The man who made Bell friendly

They say that creative is a young man's game, but while twentysomethings hopped up on double espressos can keep those wacky ideas coming, many don't have a clue when it comes to long-term strategic brand building. It takes time to produce a multi-year campaign that achieves recognition levels of 95% (such as Monsieur B. in Quebec). It takes discipline. It takes experience. Not many Canadian CDs can do it. Here's a chance to meet four who can.

They say that creative is a young man’s game, but while twentysomethings hopped up on double espressos can keep those wacky ideas coming, many don’t have a clue when it comes to long-term strategic brand building. It takes time to produce a multi-year campaign that achieves recognition levels of 95% (such as Monsieur B. in Quebec). It takes discipline. It takes experience. Not many Canadian CDs can do it. Here’s a chance to meet four who can.

François Forget on François Forget

Title: VP, co-creative director, Cossette Communication-Marketing, Montreal.

Age: 40

Education: BA communications/marketing.

Work history: Media planner. PR consultant. Copywriter. Strategic planner. CD (Cossette).

Producer (Just for Laughs).

Best project to date: Monsieur B.

All-time favourite ad: Volkswagen Lupo (1999).

Favourite TV show: La vie, la vie (Radio-Canada).

Favourite saying: J’ai le cul bordé de nouilles… (French expression meaning to be really lucky, which surprisingly references both noodles and one’s ass.)

Back in the early ’90s most people hated Bell. The company was about as cuddly as a cactus, or perhaps one of Canada’s larger banks, and a list of brand descriptors would likely include big, cold, unfriendly and arrogant.

Since then, of course, Bell has done a fine job rebranding itself as a much friendlier and progressive company. This is largely due to the realities of the marketplace: Bell is no longer a monopoly and has to court customers like everyone else.

But in Quebec, a lot of the credit for Bell’s new consumer-friendly image has to go to Monsieur B., who is currently celebrating his 10th anniversary as the corporation’s French-language face. With 95% recognition in Quebec, Bell’s chameleon-like spokesman heads up one of the longest-running and most successful campaigns ever mounted in Canada.

This is the sort of strategic campaign that most creatives dream about, and it’s this campaign that Cossette Communication-Marketing VP, co-creative director François Forget considers his most strategic work.

‘I remember that years ago, Bell’s spots were very pompous,’ he says. ‘but having this guy totally changed the perception of Bell – this big company, this monopoly, suddenly became less pompous, more convivial, more simple, something that wasn’t an asset of the company back then.’

With a background in media planning, copy writing and strategic planning, Forget is as strategic as creative directors come, and indeed, much of Monsieur B.’s longevity can be traced back to sound strategic roots.

B. originally had a short life expectancy. Born in 1992, he was to appear in only four spots touting Bell’s Smart Touch Services, such as Call Answer and Call Waiting. Bell had been offering the services for about a year without a lot of success when Forget and his team got the call.

‘Originally, people thought that those services were built right into the phone itself,’ recalls Forget. ‘They thought you had to buy a special phone to get those services.’ To make matters worse, the agency was originally told that comparing the Call Answer service to an answering machine, something consumers were already familliar with, was verboten.

‘They sold them back then,’ Forget explains, ‘and they didn’t want to cannibalize their own business.’

The strategy Forget’s team came up with has the hallmark of genius: It’s a common-sense solution that, in retrospect, seems like the only logical way to go. The first step was telling Bell to forget about cannibalization – if they couldn’t tell people that Call Answer was like an answering machine, customers would never understand what it was. The second was to invent a friendly, iconoclastic spokesman – ‘the consumer personified’ – who would take the hands of Quebecers and teach them how to use this new technology in a clear and simple way.

Forget found his man in Benôit Brière, a comic actor he’d seen performing in local plays. To make him more memorable, Brière always appeared in a ‘white limbo’ setting with minimal props. The thinking was that miming the use of a phone would drive home the message that these services are not tied to the phone itself.

The campaign was a success: After a year of lacklustre performance, sales of the services tripled in a month. But more than that, Forget and his team realized that they had stumbled onto a homegrown icon who could help Quebecers understand and embrace any kind of new technology.

To keep the campaign fresh, new characters were introduced, and the remarkable mimic abilities of Brière were put to work. In one early spot, Brière played both B. and his son, then in the next, Forget wanted him to play B.’s mother as well.

‘At first Bell didn’t want him to play his mum, because they thought it looked like a transvestite, so we cast a real woman. But at the end of the tape, we added a scene with Brière playing the mum, and when they saw that, they liked it and they understood.’

Since then, Brière has played B.’s brother-in-law, a squeegee kid, a nurse, a Russian immigrant named Boris, ‘who married Joceline later on,’ a baby, 25 kids from different countries all over the world (for ‘Chorale’) and most recently, a shy accountant who comes out of his shell by becoming a wrestler.

Brière plays all the characters, one in each take, and they’re all put together in post.

‘He even does all his own stunts,’ enthuses Forget. ‘He’s a great comedian and now he’s an icon in Quebec.’

When Forget and the Cossette team first came up with Monsieur B., no one really knew that the future of Bell would lie in convincing consumers to embrace one new technology after another. But after the Smart Touch Services came mobile phones, then the Internet, then high-speed Internet, now Internet-enabled mobile phones. As a character specifically created to explain how to use new technology, Monsieur B. has been there every step of the way, showing Quebecers how each product can make their lives easier.

Monsieur B. is not the only strategic platform that Forget, who spent two years as Cossette’s VP, strategic planning before rejoining Jacques Labelle as co-CD three months ago, has had a hand in creating.

There was the time his team advised Bell to break through the clutter of long distance advertising by focusing on a one-rate plan. This led to the introduction of ‘Simplitel,’ a long distance program offering just the one 10-cent-a-minute rate, giving the creative team a simplicity platform to distinguish Bell from the competition.

Then there was the realization, based on extensive research, that the readers of La Presse embraced social change, and that this could be used to both characterize the readership as an élite group, and introduce changes in the product itself. This led to award-winning ads based on an enlightened acceptance of medicinal marijuana and gender fluidity.

‘You have to find an idea with legs. You have to be sure the proposition is right strategically,’ Forget says, summing up the common ground in his work. ‘The starting point is always the consumer.’