AKQA’s James Hilton: Why France Is a Digital Tastemaker

james-hilton-nov11-sml-cropTo serve long-time client Nike, AKQA is jumping into France with a new office in Paris and plans for a staff of 40 to 50. Why now? Along with Nike’s recent sponsorship of the French soccer team, the digital ad industry in France is on an uptick. Throughout the eurozone, economic troubles are speeding the shift from offline advertising to online marketing, which is seen as cheaper and more accountable. In France, digital spending will rise to $3.1 billion in 2012, per eMarketer.

On top of that, the French have become the most active and Web-friendly smartphone users in Europe. Researchers at Google report that monthly smartphone traffic in France in 2011 was more than five times greater than it was in 2010, and each month about 1.7 billion mobile ad requests were being made.

That’s the environment in which AKQA’s creatives will seek to make their mark. The agency team in Paris is headed by Peter Lund and overseen by James Hilton, AKQA co-founder and chief creative officer. Hilton tells ClickZ that the new office intends to take full advantage of the rich creative heritage that the French are so proud of. And though he can’t reveal the agency’s plans for Nike, he shares his vision for France, his enthusiasm for video games, and his disdain for “digital landfill.”

ClickZ: How is digital creative work aimed at French consumers different than work we see in the U.S.?

James Hilton: France is home to astonishing diversity and incredible taste, so we are excited about working with the amazing French talent we’ve met; their energy, passion and creativity is enormously inspiring. As an international agency, we thrive on new ways of seeing the world. The opportunity to create work for the French market, which is arguably the most discerning audience in the world, is fantastic.

CZ: France has a strong offline creative and film industry, in part due to government protections. How is that French creative culture related to the online video and display ads in France?

JH: The art of storytelling, drama and narrative is vibrant in France. In coming to Paris, our vision is to create amazing films, content and experiences that people love and want to share. We are inspired to be in such an ecosystem.

CZ: What digital work in France wows you? Why?

JH: I recently went to the Grand Palais for the “Game Story” exhibition, a history of video games. What struck me is how video games combine the audio-visual capabilities of film, human insights of great literature, unlimited creative possibilities of animation, and an interactivity utterly unique to the genre. Given the craftsmanship of today’s best titles, the interactive storytelling and atmospheric immersion they enable, video games are a new art form.

As Henry Jenkins of MIT says, video games can “generate aesthetically and socially meaningful experiences which communicate complex ideas in a rich way”, as well as offering a path beyond the static narrative which even the greatest of writers have at times found confining.

An emerging generation of game designers and publishers sees video games as the ultimate storytelling medium. And because brands, most of the great ones anyway, are about stories and emotional involvement, video games may also evolve to become the ultimate in brand expression. These are the things that wow me.

CZ: Overall, the digital ad spend in Western Europe is about $8 spent on display for every $1 on mobile. Does your Paris office expect to focus heavily on display? How about mobile and social media marketing?

JH: Focusing on specific media types is a distraction we avoid; all our concentration goes into the idea and its appropriate application. When all is said and done, people the world over essentially want the same things; they want less clutter in their lives, they want things to be easier, and they want to have more fun. Our role in society is to create stories and experiences that excite them and positively contribute to their lives. Marketing that doesn’t add or contribute in a positive way is pollution. We aren’t interested in creating digital landfill.

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