Since founding Circonflex in 2005, Paul-Étienne Côté has been the CEO and creative director of the international music agency. With offices in Montreal, Toronto and Paris, Paul-Étienne has led the team while working with many global brands, including McDonald’s, Delta, Coca-Cola and Audi. With his own background being in musical performance and composition, Paul-Étienne has taken consistent inspiration from his experiences - using the lessons he’s learned to consistently help Circonflex win accolades around the globe. In 2022 alone, they’ve received gold at The One Show, Marketing Awards, Idéa Awards, Dotcomm Awards and PHNX Awards, as well as a shortlist placement at the New York Advertising Awards.
Speaking to LBB’s Josh Neufeldt, Paul-Étienne discusses how he entered the advertising industry, what it took and why he built Circonflex, and how a background as a composer and musician influences his style as CEO.
LBB> When did you get started in music and what inspired you to pursue it? And how did this lead to you discovering the ad industry?
Paul-Étienne> I started playing violin at five, and as far as I can remember, I hated it. My mom tells me I was the one who decided to play, but I don't remember that day! All I know is that I hated practising, I hated going to lessons and I hated the neck pain that came with practising and playing!
But then, something happened. I believe I was 12, and I had a revelation or some kind of epiphany. I started to love playing music. My parents would send me to this classical music summer camp, and in my second or third year there, I took a masterclass with a teacher named Marc Bélanger, who had written a piece for us. The piece was called ‘Ad Libitum’, and the idea was that we would take turns improvising an arco solo while the rest of the orchestra would play the pizzicato part. Until that point, I didn't know that one could improvise in music. I thought you could only read the music, and that music was static: only meant to be performed as written. But that summer, I actually started loving music and I was inspired to pursue it - all because of that moment.
After that, I went to university and took jazz studies. During that time, I got to hang out with future band members of Arcade Fire, and I also met Patrick Watson on the street close to my house. I was 21 and walking down the sidewalk with my violin case on my back, and Patrick tapped on my shoulder and said, 'Hey, are you a violin player?' and I said, 'Yes'. Then, he said, 'Why don't you come up to my place and we'll record some tracks?' Pat was actually the very first person I met who was recording on his own. He would do it on his computer, using a software called Cubase VST. This moment also changed my life, and reinforced my inspiration to pursue music. I remember my dad got me a PC - a good old Pentium III. We bought it in separate pieces and we actually assembled it together on a wooden table, and then I bought Cubase SX. I was now a music composer.
After that, I couldn't stop writing! I was writing day and night, or producing, or composing. I loved it so much I wouldn't sleep! Three years later, my roommate and I won our very first advertising jobs for ‘Le Grande Ballet Canadien’. We were kids, so we knew nothing. We were just so impressed and grateful. We got to work with director Guillaume de Fontenay, and this is when I first got to visit a real advertising studio. It was in downtown Montreal, and that also changed my life. I was like, 'Holy shit! One day, I will have my own advertising studio!'.
LBB> How did you get started with Circonflex, and how has it changed since then?
Paul-Étienne> In 2004, when I was working full-time as a waiter, I gave my demo reel on a CD to someone who happened to be a post production director. Her name was Jennifer McCann. She had just landed in town from Paris and was in search of a music composer to work on a 52-episode, international TV series called 'Team Galaxy'. She liked my music, asked me to pitch on the series, and after one year of just testing and pitching, I won the job. I actually could not believe what was happening. There I was at 25, producing and composing the music for a $17 million USD series directed by Stéphane Berry. I couldn't have been happier, and I’ll always be grateful to Jenny and Stéphane for believing in me and giving me my big break. (And, I was able to stop working at the restaurant!) On top of that, the production was so pleased with my work that they asked me to write music for another series called 'Monster Buster Club', a third series called 'The Amazing Spiez', a fourth series called 'RedaKai' and a feature film called 'Totally Spies! The Movie'. So, in working with them over the course of nine years, I wrote music for 208 episodes and one feature film.
It was through this great adventure with Marathon, the production company, that I got to meet Maxime Barzel and François-Pierre Lue - two unbelievably brilliant music composers with whom I later co-wrote music for more TV series, including 'Dangerous Flights', ’Restoration Garage’, 'Bomb Hunters' and 'Thrift Hunters'. We were a ferocious trio!
After this time, having worked day and night for like 14 years and having written music for more than 500 episodes of TV, I thought, 'Oh, right, advertising!'. So, in 2014, I wrote to Johanne Pelland - the producer on that very first advertising job when I was younger - and told her, 'Hey, I'm finally ready to jump into the advertising world again’. Two years later I was buying a building and thinking about how my advertising studio would look.
LBB> A background in music can often be a character-defining trait. How has your experience in music influenced the way you approach being a CEO?
Paul-Étienne> There are two things that I love about music, both of which I apply every day in my job. The first is serendipity. It's a buzzword these days, but it's that feeling you get when you play or you're working on a melody or hook and then by mistake, you hit a different note but somehow, it makes it better. It's like how I bumped into Patrick Watson on the street by pure coincidence, or gave my demo reel to Jennifer McCann. It's just a big part of the creative process and I keep trying to create these moments. Building on this, I believe in always paying attention to the details, because that's where luck can hide. For me, I think that luck is always somewhere - you just have to find it. This means that whenever something happens, and it's not the right thing, I say, 'OK, but wait, let's try and re-see things from that new perspective. Could this mistake actually be luck or a good sign?'. So in general, I try to keep a relatively open mind.
The second thing is that it's never over until it's over (unless you have a deadline). A piece can actually take a lifetime to compose. You can re-record the drum parts 100 times. You change your mind and go back to the first idea. You can tweak the vocals and you can add stuff and remove stuff. It's actually a lot of trial and error, and I feel it's the same way with business. As a company, Circonflex doesn’t have a deadline, so everything is possible. I started with a hook - so just me - and then I found collaborators who are the chords and melodies. I added real estate and design in Montreal and Paris which was like choosing a time signature. And more recently, I added Toronto as a new section of the piece I'm composing. It's the same symphony I've been writing since I was 23, but with different movements, variations, accents, and all of that.
LBB> You guys recently opened a Toronto office and you also have an office in France. What's the relationship between the offices like, and what kind of collaborations does this allow for?
Paul-Étienne> Every city has its market, and every city sounds different in terms of music and mixing techniques. It's actually pretty impressive. Some cities like Montreal and Toronto have a very strong local market, (specifically, Montreal has very few international accounts) so it's really locally-based. Paris, on the other hand, has a huge international market, especially given the luxury industry - which doesn't really exist here in Canada. So, the Paris office allows us to work in a sector for clients and brands who are not present here in Montreal. We really got our chops together to master the 'luxury sound', which is something very unique. It's a lot of electronic polish. It has to sound premium.
The same difference can also be seen with the UK. The UK is funky because live drums are a big part of the UK sound. To me, It's great how we get to learn things from each city, because then we can apply these ideas to other cities. It's a vocabulary which I learned from working with creatives all around the world, and it feels great when I can actually bring these ideas back to the local conversation. The international office is a great addition, and really, it's just win-win everywhere. The experience we’ve gained is also the reason why we're being hired by London and Paris. When we work in Europe, we sound different but great, and conversely, whenever we work locally, I can apply the techniques I learned from London and Paris.
LBB> How did you go about learning the sounds of different cities and different countries? How does one study that?
Paul-Étienne> Honestly, it's sort of something that just comes naturally when you dive into it. They're codes, basically. It's like learning a different language. I remember the first time I heard luxury stuff, I said 'Oh my God!'.
You also get debriefed too, which helps when learning about new sounds. The creatives are like, 'Oh, it doesn't sound luxurious enough' and so you go online and see what the high end brands actually do. Ultimately, I’ve come to know ‘Luxury’ as incredibly silky, and a very French kind of sound.
Another big part of conversations with creatives comes when they say stuff like 'Why aren't there live drums in this track?' and I'm like, 'Live drums. What? Why!?', and they're like 'Well then, it's not finished. Go back and add some live drums'. But you see, a big part of their vocabulary is learned from the market. They listen to another creative debriefing the composer, mentioning live drums, so they're like, 'OK, well, then it must always be a thing'. As you can see, these trends and ideas actually get repeated and reused amongst creatives.
LBB> Historically, advertising had huge potential to launch and transform a musician’s career. With the fractured media landscape of today, this is more difficult. What kind of role do you think advertising can have in a musician’s career today?
Paul-Étienne> This subject is actually the reason why about eight or nine years ago, I put my backpack on and went to London. When I was there, I would knock on every door (something I also did when visiting Paris). Bear in mind, this was back before I was able to export my talent, and so I had to cry a lot, alone in my hotel room, because nobody would just call me back or respond to my emails (haha). So of course, I'd go on LinkedIn and figure out who I needed to meet, and then I'd hang outside their agencies and wait until the person came outside. If they smoked, I'd smoke with them and say 'Hi, so you're this person! I just came from Canada to see you' and they'd be like 'Oh really, this is unprecedented! My cousin lives in Montreal...' or something like that. But anyway, the reason why I went to these big cities was because they're still home to some huge, traditional advertising channels. Look at London and its TV advertising scene!
As for brands, look at Apple. The very first time I heard '1234' by Feist, in an Apple commercial, everyone was like, 'Oh my god, artists can actually make advertising!' This, by the way, is called ‘sync’ or synchronising. Although this technique has been really popular in Europe for the longest time, in Canada, the markets are different. This specific technique didn't really come here until much later on. But now, in Montreal, synchronising is a big thing.
Something else that’s remarkable about this trend is that even though synchronisation has been a big deal throughout the past five years, 10 years ago, artists just hated advertising. People considered it being a sellout! And now, slowly, the mindset is changing. The revenue from traditional routes is decreasing as things like Spotify become popular. As such, artists need to be like, 'Oh well, I guess advertising is no longer evil'. I also think that locally, advertising is a great way for artists to be discovered. Not only is it great exposure, but usually it's pretty good money. A sync can pay a lot, and it absolutely has the potential, for all these reasons, to transform a musician's career.
Another thing to also consider is that exclusivity is more important than ever. With music libraries being around, you can now go online and download unlimited songs for like $19. It's subscription-based and super cheap, but with music being so accessible, this means that now, it’s actually exclusivity which gives value to music. In fact, that's what the entire luxury market in France is based on; it's rare, it's expensive and not everyone can have it.
For this reason, brands will not go online and purchase music, because their competitor may be doing the same thing, and having two ads with the same music would be crazy. And as a result, brands are now seeking out artists directly. We see that more and more at the moment. Brands and creatives are really looking for people who've never done advertising and trying to sign them. They go up to someone like Miley Cyrus and say 'Can we remix your song for advertising, or can you write one for advertising?'. If the artist says yes and gives the exclusive rights, at the moment, that’s the most prestigious thing a brand can have. So, for all these reasons, I really do believe that advertising has a great potential to launch or bring light to a musician's career.
LBB> How else has music and the way it’s used in advertising evolved over the past decade? And what changes do you expect to see in the future?
Paul-Étienne> The most important thing that's happened in the past decade has been accessibility. Back in 2012 when I started working in Montreal, I had a gig to write music for a 60-second internet ad. And back then, music was not accessible, so I actually had to write it myself. But those days are long gone. With music libraries, even if you need to write pop, hip-hop, electronic - it's all there. So, I think the next step, and I'm not the only one to say this, is probably AI. Humans have written humongous amounts of music, and there's storytelling in scoring that only humans can do. It's what we do best at Circonflex - writing orchestral music to the picture is our speciality. However, AI-generated music is something that universities are already working on. Yes, the music is terrible at the moment, but to be fair, everyone starts terrible. My first piece was also terrible!
LBB> Do you have a favourite composition and why?
Paul-Étienne> When you grow up, at like 13, 14 or 15 you start listening to the sound that's there. It's why my parents love '70s music - because that's what they grew up with, and that was cool back then. So for me, I was influenced by sounds that I listened to when I was 17, 18 and 19. And I was so inspired I started composing. However, my taste today is different. As of late, it seems like what I prefer is a mixture of classic, classical and jazz. I'll listen to Claude Debussy, I'll listen to impressionist classical stuff, and I'll listen to Chet Baker. I love to be handheld by the music and I don't need a singer in my ears. It has to be calming and soothing, because music is what I do every day. It's so busy, so whenever I put music on, it has to be soothing and calming.
LBB> What are the most important lessons you've learned while working in the industry?
Paul-Étienne> First off, success is very ephemeral, so I don't take anything for granted. One thing I've learned is that while it's hard to get a client to hire you, it's even harder to keep them happy. It's easy to be like, 'They're going to call back', but no, it's not like that. You need to do every job as well as you do your first, and treat each one like your last job, always.
LBB> What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced at Circonflex, and how did you overcome them?
Paul-Étienne> One of the biggest challenges came when I bought this building, here in Montreal. At the time, I didn't know there was a rule in the city prohibiting me from turning it into a sound studio. Our office is in an area called Le Plateau Mont Royal, and we're officially the neighbourhood’s first legal sound studio. But initially, when we went to the borough to get the permit, they were like, 'That's cool, but no, you can't do it'. So it was actually a huge challenge. Not only did we have to get the neighbours to accept it, but we had to make sure that everything was going to be fully soundproofed.
To do all that, we had to take some serious measures. The mayor actually had to approve the project! Just before the pandemic, I met with the assistant to the mayor and it was like, 'Oh! You're the sound studio guy', and I was like 'How do you know about it?' and he goes, 'Well, everyone knows. The council actually looked at the project...'. So it was very much one of those big challenges.
Then, the other challenge is trying to work with new markets where nobody has seen you or knows about you. It's super challenging to be in a room where you're like, 'Oh my God, I know nobody. How am I going to make even one friend?' I felt this way when I went to Cannes. I would see everyone throwing parties and going into villas and having people invited to their places, and I actually sat next to a fountain in front of the Mediterranean Sea and said 'Holy moly! How am I going to get some people over to my apartment? Nobody knows about me'.
Really, it's just that things take time. You have to learn to let go and be patient. And this can be hard when you're eager and hungry. People are busy. They have so many things on the go and everyone already works with someone. So learning to let go and while being patient is also one of the biggest challenges. But it’s key!
LBB> On the website, you only give yourself a 19% in pie baking skills. Why is that?
Paul-Étienne> Well, it's funny. My mom would always tell me that the important thing was to eat the inside of the pies, and not necessarily the crust, because the crust was just useless fat. So I guess I've just learned to not like pies. Paradoxically, in our Montreal studio, we have two chefs, and one of them is a baker. It's part of the experience. Back when I was dreaming of my own studio, I would think about what I wanted to have. And one feature I figured would be nice was having a baker or a chef.
And in practice, it really is such a great thing. We have an open kitchen, so whenever you walk in, the building smells good, and during lunchtime, there’s always something's cooking.
I’ve always believed in the idea of having a workshop filled with artists and craftsmen who create music and sound. But I’ve also felt that the same should be said for food. Every day, there's a delivery of fresh ingredients, and the chef and baker also think, 'OK, what piece are we going to compose today?' It's a very lively, dynamic and creative place. But back to the main point, no, I don't bake pies. I am very bad at it. But luckily, Marc-André, our baker, makes amazing pies. Everyone likes them!
LBB> Any exciting plans for the future?
Paul-Étienne> The big news is that we are expanding here in Montreal, and we're going to launch phase two. Talking about this actually makes me think back to when we initially launched. It was a very big leap of faith because I didn't know if people were actually going to come, but I built it anyway and fortunately, that's what happened. It’s crazy how far we’ve come. Now, we've grown so much that we need more space and more room, and as a result, I've acquired the building next door!
Our Toronto office is also recent news, and it's still super, super exciting! But, the thing I'm still not sure about is whether there’ll be one last city I expand to. If Circonflex were to expand, it would probably be to Manhattan, and that's because it's where advertising was born - back in the day. For some reason, expanding there has always been this sort of goal of mine. I'd love to eventually be able to play with those people, so that's probably where I'm headed. But that won't be happening right now. That would be in three or four years.
It’s still a tough decision though. At the moment, I have two kids. One is 12 and one is four. But if I were to launch in Manhattan, I'd probably have to move there and really dive into it. So that's a big challenge to coordinate. I'd be going away for two or three weeks at a time, missing them, coming back, and then doing it all over again. But you know, maybe in a few years - by the time I decide if I want to go to New York - the kids will be old enough that they won't want to spend time with me anyway. They'll be like, 'Dad, you're old and boring!'.
LBB> Off the top of your head, what are the most memorable projects you’ve worked on?
Paul-Étienne> The projects for which we've won awards are always memorable. But beyond that, the first TV series theme I wrote (for 'The Amazing Spiez') is probably the one thing I'm most proud of. It's an actual theme song filled with neat things like whistling and that '60s electronic spy feel. It also became something where whenever fans heard it, they'd run to see the TV because they knew their show was coming. And for me, that's just such an amazing feeling. To know that I'm creating this feeling and making something that exists forever, and that people know - it’s just incredible.