British Airways chief executive Bob Ayling may have embraced a Frenchman as the saviour of the Millennium Dome (albeit a US-educated one), but British mistrust about French business practices continues to abound.
Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, a Harvard graduate and former vice-president of Disneyland Paris, is expected to bring Gallic flair to a difficult role. And he’s not alone. French interests in UK business are blossoming, with everything from water to railways, poster companies, and even television companies, coming under French control.
In advertising, French agency Publicis has finally succeeded in forming a joint venture with a leading US agency, acquiring Fallon McElligott after failing to wrest control of True North Communications.
But for many observers on this side of the English Channel, French business is still seen as conservative, slow-moving and dominated by autocratic management.
They assume the French economy is a throwback to the sort of corporatism last seen in the UK in the Seventies, when business was hidebound by a giant public sector and in the iron grip of the trade unions.
The French, on the other hand, accuse the US – and to a lesser extent Britain – of arrogance and cultural imperialism. French business leaders are proud of their thoughtful, intuitive approach, and the fact that they are not ruled by the vicissitudes of the stock market.
Two separate business cultures have grown up and bringing them together has often proved difficult.
In 1989, Martin Boase, former chairman of Omnicom in the UK and founder of ad agency BMP, fought off a hostile bid from French group BDDP – now part of the Omnicom group – with the aid of the catchline “Frog off.” He says: “We didn’t think we would get along culturally. In a corporate sense, we knew we weren’t going to be compatible. We fought a very chauvinistic campaign against it.”
Another senior agency figure was more forthright in his assessment: “Anglo-Saxon business practice respects the bottom right hand corner of the ledger. There is a more clear-cut equation between profit and success and power, which is also the case in Germany and the Netherlands.
“In France, influence is exerted in a much more complicated way – by networks and involvement in politics. French businessmen seek to gain influence with cabinet ministers in a way which would be frowned upon in the UK. Power is not necessarily exerted through money.”
He adds: “The French have tried to break into the global agency market but I don’t think they have a hope in hell of building an international network. The corporate cultural gap is too great, although this may change in time.”
Publicis’ deal with Fallon McElligott, signed this month, is the latest attempt by a French agency to create a global network in partnership with a US player. The agency’s former US alliance, with the True North group, came to an acrimonious end in 1997.
Publicis chairman Maurice Levy blames the split on a change of management at True North and personal clashes with chairman Bruce Mason, who took over in 1991. He says: “When Mason came on board, he did not accept the idea that he would have to share power with a Frenchman, who doesn’t even speak good English.
“He thought he was a man sitting in the most powerful company, so he should be the man on top.”
Levy had to learn how to deal with the Americans’ more methodical approach to management. “When there was a problem on the table, they would always try to replicate something which had worked before, rather than finding an innovative solution. We were more adventurous and more willing to take risks,” he says.
According to Levy, Publicis’ strength as a business partner is not its Gallic intuitiveness or willingness to take risks, but the fact that it has its roots in a minority culture. So, as a putative global network, it understands the importance of cultural difference. “France is a small country with a long history. We are very sensitive about our culture, our language and background. We are looking for a lot of respect for our history, but we also have to respect other cultures and languages and try to be the best partner.”
Levy is confident the cultural clashes which soured his relationship with True North will not be repeated with Fallon McElligott. However, his comments about True North are echoed by another agency chief with experience of Anglo-French partnerships: “There is a mistrust and suspicion between Anglo-Saxons and the French. If you do a deal, there is always a question mark over who is going to be running the show.
“There isn’t the level of trust you would get between two US or two British companies. It is difficult for a French company to find Anglo-Saxon partners.”
Brett Gosper, chief executive of French-owned agency Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper, believes too many negative assumptions are made about French business practice. “French businessmen are far more intellectual in their approach. They will debate issues. Anglo-Saxons are used to getting clarity. Everything has to be black and white. ©
“France is a well-educated country. You come across a higher level of intellect when you are interviewing people.
“They can also be more creative and innovative. They look at things slightly differently.
“But there is also more formality. French business leaders have traditionally had a more aloof and aggressive approach. They are almost regal in their manner. Whereas the Anglo-Saxon businessman will go out of his way to show his human side to his employees.”
Gosper believes a more entrepreneurial culture is taking root in France, citing Jean-Marie Messier, head of French utilities-to-cable TV giant Vivendi, as an example of a new spirit. “To take a water company and turn it into an interactive pay-TV channel is quite a change of culture. Messier is only in his early 40s – and that would have been unheard of in France 15 years ago.”
The French outdoor advertising company JC Decaux has also been making strides. With the purchase last year of Mills & Allen, it became one of the biggest players in the UK poster market overnight.
Meanwhile, French-owned Carat is one of the largest media planning and buying companies in the UK.
EMAP France chief exec utive Arnaud De Puyfontaine
believes things are changing rapidly in his native country. He has imported British working practices into France, introducing the idea of employee share schemes and breaking up the company into smaller, more focused business units.
De Puyfontaine comments: “The man with the power in a French company is the one at the top. In the UK it is more results-driven. There is more teamwork, rather than just following orders from the boss. People are more active and focused on specific goals. There is no translation of the phrase mission statement’ in French.
“Things have changed a lot in the past five years, however. Chief executives are becoming younger. Companies are becoming more aware of the possibilities of the stock exchange, and are more willing to take on the unions.”
De Puyfontaine is keen to stress that cultural exchange is not a one-way street: “The combination of the French approach with Anglo-Saxon working practices is a good one. If you can mix them together, it can be a winning formula.”
Clearly, the French still enjoy doing things their way, even if, like the rest of the world, they are taking their business leads from the US. Surely now is the time to consign ancient preconceptions and prejudices to the scrapheap.