There's a Reason Big French Agency BETC's HQ Isn't in Paris Anymore

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The 1930s warehouse, abandoned for years, became known as a "cathedral" of graffiti. Photo credit: Romain Meffre & Yves Marchand.
Architect Frédéric Jung modernized it, keeping some historical details. Photo credit: Hervé Abbadie.
Roof gardens are planted with rhubarb and blackcurrant. Photo credit: Philippe Garcia.
Staffers are free to sit wherever they want in the building. Photo credit: Philippe Garcia.
Outdoor spaces overlook the canal de l'Ourcq. Photo credit: Hervé Abbadie.
Quirky workspaces are scattered throughout. Photo credit: Philippe Garcia.

When BETC co-founder Rémi Babinet first saw the abandoned warehouse outside Paris that would become the Havas-owned agency's headquarters this month, he saw huge potential. He was also a little worried. "It was covered with graffiti, it was an unfriendly place, there were people hanging around, it was wild," he said.

That was eight years ago. After years of work on a redesign and renovations, on Wednesday the creative agency hosted the opening party in its new hub on the edge of a canal in Pantin, just northeast of Paris. The renovated 215,000 sq. ft. former flour and grain warehouse, home to 900 staff members, is so huge that it has almost a mile of balconies encircling its six floors. The agency refers to the building as "Les Magasins Généraux," the name it's been called for decades.

The giant space offered BETC, one of France's two biggest agencies (the other is Publicis), the chance to reunite staff spread out in seven different offices in eastern Paris. The agency also saw an opportunity to help revitalize a post-industrial suburb cut off from the chic, touristy areas of central Paris. By setting up in Pantin, it inserted itself into the push for a "Grand Paris," a strong Greater Paris region, with more integration between the French capital and the lower-income multicultural suburbs. Separated by a ring road, they often can seem like different worlds.

To accompany the BETC project and rejuvenate the canal, Pantin is adding 600 new apartments, along with new parks, shops and a school. Other companies have already moved to Pantin; the agency is across from a Chanel atelier where artisans craft embroidery and detail work. Hermes is nearby, and BNP Paribas bank has taken over a former flour mill. Because of BETC's size and creative reputation for clients like Evian, Air France and Canal+, Pantin has awaited the agency's arrival "like the Holy Grail," as Madame Figaro magazine put it. Paris doesn't really have a Brooklyn, a strong cultural center outside the urban core, but some think Pantin might be a contender. The city has a burgeoning arts scene and a diverse vibe, with immigrants from Africa, Asia and beyond.

There's a long history of creative industries moving into onetime industrial neighborhoods and touching off gentrification. In this case, the suburb and its Socialist Party mayor seem at pains to ensure the working-class can stay; a third of the 600 new apartments near the canal will be subsidized for lower-income renters.

BETC also seems to be trying hard not to be an island of hipsters cut off from its surroundings. Pantin residents were invited to the opening party on the canal, and anyone can hang out in Les Magasin Généraux' lobby, two restaurants and a vast cultural space that will host exhibits and events. The agency says it plans to get in contact with area schools to recruit local trainees, part of efforts to diversify its workforce. (On hiring women, it's been a leader for years: 66% of Paris staff, and 52% of managers, are women.)

Mr. Babinet, BETC's chairman and the 'B' in BETC, presides over a corporate endowment fund promoting arts and culture across Greater Paris, where officials are spending around $28 billion to build public transport to better link up long-neglected suburbs and the city. The "Grand Paris Express" means 124 miles of rail track and 68 new stations. It's designed to make Paris and its suburbs more unified, more attractive to business, and more dynamic.

"We don't want for Paris' image to be limited to the fact it's beautiful, that Paris should never change," Mr. Babinet said. The massive infrastructure project "will transform Paris into something much more modern and innovative, and the barrier between the suburbs and classic Paris will eventually disappear."

A peek inside

BETC, though in the suburbs, has the advantage of being nearby a stop on the existing subway network. It's a neighborhood in flux. There's a well-regarded contemporary art gallery nearby, and a cheerful canal boat docked near the agency, with a café on board. But the area is also dotted with construction sites and graffiti-covered warehouses. (Many other agencies, including BETC's parent Havas, have offices in tonier, business-oriented suburbs across town on Paris' western edge. BETC started out there too.)

The lobby is open to anyone. Like a public street, it has benches where passersby can sit. "We want Les Magasins Généraux to be a place that's really connected to the neighborhood," said Eugénie Lefebvre, who leads the project.

The reception also functions as a café counter, where people can order coffee as they wait for an appointment.

The terms of the development are unusual. Though the agency conceived the renovation project, selected the architect and sought out the restaurant tenants, it's actually renting the space from a developer.

Two restaurants inside Les Magasins Généraux will be open to the public; one is an outpost of a well-known concert hall and cultural center. Oddly enough, the French actor who was just cast as Dos Equis' "Most Interesting Man in the World" is also a restaurateur, and he's opening an affordable organic restaurant and shop there. (Actor Augustin Legrand, known in France for his advocacy work for healthy eating and on behalf of the homeless, was on board with the project before he was cast as the new face of Dos Equis.)

The interior is dotted with original work stations, like stadium-style seats where teams can hang out, and cocoon-like spaces surrounded by fuzzy hanging textiles. There are no assigned work spaces; anybody can sit where they want. People use the agency's app to book lockers to store their things.

Architect Frédéric Jung preserved architectural details, like the gangplanks that ring the building, where merchandise was once stored. The outdoor space includes huge roof terraces overlooking the canal. Rhubarb and blackcurrants grow in roof gardens, and BETC's bee colony will join them. (The agency gives the honey to clients.)

There's no trace of the tags that once covered the building, which was nicknamed "the cathedral of graffiti." The agency immortalized it in a book and a cool website where people can virtually tour what the site looked like before the renovation.

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