Josette Normandeau: From Right-Hand Woman to Global Entrepreneur
In collaboration with Femmes du cinéma, de la télévision et des médias numériques (FCTMN), CMF Trends meets inspiring women as part of a content series focused on female entrepreneurship in the screen-based industries. Our guest in Part Two of this series is Josette Normandeau, the energetic businesswoman at the head of Idéacom International, a production company whose documentaries and multi-platform projects have picked up dozens of awards.
Josette Normandeau was born into a family of artists – her parents were professional musicians – and grew up in an environment where self-realization was seen as the foundation of all education. It was certainly a solid foundation for a woman who defines herself as “a hyperactive person who likes to make things happen.” And so, she did – right from the start of her career, when, as a receptionist at CKCV Radio in Quebec City, Josette applied for a position as a journalist in the newsroom – and became the first woman in the station ever hired for such a job. But when offered a lower salary than her male counterparts earned, because “she was a girl,” she simply answered that being “a girl” didn’t get her a discount at any store she shopped in. Which put an end to any further arguments over pay equity then and there.
An eight-year stint in Boston brought her into the business world at New England Audio, designers of advanced residential audiovisual systems, where she would head the company’s multimedia division. There she discovered the potential of technology, an abiding interest that would lead her to transform the Montreal communications agency Idéacom. She took over as president in 2000, five years after joining the company as head of international development.
A born instinct for international success
With her fascination for cultural differences and the stimulation they provide, Josette Normandeau was determined to position Idéacom on the global market. Her first approach was through distribution, while the company’s constant presence in all markets helped build a solid network and established its credibility. So, it was only natural that international co-productions become the business model for 95% of all Idéacom projects.
“In the global documentary market, Quebec enjoys a unique position. We’re bilingual, we’re equally at home in Europe and in North America, and foreign broadcasters appreciate our ability to tap into subtle aspects of both English- and French-language cultures.”
Besides her co-producers, Josette attaches an equal importance to cultivating business relationships with broadcasters – the BBC, Channel 4, France Television, and National Geographic, to name just a few. This has come to matter especially in the past decade, when financing documentaries has become more complex, with several broadcasters often working on the same project. Delivering content that fits everybody’s editorial approach without neutralizing quality is a serious challenge that can best be overcome when relationships are of long standing.
“There’s a lot of talk these days about exports. But exporting in our industry isn’t about shipping a container now and then. It’s about having a real export strategy. The Idéacom strategy is based on partnerships and especially on being able to identify the right partners. And the way to do this is to focus upstream, instead of on the finished product.”
Josette also prefers the language of international development rather than export, though she admits that this distinction has yet to be understood in the cultural sector. Working on this front calls for persistence, a lively interest in diplomacy, and an exceptional ability for understanding the other party’s context. This matters all the more in producing high-end projects for cross-platform deployment when multiple stakeholders are necessarily involved.
Her own brand of innovation and vision
An interest in multi-platform approaches presented itself early on in Josette Normandeau’s career. In her very first production with Idéacom, a series on international affairs, she persuaded them to add a 20,000-page bilingual website on the subject, designed as a reference source for all MBA students in the country. As a result, Idéacom entered the 21st century well ahead of everyone else and has made the convergence known as web TV its preferred model.
Josette firmly believes that this ability to anticipate trends is related to her own mastery of martial arts. She has a black belt in karate and in Aikido – a fact she isn’t at all shy to mention when people ask what sort of business leader she is.
“Practicing martial arts teaches you to always think ahead. You need a Plan A, a Plan B – so you don’t get trapped in a corner. It also teaches you to look at the long term and persevere. All this is essential in business.”
And so, when in 2009 the television–digital media convergence became the funding model for the Canada Media Fund, she saw opportunities where many producers, even some the youngest, saw only threats. The following year, she created the Idéacom subsidiary Zenith ABC, a core player in the digital development, to which we owe, among other productions, Apocalypse: 10 Lives and Apocalypse, the Second Screen Experience, online companions to the series of the same name – also released in a graphic novel and virtual reality app formats, and as a travelling exhibit in France.
Producing historical or scientific transmedia content demands a continual learning process. “You have to read a lot: not only about the evolution of television, but all the technological advances, artificial intelligence, robotics. A producer’s job requires being well informed and asking lots of questions in order to make the right decisions.” Her desire to build bridges between media production and the world of education and research is also what led Josette, early in 2018, to accept a seat on the board of governors of her alma mater, the Université de Sherbrooke.
Another challenge is to link this technical knowledge to content, and here another sort of learning comes into play: new forms of writing, an inevitable consequence of collaboration between teams, each with its own perspective on the project. “Working with unproven technologies means flying blind through stages of production and delivery time frames. This is where your sense of entrepreneurship has to be tough, because an appetite for risk is what makes the difference between a mere producer and a real entrepreneur.”
Another fundamental difference is her ability to adapt to change. As soon as Apple TV appeared, Josette saw that content would no longer be viewed in the same way and that the industry would undergo a major upheaval. To face this challenge, she believes that strategic partnerships still are, and always will be, the way to unite those complementary strengths that make all the difference. Which is why, in October 2017, she signed a partnership with Cineflix Media which, with offices in London, New York, Toronto, and Dublin, significantly strengthens Idéacom’s international position.
And when asked if being a woman has made her journey more difficult, Josette thinks she has never felt disadvantaged. “The only difference I can tell you is precisely my determination to make a difference. If what Idéacom produces can change audience perceptions about war, or about science, then I’ll have succeeded.”
Photos by Sandra Larochelle