When Olivier Moulierac and Mondher Abdennadher hand monocle a tote bag emblazoned with “I am a Utopian”, it’s no joke. They are the co-founders of Les Napoleons, an innovative communications network that aims to “promote virtuous, ethical innovation that benefits the many”. Ideas from the French Enlightenment – liberty, equality and confidence in human reason – are guiding principles. “There is a particular French vision of innovation,” says Abdennadher. He met his business partner several decades ago at advertising agency Havas (then called rscg), where Moulierac worked on political campaigns. The pair felt that advertising – and business in general – had become defined by a culture of fear. “We wanted to prove that we could put innovation in the right direction,” says Moulierac. “We kept meeting positive people with great ideas, energy and optimism. We thought: we’re not alone. Why not create a social network – physical and digital – to connect them?”
Today the group has about 3,000 members and a digital audience of 80,000. Its momentum comes from a biannual jamboree staged in Arles (in July) and Val-d’Isère (in January). Last summer political theorist Chantal Mouffe shared the bill with comedian Kevin Razy and Mounir Mahjoubi, the secretary of state for digital affairs. January’s winter summit featured Boyan Slat – the young Dutch inventor and ceo of The Ocean Cleanup – Microsoft researcher Glen Weyl and Cédric Villani, a mathematician. “It is about inventing the new world,” says Moulierac.
Proceedings for these events begin on a private train called The Icebreaker, which speeds through the French countryside. Onboard, the 450 delegates get to know each other over drinks and films. Once they arrive they can begin the day with activities such as skiing and yoga before attending lectures and seminars in the afternoons and evenings. “The aim is to create a bond,” says Abdennadher. “It’s important to get out of Paris, to get out of the city. Everybody is on the same level: we have ministers talking to ceos talking to tiny start-ups.” So how did they settle on a name? “We said to ourselves: audacity, imagination and vision,” says Moulierac. “Which French guy embodies these values?” The brand has taken on its own energy, though. “The community has given the name its emotional charge.”
The philosophy wasn’t lost on Barack Obama, who spoke at a Les Napoleons event in Paris in 2017. Moulierac and Abdennadher had been lobbying the former US president’s office for three years but confess that they were astounded when he accepted the invitation. The speech was a warm-up for their summit on fear. “He spoke about how fear can spur us to take action; it was a positive take on the theme.”
Les Napoleons’ membership is 85 per cent French but its sights are set on global expansion, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. “When we started we were not a brand but an energy,” says Abdennadher. “It’s about being demanding and having a vision of progress founded on a reasonable utopia.”
Viva la différence:
Paris can stake a claim for hosting one of the world’s main technology conferences: VivaTech will take place at Paris’s Porte de Versailles in May, bringing thousands of start-ups and investors with it. Founded in 2016 by PR firm Publicis Groupe – together with publishers Group Les Echos – the festival is now in its fourth edition.
In the past it has landed some of the industry’s biggest names: Microsoft ceo Satya Nadella and Mark Zuckerberg were both guests last year and Emmanuel Macron has also made an appearance. The French president will feature again this year, hosting a summit on how technology can be used for positive purposes. Expect a focus on Africa-based companies too.
“It started with a weekly newsletter sent to 50 friends,” says Céline Orjubin, recalling the first days of the business she co-founded. “Our first story was about a florist who served cocktails.”
Today the company still inhabits the romantic garret-style apartment from where it was launched, only now it has sprawled throughout the building to occupy what was once a carousel factory below. The audience for My Little Paris’s email listings of the city’s best restaurants, events and curios has also grown. “We speak to five million people in France every day,” says Orjubin as she walks from office to office up creaky wooden stairs. The firm has expanded its remit, taking the original format of insider tips for Parisians to Lyon and Marseille. A series of My Little subsidiaries for weddings and children and a book club have helped raise the firm’s profile. Tapage, a website for teenage girls with an empowerment angle (its slogan is “we make noise and we’re not sorry”) has also garnered attention.
Perhaps the most successful offshoot, however, is My Little Box. This monthly subscription service sends out a surprise selection of beauty products and €20 per month. “We see it as a 3D magazine,” says chief marketing officer Inès Guiony. She confesses that her team spends a great deal of time working on the way the box is opened in an attempt to surprise its recipients. “It’s important to give a human touch.” The service now has 150,000 subscribers worldwide. “Forty per cent of our customers are based in Japan,” says Orjubin. “Japanese women want a little bit of Paris in their letterbox.” A Parisian ethos – that chic, effortless, knowing lilt – seems key to the business’s success.
Though it now employs more than 130 people, My Little Paris has held on to the whimsical tone that defined its fledgling years. The firm’s graphic identity was inspired partly by The New Yorker cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé’s illustrations and is largely the work of Kanako, a Japanese artist based in Paris who was discovered by one of the firm’s founders during a jog around Montmartre. The offices still have a sense of creative chaos: “We host talks every two months with everyone from astronauts to entrepreneurs and even priests,” says Maxime Froissant, who runs the programme as well as editing Merci Alfred, another offshoot aimed at men. “It’s about generating a spark and allowing our team to explore a creative universe.”
Orjubin admits that success has brought more serious social obligations: politicians regularly come to My Little Paris for an insight into its network. She also notes that the tone in Paris has changed in recent years. While buzzwords were once “brunch” and “pop-up”, “Now it’s about ‘J’me lance’ [launching my business],” says Orjubin. “There has been a switch in our readers’ favourite topics: they ask for meaning. ‘What can I do now? What should Paris look like in the next 10 years? How can I contribute?’”
It might have started small but My Little Paris has become a voice that is shaping the future of the French capital while showcasing its best assets.
There is an almost feverish mood as a 1,500-strong audience surges into a grand, gilded Paris theatre on a Monday evening. Until now the line-up for tonight has been under wraps. All this group know is that it will be journalists, cartoonists and photographers that will take to the stage rather than professional actors. This is Live Magazine: a performance designed to resemble an animated journal. “We very rarely preview the programme and we never record anything,” says Florence Martin-Kessler, its founder. “We want it to be like you’re opening a magazine: you don’t know what you’re going to see. But there needs to be sadness, memoir, humour – and always a good story.”
The former documentary maker came up with the idea for Live Magazine while on a fellowship at Harvard. She felt emboldened by her time in the US and, after a chance meeting with Douglas McGray, who founded the similar Pop-Up magazine, decided to introduce the concept to European audiences. “In the US you can do anything: there aren’t the same barriers between professions or rigid categories,” she says. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to do this.’”
Since its launch in a 300-seat venue, Live Magazine has earnt itself a loyal following. Each performance is delivered with disarming intimacy, no script and few visual props. There are always moments of contrast: perhaps music, a surreal appearance from a shadow puppeteer, an opera quartet or a mime artist. The company has also staged collaborative performances with newspapers such as Le Monde and Les Echos, which put sub-editors and backroom staff alongside star columnists. Serguei, the Le Monde cartoonist, played a bluesy tango and, for Les Echos, Édouard Philippe, France’s prime minister, surprised the audience by telling them how he landed his job. “He was very funny, like a stand-up comedian,” says Martin-Kessler. “And he told facts he had never told before; it was a scoop.” The 58 shows she has directed have featured a mix of war reportage and light-hearted fare, such as a woman who collects shopping lists. The format draws audiences: “For Christmas we offered lifetime subscriptions,” she says. “I sold six.”
For her, the imperfection of the shows are the real engine of success. She recalls a recent performance by French graphic novelist and cartoonist Nicolas Wild, who moved to Afghanistan to work. The hilarity of his topic – he discussed a campaign he designed called Opium is Bad – clashed with the intensity of his fragile delivery. “That’s why it works,” she says. “There were 2,000 people walking the line with him. You felt it was live, it was human.”
The business has expanded to include a Live Magazine Academy, where school children and young adults attend the show and, after the performance, discuss what makes a good story with journalists. Live Magazine also partners with brands, including the likes of Sonia Rykiel, Axa and Doctors Without Borders, to put on themed shows. A recent event for ratp, Paris’s transport operator, saw engineers, artists and a rapping busker perform alongside the firm’s president. An audience of 700 suited officials, mayors and politicians from the city’s arrondissements and banlieues clapped along and stood to applaud the performance at its conclusion.
At its heart, though, Live Magazine’s aim is to continue to tell good stories. Its success demonstrates how powerful it can be to showcase the eccentricity, passion and bravery of journalists – and the warts-and-all humanity behind the craft.
Live Magazine’s next show will be at Bozar in Brussels on 27 March; livemagazine.fr