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articles / advertising know-how and fearless opinions


Posted on July 31, 2004 and read 9,915 times


If you’re at work right now, need to look busy and kill some time, read on. But if you’re in a hurry and only want to read about the Uber Ad Man’s Castle, skip to Day 2 Arrival at Touffou.


For a little over a year, I was lucky enough to be Chief Creative Officer of OgilvyOne and OgilvyInteractive Toronto. And while the whole experience ended in tears, it wasn’t without its extreme highlights, the apex of which was a visit to Touffou, David Ogilvy’s medieval chateau in France.

This wasn’t some run-of-the-mill boondoggle, lying on a beach during a fashion shoot. This was the chance to touch the legend. I can quote entire paragraphs of David Ogilvy’s books. (i. You can’t bore someone into buying your product. ii. Fire the sad dogs. iii. When love hits the office, I usually send the woman home to have babies.) I recite them to clients in my tweediest olde Englishe accente and they often like it. A visit to David’s castle would be the advertising equivalent of a pilgrimage to Mecca but with alcohol. And while David Ogilvy (DO) has passed on to that great focus group in the sky, his charming wife, Herta, is still very much alive and a most gracious hostess.

“An opportunity to network and learn from other cultures.”

Just 2 months after joining the agency, I learned that I would be attending a Creative Summit with Creative Directors from all around the Ogilvy world. The invitation made it fairly clear that we’d be working but not too damned hard, something I excel at.

Imagine yourself in the position. Your dental plan hasn’t even kicked in and they’re flying you to the land of foie gras to party with other lottery winners. I felt like Harry learning from Hagrid that he’s a wizard … or some bosomy matron from Cincinnati on the Price is Right, being invited to come on down. It was hard to contain my joy. I must have been hell to be around.

Moreover, this was last spring in Toronto during SARS, mad cow and WMD. So my elation was likely that much more palpable and intolerable to others given the temper of the times.

A quick search of Touffou produced scores of French sites featuring this romantic turreted piece of heaven, its 4 towers, sprawling grounds, stables, vineyards, and ancient history. Conspicuously there was no mention of anything as vulgar as advertising, whose fortunes have kept the lights on since David and Madame rescued the place in the ’70s.

It was a mess at the time. Mostly ruins. Some aid from the French government helped pay for the (I suppose you call it) renovations. Today, Touffou is splendid and impeccable. It looks like the set Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner would bound through, butchering swordsmen and dialogue.

Day 1, Paris

Touch down at Charles de Gaulle. Or is it Orly? Why do all the world’s airports look the same? And why is alcohol free on cross-Atlantic flights when you’re losing a night’s sleep and about to come out again at what looks like Pearson with the English sucked out of the bilingual signs?

And why do people always say “touch down” in first-person travel pieces? These were the sorts of thoughts fogging my mind as I grabbed a taxi into town.

My hotel room was tiny but convenient. It was noon on a hot, sunny Saturday in late June. I would sleep when it was all over. I showered and got ready to right back out into town.

I love jazz and so does Paris. Since the ’20s, American jazz giants have escaped to its enthusiastic, appreciative audiences. Furthermore, the colour of your skin was less important in Paris. So the players were happy to come and stay.

I wanted to see live jazz again in Paris.

But being jet-lagged, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to the witching hours when the jazz clubs really get hopping. Plus, I’d be nailed to one spot on my solo night in the city of lights. (At night, jazz clubs there typically charge $40 for your first drink but there’s no cover charge to get in. So you stay and nurse that one drink. No wonder Parisians are so thin.)

I searched online and found a venue that featured a pianist during the afternoon and a trio in the evening. It was about 3:30 when I arrived. The “venue” was a small hotel reception area and the pianist was a little uncomfortable when I, the only other person in a room where grumpy Americans usually sit and wait for their wives, nervously smiled, tapped and nodded along to the tempo then gently clapped after each number.

He left the room. So I finished my 1664 (France’s answer to Labatt 50) and went for a walk.

Paris is one of the most walkable cities you can hope to find. Every few steps affords an impressive new view. Parisians know it and love to walk themselves.

By the way, that reputation Parisians have of being snobs? It’s twaddle. You don’t go to other places to find people like yourself. The French are different and, yes, Parisians are more sophisticated than your average hockey coach from Brampton. But that’s no reason to reject them. Manners are important here. La politesse is what they call it (and Mick Jagger sang about it Sympathy for the Devil, so there’s a little equalizer for that little Brampton hockey coach in all us). Let’s sit in on a not untypical conversation between two women who’ve been doing business every morning for the past 30 years:

Madame Lebeau enters the bakery and is greeted by Madame Labelle. “Bonjour, Madame Lebeau. Comment allez-vous?”

“Tres bien, merçi, Madame Labelle,” whose first name she’s known since before the rude tourist who’s about to butt in line was born. “Et vous?”

A Gallic shrug: “Comme çi, comme ça.” Then Madame Labelle politely enquires what Madame Lebeau would like to purchase today, knowing full well that it’s 2 bread sticks and a small chocolate because that’s what she’s bought everyday since Réné Levesque had his first cigarette – all without a hint of sarcasm.

Given these delightfully slow and thoughtful manners, it’s no wonder we misinterpret their aback takenness for snobbery when Benny from Philly, blurts out, “Please to have the courtesy to speak a little Ingle-eesh!”

And of course you’ll be treated like a dog if you ask the ticket guy at the Louvre to take your picture with a berret, but once you’re off the beaten path (just a couple of blocks away) provided you demonstrate a good-humoured attempt to communicate, Parisians are pretty much like the rest of us.

So anyway I left the jazz bar cum waiting room and went for an early summer stroll.

It was humid but not yet fetid. And I stumbled into a street music festival populated by French college students ripping it up. There were about uniformed 100 participants, in groups around 10. The quality of uniforms ranged from full-on gangster zoot suits to red t-shirts and sarongs, which the men wore magnificently. Beyond that there were about 50 of us street revelers enjoying the scene. A brassarie had its doors open so listeners could swig beer in time to the bombast. And they did. Did I mention what the scene was?

I’d gone looking for jazz and stumbled upon a marching brass band festival!

I hate marching music! Or so I thought. This was marching re-interpreted. The rules for each group in this friendly competition between marching bands were as follows: you open and close every set with that Kiss disco classic, I was Made for Lovin’ You, Bay-beh; break all the over rules. Each band was really bloody good but a couple should have been making records and selling out stadiums.

One band played Aqualung and followed it up with When I Think About You I Touch Myself. I needed to pinch myself, being jet-lagged and somewhat culture shocked. Who would have thought that an instrumental version of “I don’t know how to love him” from Jesus Christ Superstar could bring you to tears? If you thought “not Steven Bochenek” you’re right. But after four hours of dancing with drunk French students and street people, I loved marching music. Or at least I loved this revived twist on what you’d picture as being the purview of sexless tomato faced blondes in lederhosen.

Ah, travel. It opens the mind or slams it shut forever.

As good a town as Paris is for walking, it’s even better for staggering. A sleep deprived alco-fueled wreck I lurched back to the hotel. It was a cheap dump in the 4th arrondissement right beside the train station I’d be leaving from next morning.

Day 2 Morning

The only problem with traveling alone is that there’s no one else to blame when you screw up, unlike life back in the agency. When I arrived 2 blocks away at the train station (“le gare, yes sir”) I learned that I’d slept through my train to Poitiers and, this being Sunday, the next one wouldn’t leave for 3 hours.

Still I decided to try to blame someone at the agency for something. The I.T. guys had told me my mobile phone works outside of Canada. Apparently France isn’t outside of Canada, only America is. I tried the pay phone in the train station. It wouldn’t accept my credit cards and dialing zero in Europe just produces a laugh track. The result? I couldn’t call the Ogilvy network contact to warn her I’d be late by 4 hours.

Not a great first impression to make.

Let’s recap: I was jet-lagged, ugly hungover and unable to communicate to extremely important contacts that I’d be 4 hours later than palnned. The important thing to do at a time like this is panic which, like many creatives, I excel at. Keeps us slim and hones the edge. Right now, in my racing mind, the other creative directors were all sitting in the bar car halfway to Poitiers, sipping chardonnay, discussing the disappearance of the headline in modern advertising and wondering why the bloody hoser wasn’t on the train.

I walked to the desk of a local hotel and explained my problem. The man let me use their phone, free. I couldn’t figure which area/country codes to press before entering the contact’s number. The man behind the desk did it for me. I finally got through and, apologizing effusively like the frost bitten Canadian I am, said I’d be late … turns out, late like at least 10 other victims of Saturday night in Paris.

I thanked the hotelier effusively and pulled out my wallet to pay for the call. He wouldn’t accept any money but did press a bilingual “Find Peace in Jesus” card. I thought to myself: I must really look a wreck.

Normally I wouldn’t complain about being stranded in Paris and, soon enough, I decided this situation was normal. I sat down to a stunning 3-course with a cheap table wine (doesn’t vin de table sound so much sexier?) and sure enough the anxiety soon evaporated soon.

I slept through much of the 3-hour journey. I was reading Irvine Welsh’s follow-up, ten years later, to Train Spotting. It’s called PORNO and depicts a lurid doll on a hot pink background. The book was open on my lap while I snoozed. Soon after waking, I noticed a finely assembled French matron eyeing me nervously now and then.

Another stellar first impression! (Remember when you go abroad, father used to tell us, you’re an ambassador for your country.)

Arrival at Touffou

When I quit the train from Paris to Poitiers, the heat enveloped me like a French kiss from a hairy old dog. Though it was late June, I had just come the longest winter in Torontonian history and simply had too many warm clothes. I didn’t need this weather.

I found our contact and met several colleagues from the company’s Asian offices. We crowded into taxis specially ordered for us from Bonnes, the tiny village down the road Touffou. North Americans use space differently than our European and Asian brethren. Hell, Canadians have the lowest density per capita in the world. I’m Canadian and can honestly confess that I think it’s no fun sharing no space with strangers and their stuff in the heat.

About 8 of us were into a Smart car or something smaller and drove for another 45 minutes.

Fortunately everyone but me smoked.

When we finally arrived I could’ve wept for relief. Weeks of anticipation, a couple of days of hard travel and now nearly 2000 words later, I was here. They took me to my room. Have a look Mine was the middle one in that imposing tower on the left. There were 3 other such towers on the grounds but because of assorted elevations and blocking buildings, you can’t see them all in one photo.

The room had about the same area as a subway car but, as you can see, it was round and, as you can imagine, significantly more comfortable. The art was all original, most of it ancient. Despite the loathsome heat, it was cool in the room. No doubt this was attributable to the rounded tower walls, which were 6 feet thick of solid stone.

Speaking of stone, I decided I didn’t care who saw how bad a swimmer I am, and made straight for the pool once I’d changed. It was one of the only obvious 20th century incursions into this Lord of the Rings set. (That and the x-box the interactive geeks all played in the evenings while the direct weenies discussed scratch and save production innovations, and such.)

Isn’t the poolside always a great leveler? Doesn’t matter how intimidating you expect a colleague to be when you’ve already seen him in his skivvies. It was a great chance to get to know some of the creative directors I’d be spending the next few days with in a relaxed atmosphere. Besides, somebody brought beer. It was here that I learned there were about 20 of us in total. Around 7 were here at the pool. I would meet the rest soon.

An hour or so later, we were all formally welcomed and toasted on a courtyard graced with a stunning garden whose primary crop was rosemary. So it was pretty, practical and its scent had a soporific effect. The courtyard was atop what I later learned was the dungeon. The far wall afforded a view of the lazy river, La Vienne, 20 meters below. Beyond that, a barley field fell up a hill on the far side.

Our hostess and the heads of the International Creative Council, a group whose sole purpose seemed to be to spend money with panache, told us to take full advantage of the next few days and have a good time. Following champagne on the terrace (I accepted seconds) we were led to a stunning dining room in the main building on this Disneyesque campus, for our first of many superb meals.

Did I mention that I love how the French live? The very thought of fast food there is cruel and unusual punishment. Each meal we had during our stay at Touffou was unique and held in a unique setting. This room with its 13-foot high ceilings and cheery pastel colours seemed specifically designed for dining at dusk during these longest days of the year.

We looked for our name tags at table and I was sat beside Johann from Stockholm. Shockingly handsome, he was like a Swedish Hugh Grant and I felt like a fat (North) American. I’m always impressed with how sober our friends from the Nordic countries can seem (especially when you see how much they can put away in a session). His manner was well-considered, he listened closely to all I said, and nodded but rarely said much in return; I assumed he didn’t like me. However, when he joined me at nearly every meal thereafter throughout our stay at Touffou (no longer prompted by name cards) I had to confess that I’d misread him. We were buddies and buddies simply don’t need to fill the world with idle chitchat.

Hmm. Maybe I was going to learn from other cultures as was the advertised purpose of this entire trip.

Coming next week: Getting hammered with Malcolm MacLaren.

Steven Bochenek is a freelance copywriter, full-time father, slow marathon runner and mediocre musician. Ask for him by name:




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