Sophie Noël has spent over 20 years at heaven, from the day the agency became independent, when she was an account director, right through to her current position as president, which she’s held since 2008.
But her advertising career was built on quite an eclectic foundation. Having studied political science before considering comms, she began her career at professional services corporation Ernst & Young before doing a stint at French broadcast network Canal+.
By being there at the very beginning of heaven, Sophie contributed to its structuring and development over the years. And now her duties include business strategy and external relations; she is also in charge of HR and financial supervision.
Committed to the issue of parity and especially the presence of women on boards of directors, Sophie is part of the Essec Alumni network where she completed the Women be European Board Ready course, and subsequently joined the Supervisory Board of Sopexa, a subsidiary of the Hopscotch group.
In 2021, she was appointed vice-president of the Digital delegation of the AACC.
LBB’s Alex Reeves spent some time getting to know Sophie.
LBB> You originally studied Political Science before turning your attention to marcomms. What guided that journey?
Sophie> I studied Political Science with the idea of becoming a journalist. But when I started my studies, I met people my age who were much more passionate about this field than I was and I wanted to go into publishing (editing).
I worked at a publishing house, Le Seuil, it was exciting but everything seemed too artisanal to me and the career possibilities were limited. I left for Ernst & Young to work in the internal communication department on the design of their first intranet. This is where I discovered communication (and the internet). I went back to school to do a DESS (Masters) at Celsa in Communication and Marketing and that's how my career as a communicator started.
LBB> Way back before heaven existed, you worked at Ernst & Young and Canal+. Those are quite different companies! What did you learn in that early part of your career that you still hold onto?
Sophie> At Ernst & Young I learned that I needed to work in a more creative environment and that I hated the district of La Défense, grey and windy. I also discovered the principle of the intranet and how to organise data.
At Canal+, I discovered the world of cinema and watched lots of film clips. I learned the rigour of the ratings and how to come up with relevant nomenclatures as well as the importance of ergonomics (I had to design catalogues of films under CD-ROM).
LBB> You have been part of heaven since its creation in 2001. What were the ambitions of the agency back then and what part of that ethos still endures 20 years later?
Sophie> Initially, the main goal was not to suffer the consequences of the economic measures which were requested by the French office of the Edelman network (American PR group). The Edelman group had asked all offices to participate in the ‘war effort’, following the crisis of 2000. We were a small team of five people then and decided to become independent in order to create heaven, an agency focused on communication and digital marketing consultancy.
What remains of it today is our work performance. The performance we expect from ourselves, the leaders, the performance we expect from employees. This work performance is driven by a strong consulting DNA and by the goal to have an impact for our clients.
LBB> What brand accounts have you learned the most from over the years and why?
Sophie> I was an account manager on the Unilever account when I was just starting out. This involved promoting all of the group's household products. It is not necessarily a very ‘fun’ subject, but I learned a lot, in particular on how to picture a high-performance digital ecosystem but also work with super talented, creative people. Then I managed the Microsoft account for a long time at the agency and notably contributed to the success of MSN Messenger. We had the chance to support this client who had financial means and quickly gained its trust. Initially our scope was French, but we imagined such successful operations that we were able to work directly with the US and also to deploy some of our operations in many countries such as South Africa for example.
Then I would say that the Puig Group with whom we have worked a lot for brands such as Jean Paul Gautier or Paco Rabanne taught us rigour “to the very last pixel” but also allowed us to work on mega ambitious devices that came out of digital to make phygital, in particular via events at points of sale or in travel retail.
LBB> On a day-to-day basis, what are your biggest preoccupations at heaven?
Sophie> I have several concerns day to day:
- Clients’ satisfaction because there is no better job than building/gaining the trust of our clients.
- The fulfilment of employees which depends on the quality of work life but also on giving them challenges.
- Precision and rigour: I think that things must be done well… or not be done at all.
LBB> What are you most proud of working on recently and why?
Sophie> What has made me most proud lately is not a campaign but the fact that heaven has come out of the Covid crisis well. These past two years have been challenging for everyone, from a personal and professional point of view. But I would say that for business leaders, things have been particularly difficult. We had to deal with health anxiety, think about the best measures to guarantee the safety of employees and also protect jobs in order to continue to satisfy our clients. We also had to deal with a strong psychological and human dimension, to be creative, because it was an unprecedented situation, without benchmarks, without precedent. We have managed to maintain a growing business despite the situation by juggling confinement/deconfinement/re-confinement. I'm proud of how we managed the situation.
LBB> You have extra responsibilities in various capacities to improve the presence of women in business leadership. What have you found to be the most effective ways to bring about change there?
Sophie> The subject of women at work, of equality, is extremely complex. In communication, as in many fields, positions of responsibility are occupied mainly by men and the salary gap between men and women is a reality. Within heaven, my main action is to have the same degree of requirement regardless of the gender of the person. I don’t think promoting women based on their gender is doing them a favour. A leadership position has to be earned. But on the other hand, I want to be as unbiased and fair as possible. Another way of working on parity is to promote paternity leave for fathers and to be highly understanding when a child is sick or when there is a family emergency.
LBB> What other subjects are you particularly passionate about in the industry right now?
Sophie> Like many, I think web3 is a new revolution that opens the way to new communities and new creative expressions. My other major subject of interest is CSR (corporate social responsibility). Inevitably, we must rethink the way we communicate and include the environmental dimension both in the way of approaching the marketing com issues of our customers and also in the strategy of the means which must be eco-designed and responsible.
LBB> Maybe this is a big question, but how would you describe the state of French creativity at this moment in history?
Sophie> Yes, it’s quite a big question!
I think we are at a time where traditional advertising agencies have lost their aura because consumers watch less TV and more generally consume advertising differently. There are still brilliant campaigns, like Romance’s films for Intermarché, but in general the trend goes to conversational and more ‘popular’ features.