBB> And what have you learned about AI from working with it over the years?
Bao> We were amazed when we saw Watson [IBM’s AI services] at work for the first time. We are still, however, at the beginning. Developers and engineers have made great progress in this area in the last 30 years (Deep Blue defeated Kasparov at chess in the early ‘90s) but we still have to deal with many things manually and we are nevertheless very far from achieving the billions of signals processed simultaneously by our brain. I think we will have to wait for the democratisation of quantum processors in order to see more significant progressions because it will allow smaller companies to compete with larger ones, thus increasing the level of competition.
LBB> Are there any particular projects that have helped you understand key things about making creative use of AI?
Bao> Actually, back in 2016 when we were producing the campaign, there were not a lot of projects using AI to tell stories. 'The Next Rembrandt' campaign for ING was definitely a masterpiece and an inspiration… but when it comes to conversations, we were a bit frustrated to see that the majority of “innovative” projects were actually only using keyword detection. So, when we remembered an IBM ad featuring Ridley Scott having a conversation with Watson, we saw an opportunity to use AI and its semantic analysis as part of a creative campaign. I knew there was a partnership between our cousins Havas NY and IBM so I called them and, six months later, AiMEN was on air. Later, we saw Snickers and Clemenger BBDO launch the Hungerithm campaign but they were still using keywords detection: their algorithm checked social media posts in real time against a list of 3,000 commonly used words and phrases. We were really proud to be the first one to use a complex semantic analysis platform to execute an idea.
LBB> You've called yourself a Blockchain evangelist. When did you first hear about Blockchain?
Bao> I heard about Bitcoin for the first time in 2012. I thought it was yet another anarchist concept that no one would adopt. The idea of a peer-to-peer currency was certainly credible but changing the entire modern financial system as we know it was, for me, inconceivable.
LBB> When did you first understand it? And when did you first realise the potential it had?
Bao> At the end of 2015, the Ethereum project was born. Created by Vitalik Buterin who found the project Bitcoin too limited, Ethereum’s mission was to bring the concept of decentralisation to the app world with endless possibilities.
Even though the algorithms and rules are different, the tech behind the Ethereum and the Bitcoin project remains the same: it’s called Blockchain.
Blockchain is a decentralised, distributed, and public, digital ledger that is used to record transactions (of value) across many computers so that any involved record cannot be altered retroactively, without the alteration of all subsequent blocks. So, I got interested, read the documentation and that's when I started to realise its potential.
LBB> Probably the biggest application of that technology in your career has been Game Chaingers for UNICEF. What was the key insight that led to that?
Bao> A new technology always comes with its specificities, and in the case of Ethereum the specificity was the fact that we could generate money with graphic cards. The more powerful a graphics card is, the more it can "mine" cryptos (generate money). There was such a media craze around cryptocurrency in 2017 that we experienced a global shortage for several months. We had the idea to use the most powerful graphics cards available in the world to help finance a humanitarian organisation. Today, where do we find the most powerful graphics cards in the world? In the eSports community. It was an idea that made a lot of sense especially as today more than 70% of donors are over 60, so it was urgent to reconcile a younger audience with these humanitarian issues.
LBB> What was the key challenge to making that happen?
Bao> This campaign was not technically complicated. We did not invent anything, we just used blockchain to tell a story and give a usually marginalised community the opportunity to take action. The most difficult part of this project was to convince UNICEF to associate their image with cryptocurrencies, a topic that still divides public opinion today. But as blockchain enthusiasts, it was important for us to make this project happen to counterbalance the misuse of Blockchain by certain parts of the community (for speculative purposes or to anonymously buy illegal products).
LBB> And what did you learn from the process there?
Bao> For this kind of innovative project, we cannot promise anything in advance. The most important thing I learned from the process is that we must work hand in hand with our client as a partner, identifying dangers without hiding anything and taking risks together. We prepared for all situations and eventualities so that we were able to move forward with confidence.
On Product Development
LBB> Your 'Seetroën' project was a great example in product innovation. What were the big decisions on that journey?
Bao> There was no big decision, for us it was logical to put Citroen and Boarding Ring [who made the device to help combat motion sickness] together. At BETC we recognize our strengths and identify the best way forward for a product, which can include reaching out to people who have their own set of expertise perfect for the campaign. Boarding Ring are experts in seasickness so we asked them if they would adapt their patent to create a new product for the automotive industry. They accepted and after months of testing we released a good quality, tangible and effective product for day-to-day use.
LBB> What was most challenging about it?
Bao> The most challenging thing was to industrialise and produce a product in large quantities, while respecting European standards. Citroen and Boarding Ring have a lot of experience in this market, so their expertise was very helpful.
LBB> And what lessons did you learn from it that can be applied elsewhere?
Bao> To not underestimate the power of a creative approach, a strong partnership and collective intelligence to tackle old and seemingly unsolvable problems.
Bao> In this campaign, there was stronger strategic insight than a technological one. We wanted to use google street view to stay local, transforming these perceived drawbacks of living in unknown Parisian neighbourhoods into strengths. The team’s strength comes from its fans and we wanted to pay tribute to them.
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