FRANCE, ITALY, SPAIN: The X-Factor

Pippa Considine profiles three women in three of the most powerful positions in advertising and media in France, to find out how they made it to the top and what fuels their drive to remain there.

THE LOYALIST

Marie-Jose Forissier chairman, Initiative Media Worldwide

Le Figaro recently described Marie-Jose Forissier as one of the most powerful women in the global advertising industry. Unusually loyal in a fickle business, she has worked at Initiative Media for 27 years. "Initiative has grown from a much smaller company to one with billings of $21 billion.

I've never had time to get bored," she says. Forissier has undoubtedly been an asset and she is well aware of one of her main strengths. "I always obtain what I want," she says.

As a woman of action she admires risk-takers such as Maurice Levy "for having the guts to go bolder and bigger with the Bcom3 Group". But she believes that women are often better than men at getting on with the task in hand and less prone to ego-tripping. "You go into the offices of men and you see a photograph of them smoking a cigar with Bill Clinton or meeting Alan Greenspan. You don't see photographs of women all over their offices."

On the whole she hasn't felt at a disadvantage being a woman. "But being owned by an American company and being both non-American and a woman is a challenge. I think the American people are more conservative than many other markets."

Forissier has mixed feelings about being French. "Since I travel a lot I realise that the French are exporting really well. We can be tough, arrogant, vain, disorganised, but a certain number of French people are good international players."

Forissier began her career in 1971 as a media planner at Publicis Conseil, moving to McCann-Erickson in 1973. She joined Initiative Media in 1976, a year after its creation in Paris. In 1986, she became the managing director and was appointed chairman and chief executive in 1988. She was appointed chief executive of the newly created Initiative Media Europe which expanded its operations into Latin America and Asia in 1992. As part of the Interpublic Group, Initiative Media merged with IPG's North American media agency and was renamed Initiative Media Worldwide in 1999. In July 2000, Forissier was appointed president and chief operating officer, becoming the chairman in April 2002. She is based in New York and Paris.

THE STRAIGHT-SPEAKER

Mercedes Erra president, BETC Euro RSCG

"I do exactly what I want," Mercedes Erra declares. Known to be outspoken, Erra's frankness is a refreshing antidote in an industry prone to double-speak.

Doing what she wants has taken Erra to the top of the industry. She claims she is not political, and is driven by maintaining the quality of work.

"The important thing is not to be distracted by success," she warns. "It can be dangerous."

Given that she knows herself to be headstrong (one contemporary describes her as "a bit crazy"), it isn't surprising that she holds a special respect for her colleagues. "I admire my associates because I think I'm very demanding." She singles out BETC's co-president, Remi Babinet, as "a very strong partner".

Erra is not actually French. Born in Barcelona, she came to France as a child and sees herself more as European than French. She has brought up four sons in France with her partner, Jean-Paul, who stays at home as a house-husband.

Although she makes no bones about the inequality between men and women in the workplace in France, she believes that English women have it tougher.

"My feeling is that it's because it's an Anglo-Saxon area. In France, feminism doesn't mean no femininity. In England relations between men and women are harder, the world is more black and white. And the men in the UK have been educated with men for a long time."

Erra has a larger vision of advertising, which BETC serves by holding fashion shows and exhibitions in its office, built from the remains of a department store turned car park. "We need to open doors and mix advertising and art," she says.

Erra began her career in advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi, where she became the chairwoman and the managing director of Saatchi &Saatchi France.

In 1995, she joined BETC Euro RSCG as the co-president. She was appointed chairman of BETC Euro RSCG France in 2002. In 2002, she was the first woman to be elected president of the AACC, the French advertising association.

THE BORN CREATIVE

Marie-Catherine Dupuy president and creative director, TBWA/Paris

Marie-Catherine Dupuy is a rarity: a third generation above-the-title ad executive. She started out in the family business as a copywriter and has gone on to found her own company and to become a major international advertising player.

One of the biggest changes in the media business in France that she has witnessed is an opening up to the world outside. "Historically France has been very insular," she says. "The UK is an island but we were also an island. Now we are more open-minded."

Indeed, one of the people she admires most in the industry is an Englishman, John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty. What marks him out for her is his success with what she calls "both form and substance. How to handle the talking and how to execute and craft an ad".

And one of her regrets is not having had a job that took her to live in another part of the world. Another regret is more personal. "I'd like to have been in less of a hurry with my four sons," she says. And if she hadn't gone into the family business? "I would have been a journalist or Karen Blixen (author of Out of Africa) or a rock star."

Dupuy is the grand-daughter of Roger-Louis Dupuy, who founded one of the first advertising agencies in France. She started in 1970 as a copywriter at Dupuy-Compton. In 1984, she became one of the founding partners of Boulet Dru Dupuy Petit (which became BDDP in 1997). After the merger of BDDP with the TBWA network in 1998, she was given the role of president and executive creative director of TBWA/Paris. She has been a judge at numerous international advertising awards and has received more than 200 awards herself. Her own list of great campaigns includes work for Tag Heuer, Virgin, PlayStation, Nissan and McDonald's.

Topics