Some characters are more interesting to interview than others, some easier, some more affable and genuine. Stephane Xiberras, otherwise known as president and chief creative officer of Paris-based BETC, who gave us "the Bear", the Canal+ film ranked as highest awarded ever by the Gunn Report, has so much - too much - going on for him yet he remains more approachable than many lesser figures in the industry whose ego inflates as they climb up the ladder - or even without climbing the said ladder. At 52, Xiberras sits comfortably on top of a major advertising powerhouse, which is going digital in orientation. But before all else his question was "can we do this in French?" - which, being my first language (even if not my mother tongue) was easy for me, but this means there are small subtleties in discussion, which sadly are not transposable in the English version.
The talk starts off with me admitting that the gold-winning entry of BETC (they scored two golds) entitled "Dads" for Canal+ was among my top favourites for the year. The film depicts fathers recording via phone or tablet major events in their children's lives - concerts, marriages, birthdays, basketball games. Except that in the last scene, we discover they were watching live football instead and only pretending interest in their children's milestones. Naturally, as a copywriter first - just like Xiberras - I was intrigued as to how such a film gets to happen.
"Well, it always starts with the client brief! Not always inspiring: European championships! The original idea came from the realisation that smartphones were used to watch "here and now" kind of events, which of course this meant men watching football or sports in general. From there on, the twist was reconstructed backwards to make it theatrical and suprising to the public". It is known that Xiberras loves animals, and used them almost constantly in his films, including the classic film "the bear", which shows a bear directing a movie with scenes being shot, tantrums being had, actors speaking fondly, sets being planned, only to discover that the bear in question started off as a rug, which saw so much television it decided it wanted to try its own luck with the tagline "the more you watch Canal+ the more you love cinema". "It could have been a lampshade, or a chair, but once we thought of a rug - the film made perfect sense. There you have this inanimate object, which was viewing too much Canal+ it became contagious to want to do movies. It reminds me of Tarantino who worked as a video store clerk" - I point out that he even faked his CV claiming he appeared in a Godard movie named King Lear because no one in Hollywood would have watched it anyway and one of the extras had a resemblance to Tarantino". "See? Exactly my point!"
I also tell him that his other very well-known film "The Closet" - also for Canal+ - does not include animals. "Trust me, that was a mistake!"
Xiberras is known for his love of reading instruction manuals, which he prefers to humans, hence my question about if he has more faith in machines than in men. "Machines are stupid, mostly because they have been programmed by humans! They do repetitive talks. But come to think of it, humans do that as well, 70% of our actions are repetitive, and then there's the remaining 30% which are the "supplément d'âme" such as declaring our love to someone or expressing emotions, but even that a lot of people do not have!" - "a little like that Goldman song La Vie par Procuration" I add, before realising my reference is an old one dating back to the 80s, which is the same way Xiberras describes himself when he says "every time I look into the mirror ever since I cut my hair I feel I am in "quantum leap", which dates us in terms of references. "Yes, we come from a classical education, and then there's a new generation, which has Game Of Thrones' references" - "Or Mad Men" I add. "Yes! But we must learn from each other, and we must remain humble." "Humble, an unknown word to most creatives, specifically in the Middle East." "Well, we must", he insists. "Otherwise we die from the inside. I feel I am still a gamin; I still play video games; it is always fun to work with me; it is an interchange of knowledge between generations and people from different backgrounds."
"Eventually," he goes on, "there's nothing new under the sun; the Iliad gets recycled in new scenarios, but somehow we must point it out to newer generations. And unfortunately, legally, we cannot trademark ideas, so a lot of companies. And this happens a lot in the Chinese market, which steal our ideas and walk away free. Yes, even the 'Brad is single' ad for Norwegian Airline was replicated for an Indian Motel in Delhi just a week later," I add.
"But do you understand how information flows online if you do not have a Facebook and Twitter account?" I asked. "Of course, just look at the Louise Delage case!" Louise Delage, the overnight Instagram sensation came from BETC as well, with Xiberras as Executive Creative Director. Delage, much like all other Instagram users, would put images of herself in exotic locations with a glass of alcohol in her hand, typifying the glamorous life of the Instagram yuppies. In the end, the account turned out to be a social message from Addict Aid about social drinking and its pitfalls.
What puzzled me is him put in the mental asylum in the army during his military service, and then saying later that if he had to spend four months with crazy people it'd rather be with creatives. To which Xiberra remarks, "by the time I enrolled in the army, I was already 25 with a girlfriend, a job, so I felt insulted. I was already playing music and programming by the age of ten." - "You were good at math too!" - "Yes very good! But I felt that my intelligence was being insulted"...
The discussion sadly ended there because by that time, and under the Amsterdam pouring rain we had moved to the Panama Club for the closing ceremony of the Epica Awards. Without even proper goodbyes - the talk drifted off, but Xiberras went on stage to pick up his three awards, and indeed, he deserves many - above all for being a human being, in a shark eat shark advertising world!