Q&A: Georges Mohammed-Chérif of Buzzman on Life, Advertising and Selling to Havas

And why he won't leave, even though he could

Paris-based agency Buzzman requires no introduction. From the Tippex moment onward, they've made it their business to deliver surprises, whatever the medium—be it for Burger King, Ikea or South Park. Last year they even built a virutal-reality theme park called Illucity.

In September, the agency was acquired by Havas. We got with Buzzman's founder and CEO, Georges Mohammed-Chérif, to talk about the deal, and what he feared most. But we also got into the particulars of his life—like his mother's role as an oral storyteller in Algeria, and his upbringing in a Harki refugee camp. 

Let's jump in!

Muse: What've you been thinking lately? You're fresh out of this acquisition, back to work...

Georges Mohammed-Chérif: When I sold 51 percent of the agency, the people of Havas, the agency and my clients all had the legitimate fear of me leaving. That I'd forget the agency. So the first couple of campaigns we are going to launch after the acquisition will be some of the most powerful we've ever produced.

There are haters who want to destabilize us. Some of them might say that the best is over—Georges sold, he doesn't give a shit. Those campaigns will tell them...

...fuck you.

Yeah. We are going to be even better.

Didn't you feel freaked out by the what-ifs?

Sure! I was afraid that it would change something. And in fact, it did change something. It changed how I feel. I want to be even better.

Really?

Yeah! I'm a warrior. I know people will say bad things. But I need to say "fuck you" in my own way.

How long were the acquisition negotiations?

Nine months, like a baby.

What made you feel you could trust Havas? They probably made promises, but the tradition is that a great independent agency is acquired, integrated and ruined.

I asked for a few points that were really important in the first meeting. And they said yes immediately. We didn't want to change the name. This is Buzzman, and it will still be Buzzman. It won't be Buzzman Havas, Buzzman H, whatever. That was the first thing. The second was location. Buzzman is an agency in the center of Paris. We want to have the autonomy to be just us and not share space with other people at Havas. And they said yes.

Five years ago, [Havas CEO] Yannick Bolloré came to me; he already wanted to buy the agency. Us keeping the name wasn't a problem, but the location was.

Why?

He was building Havas Village in Puteaux. So he said one condition was to go to Puteaux. I said no, end of deal.

The third condition: I don't want anybody from Havas coming to run my agency. No general manager, no someone who's going to tell us what to do. No one.

I think they gave me all of this because of change. Havas and all the big companies have had big problems after buying some agencies; they made the mistake of changing them. They lost a lot of money doing that, and all the value of an independent agency who has what they don't. So the way they were negotiating, and the way they used to approach this kind of deal, is just over now.

Adam & Eve was a good benchmark for all these companies. They didn't try to make Adam & Eve run the DDB way. DDB said to the guy from Adam and Eve, "Now you are the boss." So they gave them even more autonomy and power [over DDB London]!

We don't want that. We don't want to be fused with another agency. In the past five years, a lot of American companies asked us to fuse with them, and we always said no. We want to be just us.

We are a little bit savage.

In exchange for all these terms, what did you have to give Havas?

Financial reports every three months. And even the financial part is really fair. This is part of the intelligence of Yannick Bolloré: We have to go on making 15 percent a year, which we are already doing. So it wasn't like "We bought you and now we want +30 percent, +50 percent." They want us to be steady.

And the earnouts are also motivating. Do you know how earnouts work? Basically, you buy 51 percent of a company. After you make objectives, two years, and five years, and depending on the growth, and the figures, both of them, you have an earnout. So it pushes you to still work.

But now they're 51 percent shareholders. What if they change their minds later?

No, it's all contractual. Tomorrow they can't wake up and say "Hey, we want 20 percent" or "Tomorrow I want Buzzman to be Buzzman Havas." They can't.

Bolloré is a family man. He has a big family and friends. And as we manage the agency as a family, I always loved that. For me, it makes sense to go with someone who has a family spirit.

What happens if you guys fuck up? What happens if next year you grow by 13 percent? What are the contingencies for protecting Buzzman?

This isn't written down, but it's a strong psychological defense: If they retaliate against the agency, I will leave.

You're not obliged to stay a certain amount of time?!

I can leave tomorrow. Or this afternoon!

Are you serious? They let you have that? Why?

Because I asked. It's their way of persuading me that they won't touch anything.

So technically, you could start another agency tomorrow.

After this lunch, I can go up there and say, "You know what? After discussing it with Angela, I'm gonna leave Buzzman."

Like, bye.

Bye!

Can you take your best people with you? There's nothing in the contract against that?

No, I have a one-year non-compete. Or maybe two years.

How did you persuade them to take all your terms in a way that made them still feel good about this deal?

They feel that I don't want to leave, and I'm determined. I'm also determined about my autonomy with the agency. The fact they accept that shows me that they want to leave us that autonomy. It's really simple. I don't feel like someone is trying to fuck me. They can't, and they don't want to. The way the contract is written shows that they don't even have the idea in their minds.

As I told you, they have already had bad experiences. They know that if they do bad by us, we can leave in one minute. But honestly, we didn't talk a lot about that. It was very natural.

How did you announce the news to your company?

In two phases. I told my managers before signing, just to be sure that they understood the deal and were behind it. I wanted to feel I could count on them and also feel their encouragement in doing it. When I had this, I was really happy.

I announced it to the company one hour before the news went live. But there were already a lot of rumors, so for the people of the agency, it wasn't a big surprise.

How did you deal with pushback?

I told them exactly what I told you. There is one thing, which I saw was an efficient argument: People's fear is, I think, strongly connected to the fact that they think, "OK, now Georges has enough money to leave." This is the fantasy. But the fact is, I'm already rich enough. That's what I told my people, and that's what I told my client, and the guys from Havas. I said, "You know—"

"I don't need more money"?

No! I was already rich before the deal. I could already have stopped the agency if I wanted. It's true. I do this because this is my passion. I love this work. I love the people of the agency, the way we work; it's powerful to have all that. And that's more powerful than money.

When did you launch Buzzman?

Dec. 16, 2006 ... 13 years ago.

What did you want to make?

You want the real story? Honestly, it was a kind of a mistake.

Explain.

After I was fired by Publicis...

Why'd they fire you?

Musical chairs. There was a new team, and I was one of the latest arrivals—and one of the most paid. I had good results and stuff. So I left, and I lived maybe two, three years in sabbatical. For the first time in my life, I had a little bit of money, so I enjoyed it.

What did you do?

Party ... trips. Nothing, a lot of nothing. Walking in Paris, benching, boxing, cycling. A lot of rest, in fact, because it was, like, 13 years that I was working. I needed this. But during those two years, I spent too much money. I ... went a little bankrupt.

This is the real story.

During these two years, I wasn't so into digital and computers; I don't like that a lot. But when you have nothing to do except organize parties and holidays, trips and flights, you go online … and that's how I saw the power of the internet. And I saw the work of Crispin.

Crispin was my mother.

I really created Buzzman because of Crispin. The work of Burger King was so crazy; so much content! They did video games, long films, stunts. And I was from traditional agencies. At this time in Paris, there was zero of that stuff.

As a creative, I found that really funny, a new field of work. I want to say I was all-in on digital, but I never did a business plan or business model. It was just about pleasure.

Today I can rewrite the story and say, "Yeah, I was a visionary. I saw that digital would be great for the next…" whatever, no, this isn't true. I just did it. Then Buzzman was 1, and after, 2; then 5, then 10. It happened like that. It was not premeditated.

Was your first client Tippex?

[Editor's note: Buzzman's "A Hunter Shoots a Bear" campaign for Tippex drew global acclaim in 2010. See the case study below.]

No, my first was Quick Burger.

What did you do with them?

They wanted to launch hot dogs in their restaurant. I convinced them to tell the story of a hot dog, but like… Hot Dogg, like Snoop Dogg. It was the Snoop of hot dogs! 

We made a music video clip with really funny lyrics, unbranded. It's three minutes long, with lots of dogs, and all the clichés of rap videos. Except the dog was singing. And it was my first work. Then, boom! We had a lot of PR. 

When I saw that, I thought, that has to be the benchmark of the agency—all the power of PR. TV, magazines, everyone asked us, "What is this?" We told them it was for Quick off the record, but for 10 days, nobody else knew in France. And it was a hit! No. 3 on Billboard. 

When you launch an agency, the hardest thing is convincing a client to be your first. How did you talk them into it? 

I was really lucky. The agency was born under a great star. I didn't have a lot of money to do it. But when I showed it to the president of Quick, he said OK, we are going to go all in because my kid will go crazy.

How did you pitch it? Storyboard? Video of yourself dressed like a dog?

Oh, no! I made a mood board. I took pictures of dogs with rap ads. And with the songs in the background. Maybe I'm good at convincing people.

Speaking of—I heard your mother was an oral storyteller in her village in Algeria. Can you explain what that is? Do you think you got something from her?

I think it's completely linked. You know, my family was in the mountains of Algeria, in Kabylie. In this place, there is no TV, no radio and stuff. So in the old days, the TV was people telling stories, old stories to their kids. 

So I was born, and I was raised by my mom telling those stories. One day, nearly before her death, we were walking on the mountain with my sister, and my mom was reciting this long poem that sounded so old. She was nearly at her end, maybe one year before. And I said, "Do you realize how lucky you are to not have Alzheimer's? How amazing that you can remember this entire poem!"

And she said no, she didn't remember it. So I asked, where did it come from? She just created it! Honestly, it was like slam. It was rap. She was talking about the mountains, everything around, many old things she remembers. And she was just improvising. I was astonished—like, fuck! My mom was really talented. I think she gave me that, a way to talk about stories. 

My whole family's like that. This weekend I celebrated my 50th birthday with all my friends, people from the agency, my sisters were there. They talked about me during the speeches. And they were really good storytellers. It was so emotional, because they know how to tell a story. 

So how did you guys come from Algeria to Paris? 

After the war, after the independence. I was a Harki's son. Do you know what a Harki is? It was native Muslim Algerian people who were obliged to fight for France. Me and my sisters were young, but others in the family were obliged to work, to fight against their brothers. There was a lot of torture. 

In the last few years, France has recognized how badly it treated the Harkis. Because Harkis were seen as traitors to their country. But when they arrived in France, they were nothing here. We had to live in a refugee camp. 

It was tough ... but it was nice.

Did you just say the refugee camp was tough but nice?!

I did!

Where was the camp? 

In Lot-et-Garonne, a camp named Bias. You can find it on the internet; the images are hard to look at. 

How long were you there, and what was it like? 

I was there from age 0 to 7. What I did … oh, play football.

After we left, we moved to a small village five kilometers away. And we had a small house. Honestly ... Bias was like a concentration camp.

Did it make you angry?

No. I was too young. My family suffered a lot from this, but I was small … and I think I always try to see life in a positive way. It's hard to put me in a bad mood.

That's weird! You have this reputation for being a hard-ass.

I am—about the work! I yelled at someone this morning. But the work is a big fucking deal; the campaign we are working on now, we won't have another chance to make it. It's Wieden + Kennedy level.

Wieden + Kennedy is the kind of agency that, when we see stuff from them, we say, "Fuck, they are so lucky to have the money to do that." We are Buzzman; it's not the same! We can't forget things; we have to be really focused. So when a mistake happens in a situation like this, it's a lot. I can be really hard, yes.

But the results talk for me. And there are so many old guys still here from the early days of the agency, and we have a good relationship. People know I never get upset about anything besides the level of work I want. Other than that, I don't give a shit. But on this, I'm really tough.

Do you have laws that Buzzman people must obey? Like, "if you forget getting anything else, these are the things that you have to not fuck up"?

Quality. Excellence.

Everybody wants that! How do you make sure it happens?

I take people that I know are able to judge the quality of what they're doing. So they know. I'm really focused on the work, but at the same time I delegate responsibility and show them that, for me, they should know what's important and what's not.

When people from Droga or Wieden do a campaign, people are putting a lot into production, into media. Everything is super huge. It's easy to go big when you have the means. If I get 1 million euros to run a campaign, maybe Droga gets $10 million. So it becomes very important to attract the best talent. When you put the best talent all together, you kill the game.

How did you educate your creatives to develop a competitive international mindset? How do you impose the standard?

I show them campaigns I like—"This is the level." But when people come to the agency, they usually do because they saw certain campaigns. So they know the level; they don't come by chance. Clients are the same, they come for the campaigns. We've never cold-called a client. The best development director of the agency is the campaigns. We are so lucky to have that.

Because when you call a client, it's to say, "Hey, we are Buzzman, this is the kind of content we make." It's not the same as when a client sees your work and comes; they want exactly what they saw. The spirit of the agency is the best way to sell the agency.

But you have to protect your ambitions and standards. Every day you have to say it, like a coach. I walk in and say, "I want to be the best. I want my company to be one of the best in the world." When we talk to people from Droga, Wieden and 72andSunny, all these people, I want them to know our campaigns, at least; our name would be good, too.

What do you want them to say about Buzzman?

"This is a cool agency. They make good stuff."

Let's go back a little bit. You come from a background that is very different from how people usually find themselves in advertising. How did you find your path?

I used to be a great footballer, for 14 years. But I had to stop, because of asthma. So I changed my direction. At 17, I saw an ad on TV and said, I want to do that. So I went to marketing school, advertising school. I was an intern in advertising, copywriting.

What was that moment when somebody took a chance on you and they had no idea who you were?

I think it was when I did my internship. It was at agency Australie. The guy who took me on was Daniel Faure, one of the guys who did M&C Saatchi GAD. GAD was Gilles, Antoine, Daniel. He offered me this internship for six months at Australie. And I swear, the first time I made an ad, I found it crazy. It was for Toyota … a sport utility vehicle? And it was a small thing that went in a smaller newspaper.

But I was so proud of that. I felt it was magic.

This is a weird question.

I will give you a weird answer.

Do you think there's a reason you're alive?

That I'm ... alive? I think we have to ask my parents. Unfortunately, they're both dead!

[Awkward pause, which Georges fills by laughing.]

I think it's a good answer to your question.

No, but … I try to make good stuff and entertain people. When you see my work, and the work of the agency, you see I like to entertain. I like to shock in a good way, by humor, by emotion. But I'm not alive for that. I was not sent on Earth to ... I'm not so egocentric.

I'm really just happy to be alive. I find that this is great. And I'm sad to not believe in reincarnation. I'd love to, because then I'd believe I'll do it all again. I'm sad that one day it will all be finished.

Is there something you need to do before you die?

Yeah, a lot of things. This year, on my Instagram, I made a hashtag, #50goalsfor50years. It will run from January until Aug. 20 of next year. So for the year of my 50 years, I have 50 goals to do.

One of my goals was to maybe sell my agency.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Georges Mohammed-Chérif (@gmohammedcherif) on

Really!

Yeah. I think, this last 13 years, we proved we could make a good agency with Buzzman. And it's not the end. It's another chapter. I think it was a good thing to do, but this will be the first and last company I sell.

There were a lot of questions, you know? I was not like, "Oh, you want to buy us? Sure!" At the beginning, I was like, "OK, let's do it." Then I thought, "Wow, I'm going to sell my baby; am I making a mistake?" I had no idea.

But today I woke up really happy. You know why? Because it changed nothing. I know I'm hard-assed sometimes, and I'm still so involved in the agency. But I'm really lucky. A lot of people never start their company. A lot of people start companies and it's a failure. I'm happy to have one with not just success, but a good story. The fact that Havas wanted to buy us proves it.

You think this is the last company you'll ever build?

That's this successful? Yes. I told you, it was a mistake! So as a mistake, it's been good.

Elon Musk said this thing once that I think about every day.

He's a crazy guy.

Totally. He said starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and eating glass at the same time. You jump off a cliff, and you don't know what's going to happen. And you're eating glass, because you start a company to solve certain problems. But every day you're solving problems, except they're never the ones you wanted to solve.

This is a great sum-up of how I feel. "Falling from a cliff" was exactly what I said to Thomas Granger, my vice president, in January or February. I said, "Do you have the same feeling as me, that we are we are going to fall from a cliff?" And he said yes. And it was like, "Oh no! Are we going to make it?"

But we have the strength of our agency's intelligence, the relationship with clients, and also this irrational vibe of a good star above us. So it wasn't suicide, you know? But it feels the same as skydiving. I would never do that. People who skydive are crazy to me.

I did it! It was great.

I know!

Is there anything you feel guilty about as a leader, like, "Oh, I should have been there, I should have tried harder, I could have pushed to do this!" Anything that bothers you?

One thing only. Sometimes, for example this morning, being obliged to yell at my people.

Do you tell them?

Yes. This morning, even before I shouted, I said, "Caution: I'm going to shout now." It's important to be able to tell someone that you're not going to be in a good state.

Last three questions. What was the last thing you fell in love with?

The view of my home in Marseille.

What is a piece of work that you envy?

There's a lot! Nike's "Dream Crazy." Because it's really... "Fuck you."

And "Whopper Detour." We could have done that.

Yeah, "Whopper Detour" is a very Buzzman campaign.

Honestly, for five years, we worked on Burger King and we circled around this idea. But we didn't do it. This is the kind of huge stuff that's hard to make in France. In the Anglo-Saxon way of doing business, nothing is impossible.

You never wanted to start an American branch?

No, no.

Why? 

Because I'm French!

So?

I'm a farmer from the south of France. I'm a farmer with maybe an Elon Musk way of thinking, but I'm still a farmer. I want to be good in my town. It's not a lack of ambition; I'm fucking ambitious. But I also know that everybody has failed at replicating great agencies in lots of countries, except Wieden + Kennedy. BBH was also not so bad. 

Didn't you guys try in Dubai?

Dubai was Disneyland stuff. But Droga5 are one of the best agencies in the world. They took a lot of time in London to emerge. They do good stuff there, but it's still not as big as in the States. But Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, Portland, London, Shanghai, Brazil ... for me, they are the only ones who make it work.

See, I'm really ambitious and also really passionate about my work. But I'm also passionate about doing nothing. Rest is a very important part of my life. Branches in lots of countries is too much energy and involvement. I think rest is a great way to manage people. It's my secret. 


Buzzman: The Timeline

• 2006 - Creation of Buzzman by Georges Mohammed-Chérif.
• 2008 - First "Grand Prix Stratégies" for Zaoza Magic—they've won six more since.
• 2009 - Thomas Granger, previously associate director at DDB, is appointed vice president of Buzzman and develops the agency toward an integrated model.
• 2009 - First Cannes Lion for Yamaha VolumeMax—they've won 25 more Lions since.
• 2010 - Tipp-Ex. Hugely successful campaign that places Buzzman on the international scene. 
• 2011 - Tipp-Ex "A Hunter Shoots a Bear" wins a Silver Clio and 2 Silver and 2 Bronze Lions.
• 2011 - Buzzman is voted Best International Small Agency of the Year by AdAge. 
• 2013 - Meetic win. The account boosts the agency and changes how it is perceived in the French market. Many more wins quickly follow, including: Brandt, IKEA, OUIBUS (SNCF), Huawei, Mondelēz (Oreo, Milka), easyJet, Fleury Michon, Hippopotamus, L'Oréal (Diesel, Puma Fragrances, Garnier) NRJ Mobile, PayPal, BMW...
• 2014 - Burger King win.
• 2015 - First Gold Lion in Cannes for Milka "The Last Square," which also wins a Bronze Clio.
• 2015 - Ikea win.
• 2016 - "Agency of the Year" at Effie France and first "Grand Prix" for Meetic-LYI2. The agency has also won 4 Gold Effies over the years for Meetic (2), Buger King and Boursorama Banque.
• 2017 - Boursorama Banque win.
• 2017 - Three Clio wins, the most of any year.
• 2018 - PMU win.
• 2019 - "Most French Creative Agency" in 2019 by BVA Limelight consulting.


Buzzman: The Work

See below for a sampling of Buzzman's advertising hits.

Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.