Myriam Nouicer's Search for Meaning and Freedom Beyond Agency Life

'The value we can bring to society is not exclusively defined by work'

Reinventions profiles people who've made big pivots. Meet Myriam Nouicer, who, after 14 years in advertising, went from business partner at Ogilvy Paris to helping design economies that are social and solidarity-based.

What were you before? 

I spent 14 years in communications agencies—Publicis at the start of my career, then Ogilvy Paris for almost 10 years. Before leaving in 2019, I was designated a business partner, working directly with the president on some of the agency's largest clients, and developing business units to accelerate the group's growth. 

What triggered your reinvention?

Becoming a parent revealed, to me, the value of time—its preciousness and, as a result, my need to be in control of my own time, not merely submit to it. Coming back to work after maternity leave in 2018, I found the way my time was spent totally insane. Between a toddler and an agency job, my life was a series of time constraints that generated multiple frustrations: Frustration with seeing my daughter for just two hours a day, with not having time for myself or my relationship, while spending most of my time at work and feeling like I could never do enough.

It was as if the three personal, professional and family spheres were absolutely not compatible. And indeed, as designed, it absolutely wasn't.

The directive—mostly made to women, unfortunately—to find "work/life balance" is a huge scam. We make it seem personal, as if it is up to individuals to somehow achieve this, instead of treating it as a collective issue. Concretely, only society—institutions, legislation, companies—can make that possible. Our entire relationship to work must be reconsidered: the dominant role it takes in our lives, the culture of performance, the unending quest for growth, and the patriarchy, which shaped the world of work as it is. 

Today it is all becoming toxic. If we made more room for fulfillment, ethics, a sense of the collective, our impact on the world, and the role we each play in it, we would gain individually and collectively.

I have always been ambitious. Another thing that engendered my reinvention—beyond the need to master my time—is when I realized I had no desire for a higher position; I couldn't find any more satisfaction in what I was doing. The incredibly valuable time I spent at work, to the detriment of all else, became more and more unbearable.

What did the first steps look like?

The first step was negotiating my departure from Ogilvy, so I could leave with peace of mind and no loose ends. I understood that, if one can, one shouldn't wait for "something else" to come along before leaving; I had no idea what "something else" looked like, and needed time and freedom to find it. 

I spent six months in a state of "creative emptiness"—not planning anything special, enjoying my free time, reconnecting with myself to understand what I really wanted. Then I registered with Switch Collective, which helps people make meaningful career pivots, for support in this transition, and to meet more people who shared my feelings and situation.

I didn't leave the agency with the idea in mind that I needed more meaning. That reflection took a longer road. I started freelancing for brands, so I could decide when and with whom I worked. Then, little by little, the question of meaning became increasingly present. 

For me, "meaning" is not necessarily about saving the world; everyone's interpretation is different. But when you start doing work on yourself, you inevitably realize how much of that involves working on your relationships to others, and ultimately on the role you want to play in society. It took getting to know myself better to unearth the struggles deeply rooted in me, to understand what I wanted to get involved in and how I most wanted to advance in the world. 

So seeking meaning starts with you. But naturally, it does not stop there. 

What was one hard obstacle to overcome?

For me there were two:

• External pressure about what others consider "inactivity."

Society weds us to our work. "What do you do for a living?" is one of the first questions you're asked, and unfortunately, the response contains so much of what defines us in this world. This is a shame, because the value we can bring to society is not exclusively defined by work. Try choosing not to work for a while, and not apologizing for it every time you're asked.

• Making the necessary choices, as a woman and a feminist.

It was so hard to walk away from the clear path I was on—toward higher positions and salaries, more and more "power." Women tell each other this is what we fought for; how could we refuse it? But in the end, I realized that being a feminist is actually choosing to live life the way you want—to be a conscious actor in your own life instead of simply submitting, and to changing my world your way.

It is by doing this our way that we change the world at large. Having power is not only professional. It is also personal and societal.

What was easier than you thought?

For years, opportunities presented themselves without me having to look for them—from the assignments I got at the start of this change, to my role today. In the end, I didn't have much trouble finding something that really suited me.

This is likely due to two things:

• My work now is based on my expertise and the experience I gained over the past 15 years. I completely changed sectors, but not the core of my job in the end.

• I feel that, when you work on finding more alignment, and being clearer about what you do and don't want anymore in life, you know and sense it. You talk about it more passionately and forcefully. You meet the right people ... and the opportunities arise.

This is not to minimize the difficulty of change, or the privileges that made this road less hard. I went to college, and negotiated a departure that gave me some financial security. I live in Paris, am married, and have a sizable network. This was clearly easier for me than others who don't have all of these privileges.

What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?

• Listen closely to yourself, because the desire to change careers often translates into something more profound. Take your time; don't rush into another job. Often this requires a serious understanding of what no longer suits you, as well as deconstructing previously held beliefs, and being ready to question many things.

• Dream big but advance slowly. The important thing is to move forward, no matter what step you take. Often, small steps enable us to learn and move forward; sometimes you have to course-correct.

• Define the two things that are non-negotiable for you. Freedom? Meaning? Money? Security? Power? Status? You can't have everything at once, so it's critical to know what's essential to your current development, and what you're ready to let go of. I chose meaning and freedom. Now I am helping to build a social economy, am on a four-day work week, and opted not to take on a formal full-time contract. So I lowered my salary and "status." And I manage very few people today, whereas I managed many before.

• Surround yourself with people who understand your path—who share it, or once did. The collective helps a lot in these moments; sometimes those closest to you won't understand your choices and decisions. In times of doubt, you need caring people to talk to about all this, and who will understand. You can find them on your own, or if not, in France, for example, numerous programs exist that help you connect with the like-minded, whether for personal development and career change (like Switch Collective or On Purpose), or to find or think about ways to change things around you (MakeSense, Ticket for Change, Institut des Futurs Souhaitables).

• Don't discard everything. Everything you did before still matters—whether they're skills, expertise, a network, achievements. Don't think you have to start from a clean slate. Everyone has acquired skills that will be valuable in the future, even if you completely change lanes.

• If you already have a clear idea of what you want to do, meet lots of people who already do it. This will help to better understand the reality, avoid idealizing, and gauge your true motivation.

Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?

So many people, books and podcasts inspired me.

• Everyone I met who chose to change course, find more alignment, and be happier.

• The people who commit themselves, every day, on a large or small scale, to what they believe, to making the world a better place. AOC is obviously one of my inspirations, and all the leaders at ESS (the social and solidarity economy) in France who are making things happen. 

• The books, podcasts, and documentaries that helped me think differently about the world we live in, be it about work, capitalism, patriarchy or racism. A few podcasts (all French): Balls on the Table, VLAN, Love Your Race. And writers like Eckhart Tolle, Yuval Noah Harari, Edgar Morin, Michelle Obama, Maya Angelou, Simone de Beauvoir, Leila Slimani, Virginie Despentes, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mona Chollet … I could go on.

• I continue to nourish myself with new points of view every day. The path does not stop because you found a job and a lifestyle that satisfies you. Life is a constant search for alignment and fulfillment.

What has this fundamentally changed for you?

• I know myself better, and thus have more confidence in myself and in my choices.

• It makes me happy again to wake up in the morning and go to work—a place that could help us all be more human, more inclusive, more creative, more equal.

• I'm now growing in a place where I can meet people who are not like me, who have different stories, backgrounds and points of view. A place that operates horizontally, and where we are brainstorming new governance models.

• I have more time. We work four days a week, and can nurture other interests that nourish us.

• I feel reconnected to the collective and my role in society as a whole, not just to personal fulfillment.

Do you think you could go back/do you want to?

I loved my years in the agency world. I did amazing things and met brilliant people. But it was no longer possible to thrive there. What I know is that I will never be able to return to a job without meaning, one that isn't in line with my deepest values, and that doesn't give me the necessary freedom.

Tell us your reinvention song. 

"Brand New Me" by Alicia Keys: "I don't need your opinion, I'm not waiting for your OK. Don't be mad, it's just the brand new kind of free. That ain't bad, I found a brand new kind of me." 

How would you define yourself now? 

I no longer define myself by my work. So I'll start by saying I live in Paris, am passionate about geopolitics, and miss traveling. I'm the mother of two daughters, and a feminist who tries to commit herself as much as possible to building an egalitarian, fraternal and human society.

I am also the head of global communications for SINGA, a global movement that believes migration is an incredible source of opportunities, and wants to change the narrative about it. We unite refugees and locals to collaboratively engage in social, professional and entrepreneurial projects. 

Since 2012, SINGA has created events, tools and new spaces to encourage both newcomers and locals to meet, find synergies, learn from each other, and build a better future together. 

If you want to join our movement, we're here!

Reinventions is a questionnaire series with people who are making pivots in their lives. If you're going through a reinvention and would like to be interviewed for the series, please get in touch.

Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is the European markets editor at Muse by Clio. She also writes about gaming and fashion, and whatever else she's interested in, really. She's based in Paris and North Italy, so if you're local, say hi. She might eat all your food.

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