I once walked into a Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival event where the name "JC Decaux" alone was projected onto a white screen at the front. In common with everyone else, I thought: “Why do I know that name?”
We knew it from a million billboards – those huge display signs we pass every day. Now I register it daily as the name of a Huguenot: he was one of us.
Huguenots have never been shy about self-promotion when it suits their interests, and J C Decaux was a master of branding. Every one of his billboards has a distinctive, if discreet, sign at the bottom of it, simply stating his two initials and his surname in a neat, uncluttered typeface.
His obituary in The Telegraph last year revealed more about this curiously under-stated man.
Jean-Claude Decaux was fifteen when he starting fly-posting handmade adverts for his father’s shoe-shop around the streets of Paris. By the time he retired, he had created an empire of outdoor advertising sites – bus shelters and news-stands as well as street hoardings - in 3,700 cities around the world.
I remember helping to deliver meat on my father’s butcher rounds when I was thirteen. I can still feel the cold, flabby packets of raw meat in my hands as I stood in the chilly air, relieved to be out of the suffocating, meat-smelling van. I recall the anxiety and stifled rage in my father’s voice telling me that Mrs Crump would not pay. Through us both ran a strong current of shame and powerlessness: standing there helplessly in the lane with our van, timorous of approaching her front door. Hall & Sons were not strong enough as a family business to make her pay.
If I had the chance, even now, to stamp “Hall & Sons” all over the billboards of the world, I would do it.
The Decaux family is now one of France’s wealthiest dynasties, with a fortune worth around five billion euros. According to his obituary, “Decaux built his business over half a century through a combination of creative ideas, fierce attention to detail and hard-edged deal-making.” In that, he was a true Huguenot.
London also owes J C Decaux a debt of gratitude for the inspiration behind Santander bikes, once known as Boris bikes – those chunky, rather clunky, bikes you can hire in central London. Tourists and Londoners themselves are often seen wobbling through streets and parks on these red self-service cycles. It was J C Decaux who pioneered low-cost city bike hire, introducing the Velib bike in Paris after a prototype scheme was trialled in La Rochelle from 1974 onwards.
Decaux was, ironically, protective of his own personal privacy, and did not mix in celebrity circles, although he was occasionally spotted cycling in the Rambouillet forest with former president Nicolas Sarkozy. He was also known to enjoy boar-hunting in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where he spent some of his vast fortune renovating the former home and burial site of postwar President of France Charles de Gaulle.
Jean-Claude Decaux 1937-2016