Even on a video screen, Barbara Paloc fizzes with energy, as well as a pleasant sense of irony. Useful attributes for leading a creative team – which is just as well, as she’s just become Chief Creative Officer of Dentsu Creative in Paris.
She’s fresh from a year of freelancing after a longish stint as the head of creation at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, which we’ll return to in a moment. First of all, what attracted her to the new role at Denstu?
“Well, it’s part of a fairly long context. During my career I’ve worked at agencies, then on the client side for the Olympics, and after that as a freelance. For me, it was the right time to return to an agency.”
But not just any agency, she adds. “Dentsu has a lot of talented creatives around the world. The EMEA agencies, for example, have extremely strong creative identities. Plus Dentsu has a conception of the metier which is very focused on experience, culture and audience engagement, areas where I’ve worked a lot over the past few years and which interest me a great deal.”
Another important factor was CEO Cécile Bitoun. “Her clear vision for the agency immediately attracted me – I wanted to work with her. My aim is to raise the creative reputation of the agency even higher and consolidate our position in the group.”
An Olympian task
Launched in 2022 by rebranding a number of agencies that were already in the group, Dentsu Creative is in a sense a very young network. Was that part of the appeal? “Yes, I’d say so. When I worked at DDB, which of course had a very strong heritage, it was a little bit reassuring, because you knew in whose footsteps you had to walk. But to arrive at a young agency, where I can help forge a new path, that’s refreshing. It corresponds to where I am in my life right now.”
She must enjoy a challenge – otherwise she’d never have agreed to work for the Olympic Committee. Did she hesitate before taking on that job? “It was definitely a leap into the unknown, because after a career in agencies, it meant joining a client, if an atypical one. So in fact I did a test for three months, between October and December, before I committed. In the end I decided there were a lot of positives.”
Apart from the barrel-load of politics that always comes with the Olympics, there was the fact that she was working with people who, metaphorically, didn’t speak the same language.
“It’s both amazing and difficult at the same time. You find yourself in a meeting sitting next to people who are, in fact, Olympic athletes. They’re incredible, but they have completely different software to you. You tend to be ‘the advertising person’. And advertising people aren’t always universally loved,” she laughs.
It was easier at the beginning, she says, when the Games were still four years off. The tasks included building a community around the Games and the French team, and generating a sense of anticipation. By the end, when Barbara decided to leave, the team was in a larger office and media scrutiny was more intense. Her mission ended with the symbolic handover of the Games from Tokyo to Paris.
The work she left behind is impressive. A spot featuring cyclists on the rooftops of Paris shows the city in a whole new light.
Was it a sort of homage to Paris, bearing in mind she’s spent her entire career there? “That was really the brief – to show a modern Paris, rather than the postcard version.” In fact, Barbara is from Corsica. “If Paris was a little more to the south and beside the sea, that would suit me just fine!”
I wonder aloud – as I do with many creatives – if she’s the kind of person who adored advertising as a kid. “I certainly grew up in an era where the TV was the focal point of the room,” she says. “Plus, when you’re young, most of the programmes for grown-ups don’t really speak to you. Ads are short, colourful, appealing. I would even cut ads out of magazines and stick them on my bedroom wall,” she admits.
One TV ad particularly impressed her. “It was for France Telecom, in 1996, and it showed two guys who passed one another the sun. It was so striking, simple and poetic that it hit me right between the eyes. I thought: ‘Wow, there are people out there capable of imagining that, and then making it happen.’ It’s the kind of image that sticks in your retina.”
It's also the kind of work that she loves creating today: highly memorable images and situations, or “retinal persistence”. An example from her Olympic Games period is a stunning choreographed sequence by Sadeck Berrabah, featuring a song specially composed by Woodkid and recorded with the Orchestra National de France. It’s almost three minutes long, and utterly hypnotic.
“But they don’t necessarily have to be beautiful,” she observes. She recalls a couple of examples from her time at the agency Ubi Bene. The Parisian advertising columns that were turned into giant hourglasses – with fake cocaine instead of sand – to “count down” to Narcos. A queue of IKEA chairs outside the Pompidou Centre. “I like images that are unexpected, strange, a little crazy, that inspire people to forward them, and above all remember them.”
It's always useful when creatives like Barbara find time to communicate their passion to an emerging generation. She teaches at the ad school ISCOM. Is it important to her, in particular, to inspire women to enter an industry that still has too few of them?
“Role models are important,” she agrees. “In sport as well, by the way. If you ask young women in France to name their favourite athlete, they’ll say (French soccer star) Kylian Mbappé. My daughter doesn’t think football is for her, because it’s a game for guys. That’s because France doesn’t have a Megan Rapinoe.”
At Ubi Bene, she made a point of recruiting women. She’s introducing a similar policy at Dentsu Creative. “I think you’re obliged to set an example, to put women in the spotlight, to show the next generation there’s a place for them. For the young women I teach, I’m the living proof that it’s possible.”
It’s true that, apart from a vivid image, the one thing you always remember is a great teacher.