“Communication always requires courage. When people lack optimism and vision, and are worried about results, it’s brave to speak up.”
Based in Paris, France, Mercedes Erra is the founder of BETC, France’s leading advertising agency, and Executive President of Havas Worldwide. Erra has gained international recognition for her expertise in branding and communications. She is responsible for major strategic shifts of popular brands, including health for Danone, Air France’s vision “Making the sky the best place on earth,” and the "Roller Babies" campaign for Evian, which made the Guinness Book of Records for being viewed over 75 million times. She is also an active advocate for women, youth, human rights, and innovation, co-founding the Women’s forum for the Economy and Society, and serving as Co-President of the Human Rights Watch French Committee, Vice-President of the French Communications Industry, chairwoman of the Museum of Immigration History, and Vice-President of the board of directors of the French National Commission for UNESCO, to name a few.
In this interview, Mercedes Erra shares what she loves about advertising, how she sells clients on her strategies, and what feminism means to her.
TGL: How was your childhood?
ME: I was disrupted as a child by my parents’ decision to leave Barcelona, Spain, for France. It was a difficult decision for them because it was a downgrade. We were upper middle class, but in France, we were lower on the socio-economic ladder. In Spain, children were placed on pedestals, so I thought I was a pretty little doll when I was young. When I arrived in France, it was sink or swim. My mother was having problems, she was depressed, and I felt like I had to fit in at all costs. That brought energy to my life. At six or seven, I had a set idea of myself and my path, at least that’s what my mother tells me. She tells me that I was a grounded little girl who decided to move forward in the world. My childhood was often disrupted by difficulties, but I always told myself that difficulties can be opportunities that push you.
My takeaway from my childhood is that I was lucky. When you come from a less-affluent background, it may not be obvious that you can achieve things you didn’t think were possible, especially when you’re a girl, luck is involved. It has given me an outlook on everything I have in life that is pretty enthusiastic. I have trouble with people who lack positivity; I especially have a problem with the inability to push boundaries. This may go back to my being a little girl who wanted the other French children to stop making fun of me, making fun of my accent and my level of French. You could say that it taught me to fight.
TGL: Before going into advertising, you studied literature. What drew you to literature?
ME: I studied literature because, when I arrived in France as a child, French was a necessary step. In my mind, I needed to speak better than the others. Since the other kids made fun of me, I saw French as a weapon. Language is a fundamental weapon. I naively thought that the best weapon would be to become a French teacher. So, I became a French teacher because French, which I thought was a marvelous language, was not my first language. When something isn’t natural to you, it is more precious because you have to choose it.
TGL: How did you transition from literature to advertising?
ME: Once I was a teacher, I realized that I did not want to be a French teacher. I’d never thought of doing anything else but, in the end, I didn’t want to be a public servant. I didn’t want that life. I asked myself, “What will you do with all these marvelous literary weapons you have?” My studies were wonderful and shaped me, but so people wouldn’t say I’m only literary, I applied to and graduated from HEC Paris Business School. They offered me a scholarship because they found my journey singular, and after that, doors were opened to me. Generally speaking, though, my real studies were my literary studies and those are the ones I continue to rely on every day. Literature is extraordinary training in discipline.
People think the only proper training for discipline is mathematics. I don’t think that at all. People who do math have trouble switching to a literary discipline, and vice versa. We need different types of discipline. When I speak with engineers and their train of thought doesn’t follow the path I think it should, I see it as a weakness, but it isn’t, it just isn’t the same discipline. Thought training takes time, it must be learned, and literature teaches it well. It teaches us what people are really like, how they think, i.e., human psychology. In my field, this is necessary. In terms of mathematics, managing an agency is like managing a grocery store - do not say this to my incredibly creative CFO. I don’t need years of education; it’s adding and subtracting like in most jobs.
TGL: What did you do after graduating from HEC?
ME: I did an advertising internship even though my experience was so far removed from advertising. I’d been brought up with Proust, Saint-Simon, Greek and Latin works. I went into advertising, and I said to myself, “We’ll see how things go in this world.” In fact, I told my internship supervisor that I was going to study semiology. He was pretty worried. In the end, I started in advertising and, fifteen days later, I knew it was my profession. That was lucky too. Who could have told literary me that I was going to be good at advertising? I found a profession that is the perfect fit, a profession that tries to understand people and go deeper.
I stayed at Saatchi for 14 years. I was happy there. After eight years, I was Managing Director of the agency. One thing followed the next in a natural progression. I didn’t have a career plan. I did what was interesting to me and threw myself into it. I had a sense of responsibility. When there was a problem, I thought it was my fault. This is actually useful because very few people think anything is their fault. This allows you to climb quickly because you solve problems since you think they’re your fault.
TGL: Why did you leave Saatchi?
ME: I left Saatchi because I was obsessed with creating a French agency with an international culture. The world needs us all to defend the diversity of cultures. Communications was largely dominated by Anglo-Saxon voices, and I thought there was no reason for that other than the fact that the United States has bigger economy than ours. Everywhere in the world should have the energy to offer a different viewpoint, while respecting the United States perspective, but representing another way of interacting with the world. I created BETC. I’m the E between the B and the TC.
TGL: What do you love about advertising?
ME: It’s a profession of persuasion. All professions of persuasion require understanding others. That was a path I loved. From abstract to concrete. It required thought and then a result. I love all of those conflicting concepts; I never would have guessed it, and it was a coincidence that I fell into an advertising internship. I never left.
TGL: One of your strengths is coming up with slogans. What is your process?
ME: My strength is first and foremost understanding people. It’s actually complicated because people are complicated. What are they thinking? What are they saying? Why are they saying one thing and doing another? These are the types of questions I love.
It’s interesting to compare what people say, what people do and try to understand why it’s so complicated. Then, a strategy has to be determined, and I’m a strategist. Indeed, my “culture” is strategy: brand strategy, product strategy or whatever strategy, because communications can be for politicians, companies, products. We decide their strategic direction, what we’ll have to say, then it's time for implementation. What I like most is when what I do either unsettles or stabilizes a company, forcing it to move in a certain direction. I don’t like words that are without commitment. When we communicate, we are really making a commitment, and that is very important to me.
TGL: Do you believe communication is an action?
ME: Communication is thoughts in action. I have an undying admiration of human beings because human beings are insane. Human beings are incredible. Being human is all inside our heads. If we’re in a good mood, we’ll work like crazy; if we think what we’re doing is important, we step up our efforts. Communication is a little like that. Case in point, I have an advertising agency that is hugely successful, but I believe that my sincerity vis-à-vis advertising has inspired our employees and created a culture of being proud of working in this profession at BETC, and sometimes doing even better than I do, always striving for better. I believe in this simply because this is how people function.
We always think that the senses, sensuality and sensation are important, but everything goes through our minds. When you cover a person’s eyes, they already have a harder time smelling something because everything goes through the head. This is why crazy things happen like young women who are pregnant but don’t realize it because they’re in denial. Everything goes through the mind. People are incredible.
TGL: You created the strategies of advertising youth for Evian and health for Danone. How do these strategies come to you and how do you convince companies of your strategies?
ME: First, you have to find it, you have to look. You have to doubt yourself. I’ve found things by listening to people. Sometimes people say to me, “You’re going to guess what people will say.” I’m able to guess because I listen to people, and I have heard them say things many times. Health in food, I saw that coming because people were talking about it. I could see that, increasingly, people were connecting their well-being with their health. Plus, there was a real element of fact, because there are always truths in what people are saying.
The first time I mentioned health to Danone, Franck Riboud said, “What are you going on about this time? We don’t have a doctor at Danone. What are you talking about? Food is about tasting good.” I told him, “Yes, but I think there’s a shift happening.” That’s because I heard what people were saying. It’s hard for me to present my conviction because we need doubts since, in our profession, convictions are a human science. Like history, like sociology, different interpretations are possible.
I like to think of all possible strategic paths but, when the time comes, it’s conviction that carries the day. Once it is clear to me that there is a definite path, I need conviction because otherwise things don’t move forward. If you never believe in anything, the world won’t move forward. From the moment I have conviction, I become very stubborn. Of course, I can change my mind. If someone comes up with something unbelievable that throws it all into question, I am able to say, “I’ll go back to the agency and start again from scratch.” But if that doesn’t happen, I can hold on for a long time.
TGL: How would you describe the relationships you’ve built with the biggest French and European business leaders?
ME: The path to persuasion is long and increasingly complicated by the many levels you have to go through. When a new boss arrives, you once again have to persuade them and start over. The challenge is always persuasion. I personally only have one gear, because I don’t know how to be otherwise, and that’s to be sincere and genuine, which is what I teach my teams. We discuss, we listen, and we may change our minds because what matters is not our own opinion but whether what we have to present is brilliant. In discussions, I am genuine, sometimes too genuine, but, in the end, better to be too much of something than nothing. My teams are sometimes scared when they bring me because they think, “She’s going to tell it to them straight.” That’s the way I was built, and I haven’t changed. Some of my clients like me, others find me tiresome. I’m not there to make them like me, I’m there to move something forward in the company, so that gives me strength.
He can think what he likes, but I care about the company. The leader’s career is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in the companies and the brands, whether the leaders are involved or not is not my concern. There are people whose job it is to think about careers. My job is to ask whether the company will be stronger. Will it say exciting things? Will it interest people? That’s what I consider my job.
TGL: In a TED Talk you said you’ve been a feminist since the age of five. What does feminism mean to you?
ME: I was lucky to be a feminist naturally. I became a feminist because I had no doubts about the fact that a woman must work. I didn’t understand why people would ask me questions like, “What will you do when you have children?” What about men? Why weren’t people asking how they’d manage? I didn’t understand, it was unfair. I was lucky to tell myself, “No, I don’t want that.” I didn’t care if I even found a husband. I want to be liked because I do things.
At the beginning, I didn’t have many doubts. I knew I could work. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem in terms of children. I didn’t understand what people were saying, that my children would be unhappy if I worked. This protected me a lot. With time, it became a struggle because it’s unfair and we haven’t come far; the numbers aren’t good. When you think of the world and understand that there are less women who choose their husbands than women who don’t, when you see the problems educating girls throughout the world, when even in France you look at the number of women on the CAC 40 and see none or almost none, when you see the increase in violence against women during the lockdown, when you see that mothers continue to bear the biggest burden during the lockdown even though both parents are home...A world that is an equal world would be a better world, we need to be ready for it.
TGL: What is your approach to dealing with misogynists in your career?
ME: I ignored them. I paid no attention to them. In the beginning at work, I was surrounded by men and that was hard. I didn’t realize it at the time, but they had a set idea of a woman’s role. For example, I was supposed to sort and organize all my clients, and they did more on the creative side. I could definitely feel that. I understood it and it bothered me but, one day, one of the two said, for a presentation to a certain client, “It would be better if I did it because the client is a misogynist.” I remember saying, “You know what? He’ll stop being one.” It’s not important; you can’t take that into consideration. You can’t spend your life looking at men and thinking about whether or not they’re misogynist. Sure, if I’d have been a man, my career would have been even more successful but I’m fine with my career. I don’t care and don’t want to give in because I don’t want to do things like a man.
TGL: In fact, you’re known for your miniskirts.
ME: I wear short skirts because I’m not very tall, and they look good on me. So, when there was pressure to wear longer skirts, I refused. I wear what I want to wear. People will get used to it. When I was in a competition where there was a risk of putting people off, I measured my skirt and put a longer one on, but the next day I wore a short one and it was fine. I didn’t want anyone to stop me from being me.
We want men to take care of their children more. We don’t want women to stop taking care of their children. That’s not the same thing. What women need to learn is to be bolder, to dare, have self-confidence. Women were brought up to have less confidence. Gendered education is a subject I know well and is evident. When a girl and a boy are born, they are both normal; they can both be bold.
Nicole Abar, one of the top French soccer players, explains the difference between men and women: when placed on a soccer field, a little boy is told, “Go!” and a little girl is told to play hopscotch and jump from box to box. No. Girls need to be pushed, boys restrained a little, and we’ll find an equilibrium. A mix is wonderful. I don’t want a men’s world or a women’s world. I want a mixed world that is equal. Equality is very important to me. There are all kinds of girls, all kinds of boys, and complementarity is fantastic but, first, there’s a democratic principle, a human right, and it’s equality.
TGL: As someone who is close to the media, why do you think men are still disproportionately represented in the press today?
ME: Because men are in power. I started looking into this about ten years ago, into media representation. At first, when we said we were carrying out studies on this to see if advances had been made, people said, “You think there’s a problem?” We said, “You know what, we’ll look into it, we’ll count, we’ll do more.” We looked at television over 15 days, newspapers over 15 days, radio over 15 days, etc., and we counted the number of women. We found that the distribution, on television for example, was 70% men and 30% women.
We hadn’t even noticed it ourselves because we were used to it. In addition, the 30% mostly reported on lifestyle pieces, and were never specialists. This is how the idea of specialists came about. Once, we said, “We’re going to count the specialists.” There is a long way to go. We need to fight because this isn’t right. I think the lockdown helped. They all talked amongst themselves. The men have so much more time than the women. The women have too much to do. They don’t share the burden. For example, earlier, my wonderful assistant said to me, “Mercedes, you know the children look to me for everything.” The husbands are there, what is going on? We’ll have to tell children about my path, a different path. The world caters more to men...I fight against these things all the time.
Morning radio programs, including on France Inter where they do make an effort with quotas and all, are male-centric. I am always invited to be on the morning of March 8th. The rest of the time, I apparently have no opinions on the economy or on anything at all. This is wrong. We need to speak out.
TGL: You serve as chairwoman of the Museum of Immigration History and are an active member of several political organizations. What was your path to politics?
ME: I figured out pretty early on that it was important to give back to society, which gives us so much. I believe in being involved, and when you believe in certain things, it’s best to promote them. This came naturally to me, any time I could help, I tried to contribute. The Museum of Immigration is a position I love because we have a problem with racism, a problem with diversity, which is a source of incredible richness. I was an immigrant as a girl. France was a country open to everyone, and I wanted it to continue being open to everyone, not one that refuses people or that only looks inward. My political actions are simply an extension of my commitments. I consider my company to be political in that it has also committed to issues we care deeply about: human rights, women, diversity.
Companies are increasingly expected to act in the so-called political sphere, which means commitments to making the world around us move forward. There is work to be done and we must contribute. It’s fulfilling, just as it’s fulfilling to give in life. It’s simply inspiring to be able to help others.
TGL: Given COVID-19, what would you say to entrepreneurs about their immediate problems and need for communications at this time?
ME: It must be said that, communications are still tied to the economy and we will be up against a major economic crisis. Major economic crises are alarming because they affect people: their purchasing power, their jobs. I think we’ll be facing a large-scale economic crisis. This will be a major challenge. Why will communications play a role? Because it will be needed to start things up again, help get things moving. This is why people are so worried about when lockdowns will be lifted, they know that after the health crisis comes the economic crisis.
The economic crisis will once again be difficult for a certain portion of the population. There will be companies that prioritize saving jobs over profits or dividends. A company’s purpose is to manufacture something or offer something to the world. We have a business, we generate energy and do advertising to allow people to come together. It provides jobs. These are important services. Then, it creates profit, but profits are falling. How will we handle this so there is as little human fallout as possible? It will be rough. Look at all the issues with the airlines, companies that have to be bailed out otherwise they won’t make it. This is quite a burden. The tourism industry is totally lost and will take a long time to recover, especially since the pandemic isn’t over.
TGL: Do you think companies are scared to speak?
ME: Communication always requires courage. When people lack optimism and vision, and are worried about results, it’s brave to speak up. Some have continued to believe throughout the crisis, some have had a harder time, but some professions have been harder hit than others. Communications can help a lot. In France, we are currently asking for investment loans because perhaps if help is provided for brands to communicate and this is considered an investment, not an expense, it could really help the economy. This isn’t just something I believe. We know from studies done that investments show a return equal to seven times the amount invested.
TGL: What sector are you thinking of in particular?
ME: All sectors will need to communicate. However, each company’s position won’t be the same. The situation today is different in the food industry from what it is in tourism. In tourism, the first thing will be to see which companies haven’t folded, i.e., those that were able to survive during the pandemic. If that’s the point you’re at, you won’t communicate anything, you’ll wait. Communication requires at least some visibility as to the company’s structure and how it’s doing. At some point, though, they will need to start communicating again.
TGL: Do you think communications and advertising is brave right now?
ME: Not always. In advertising, there is good and bad advertising. Like in journalism, there are good and bad journalists. Even at my agency, sometimes we aren’t great. It depends. When I say, “Communication requires courage,” I mean when you go to a company to talk to them about something and you give them meaning and direction, people are usually scared of it. They say, “Yes, but a little more to the right, a little to the left, a little more in the middle,” i.e., they don’t want to say anything interesting. It’s always hard at some point.
There is communication that does good, but then there is communication that isn’t up to par. Don’t think that it’s easy. When I try to come up with major campaigns, I don’t always. It’s hard to identify something that raises the bar rather than lowering it. It’s hard to be successful, show talent and express things beautifully while respecting people’s intelligence. So, sometimes it’s brave, sometimes it isn’t brave at all.
TGL: Do you believe in the political potential of this crisis to push boundaries?
ME: On the contrary, we have to watch out. Things are regressing quickly. You have to look. Nothing has changed in schools with the number of girls enrolled. The number is even dropping in business schools. You have to look. I work with a fantastic group of women, SISTA, who provide support for women-run companies because financing usually goes to male-run companies. They always say, “You have to count women so women count.” So, let’s count women.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
ME: I would have liked to have dinner with Proust, Albert Cohen, Michelle Obama...There are a lot of people with whom I’d like to have dinner.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
ME: You always have to believe that something is possible. We need to continue believing in the future, believing in our ability to change things, to commit to pushing boundaries. We mustn’t simply be content; we need to do things. I recommend that everyone do what they think is right. We would benefit if each person committed to what they think is right and got involved.