Claire Beale meets one of the top women in media, who still isn’t too
Head of an international fragrance house, global editor-in-chief of a
women’s glossie - it’s not hard to imagine Marie-Jose Forissier holding
any post that requires a certain chic, sophisticated style as well as a
hard head for business.
Yet this cool, elegant woman presides over - quelle horreur - a grubby
media-buying company. In a business where successful women have more
balls than their male counterparts, Forissier proves that you don’t have
to have a penchant for aggressive cardigans to get to the top.
As chairman of Initiative Media Worldwide, Forissier last week pulled
off the latest coup in her drive to develop the company into a top three
global player (Campaign, 12 July).
Forissier is maintaining a delicate silence over the nitty gritty of the
deal, but in essence it will allow Initiative and its Interpublic Group
sister agency, Lowe Howard-Spink, to share a degree of media resource,
while offering Initiative a second-string agency.
It’s a deal which will help provide Lowes’ old-fashioned in-house media
department with leverage in today’s and tomorrow’s marketplace. The
benefits for Initiative are harder to appreciate, but effectively it
will allow it to develop further in those markets where it is encumbered
by client conflict.
But still Forissier isn’t satisfied with her latest triumph. ‘I’m never
happy with myself,’ she confesses. ‘I waste too much time, I’m not
organised enough. I’m still very frustrated because I think that what
we’ve done in the three years since I took over the network we should
have been able to do in one.’
Her self-criticisms are not ones which those around her would recognise.
Praise abounds for her drive, her meticulous attention to detail, the
way she manages to oversee an entire network of offices and still have
time for everyone’s problems, all without getting flustered or
Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of Initiative London, says
Forissier is ‘shrewd, sophisticated and a true professional’, though he
admits that ‘her most obvious asset is the fact that she has tickets to
the Parc des Princes’.
Yet for all her dynamic professionalism, Forissier insists that she’s
not motivated merely by the next promotion. ‘I like change and moving
on. I want to be able to measure real progress, that’s what drives me.
That and seeing the improvements you get from finding the right people
for the right job at the right time. That’s incredibly rewarding.’
‘If I’d been asked at 25 if I was ambitious, I wouldn’t have known what
it meant,’ she explains. Her career path has, instead, been
characterised by a combination of accident and luck.
Although born in Paris, Forissier spent many of her formative years in
the US and Morocco, before moving back to Paris to complete a Masters
degree in sociology and political science. It was during her studies
that she became interested in advertising and she joined Publicis as a
would-be account handler in 1971. She was drafted into the agency’s
troubled media department and discovered a flair for media planning.
When Forissier moved to the fledgling Initiative Media in 1976, she had
to grapple with the fact that many of her full-service agency friends
assumed she must have been sacked from her previous job. Why else would
anyone want to work for a media specialist? ‘Ten years later those same
friends were sending their CVs to me at Initiative,’ Forissier laughs.
Now 48 and married to a banker - with whom she lives in Paris when she’s
not travelling or spending time in Venice, a favourite place - Forissier
can claim to be one of the most successful women in the media business.
She says she’s never really felt that her sex was an issue. Yet in 1992,
when Initiative Media was developed as a standalone network with its own
reporting structure outside of its parent agency, Lintas (something
Forissier insisted on before she accepted the job), being a woman was an
As one insider puts it: ‘There were too many bloody old men at Lintas at
the time, so there was a real push for a woman to take up the reins at
Initiative. Marie-Jose was the perfect candidate.’
Forissier chuckles at a saying about women in business, made by a French
minister, who observed that equality of the sexes in the workplace would
only be achieved when a useless woman got to the top. On this basis,
Forissier is certainly not doing her bit for sexual equality.
The Forissier file
1971 Publicis, media planner
1973 McCann-Erickson, senior media planner
1976 Initiative Media Paris, head of TV/media advising department
1986 Initiative Media Paris, managing director
1988 Initiative Media Paris, chairman
1992 Initiative Media International, chairman
1996 Initiative Media Worldwide, chairman