Mercedes Erra is a force both at Havas and outside it – not only was she part of BETC’s founding in 1995, but she is involved in numerous initiatives as an advocate in favour of women, youth, human rights and innovation, like the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, which she co-founded, and the Elle Foundation.
We spoke with her about her career path and the advice she has for future generations of women in this edition of Dare!.
Can you give us a bit of background on your career path? Is there a philosophy that guides your work and how did that come about?
I came to advertising by way of studying classics at the Sorbonne, teaching French literature and then attending HEC, France and Europe’s leading business school. After that, I interned at Saatchi & Saatchi and realised instantly that advertising was made for me. It was an obvious choice. Marketing and communication are human sciences, requiring first and foremost a profound understanding of people, reasoning on the issue of meaning, followed by the art of persuasion, because you cannot persuade others unless you understand them. I loved it, and my literary studies really helped me, with their focus on the meaning of things, the myths that shape behaviour and the human soul. In 1995, after 14 years with Saatchi, when my two partners and I were founding BETC, we had just one idea in mind: to create a French agency that could take its place on the global creative stage, capable of coming up with big ideas on a global scale for brands here and elsewhere. We have stayed true to that vision. We knew that there was a lever we could use for that: talents, creating a pool of talents (strategic, creative, production) powerful, numerous and diverse enough to take on a real existence of its own. We have always had faith in talents and their power.
In this month’s prosumer report focused on gender equality, 61% of men and 63% of women consider female managers to be more creative. As the head of one of the most creative agencies in the world, what do you think about this statistic?
From the standpoint of my profession, I see first and foremost a paradox, given that the job of creative director is still very largely the preserve of men. Which means that women creatives are not entirely given the consideration they merit. Our professions, on the borderline between trade, craft and art, are still steeped in the “myth of the creative genius” that has dominated artistic creation for centuries and entrenched constructs of that kind are not to be banished in the blink of an eye: it is starting to happen, but there is still a long way to go.
Within the profession, particularly on the creative side, it is whole behavioural systems, power games, that have tended to leave women on the sidelines, and that is something we need to break down. We still need to fight for real diversity and parity on the juries of international awards, for example.
In terms of society, there is something extremely interesting in this perception of female managers as being more creative, because creativity is one of the values that is going to be crucial in meeting the challenges posed by the world of tomorrow. That supposes, however, that women, too, massively invest the digital sphere that is in the process of creating our future: artificial intelligence, for example, or gaming, and it will take a huge effort to achieve balance in these sectors of the future.
Quotas have long been discussed as a way to foster equality in the workplace — what is your perspective on this, and do you think this is an effective strategy?
I’m a firm believer in the power of quotas because, when it comes to equality, it’s clear that nature cannot succeed unaided. Quotas are the accelerator needed to restore equality. And the fact that, until recently, 100% of positions of authority were held by men, looked a lot like a quota, didn’t it? Yet no one was bothered about that. This should not be taken to mean that women appointed on quotas should feel less legitimate than men, however: quite the opposite. In France, for example, women appointed to boards in the wake of the Copé-Zimmermann Act (40% women on the boards of listed companies and those with over 500 employees), are working harder than ever to prove to everyone that they merit their position. Just think, they were even prepared to attend courses to ensure they were up to the task of directorship! The idea had never even crossed the mind of the guys. In any event, quotas point the way and help to develop a new corporate culture that is fairer, more diverse and therefore richer.
To my mind, for example, the very special culture at BETC is one of the rewards of equality. And this very equality is probably one of the most fundamental reasons for the agency’s success.
Does/can/should advertising play a role in combatting negative perceptions of women?
Since we’re in the business of persuasion, we have power to influence people’s perceptions. And there will be no huge change in terms of equality unless representations, images and culture all change. Of course we should be recommending that every government in favour of equality should use advertising as a lever to shift the lines: never forget that it’s one of the only levers that finds its way into families, into people’s private lives… I truly believe that advertising must become part of the movement, as soon as it possibly can.
In your eyes, how important is female solidarity and what main piece of advice would you give to future generations of women?
Solidarity between women is an absolutely essential force. The issues are too many and the pressure on women too great to get by without female solidarity. Because women have things to change that are theirs and theirs alone, it’s up to women to deal with those things. And women are more powerful when pulling together. When I started out, I was often told that women are jealous of one another, but that hasn’t been my experience. I didn’t feel like I was competing with anyone, I received help from other women, and I helped other women. In fact, it’s when women come together and speak out on their issues with one voice that their combat grows stronger. History shows us the truth of this, from the Manifesto of the 343 for the legalisation of abortion in France in 1971 to the global #Metoo movement against sexual abuse and harassment. There is a duty of sisterhood. And that’s the advice I would give to the generations of women coming through: build bonds to change the game. And always remember, of course, never to be dependent on any man. Never compromise your financial independence, because that is key to being free. Anything you like, but stay free… And finally, when you look at a woman, remember: a woman is not a mother, sister, daughter or lover; she is a woman, in and of herself.