Artistic director Thomas Kechikian is immersed in high-end, image-driven brands
The world of advertising is tough. It’s the kind of business in which client loyalty is earned, not given, yet you’re only as good as the results of your last campaign. But for Thomas Kechikian, co-founder and artistic director of the Paris-based advertising and graphic design studio Les Gauchers, the rarified world of selling luxury brands is as much about managing client expectations as it is fulfilling aspirations. Be it high-end fragrances, cosmetics, accessories, fashion, and other prestige products and services, Kechikian’s mandate is to appeal to the most discerning customer.
In this realm, image often reigns supreme over function, and ideals of beauty, quality, and style must be impeccably interpreted to the extremes of aesthetic sensibilities, in hopes that life can imitate art in its most unblemished form, rather than vice versa.
Fortunately, Kechikian was endowed with an artistic sense by birth. He explains how as a child he enjoyed drawing and working with his hands. But he goes on to point out the irony that, while art was part of his identity, as he matured he became intrigued by another exacting profession relating to vision—ophthalmology. “As a kid, I wanted a job that would either help advance the world or benefit as many people as possible,” he says. “Ultimately I chose a profession that would reach the masses. Only not to help patients see better but to entice consumers to dream bigger.”
Ambivalent about which field to pursue, Kechikian eventually enrolled at ESAG Penninghen, a high-end Parisian private school for art direction and interior design. It allowed him to “touch on a bit of everything” from graphics and academic drawing to photography and more.
Kechikian reflects on how this decision factored into his close relationship with his parents, who he describes as “bathing him in love and Armenian culture.” Kechikian admits that it was important for him not to disappoint them. “I knew I had to prove myself to my parents that they were right to trust in me and to invest in me,” he notes.
So upon graduation from ESAG Penninghen, the young artist spent the next four months freelancing for small agencies and a few of his own clients. He also worked for M6, the most profitable private national French television channel, where he was trained on their advanced graphic design software. However, all the while, he secretly aspired to work for DDB, the advertising industry giant that produced campaigns Kechikian had long admired for their
aesthetic appeal and sophisticated wit.
That was until he was hired by Air Paris where he would spend the next seven and a half years of his career immersed in some of the most renowned brands in the beauty, fashion, and jewelry industries in France and beyond. “I even wound up at an ad shoot with Kendall Jenner. That was fun,” he reflects with a casual shrug.
At “Air,” as he likes to call it, Kechikian worked on a creative team of four that included Annabelle Benedicto, his future business partner. Together, they took on such global names as Bioderma, Lancôme, and Longchamp. As artistic director of many of their ad campaigns, Kechikian found himself managing nearly every aspect of execution—product composition and photography, hair and makeup, as well as campaign prep work to ensure that “everything goes according to plan.”
Though a rewarding experience, working under such demands also meant countless sleepless nights. “At Air Paris, leaving work at eight in the evening was considered early. At that point, I had all but given up on my social life,” says Kechikian, but goes on to say that the experience was worth it. “Luxury brands leave nothing to chance and require meticulous attention to the last detail, while time and budget are often restricted. But it teaches you about rigor and perseverance. In many ways, my experience at Air Paris was an extension of my university training,” says Kechikian.
Come September 2017 and the desire to build something of their own, Kechikian and Benedicto left Air Paris to co-found Les Gauchers, or “The Lefties” in French, in celebration of their own propensity for the right cerebral hemisphere. “There came a time at Air Paris when I just wasn’t sure why I was doing whatever it was I was doing. Although I worked a lot, I felt like it was all for someone else. I wasn’t really enjoying the fruits of my labor anymore,” he explains.
With Les Gauchers, Kechikian’s responsibilities expanded, clearly with a new focus more on the business side of advertising such as negotiating fees with clients and selling the big idea, while still addressing all the creative production values.
“We started off from nothing, without any clients, but grew enough to refuse clients because of too much work,” says Kechikian, adding that he is always “well behaved” due to his Armenian upbringing, to which he attributes his good relations with his colleagues and clients.
In addition to the Armenian-centric upbringing of his parents, much of Kechikian’s “Armenianness” was fostered in the cradle of the AGBU. A veteran “UGABtsi,” Kechikian experienced it all—from Saturday school at the AGBU Alex Manoogian Cultural Center in Paris to UGAB Colonie de Vacances and the emblematic “Madame [Herminé] Duzian,” to AGBU Camp Nubar in New York. As he came of age, he would volunteer as group leader for both editions of UGAB Colonie de Vacances, supervising younger campers in the summer and helping them ski and stay safe in the winter.
The camps were a wonderful experience,” says Kechikian. “They taught me to how to be more independent and helped me somewhat cut the cord with my parents—no easy feat when you’re Armenian,” he jokes. Yet when summing up the totality of these exposures, Kechikian finds dancing with Christina Galstian, first at the AGBU Saturday school and later the Yeraz dance company Galstian founded, the channel through which he could best express his Armenian identity, claiming that after just under 30 years of involvement, it has become “part of his DNA.”
He also notes that AGBU made an impact on his professional development as well as his identity formation. In 2007, he participated in the AGBU New York Summer Internship Program (NYSIP) as only one of 35 interns from the arts world. This made finding a placement a challenge. After a short-lived three weeks with Kaleidoscope Imaging Inc., a New-York based packaging studio, Kechikian spent the remainder of his eight-week internship with AGBU New York, helping them promote AGBU FOCUS 2007, which brought together more than 700 young Armenian professionals to celebrate the 20 years of AGBU NYSIP. “It was an incredible experience,” says Kechikian, adding that he was very impressed to see just how engaged the local Armenian youth was in their respective communities.
Not that he wasn’t one to parade his Armenian identity whenever the occasion arose. “At school, the question of ethnic origins was always among the first I asked of anyone I met, which never failed to surprise my French friends,” he says.
Dubbed “the Armenian” by his university friends, Kechikian still carries his identity with a pride worthy of the history that informs it. And in today’s globalized society, staying true to one’s roots is perhaps the greatest luxury of all.