Obituary: Jean-Claude Decaux, ad man and entrepreneur

Jean-Claude Decaux, entrepreneur who pioneered outdoor advertising. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Jean-Claude Decaux, entrepreneur who pioneered outdoor advertising. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Born: 15 September 1937, Beauvais, France. Died: 27 May 2016, Paris, aged 78.

Jean-Claude Decaux was a French entrepreneur who pioneered outdoor advertising becoming a multi-billionaire in the process. He created one of the world’s largest advertising companies and was among the world’s top 200 billionaires with a net worth of £5bn at the time of his death.

Decaux established his business over half a century through a combination of creative ideas, fierce attention to detail and hard-edged negotiating. Now, the brand signature JCDecaux can be found on over half a billion billboards world-wide, covering 3,700 cities in 56 countries, adorning advertising hoardings, bus shelters, kiosks, and even public lavatories, as well as digital information boards at airports, railway and metro stations and on major roads.

He is said to have invented the idea of “street furniture” – public spaces, such as bus shelters, that feature space for ads.

Born in Beauvais, a large market town north of Paris, in 1937, Jean-Claude Decaux was the son of a shoe maker. Aged 17, while his parents were away on holiday, he created some home-made posters and put them on walls in nearby streets around town advertising the business in the hope of attracting new trade. Though his parents were embarrassed, a seed had been sown.

In 1955 Decaux established, with his brothers Jean-Pierre and Jean-Marie, a small venture making roadside hoardings, however, the business remained small as three companies, Avenir, Giraudy, and Dauphin, dominated the market; soon after the government banned roadside advertising, citing its distraction to drivers.

In 1964, legislation in France placed restrictions on billboard use which almost forced Decaux out of business.

Fortunately, he had devised the concept of the “Abribus”, a bus shelter which could be offered free to city municipalities because it was paid for by its advertising panels.

In return for agreeing to the shelters, Decaux received an exclusive 20-year contract and the right to sell advertising space for the bus stop’s six panels.

In 1972, Decaux broke into Paris, which underlined the group’s arrival as a major advertising force. Reluctant to rest on his laurels, the workaholic Decaux continued to develop their furniture designs, adding new features such as public telephones in partnership with the French telephone service PTT.

In 1972, the company also launched its Citylights information panels. In 1976, came the coup de grâce, when JCDecaux’s partnership with the city of Paris was extended with a series of new contracts, giving the company more or less exclusive control of the city’s street furniture market throughout the 1990s.

In 1981 he introduced electronic information panels to enable the town halls of France to communicate local information to their citizens.

In 1999, the group acquired competitor Avenir, which included the British business, Mills & Allen, and controlled poster sites in airports and other public places across Europe. Obsessed with cleanliness, the mid-90s saw Decaux introduce the “Sanisette” superloo, a self-cleaning, high-tech unisex toilet cubicle, which gradually replaced Paris’ traditional “pissoirs”. A keen cyclist, he introduced and operated self-service bicycle rental outlets in Lyon and Paris, the rental system now operates in 67 cities with over 18,000 bicycles supported with advertising.

Decaux continued with his tradition of innovation and in 2001, the company became the first to launch plasma-based airport screen displays. They introduced scrolling versions, allowing for multiple advertisements on a single site. In London, he won the concession, costed at more than £500m, to roll-out the ad-based London Digital Network, which will deploy 1,000 84-inch high-resolution screens on behalf of Transport for London.

Reluctantly, he handed over the business to his sons, Jean-François, Jean-Charles and Jean-Sébastien, and after suffering from poor health eventually stepped down as honorary chairman in 2013.

Not everything, however, ran smoothly. Decaux was twice fined with suspended sentences for dubious connections with French and Belgian politicians from whom he won contracts. A fiercely private man, he was rarely seen at high profile events, withheld his details from Who’s Who, declined France’s highest accolade, the Légion d’honneur and discouraged all references to his wife.

Decaux is survived by his wife Danielle and their three sons.