Fabien Baron, creative director and owner of advertising and design company Baron & Baron Inc., is an advertising guru, image-maker, video director and photographer, creative director of French Vogue and a furniture designer with a collection distributed by Cappellini. He made his mark with strikingly minimalist layouts as the creative director of Harper’s Bazaar under Liz Tilberis and honed his artistic talent at magazines such as Self, Italian Vogue and Interview. In 1992, Baron designed the “Sex” book with Madonna and Steven Meisel.
In the ad world, Baron’s client list includes Burberry, Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Hugo Boss, Balenciaga and Miu Miu. His creative philosophy is simple: One must remain true to one’s brand. “You cannot cut out the roots of a tree, or the tree dies,” said Baron. “And you cannot pretend the pear tree will grow apples, so why be jealous of the guy with the apples? Why not just sell a lot of really great pears?”
In a keynote conversation with WWD executive editor Bridget Foley, Baron explained how companies can get the most out of their advertising and what it takes to establish a company’s point of view.
WWD: When we spoke about image building, you said the most important element is singularity of message, to hammer home the point relentlessly. Can you explain that a little bit?
Baron: I think what is important is that the market is saturated, I actually believe that when you go to department stores or you go to [specialty] stores, there is too much of everything. And it’s quite confusing for a customer. What is difficult to find is a very precise, unique point of view. So that is why brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton, with a very precise point of view, are successful.
WWD: Let’s take a brand like Gucci. This is probably unprecedented in the interest of what most of us know right now, but do you think it could fall apart? Do you see it transforming into something as powerful or as bold fashionwise? What will it take to maintain Gucci as the power player it is today?
Baron: I think they are going to have a difficult time because Tom [Ford, creative director of Gucci Group] is a star and a great designer. He got that brand to its highest level. I think where they are going to have a hard time is finding a really great designer who will fill the shoes so rapidly and so well. I could see the brand going down a little bit with the editors and with everybody before it regains a little bit of notoriety, but I guess that’s what is going on in fashion.
WWD: As a man whose job it is to work with image, you say it is the image that is essential, but it really starts with the product, no?
Baron: Definitely, it starts with the product, and it starts with the person at the head of the company. With someone like Tom, who had a very, very precise vision, he did a product that was really absolutely amazing for the moment. He was in tune exactly with what’s going on, he had all the elements together and everything was on the right track. You had the advertising, you had the point of sale together, the store design, the product, the accessories, the models, the photographer, you had the whole package going in the right direction and was from the same voice and everything saying the same thing. So you hammer people on the head by repeating and repeating and repeating. You gain a reputation, and I really believe that. So, I think, in the case of Gucci, you’re going to have a new voice trying to fill the shoes of someone else whose product is already existing, and it’s going to be a little hectic for a while before that new person can establish their new point of view.
WWD: You said that Tom Ford actually continued in a different way, but on a path that Calvin Klein really established and forged, that singular vision, the relentlessness of focus.
Baron: I believe that Calvin was one of the first designers who understood to use image to make a business. He used image advertising to push his brand to make everything look much larger than it is. Calvin’s advertising was genius; the way of taking a product that is so elementary as underwear and putting that on such a pedestal and making it huge in a category that nobody would touch. To be unique in the way that you approach the segmentation of your business is very important, too.
WWD: Let’s talk about segmentation and at the same time, the fusion of your business, perhaps using Calvin as an example with fragrance and fashion and how they work together.
Baron: When we launched CK One, we were at the same time having a campaign going on with the jeans. And with CK One, what we tried to do is double everything. All the models in the commercials and in the [print] advertising were wearing jeans also. We were trying to sell jeans by selling fragrances and vice versa. So every time you could place another product in the advertising, you would double a little bit. You would sell clothes at the same time you sell a fragrance. At the same time you sell a little lifestyle, you sell a little bit of everything. And I think it’s good to do that because you’re reinforcing your point of view. I think it’s important to sell the same thing over and over and over.
WWD: Calvin Klein is a longtime client of yours. That is clearly a company in transition. How do you deal with that now?
Baron: What I think is important for the company right now is to refocus the true values of what Calvin Klein is all about, which is American sportswear, clean, a certain sense of elegance and sophistication and sexiness. And strangely enough, at one point, Calvin’s business let go of that because he got into so much trouble with his jeans advertising, and everyone knows about that. But strangely enough, Tom Ford took that [edgy advertising] over, and he built his whole business on what Calvin had built for so many years. So I think coming back to these roots is important and to refocus on what made the company the company is very important.
WWD: Let’s talk about those apples and pears. Do you find that’s a common mistake, and that people and companies want their brand to be something that it isn’t? Does everyone want to be too edgy?
Baron: I see that a lot. I see a lot of companies that have something strong going for themselves and they want to expand too rapidly and they want to do other things they aren’t supposed to do, and they fall apart. And I think it’s very important if you know how to do something well, do that, and push that. Push what you have within. Especially in the market today, I believe it is really important to look within.
WWD: Let’s say I’m a client. I come to you to either create or re-create, and I’m sure they are very different situations, to strengthen my brand’s image. First of all, how do we know we’re a good match? How does a client know what to look for in a creative director in an advertising agency?
Baron: I think you talk to them and you see a little of their work and what they’ve done before and their background. A conversation about business in general and image should lead to a fairly good idea of what your relationship will be about or could be about.
WWD: What do you expect me to bring to the table?
Baron: A clear understanding of what your company is about, a clear understanding of where you want to go with it, and what are the goals. What I’m going to bring to you is the tools and the ability to pick talent and develop visuals to implement exactly what you want.
WWD: But I know you think it is important to play to what you call the company’s DNA.
Baron: Yes, I think what is important is to realize that in a company like Burberry, Rose Marie [Bravo, its ceo] understood right away what the company was standing for. She took the strong element of the company, the roots of the company, and she took care of the roots first. She went into the basement to make sure the roots were totally healthy and perfect, then she took care of the rest. She trimmed the tree and then it blooms at one point. You have to take the risk that for one season, you’re going to go down. You never go from one point up, you have a tendency to go down because you have to cut licensees, you have to cut certain things that bring business to the company, and those things have to disappear, and they have to change, and during that change you get lower revenues and it’s tricky. In the case of Burberry, Rose Marie really anguished because they went lower than expected, and she stuck with it and she was right because now look at it, it’s a huge success.
WWD: Can any brand that may be dormant but has strong brand recognition be revived?
Baron: I think so.
WWD: What if the name recognition is there but there is no strong look associated with it?
Baron: I think it’s very important that the name be associated with a couple of really strong elements.
WWD: And how do you know they are there?
Baron: Well, you look at the history of the company, and you can tell if that company has been big at that time.
WWD: How do you reconcile in your work with your clients that bridge between what is new and what people always want and the history and the roots, the DNA?
Baron: Well, there are two things. People want new but they want familiar at the same time. They are willing to take new things from names that are very familiar, that’s why big names are important. That’s why if you start a new brand, it is very difficult because you need a lot of money to do advertising, to be recognized, to be placed on the map of fashion. It’s very tricky. So if you have a name, that’s good. Take the example of Dior and what John Galliano was able to do. If you knew the character John, I mean, John the way he is, if he were on his own as a designer, I don’t think he would be as powerful as he is being attached to Dior because he’s quite cuckoo as a person and everything. It’s fantastic. He does a fantastic job, and all that newness he brings to the company is good for the name Dior, and it’s good for him, too, so I think it’s working out pretty well.
WWD: You have had a phenomenal résumé in editorial: Self, Interview, Italian Vogue, French Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar. What has that experience, different readerships, different looks, taught you about playing to the target consumer? And how can you transfer that to advertising?
Baron: The most important thing that editorial has helped me with is first of all, knowledge of the market. You know going to all the collections every year, knowing all the designers, having dinner with them, sitting with them, hearing the business problems, you get overall knowledge about the business in general and sometimes when you’re stuck in one company, that’s it, and you have absolutely no reference, and you know it’s very hard to know about businesses when you already have a business.
WWD: What do you think are the most common mistakes that companies make in their advertising?
Baron: They make a lot of mistakes. I think wrong casting, wrong styling, wrong photography, I mean there’s a lot of things that can go wrong. It’s very easy for it to go wrong, actually. It’s a very organic thing doing a photo shoot. You could have the right photographer, but the wrong casting, then the pictures don’t come out the way you wanted, and the message becomes tainted, and the advertising becomes not as big as one could have.