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When we call the indefatigable Nathalie L’Hoir in her car on a Friday evening, she has had a long, challenging week. Our conversation was rescheduled several times because Nathalie’s clients are her top priority. Her voice reveals an energetic and passionate personality. She’s on her way to meet some friends “for an aperitif and a hearty burger”, she tells us cheerfully from behind the wheel. “Towards the end of the year, it gets incredibly busy at work. It’s the most stressful period in our sector, but I will soon be able to relax.”

Managing Director Nathalie L’Hoir has worked at UM for 26 years. However, she confesses that right after her studies in communication science, she was not exactly in a hurry to get a job. “At some point, my parents had had enough. They sent me an advertisement from the newspaper Le Soir by post. It was a vacancy for a TV Expert at UM, with a handwritten message from mum and dad telling me to apply.” Although she knew nothing about television and had absolutely no work experience, Nathalie got the job. This came as a complete surprise to her, as her rival candidate had worked as a trainee at L’Oréal and therefore had an advantage. “Afterwards, I understood that the deciding factors were my attitude and personality,” she says. “My competitor turned out to be too shy and reserved. They could never have sent such a person to a client to defend a strategy.”

Silent force

Since then, Nathalie climbed the career ladder and is very grateful to have been given the opportunity to develop her talents to the full at UM. She continues, “I wish everyone was able to work in a company that believes in you 100%, that knows better than you what you’re capable of, so that you discover your hidden talents. There is a huge amount of respect, empathy and trust in this company. Values I hold in very high regard.” It’s obvious that Nathalie is happy here, otherwise she would never have stayed for so long. “If there comes a point when I no longer enjoy my job, I’ll be gone within twenty-four hours. And they know it.” Nathalie has been offered an international position twice, but she resolutely declines. “I prefer to deal with the local market.”

Nathalie defines UM as the silent force on the Belgian market. The agency has continued to grow consistently over the years. “Thanks to the various roles I have held, I have a long and broad expertise of the market,” she continues, “which gives me great credibility. My clients and media partners also know that I keep my word. There’s no need for a written contract between us.”

I hate the name Mediabrands. It doesn’t express what we stand for at all.

Nathalie L'hoir

Fever pitch

However, the best moment of her career culminated in a total blackout as a result of complete exhaustion and intense emotions. “I can safely say that there is a 24-hour black hole in my life,” she says, “and it’s because of Coca-Cola.” For Nathalie, the Coca-Cola pitch in 2013 was the high point of her career, but also a psychologically charged moment. “We were competing with two other agencies and had worked extremely hard for months. On top of that, we had to wait for Coca-Cola’s answer, which only added to my stress. It was as if my life depended on it.” Understandable, since in the meantime Nathalie had built up an almost
emotional bond with Coca-Cola, which had been part of UM’s client portfolio since 1983. “We simply couldn’t lose that client,” she continues. When the decision was announced, Nathalie was in Cannes with the then CEO of the Lions International Festival. “I had warned Sylvie, the CEO with whom I shared the hotel room, that she would have to look after me because I was
totally exhausted.”

When they received a phone call with the thrilling news that Coca-Cola had chosen them again, that was it, Nathalie’s light suddenly went out. “I don’t remember a thing about that day. Sylvie told me afterwards that she took good care of me, but what happened that day and what I did remains a mystery to me.”

Therefore, it was a big blow when Coca-Cola decided in November of this year not to continue with UM. “I was in tears when I had to break the news to my staff,” she says. “Clients come and go in this business but you are more attached to some than others.” In the case of Coca-Cola, she lost one of her first clients and that hurts. “Everyone dreams of working for Coca-Cola. It’s also one of the most respectful clients. They are generous with gifts to thank us for our work. Once, we even received a cubic meter of goodies!” The fact that UM lost Coca-Cola as the result of an international decision signifies a mourning process for all employees who worked with them. “When it comes to an international competition, unfortunately it’s very difficult for a Belgian agency to compete,” Nathalie explains. “The fault does not lie with us.” But the loss of her beloved client also means that her professional life will be different from now on. For, although she has 65 clients in her portfolio, Coca-Cola took up the most time.

Nathalie says she has a close and loyal relationship with all her clients. “I try out all my clients’ products. I also monitor how their products are presented in shops and department stores. At the same time, I keep a close eye on the competition. If I see that a competitor has a new product, for example, I immediately call my clients.”

Bugbears and pleasures

Despite the passion she feels for her job and the company, there is still something that bugs her, and that is the name Mediabrands. “I hate that name” she exclaims. “It doesn’t say anything and doesn’t express what we stand for at all. We should have a name that has an association with partnerships and cooperation. A name that symbolizes what we want to do for our clients and our teams.” With regard to her teams, Nathalie regrets that some departments are understaffed. Fortunately, Mediabrands is looking to source new recruits to relieve the pressure, slow down the pace and achieve a better balance. “The war for talent is most definitely on!”, she says.

Nathalie explains that once she was so exhausted that she let her GP persuade her to go on a week’s detox, which included fasting. She was afraid she wouldn’t last a day without eating. “I wanted to run away at the first group session.” And yet she persisted. At the end of it she felt reborn. Since then, she regularly incorporates a fasting day in her diet. “If you don’t eat, your body doesn’t have to spend energy digesting,” she remarks. “After a day of fasting, I have more energy to go on.” But above all, she now knows that, having survived that week, she can handle anything. And that has become her motto: yes, we can.

And if on the rare occasion she’s not at work, what does she do? “First of all, I try to have a lie in on the weekends,” Nathalie says. “I am not a morning person. I’m one of those people who presses the alarm snooze button three or four times and crawls deep under the covers before I get up.” And if not, you can find her on a sailing boat, horse or motorcycle. “I’m lucky that my job allows me to fulfil my dreams,” she says enthusiastically. “Next to my office there’s a riding school. Horse riding had been my dream since childhood but my mother was always against it. So, when I turned 30, I started riding right ‘next door’.” Since then, every year Nathalie has embarked on a major horse trek with friends. “My most memorable trips are horseback safaris in Kenya and Botswana, and a journey on horseback through the Moroccan desert.” Because of Covid-19, this year it will be a trip closer to home – horse riding on the beaches of Andalusia. Apart from horse riding, motorcycling is her great passion. Four years ago, Nathalie obtained her motorbike license. “I love motor sports,” she says. “I own a motorcycle and ride as much as I can, but I also attend as many Grand Prix races as I can. It gives me a boost.” We find it rather bizarre that she mentions the slow, sedate sport of sailing in the same breath as motorcycling, because it’s such a contrast. “I can’t explain it either,” says Nathalie. “I need both. But I only sail sporadically. When I’m on holiday, relaxing, for example. My big dream is to attempt a transatlantic crossing on a sailing boat, from Europe to America. I really don’t want to miss out on such an experience. It’s at the top of my to-do list and I’m not going let years go by before I do it, that’s for sure.”

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