Super Femme

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In the achingly stylish Hotel Costes in Paris' Rue St-Honore tanned men of a certain age pay drop-dead beautiful women expensive attention. Some of them are not even waitresses. The ambient music is familiar. Everybody's collection contains the CDs produced by Stephane Pompougnac.

Into the humming courtyard of what is still the most talked about hotel in Paris strides the blonde, tanned, leather-jacketed Marie Catherine Dupuy, diminutive doyenne of the French advertising industry, member of the TBWA worldwide board and VP-chief creative officer of TBWA France, whose TBWAParis was recently named Agency of the Year at the Cannes International Advertising Festival. Dupuy is probably the advertising world's most senior and respected female creative director outside the United States.

Dupuy claims not to go out much these days, but Costes is clearly different. She spends time choosing exactly the right table and she's greeted as a special friend by the impossibly cool hostess - perhaps because the latter is one of the eclectic group of young/interesting people Dupuy ("Marie Cat" to everyone) regularly invites as part of her extended family to her vacation home in Arles.

Her own family is large enough as it is. It is impossible not to mention Dupuy's four husbands and four sons in her story. Not because she is a woman but because her philosophy of work and life is so openly framed by her domestic experience, and by being the epitome of a woman in a man's world, both at home and at work. At 52, she is not afraid to say what she believes: "I think my only purpose is to take care of other people," she says firmly, between drags of her ever-present cigarette. "To take care of my family, my sons, the creative work, the agency. I am the maid. My role is to make everything work together: to bring the world together, to protect the agencies, to protect creatives, to protect the work, to avoid stupid things. It's my karma. And to have fun. You can be serious, and I am very serious in my job, but I want to laugh every day. Even if you have the worst day with your clients, you have to have an hour when you have laughter."

Her grandfather founded the first French ad agency. Her father was a member of Jean Cocteau's artist set, and he had his own agency, too. There, she started her career, reluctantly if inevitably. A singer and an artist, she is fond of saying, "I could have been a rock star or a journalist." Dupuy worked at what became Compton Dupuy through the tumultuous years of the Saatchi brothers' takeover of the giant American Compton agency. She spent half her 14 years there, working on Procter & Gamble. She insists agencies have much to learn from clients like P&G and Unilever, including creativity and style. "I learned a lot of things working on P&G," she says adamantly. "Of course I didn't win Gold Lions at Cannes, but they taught me a lot about how to work. They've always had a big respect for their creative work, even if it was Ariel, or when I worked on the launch of Pampers."

She also learned from the Saatchis, both through their ability to handle big clients like P&G while simultaneously creating award-winning work, and their entrepreneurialism. At Compton Dupuy, she had met and married Jean-Marie Dru, her second husband (now CEO at TBWA Worldwide). In 1984, as other independent agencies like Jean et Montmarin and Callegari Berville were also launching, Dupuy and Dru co-founded Boulet Dru Dupuy Petit. The trouble was, three months before, the couple had separated. Difficult? She lets rip a smoker's laugh.

BDDP became the French agency, setting new standards in French creativity. The commercial that brought Dupuy international renown and Cannes Gold was a typically artsy Tony Kaye-directed Tag Heuer spot in which sporting events become a matter of life and death. She is also particularly proud of building the Danone brand (Dannon in the U.S.), and making a very personal contribution to reviving the dying French soap brand Mon Savon, bringing it back to market leader status with the help of a spot that aired for 10 years.

Like other shops back then, BDDP expanded too far too fast, most notably acquiring Wells Rich Greene in the U.S. Inevitably, it was forced to sell, to the much smaller British group GGT in 1996. Omnicom rescued the combined network in 1998. Through it all, Dupuy maintained her position as arguably the most influential female creative in the world. Although she now mothers many of the group's international accounts, her chief influence in recent years has been in France. There, she admits, the creative standards of both the market and the agency needed to be shaken up. So she hired the Belgian Erik Vervroegen, a protege of Tony Granger's at both TBWA Hunt Lascaris in South Africa and later Bozell/New York. The result was spectacular (see sidebar). But why the need for what Dru called in his book "disruption"?

"We have always changed every three or four years," she replies. "People quickly get bad habits. They arrive at 10. They don't work hard. They think the same. Sometimes you have to put something in that everyone is a little uncomfortable with. Erik changed everything. He saw that clients are waiting for ideas, creativity and awards. Clients say they don't care about awards, but it's not true. When McDonald's does not win awards, they're very stressed. All the clients want awards. First of all, it means you attract the best talent. The best talent wants to be in a group where the other best talent is."

After 33 years in the business, Dupuy often ventures where other less secure executives would not go on the record. "Paris has become obsessed, like everywhere, with integration," she complains. "It has forgotten about the business we're in. I don't believe big ideas come from the below-the-line company. They come from the lead agency, and that agency, the ad agency, has to lead the group. This need for creativity first has been forgotten everywhere in the world except maybe South Africa and maybe London. For me, U.K. advertising is the most open to ideas in the world. It is the Mecca. But Paris has hidden talents, a lot of them. That's why [Bartle Bogle Hegarty chairman] John Hegarty finds Fred & Farid or the new Levi's director. We cannot see this in France. We are so snob. We cannot see our own talent, and we have so much in art direction, animation, etc. But we always want established names. Creatives here are usually in straitjackets."

There is no doubt that using her mixture of hard work and fun; learning from clients and being inspired and stimulated by music and art, she had to work incredibly hard to get to the top in male-dominated Parisian advertising, and harder still to stay there. So, does she believe, as a lamentably rare female creative director, in positive discrimination? "No, I hate that. I hate quotas - black or Spanish or women. It's just about talent, energy, luck and seizing the day. It is more difficult for women, and I think it will be worse for women in the future, because advertising is getting tougher and tougher. Women are always asking for more. It's a big job, they have children, they ask for more. You have to be there 12 hours a day. It will be a male career, and all the women I know with children . . ." What about her own children, ages 27, 25, 15 and 12? "I have not sacrificed my children, I have spent a lot of time with them," she insists. "I've taken them to Cuba, Mexico, China, discovering the world. When I say to my children, 'I'm very ashamed I don't spend enough time with you, they say, 'Hey, it's OK, we don't want you every day.' " She lets rip that smoker's laugh again. "Look, for 20 years I was with Boulet, Dru and Petit - three big guys, and I am a woman and a creative, so I have always been very aggressive. I always say the truth, and it's not always very easy to hear. And when I'm very angry, I tell the truth immediately. That's my only way to survive. If you don't fight every day..."

But, as almost the only woman in her position, should Dupuy use her power to make it easier for other women to succeed in creative departments? Again, a deep drag: "It's a very hard question to answer. I'd love to do it, but I think in this business you cannot be helped as a woman. You just have to fight by yourself. You have to be crazy, passionate and obsessed. You must just fight. There is always guilt. I think I am bad with my children, bad with my husbands - there are a lot of them . . ." More raspy laughter.

Then, after a brief visit to her unfeasibly elegant 17th century apartment near Les Jardins du Luxembourgs, as she treads gingerly in stilettos down lethal but beautiful, worn-away 400-year-old wooden stairs, she offers a final thought that explains much about her success and longevity. "There is no more respect for advertising. Clients pick agencies like commodities in the market. People say it's horrible. 'Oh, you're selling all the time.' "But we also help artists make money. Advertising has made a lot of artists and musicians. Look how advertising reflects our society and culture. But my life is very fulfilling - I've won Lions and built brands. I incredibly love advertising. It's part of the culture of the world. We have a big responsibility because we have a such a large voice. We especially have a responsibility to young people."

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