To Serviceplan's Daniel Perez, Advertising Is Theater of the Absurd

Inside his surreal new ad about depression

To commemorate World Mental Health Day earlier this month, France's Fondation Fondamental released "The Little Empty Passage," hashtagged with the phrase "Depression is serious." 

Serious, they say! The work itself is positively surreal.

"The best way to raise awareness is to be visually impactful," Daniel Perez, executive creative director of Serviceplan France, tells Muse. "And the best way to do that is through the absurd." 

The phrase "a little empty passage" is a literal translation of the French expression "un passage à vide." It's something you say to reassure someone who perhaps feels a bit demoralized. As the doctor in the film puts it, "a little depression, as they say." Nothing a little sunlight or a funny movie can't cure! 

Of course, anyone who's experienced depression knows that isn't true. Fondation Fondamental, which works to demystify myths about mental health, collaborated with Fnapsy, France's national federation of psychiatric practitioners, in producing this campaign. 

The latter's president, Claude Finkelstein, observes, "Everyone thinks they understand depression, or has experienced it and knows how to get out. In truth, there is very little understanding of the living hell experienced by the sufferer, which can include total annihilation of the will, the disappearance of all hope, and the terrible guilt that binds us." 

Depression kills over 6,000 people in France each year, twice as many as die in road accidents, Perez says. That's why the agency chose to liken depression to heart disease and cancer. The ad depicts people on the brink of death, a predicament their doctors proceed to dismiss in comedically irresponsible ways. 

The first part depicts a man on an operating table. The doctor peers into his face and says, "He doesn't look that sick!" Then he lifts up the new heart, brandishes it in the patient's face, and says, "You don't need this. A bit of exercise, and you'll feel much better," before flinging it across the room. 

By the time you get to the last scenario, the doctor's not-uncommon response to a woman's depression feels equally absurd, and potentially as dangerous.

The work will run in France, then elsewhere in Europe, with additional support from the Klesia Social Protection Group and the Roger de Spoelberch Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland.

We wanted to learn more about it, so we visited Serviceplan France's office and met Daniel Perez. Below, he tells us more about the origins of this absurdist treatment of depression. We also discuss how he turned Serviceplan France into an awards powerhouse, and what it's like working for Apple.

Muse: What's the origin story of this work?

Daniel Perez: At the beginning, we met with the client and a number of psychiatric doctors from huge hospitals in Paris. We gathered in a room with all these experts and all the creative people and talked about depression together.

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered in that conversation? 

The number of people dying of depression in France—by this, I mean by suicide. The Fondation Fondamental wanted to show that depression is a real fucking dangerous disease. Same as a heart attack, as cancer—it's just as dangerous. They wanted to plant that in everyone's minds.

Why do you think people don't know that? Like in your ad, it's so common to hear, "Oh, you just need more exercise, wake up earlier..."

We live in a society where you have to be happy. You have to be happy on Facebook and Instagram, and you have to be happy in your life. It's a society of results. You have to be productive, to be the best at everything. So saying that you are not OK, but you don't know why, is against the law: You just don't want to succeed. Not wanting to succeed in this society is like a crime, you know?

The greatest crime. Have you ever been depressed?

I don't think so. But when you talk about and study this disease, you discover that everybody is a bit depressed; it's just a matter of where on the spectrum. It's already a problem that everybody is depressed, but it's worse that some people don't even know they have depression. They don't want to accept it. That becomes a problem for people around them.

Where did the insight come from? 

For a good idea, you need a good insight. The idea was practically inside the brief: Having depression is as dangerous as having a fatal disease. When you write a line like that for your client, you have your idea. That's why agency planners are so important. They are the first creatives. 

Is there anything about this particular work that sticks out for you? 

I have a certain method with TV ads; I don't really know how to work any other way: Illustrate something serious by using the absurd. You shouldn't just say, "Look, people are depressed; you have to be present!" You have to say it in a way that feels more natural—your perspective through metaphor. Make people laugh, because when they are done laughing, they can relate. 

You say, "OK, you're laughing. Now I'll show you the reality." This is the balance to strike. Catch them with something absurdly interesting. Use that to say something true. That's what I did in my work for AIDES: Do something absurd. When people are done laughing, hopefully they can relate.

"Clever Dick," for AIDES by TBWA\Paris. Perez was a copywriter on the work, released in 2011.

The AIDES work! That was from your time at TBWA. Tell us a little about your trajectory.

I started advertising at TBWA\Paris 15 years ago. I was hired by a guy called Erik Vervroegen, a big creative director. I was lucky; when he hired me, they were working to win more awards, because he wanted TBWA to be the best agency in the world. For four years in a row, we were named best agency in the world in Cannes. That has never been done again. It was exciting working at such an agency, and in such a period. 

After that, when Erik went to another agency, I decided to work for Apple within TBWA, which allowed me to travel a lot. I was in charge of the first iPhone campaigns in France. That was exciting, too, because I was working in Paris, London and L.A. for three years. We were doing conception in Paris, and adaptation in London for all countries. After that, we'd shoot in L.A.

What was it like to work on Apple? 

It's really ... mathematical. Everything has to be in the right place at the right moment, and it can't be any other way. It's really strict, but you learn a lot.

Is it still possible to be creative under those constraints?

Yeah, because you're working with a lot of talented people. Apple selects good people. After that, I thought maybe I should stop advertising and directing, or writing fiction for TV.

You wanted to become a showrunner!

Yeah, exactly! So I said to TBWA, "I think I'm gonna stop working here." Then Serviceplan called. They said, "We're new to Paris, but we're a big group with creative power in Germany. We want to build a reputation for our Paris office. You've won a lot of awards. Want to come and do the same thing for us?" I was at a point of change. But the challenge was interesting: to be a creative director in a new agency, with the freedom to work for awards with your teams. They also said I could keep directing and writing for TV, so I decided to do it. 

It was scary at the beginning. You arrive somewhere new and some guy says, "OK, do your own thing to win awards … but you'd better win some." We were lucky. The first year, we won with the Virtual Crash Billboard. We won a lot of awards that year. Now we win every year. So it's cool: We got lucky, we kept working, we keep winning. 

How did you motivate the team?

When I arrived, Serviceplan said, "You have to work with our creatives; we're not hiring new ones." All I did was give these people the same enthusiasm I feel for our work. Creating ads is something extraordinary. It's the definition of intellect. You take one idea and another, and with these two ideas, make something new. That's a beautiful illustration of how the human brain works. When you convey to people that the thing we're doing is cool, it's easier for them to be more creative.

I see incredible things when I look at award winners, and I show them to my creatives. The best way to motivate people to do good things is to show them the best things in the world. Then you say, "This is what you could do if you work hard." It's not a question of talent. It's not a question of being good or not, being made for this but not that. The magic of our work is that anybody can do it. How long are you willing to stay in your chair? Anybody can do it. It's a question of courage.

Courage to stay in your chair? I like that. What have you done lately that you're proud of?

I'm proud of teaching people to grow in their careers and win awards. When I was a creative, I constantly told myself, "OK, that's good, but you can do better." That's frustrating, because you're never happy. When you're a creative director, it's different. When you make somebody feel proud, it's not yours, so you don't feel like you need to do better. This person is happy, and that's cool. You have success because they feel success.

I was curious about the Saforelle work you produced for International Women's Day, "The Missing Page." It's based on the insight that school textbooks don't depict the clitoris in sex organ anatomy diagrams. Is that true? 

In the 16th century, the clitoris was represented in a very detailed manner in the first anatomic planches. But when scientists, and notably men of faith, discovered it had nothing to do with reproduction—that it was solely a pleasure organ for women—it became taboo. They stopped drawing it, and burned all the science books where it was represented.

So we inherited the books that resulted.

Yes. In all the books, including modern textbooks for kids, none represent the clitoris in its totality, even today, because they are using copies of drawings from the books that followed this era. So with the feminine hygiene brand Saforelle, we created a replacement page that people can fit into their textbooks to correct the error.

Was it you who came up with this idea? 

It was the agency's idea to study this challenge and provide a solution through a legitimate brand. That's why we chose Saforelle. How can you take care of your most intimate parts if you don't even know them?

Is there anyone whose work you envy?

Right now in advertising, I'm impressed by the print work.

That's right; you're originally a copywriter.

Yeah. I love the things we're doing now in advertising. An ad can be anything now—a clip, theater piece, a book, a stunt—and print is evolving, too. That's why I'm still doing advertising. But in my heart, what I enjoy the most is a beautiful print ad. 

Can you give us an example?

I love the work we were doing in TBWA for PlayStation. All those prints ... there were like 20. 

Did this focus on awards impact the depression work in any way?

My depression work, or my depression?

They're probably related!

The depression work is symptomatic of what we're doing in the agency. At Serviceplan we use what we call the "proactive method," like many agencies in the world: You try finding great ideas without briefs, just as a creative exercise. Then, when you have a good idea, you show it to the client and say, "You want this? We can produce it and everything." 

I've been doing that all my career, because TBWA\Paris was the agency that created the proactive method. But when I arrived at Serviceplan, I wanted to do it differently. I didn't want to just work alone in my room, then, when I have a good idea, go to the client—who knows nothing about this—and say, "I've been working for you all this time. And here is the idea. Do you want it or not? If you don't, I'll sell it elsewhere." 

I think winning an award today isn't the same as before. Today, if you want to win an award, the idea has to be cool, sure—but also, the problem you're solving has to be cool. If you want to have a good problem, you can't work without the client. That's not possible anymore. So I wanted to work differently, and do the brief with the client. I met all our clients and showed them incredible award-winning work. If the client was BMW, I looked for cases that were relevant but cool, even if it was for other brands. I'd show this stuff to them and say, "You can do that. We can help you get to that level, make the kind of work that gets everyone talking. Is this something you want?" 

If the client says yes, we say, "Then we need you. We can't do all this work and risk you not wanting it. That means we're not helping you solve a problem. We have to work on a brief together." We've been doing that with all our clients, and it's worked very well. It worked like this with Fondation Fondamental.

How did you cast it? It's in a real hospital, right?

Yeah. For me, casting is the most important, because I'm doing comedy.

So you need people who can carry it.

Yeah. Comedy without comedians can't happen! I like characters with expressive faces, actors who don't look like "everyday life people." I hate advertising where clients say, "I want everyday life people." We are not doing everyday life things. You're trying to make people dream, make them excited, make them fall in love, make them fear. You're not in everyday life. You need people who can build a world for you. 

Who did you admire creatively when you were a kid? 

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter. He did Being John Malkovich. I think that's the guy I love the most in cinema. It's exactly what I like, absurd but real: The absurdity is there to convey a truth.

Do you think that's what you do in advertising?

We're using absurdity to say something, to make people realize something. At least, I try.

Does it give you meaning?

Um ... it's strange. My close friends make fun of me for working in advertising. They observe that as an adolescent, and even as a man today, I maintain a distance from materialism. I stay really far away. I think I like the tools advertising gives me—the ability to make movies, find ideas, work with intelligent people. But yeah, it's a bit of a contrast with who I am, I think. 

What happened to your showrunning dream? Are you over it?

I wrote and shot a piece of fiction recently! It'll be running on [the network] France 2. 

What is it?

A short movie. Fiction, an absurd comedy, like always. Really visual. It's the story of guy who was born with a funny curse: When he moves his hands and arms, everybody around him has to do the same thing. It's called The Archibald Syndrome.

We'll watch out for it! Any last words?

I hope people like the depression film. Each time, you do everything you can. And in the end, film is something magic—it lands or it doesn't land. But I'm pretty sure it will be OK. 

CREDITS

Agency: Serviceplan Health & Life France
Client: Fondation FondaMental
Agency: Benjamin Chevrier, Céline Demarsan, Karen Bulfon
Director: Daniel Perez
Co-Creative Director Serviceplan Paris : Daniel Perez
Director of Production: Frank Willocq
Production : Blaise Izard, Badass

Profile picture for user Angela Natividad
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.

Museletter

Get Inspired

Sign up for the daily Museletter for the latest ad campaigns and the stories behind them.