The Sense of Nuances

New York-based since 1996, SelectNY’s president and worldwide creative director Olivier Rose van Doorne belongs to the circle of Frenchies whose success in America has opened up the world and given him the opportunity to work alongside brands such as Cavalli, Davidoff, Swarovski, Balenciaga and Lancôme.

How was the concept of the “small worldwide agency” born?

Next April, it will be 17 years since I joined SelectNY. At that time, the agency had no real positioning, but one distinctive trait - it already had offices in several cities: Koblenz - where it was born - Hamburg, and New York City. The culture was already International, and the ambition was getting global, but it wasn’t quite a network yet. Today, the agency has nine roofs. Some of the projects we are working on involve Geneva, NY and Paris; others are set between Hong Kong and Los Angeles… This spirit of small worldwide agency sets us apart from the competition, and has quickly established itself as our trademark. It is also part of another principle that I believe in - creation never belongs to one office. There is no team as such, but a pool of talented people. Which, in a large agency, is very difficult to get. Even though I am hands-on on most subjects - at various degrees - the final product is the sum of bits of each of us. This means constraints - we need to work across time zones - but it is highly motivating, and it allows us to understand issues comprehensively.

This worldwide agency may be small, but still employs 400 people on three continents. Why is New York the hub?

New York is indeed at the heart of the agency. Firstly, because I live there, and it is an emotional choice we have made. But also because of the melting pot this city embodies - even though it is less open than it once was, and it is increasingly difficult to work here - This is exactly the spirit of the agency. And for Asian people, being French and working from New York, with all the positivity and dynamics this inspires, is very attractive. It may even be what’s best (laughs).

French agencies specializing in luxury are obsessed with China...

To understand this market, you need to go there. I go there myself, at least once per quarter. What they are expecting from a French or European brand is basically to be as French or European as possible. Their approach is quite pragmatic. In shopping malls for instance – the first floor is the cream of the crop, the chic chic - Chanel, Gucci, Dior, Zegna; the second one is chic but less chic - Tod's etc.; and the third floor is that of Asian brands. The spot in the mall is the tug-of-war –“le nerf de la guerre”- for luxury brands. This is the priority since it is the location that assigns the category to which you belong. The Chinese are more traditional; they classify. When they buy Gucci, they buy "Italy Gucci." Ditto for French brands. It is the same with creation: They must be able to understand what we mean culture-wise. But this obsession with China makes me laugh somewhat: If we do a good job at home, it will sell anywhere.

The attraction for French talents you pointed out, what does it mean today?

20 years ago, there were many famous French photographers. This is no longer the case today. I feel it is now cool to be English. Just like in fashion, styling... But there is something in France that you appreciate when living abroad: Humanities i.e. “culture générale”. This makes you better at conceptualizing things, and in a broader and more open way.

Reminds me of an anecdote. Upon my departure from Publicis to New York City, Jean-Baptiste Mondino told me: "Everyone here likes you because you are honest, direct, and you make things happen. But in NY, everyone is like that. This is not what will make you stand out." Only recently did I find the response. The difference is this “culture générale”- general knowledge - and the analytical way of thinking to better understand things, culturally and socially. We are currently working for Marks & Spencer. This is about rewriting this brand and elevating it. We, the French, are finding ourselves facing British management for which we are reinventing a patrimonial brand!

The concept of "French touch", does it still make sense?

I think so, although I'm pretty uncomfortable with all nationalism. A French touch that is properly digested consists of this spirit of analysis mixed with emotional abandon and a sense of nuances. Same thing with the French language. Although it may not be the easiest to work with – unlike English which is much sharper and punchy – The other key factor is the belief in one's intuitions. 

What do you think of the debate around the “Made in France” label?

I understand it. In Asia, it is something that they care about deeply, assuming “Made in France” (MiF) always means 100 times better! And China and Korea are looking for authenticity and craftsmanship. There, being MiF means being manufactured in France. The MiF is certainly quite challenging, especially when it comes to employment. But this is not just a matter of production. It should also be a state of mind. I left France almost 17 years ago for personal reasons, but also because I was tired of hearing the same old "No, it'll never work!" 

Meanwhile, the communications of luxury brands have turned into postcards of the City of Light...

These campaigns are not made for French consumers, or even Americans; these are aimed at Asian consumers. The French already have a very clear idea of brands, including the statutory ones - those that have the highest growth rate in Asia today. These all claim the French style, the Eiffel Tower, the Arch of Triumph, the Parisian cafe... For an Asian target, the culture of brands is more recent; things need to be told simply and clearly. Signs are more caricatured; they need to be very obvious. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that education and expertise - through new technologies - are evolving rapidly, especially in China. For now, of course, at our level, we feel like communications has jumped 20 years backwards. In addition, some houses that have democratized their brands and open too many stores are now wondering if they shouldn’t go backwards.

You have often worked with celebrities; again, isn’t that somehow getting out of proportion?

Yes, I did and I still do, but personally, I advocate doing less. And I feel it is calming down overall. Also, when you’re working with a great idea, it is not necessary. Using a celebrity is extremely restrictive; she/he must be perfectly recognizable, and therefore there is not much room for sophistication in lighting, only eye to camera... It is very unevenly successful from one campaign to the next. In the last Jimmy Choo campaign, Nicole Kidman is hardly recognizable... It is difficult to depict face and shoes at the same time... On the other hand, Nathalie Portman for Dior is a success.

Add to this the fact that some personalities have been over-used. Today, it is very risky to use a Gisele Bündchen or a Kate Moss. Beyond the issue of ownership, she cannibalizes the idea. The only one thing you see is her!

How would you define your own "touch"?

I like creations that are structured like an onion, with many layers of reading, several dimensions. Composite images, fair, true ... An emotional and visual multilayer collage with a story that ties it all together and is pleasing for both the general public and the elite. Aside from this, I love everything that is maximalist.


Interview by Fouzia Kamal.