Anne Méaux, the founder and CEO of Image 7, an independent communications firm, is too distracted to drink her coffee. 

"I was just with a talkative client," she explains in a rush. 

Méaux, to be fair, is usually pressed for time. She spends two days each week in London, where her company has a second office location. She meets with many clients individually, and manages a team of 65 at her headquarters in Paris's trendy 17th district. (She also has three children, whom she says she'll prioritize at any cost.) 

Being multitache, which is the French word for the ability to multi-task, she explains, is what makes women uniquely successful leaders; it helps them find the most creative solutions. 

Since launching Image 7 back in 1988, the company has opened up offices in two separate locations, now managing more than 100 clients. In 2016, it landed the second-annual Inc. 5000 Europe list, for rapid revenue growth between fiscal years 2011 and 2014: the company brought in €18.3 million in 2014, representing a three-year growth rate of 1,718 percent. Méaux herself was the recipient of the 2007 chevalier legion of honor under Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister of France. 

Still, for Méaux, success is measured less in terms of revenues and more in terms of personal independence. Prior to launching her company, she spent over a decade looking after the precarious reputations of French politicians--including Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former President of France, and Alain Madelein, the former Industry Minister. For several years, she served on the direct press team for the Elysée, which is shorthand for office of the President. 

"I didn't want to continue in politics for the sake of my own happiness," Méaux tells me, seated in her swanky, third-floor office, next to a bright red abstract sculpture, and with a view of Paris from her window.

"I had a father who left when I was really young, so I always told myself I would be financially independent, independent in every sense of the word," she says. "In politics, you depend on a man."

Switching gears 

Méaux financed Image 7 herself (the company's simple name comes from her birth date on the seventh day of the seventh month of the year). Rather than advising politicians, she resolved to work directly with the leaders of companies.

One such client is Kering, the luxury goods holding company that owns such labels as Alexander McQueen and Gucci, and ArcelorMittal, one of the largest steel production companies in the world. She also works with startups, particularly those hungry for an injection of capital; a recent entrepreneurial client is Alexandre Malsch, the founder of Melty, a quirky news website, which raised €10.5 million in a Series C funding round last November. 

A day's work at Image 7 involves meeting with a client, learning about their reputation challenge, enlisting the advice of a specialist on the team, and helping the client to ultimately improve their image. Consultants at Image 7 range from eager Millennials, to seasoned hires in their late sixties; one employee used to head up communications for Canal Plus, the premium French television cable channel. Uniquely, there are no titles at Image 7. Everyone is a "consultant," regardless of his or her level of expertise.

Compared to her career in politics, Méaux explains, growing Image 7 has been something of a cakewalk. The major difference is that she now has the power to speak out, and refuses to work with certain clients. 

"I saw at the Élysee an enormous amount of intelligence, but people who wouldn't dare to say things to the President," she recalls. "The most important thing is daring to speak up."  

Méaux speaks up at Image 7. She remembers once working for the former CEO of Laboratoires Servier, a privately-owned pharmaceutical company, as it dealt with the aftermath of a corporate drama. One of Servier's medications, a pill called mediator, became linked to more than 2,000 deaths. 

At the time, Méaux suggested holding a press conference, to air everything to the public. She recalls: "The president of Servier turned to his colleague and said, 'tell the young girl that we don't pay her to give her opinion, we pay her to say what we tell her to.'"

Méaux left the room, and her client, immediately. "I understood that they wanted me to help them lie," she says. In the world of corporate communications, "you can't say everything, but you can never lie." (Mediator was drawn from the market in 2009, and the company was ultimately found guilty of negligence in 2015.) 

In many ways, Méaux says she takes after her mother, who was a professor of Greek and Latin. That realm of thinking has proven immensely useful at her company. 

Declining a verb, she says, forces you to take a word that you think you know, and turn it on its head. The ability to problem solve--by looking at something from the opposite angle --is exactly what a good consultant (and entrepreneur) does. 

Published on: Mar 25, 2016