The first shot in the Post-it Wars made no sound, but was heard ’round the world all the same. On a sunny day last May, Thibault Lhuillier, Emilie Cozette, and a few colleagues at the big French game designer Ubisoft (UBI:FP) were in the kind of dreamy spring mood that Paris is known to induce. They started goofing around with Post-it notes. In the space of about 15 minutes, they managed to stick a pretty good likeness of a character from the Space Invaders video game (a nod to a notorious street art mosaicist) to a window of their headquarters in Montreuil, a suburb east of Paris. “All anyone was talking about was the American debt, then it was Greek debt, then it was Italian debt,” says Lhuillier. “We had to do something to change the mood and get out of the grayness.”
A few days later, Lhuillier noticed that Ubisoft’s Montreuil neighbor, the bank BNP Paribas (BNP:FP), had one-upped Ubisoft with a more elaborate Post-it Pac-Man on its own windows. “I would never have imagined that one of the biggest banks in France would be putting a video game character on its windows,” Lhuillier says. “It was extraordinary.”
Back came the Ubisofters with an even more ambitious collage. In Paris’s La Défense business district, French gas company GDF Suez (GSZ:FP) and banking giant Société Générale (GLE:FP) took up paper arms against one another. In Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb along the Seine, Coca-Cola (KO) and news channel France 24 had at it. Soon businesses in Lyon and Lille joined the fray.
As the war escalated, the Post-it designs grew ever more complex. Subject matter ranged from ’80s and ’90s video games—whose rough-hewn, 8-bit pixels and basic colors could easily be recreated with paper squares—to beloved cartoon characters. In August, Ubisoft completed its masterpiece: a three-story Post-it collage of Ezio, a character from Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed video game. It required 8,000 Post-it notes and the effort of some 450 Ubisoft employees. “I had never even said hello to most of these people before,” says Lhuillier. But just when the battle seemed won, Société Générale retaliated with a six-story depiction of comic book characters Astérix and Obélix composed of 11,000 notes.
Six months later the conflict has spread across the globe. While major hostilities have subsided in Montreuil (Ubisoft laid down its Post-its, mostly because all 50 of its windows had been covered), the Post-it War is now a World Post-it War. Nowadays the war’s Facebook page is filled with everything from a three-story Johnny Cash in Germany to Alfred Hitchcock in Warsaw to a rugby referee in New Zealand. This fall, after hearing about Post-it flare-ups in Silicon Valley, Drew Bennett decided to bring the war to Seattle, where he works.
“It was a Monday afternoon, I was stuck on a problem at work and I thought maybe this would help,” recalls Bennett, a programmer at SEOmoz, which designs software for search engine optimization. Up went Bennett’s Donkey Kong mosaic on one of the company’s Pine Street–facing windows. Within days other tech companies in a one-block radius—including gamemaker Fugazo and Web software designer Ingeniux—responded with their own Post-it Nintendo characters. “It was very cool. There must have been eight or nine companies around town doing it,” says Bennett. “We stopped when a company across the street kind of won the war—they did the first Mario logo over an entire floor and it was kind of intimidating.”
For its part, arms maker 3M (MMM) undertook no official program to supply combatants. The St. Paul (Minn.)–based conglomerate, which introduced the Post-it note in 1980, didn’t really need the boost. The French, a paper-loving people, are addicted to the 3-inch squares, in addition to notes in less-mosaic friendly dimensions. They buy 40 million Post-it pads a year, making them Europe’s biggest Post-it consumers. Still, the extra attention was not unwelcome. “All of this activity was spontaneous and autonomous, but we looked at it with a lot of goodwill,” says Gaël Charlaté Coudeyras, marketing director for Post-it at 3M France. “It resonates with the values of the brand.”
Charlaté Coudeyras adds that 3M has done some offbeat things in the past to promote its Post-it business, including a fashion show at the Stade de France arena some years back featuring clothes made entirely out of Post-it notes. But it decided to sit out the Post-it Wars, at least publicly. “Not all enterprises wanted to take part in the Post-it Wars, so we weren’t there as a brand,” says Charlaté Coudeyras. This did not prevent it from supporting the war effort in a quiet way. Ubisoft got a shipment of 30,000 Post-its from 3M—“munitions de guerre,” 3M called them in a note thanking Ubisoft for its good work. “They were really very nice,” says Lhuillier, noting that given the price of Post-its, “I could never pay for them myself.”
3M had another reason for staying on the sidelines. The Post-it pictures were charming, sure, and people suddenly started looking up instead of down when they walked to work. But taking time out from work for arts and crafts could easily be seen as a waste of time and money. Most of the economies where Post-it wars have broken out are struggling to stay out of recession. The French counterculture magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, took an uncharacteristic pot shot at the trend with a headline reading: “At the end of the Post-it War, one winner: our eyes; one loser: productivity.”
Some people will find in the Post-it wars a confirmation of stereotypes about France’s work ethic. Statistics, however, suggest that the Post-it brigades are probably staying later at the office to make up for any lost time. A 2009 study by the Conference Board found that French workers generate more real gross domestic product per hour worked than their dutiful German counterparts; that’s despite (or possibly because of) France’s 35-hour work week. France does have a history of dismal relations between managers and workers, but the Post-it crews don’t appear to be thumbing their noses at anybody. “If our work wasn’t done yet, we did it,” says Lhuillier. “Besides, companies spend a lot of money to promote team-building. This costs a lot less.”
It was only a matter of time before the soldiers of fortune arrived. After Steve Jobs died in October, Christian Mauerer and his friend Andreas Kopp put up a Post-it portrait of the innovator in a Munich Apple (AAPL) store as an homage. It proved so popular that the two started getting commissions. The Global Social Business Summit called them down to Vienna last November to execute a Post-it portrait of Nobel peace laureate Muhammad Yunus. Since then, 15 stores on Munich’s Kausingerstrasse shopping street have engaged Mauerer and Kopp, who now call themselves the Postitart Creators, to make a holiday events calendar. “We could do a kind of lottery—you write your name on a Post-it, and if you get picked you win a free perfume. I never thought this would happen, but it’s getting commercial,” says Mauerer.
Whatever the Post-it Wars morph into, they’ve left their insouciant French origins behind. A new artistic medium has been born, for better or worse. Andreas Kopp already has a request for a Post-it oeuvre celebrating the 40th anniversary of a Munich art gallery next summer. Says his colleague Mauerer, “It has a life of its own now.”