Big ideas for big brands

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[Paris] Mercedes Erra's management style is to inspire and delegate, freeing her up to think, study consumers and sell big ideas to Havas' Euro RSCG clients in France. Her special talent is reorienting huge brands. A decade ago, for instance, she spotted a seismic shift in consumers' attitudes toward health, and persuaded Danone that the brand had to be all about health.

"It's so hard to sell and sell and sell," Ms. Erra says cheerfully after a long meeting with cell phone client Orange about a big idea she's been easing them into for six months. That's nothing, she says. It took her almost a year to persuade Evian-a brand all about youth-to approve a commercial for 2003 in which adults speak in children's voices. That follows a giant water ballet by babies in an earlier Evian spot.

"When you have an idea, it's easy to torture it," she says. "It changes, and in the end, the idea is nothing. You have to defend the idea. Sometimes you say to clients, `That's not your work to execute the idea.' "

Ms. Erra, 48, is the president and the "E" in Havas' BETC Euro RSCG, France's biggest ad agency, and chairman of Euro RSCG France. Last year, she became the first woman to be elected president of AACC, France's ad ageny association, where she says the erosion of agency remuneration is her big issue. She says it can be hard for clients to understand agencies must be both strategic and artistic. Strategic work can be compensated with a fee, but commission is more relevant for an enduring creative idea.

To nurture the inner artist, Ms. Erra's agency has a large cultural space-1,000 square meters-in its offices that's become known as a trendy spot for catwalk shows. So far, the biggest exhibition at the Passage du Desir, named for the 19th century passageway the agency is built along, is the current "Americaland" by aerial photographer Alex S. MacLean.

In France, Ms. Erra's career success, willingness to speak out on behalf of women and her own personal life make her a rare high-profile role model for French women. Rarest of all, she has a house-husband, who looks after their five sons, ages 7 to 15, including 8-year-old twins.

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