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Mercedes Erra arrived in the advertising industry almost by accident. In the late 1970s she was an idealistic young teacher with a masters degree in literature and an enthusiasm for Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Erra had noble ideas about a career in teaching but it turned out to be an uncomfortable fit.

At the time, teachers in French schools received little guidance. She recalls feeling adrift, without structure to her day. “So I decided, suddenly, to try the business world,” she says. It may have been a spontaneous decision but it was the right one.

More than 30 years later, the 63-year-old is the most powerful woman in French advertising and creatively she is at the top of her game. Erra is executive president of Havas Worldwide and a founder of BETC, one of France’s leading advertising agencies. A knight of the Légion d’Honneur, she is also a member of the National Order of Merit.

Regarded in the industry as a creative force with an eye for detail, her ingenuity has contributed to strategic shifts for leading brands: health for food company Danone; youth for Evian bottled water; vision for Air France. “Making the sky the best place on earth” was one of her lines.

Spanish-born Erra is also an unwavering advocate for women in leadership.

Bold move: Mercedes Erra at the once-derelict warehouse BETC renovated as its new headquarters in a north-eastern Paris banlieue © Magali Delporte

She quickly realised she would find fulfilment in business, so, in her mid-20s, Erra enrolled at HEC Paris on what is now called the MBA, graduating in 1981. The school is among the most selective of the French grandes écoles.

Erra’s ability to tell stories, capture the imagination and transform a brand spring from her early training in the canon of global literature, but it was a rigorous business education that turned her talent for humanities into practical acumen. “Business is a mix between human science and mathematics,” she says.

Switching from literature to technical subjects such as law and accounting, and understanding what she calls “the pragmatism of business” was tough. It still presents newly enrolled MBAs with a challenge. In marketing classes, Erra discovered a way to unite the intellectual and vocational: “I found both interesting and complementary. And that’s true: you need both to survive.”

She says HEC’s classes were practical. “I preferred the culture of marketing to studying literature because it is really another form of humanities. You are good at marketing when you understand people.

“It’s really about competence in thinking, reasoning, finding and analysing people and their characters.”

HEC Paris also gave her an almost unnerving self-belief in her ability, creativity and talent for advertising. She gained, Erra says, a sense that “everything is possible — and it sticks to you afterwards”.

After HEC, Erra was hired as an analyst in a French advertising agency that was bought by Saatchi & Saatchi, then an edgy British agency with global ambitions. Founded in 1970, the company was known for its audacious creativity. In the UK, its “Labour isn’t working” campaign was credited with helping to bring Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party to power in 1979.

Many of the agency’s early alumni, including Sir John Hegarty and Sir Martin Sorrell, became industry leaders. It was, she says, an exhilarating introduction to corporate life.

Erra stayed for 14 years, rising to be general director. “I worked very hard,” she says. “It was about creativity and learning and I loved this period.” The biggest lesson, she says, was that “our job is to do things right, not just to sell, but to transform results for the client. To find a way to move people — and that’s never easy.”

‘Our job is to do things right, not just to sell, but to transform things for the client. To find a way to move people’ © Magali Delporte

In 1995 she left to co-found BETC (she is the E). Erra sensed “it was the moment to invent something”.

The notion that excellence in advertising depends on narration and emotion is instinctive for Erra. Thus Evian is not water, it is a font of eternal youth. Air France is not an airline but a luxurious adventure.

She is most proud of Evian’s long-running “Live Young” campaign, in which clear-eyed babies peer out of television screens and pristine white posters. Evian is, she says, “the gold nugget of [the] Danone group and, yes, the agency has highly contributed to its value”.

A new favourite is BETC’s innovative work on social media for Addict’Aide, a substance misuse charity. The agency created a campaign to highlight how easy it is to overlook alcoholism in friends and relatives. It won 19 awards including five golds at the 2017 Cannes Lions festival of creativity.

Clear vision: Mercedes Erra is most proud of the Evian ‘Live young’ campaign

The advertising industry is in a state of disruption, as clients spend more with digital publishers at the expense of traditional media, such as television and billboards. Today, according to the Zenith Top 30 Global Media Owners report, Google and Facebook dominate advertising budgets, pulling in a fifth of global spend between them. Five years ago they had just 11 per cent.

Erra does not underestimate the threat to traditional agencies. Clients still value bespoke work, however. “Even in the digital era, there will always be two things that differentiate agencies from other players: the ability to understand consumers, to identify the levers that can change behaviour and the capacity to translate this intelligence into strategic and creative achievements.”

That combination of abilities is only found in advertising agencies and creativity still counts, she says. “Do you have an idea or not? Ideas are crucial — and now even more so — to emerge from the big flow and to move the world.”

Erra has built a world-class creative business, yet, curiously, she believes today’s graduates are too taken with entrepreneurship. “A young graduate shouldn’t only consider start-ups,” she says. “The myth of entrepreneurship and easy money that sticks to start-ups: it’s nice but partly false. It makes them neglect other opportunities.”

Big companies experiencing digital upheaval also need graduate talent. Erra says they are full of knowledge from which graduates can learn.

One of her agency’s Air France adverts

She urges MBAs to find the field “where you are really gifted and where you will be able to do things with ease and passion”.

Erra is a feminist, without apology or caveats. Her mission is to persuade other women to join her, not least because corporate life is fun.

When she was at HEC on the cusp of the 1980s, women made up just a third of her class; today the proportion is similar, according to FT data. “Women have so many problems with confidence. If we can help, then that is the most important task,” she says.

Erra is a founding member of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, an international networking and events group.

“Young women have a false image of feminism. They imagine that feminism is anti-male but it is for the benefit of all humanity,” she says. Feminism is about equality, of opportunity and of pay. “Even if things have evolved, there is still so much to do.”

The HEC class of 1981

Alumni include:

Catherine Bradley
Board member at the Financial Conduct Authority; the Fixed Income, Currencies and Commodities Markets Standards Board; and PSA Peugeot Citroën

Mercedes Erra
Executive president, Havas Worldwide

Hubert Joly
Chairman and chief executive of Best Buy

Eric Lombard
Chief executive, Generali France

Gilles Schnepp
Chairman and chief executive, Legrand

Eric Woerth
Deputy of the National Assembly of France, budget minister 2007-10

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