Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

The brains behind the most viral ad ever

Advertising agency founder Mercedes Erra was the French Advertising Agencies Association's first female president. She is renowned as a strategist responsible for the world's most-viewed brand video, "Roller Babies." Advertising agency founder Mercedes Erra was the French Advertising Agencies Association's first female president. She is renowned as a strategist responsible for the world's most-viewed brand video, "Roller Babies."
  • Mercedes Erra is managing director of Havas, the fifth largest communications group in the world
  • As founder of its flagship ad agency BETC, she is renowned as a brand strategist
  • Erra's campaign for Evian included the world's most-viewed online brand video

Paris, France (CNN) -- In 2009, bottled water company Evian decided to focus its advertising strategy on an association with youth.

It took almost a year for Mercedes Erra to convince the company that a commercial featuring babies roller skating to hip hop classic "Rapper's Delight" was the best way to get that message across.

But happily for advertising guru Erra, "Roller Babies" became the world's most-viewed brand video. It was viewed online more than 75 million times and shared almost 2.2 million times -- a Guinness world record.

Erra founded ad agency BETC Euro RSCG in 1995 with three others. Today, she is also managing director of communications group Havas and executive president of its marketing arm Euro RSCG Worldwide.

Brand expert pushes for women's rights

BETC is now one of the largest and most awarded agencies in France, with a client roster that includes more than 80 of the world's top 100 largest advertisers, including Coca Cola, IBM, Volvo, Disney, LVMH and McDonalds.

See more: Building an empire from chocolate

Erra is a progressive and, at times, challenging force in French life: A mother to five sons campaigning for greater participation by women, she is on the board of the Elle Foundation, the Committee on the Image of Women in the Media, and Force Femmes, and is president of the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society.

A Spanish-born Officier of the Legion d'Honneur (motto: "Honour and Fatherland"), Erra is pushing for diversity in a society not always famed for its racial tolerance. She is on the board of the French Immigration Museum, and is a member of Human Rights Watch and UNICEF.

Erra began her career in advertising in 1981, as an intern at Saatchi & Saatchi. She believes she distinguished herself there by seeking out more and more responsibility, ultimately becoming managing director.

More than a glass ceiling, the obstacle for women is their own minds ... if a woman is very clear, it's very difficult to prohibit something
Mercedes Erra, ad agency founder

"I think when people want responsibility, they can have it immediately because (most) people don't want responsibility," she said.

Although she disavows any particular skill other than taking responsibility, colleagues say Erra has a rare combination of rigorous business analytics, and a strong intuition about how consumers will react.

Here she talks to CNN's Leading Women about immigration, the glass ceiling and what's most important in life and in work.

On being a migrant ...

I was born in Barcelona. I arrived in France when I was six years old. I lost my country and quality of life. We had a little money in Spain, but nothing in France.

Those two changes were difficult but at the same time very positive. When you are six, you learn a lot if you change your country. You learn relativity; you learn the world is complicated. You become more mature.

I experienced that life is not easy -- I think today sometimes life is too easy -- and I never forget this.

On "women's work" ...

When I was young, my mother was at home and my father worked and it was not easy. By the end of the day, she would dream of working outside the home, and my father would arrive and say, 'I am so tired.'

I remember her saying, 'Nobody wants to do housework, nobody says thanks, nobody gives me money,' and she's right. In my mind, my mother was doing a job, and I said to myself, 'I don't want that job.'

I am not balanced -- I have more energy than balance
Mercedes Erra, ad agency founder

When I began working, it was a pleasure. And sometimes when I have meetings with very important men, and they say 'I am tired,' I say, 'We get money; it's very interesting. Stop. Please, stop.'

On the glass ceiling ...

More than a glass ceiling, the obstacle for women is their own minds. I get the feeling that if a woman is very clear, it's very difficult to prohibit something. It was impossible to stop me.

Many things have to change. But first, it's very simple: Girls need to think about having a good job and doing the same kind of studies as boys.

In France, we have the Baccalaureate (high school diploma). In mathematics, the best results? The girls. And when they choose (further) studies? No girls in mathematics. Why? Because they think they are not the best.

I think we have to be clear, the objective is not to be the best, it's to do what they want -- but they can want everything.

On work-life balance ...

I don't want all women to do what I do. I have a lot of energy -- not a normal amount, I know. I sleep very few hours and not all women can get by on three hours a night.

I am not balanced -- I have more energy than balance.

Some people have their work and their home life and don't want interaction between them. I don't have two lives. I have no problem having people come to my house to work, because I like these people. It's difficult for me to have different relations with people who I work closely with. These are very important people to me.

I am impressed when people are very clever or very nice or have a very strong heart or a strong intuition
Mercedes Erra, ad agency founder

On working with big-name clients ...

With people who are important, I am more difficult to work with, because I am not impressed (by their reputation). I am impressed when people are very clever or very nice or have a very strong heart or a strong intuition.

On doing what you love ...

Do things well, and do what you like to do. It's bad to do something because you think other people will consider you clever.

I have strong views on this because when I speak with my gardener, she is so clever, but it's a different kind of clever. It's not the same as my way of being clever, but it's still clever.

Do what you think is right for you, and remember: Don't lose half your life to things that are not interesting to you. I am disturbed by what people will accept.

Some people have less opportunity, but if you can choose what you do, you are a winner.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
When Bobbi Brown set out to create her eponymous makeup line in 1991, she had one thing to her mind -- to make a lipstick that looked like lips.
updated 5:14 AM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
The Cornell educated executive, who is hotly tipped as the successor to magnate Steve Wynn, is about to unveil the latest Wynn Palace in Macau.
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
updated 7:15 AM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
:KNOXVILLE, TN - MAY 28: Dolly Parton performs during a concert to benefit Dolly's Imagination Library & Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation at The University of Tennessee's Thompson-boling Arena on May 28, 2014 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 05: Debbie Harry of Blondie performs onstage at the Amnesty International Concert presented by the CBGB Festival at Barclays Center on February 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB)
When titans of music Dolly Parton and Debbie Harry perform at one of the biggest music festivals on the planet, Glastonbury, who will be crowned queen?
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
updated 9:25 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
This Mother's Day, we're celebrating the many women in the world who have provided care, love and guidance for children who are not biologically their own.
updated 11:06 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
updated 12:23 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
A lone blonde woman, wrapped in nothing but a sarong, leads four camels and a little dog across one of the most inhabitable environments on Earth.
updated 8:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
updated 11:50 AM EST, Wed February 26, 2014
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
updated 3:50 AM EDT, Wed May 7, 2014
Ahead of the release of her 14th studio album, take a look at the remarkable career of Mariah Carey, who went from curly-haired girl next door to elusive chanteuse.
updated 11:32 AM EST, Sat March 8, 2014
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
updated 6:59 AM EDT, Thu March 13, 2014
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
updated 11:02 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.