Happy, Hungry, Curious: Havas New York

Agency Spotlight on Havas NYC. AdForum discovers what is so special about the culture at Havas' flagship office.

Earlier this month, we were lucky enough to sit down with Havas New York’s CEO, Laura Maness, and CCO, Harry Bernstein, to uncover what makes Havas NYC so unique. The agency was recently voted Best Place to Work by AdAge and last year, received Digiday’s Worklife Award in Most Innovative Culture at a Large Agency. That’s two major awards and it makes us, at AdForum, curious to find out what they are doing and whether it is truly impacting the agency’s performance.

AdForum’s Dasha Ovsiannikova set out to investigate and in the process, was invited to join the agency’s intern program, take home organic produce from the weekly farmers table and experience a guided meditation. We discovered that Havas is utterly genuine in its wellness practices for staff and this is having a positive effect on not only on staff retention, but also on new business wins and re-energizing existing clients. 

AdForum: Exceptional work begins with empowered, happy people. What is it about the culture at Havas New York that has lead to your awards? 

Harry: We’re in a people business and people come up with the ideas. It's also a very challenging business because expectations are the greatest they have ever been. So how do you deal with added pressure, less time, tighter budgets and deliver great creative under this pressure? We need to optimize the culture. But the culture needs to make sure that people feel empowered and have clarity. 

Laura: It is a lifestyle, whether you’re an account person, a strategist or a creative. When you work in this industry, you know the conditions, the expectations that exist, that the landscape is changing and is volatile. We need to set the tone for people to be able to perform. And so much of what Harry’s brought to Havas is this commitment to a work-life integration so that it’s almost the antithesis of “Get out! Do more!”. 

We are breaking with the traditional behaviors of the MadMen era and creating a new ones. They don’t have to be toxic like free junk food, ping pong and happy hour. Yes, we can do some of those things, but what can we do better? 

Harry: Finding that space to be creative and inspire to make people the best person they can be. Ad agencies used to be ahead of the curve - ping pong and pool tables were the coolest thing in the 90s. We were the start up culture, and then that start up culture trumped us. Advertising became sweat shoppy, it was just pressure and no evolution. With the support of Havas, we were able to take a step back. 

Laura: The agency is growing as a byproduct of people growing, as opposed to chasing growth.

Harry: You have to be a growth culture. To us, the growth culture is: If people are growing, then you win business. Our approach is holistic - let’s build a program that grows and empowers people and ultimately it feeds to our clients. I've talked to many of my peers and their scopes are getting smaller. We, though have had amazing organic growth. 

AdForum: It’s a counter-approach isn’t it? Exerting pressure is actually counterproductive, so switch to a personal growth mindset and provide the tools to do that. Tell us more about your meditation program. 

Harry: The science is public, meditation promotes clearer, better thinking. Sah D’Simone is our Chief Meditation Officer, who curates the meditation program. Every week on Monday afternoon, we host a meditation for 45 minutes. There are different styles including singing and laughing meditation. Our other approach is food. Diet affects so much and your gut controls your whole body. 

Every Tuesday, we have an organic famers market in the lobby, with the help of CFO Frank, who has an organic farm in East Hampton on Long Island. His profession is finance, but he's known as our Chief Farming Officer. He talks to everyone about food and we see this as being about planting seeds and educating. These are the conversations going on in the world. That’s the integration. 

Laura: Having a sense of belonging that is a part of your whole life and community, is synonymous with our culture. But we're not talking about it in the old sense, the cultural norms that have existed at all these ad industry companies for years. Those norms simply try to be 'on trend', as opposed to making an authentic effort to remove obstacles and enable. Who has time to go to Whole Foods? No one, so let’s get our produce right here. These conveniences lean into our life and how we want people to live.

Creative community is important so the question of flex-hours and working from home is discussed on a case-by-case basis. The power of people coming together to make things is very important. 

AdForum: Let's discuss what Havas is doing to bring through the next generation of ad folk. Give us an idea of what an internship is like at Havas New York.  

Harry: I take internships very seriously and we very vigorously structure them so that it’s not about making coffee. The immersion is super important because it’s a very big agency. The first week is like school, we go through what everyone does. The entry week is so intensive that I feel like some employees can benefit from it as well! There are 60 interns, divided into groups of 20 who work with a mentor. The mentor runs their program, which is composed of a real project and a pro-bono project. At the end we like them to produce a piece of work for their portfolio book. I am actually seeing their final presentations today. 

AdForum: Laura, you are an inspiring leader and an advocate for women in the workplace. What are some of the initiatives inside Havas?

Laura: We have three pillars: Inspiration, Cultivation and Celebration, for everything that we do. 

We’ve partnered with Lisa McCarthy, founder of The Fast Forward Group (FFG) and before that, she spent more than 20 years in leadership roles at Univision, Viacom and CBS. Fast Forward is all about total performance living, in our personal and professional lives. 

Gender equality is high on our agenda. Right now, we have 12 departments that are headed-up by women and overall, 63% of Havas NYC's staff is comprised of women. However, once you get to the upper echelons, there is a drop-off. So, to help isolate why this is happening, at what moment and why, we partner with different organizations, such as She Runs It. This is something that we seeded very deliberately at a certain tier within the agency for women, to help advance their careers at a faster pace. 

In conjunction with FFG, our Chief Talent Officer created Femme Forward as a separate, stand-alone program. It started here in NYC and in London, and has now been scaled across 5 more countries. Femme Forward is a 6 month curriculum around communicating with confidence.

All these things are based on encouraging women to accelerate at a faster pace and keep on that climb to the C-suite. The things that are top-of-mind are diversity and inclusion, gender equality and the pay gap.  

AdForum: In the past year, Havas NYC won ___ accounts. How has your holistic approach to work-life culture positively affected new business performance? Have you also seen a shift in existing clients?  

Laura: We have seen transformation in new business - our ability to win new clients. We have also been transforming legacy clients, such as ADP and KY, an RB brand that is actually 100 years old. Their culture too is shifting. There is a thread around the benefit of individuals growing and an improvement in agency performance as a result. It’s not just a great time to work at Havas, it’s a great time for Havas’ clients as well. 

Harry: None of these things are 'initiatives', it’s more about a way of working. It’s a people business. Laura was Femme Forward before Femme Forward. I meditate, I eat healthy. Frank has a farm in Long Island. We are integrating what we bring and how we live to the agency and by extension, to our clients. 

AdForum: And to close out, how does Havas' network structure and ownership underline your company culture here in NYC? 

Laura: We are not a holding company, we have this family-owned DNA. Our network is organized into Villages and there is a natural and inherent generosity, that is the premise of the Village. The Village model subordinates P&Ls and puts the focus on getting the right people to do the right things for exactly what’s right for the client in that moment.

Since Vivendi acquired the majority share about two years ago, we sit in the world’s largest entertainment company, alongside film, video, music, publishing, television and communications companies. We represent the advertising arm. Universal Music represents music. Canal+ represents television. All of this represents culture. 

When are creating a connection with the consumer, we feel like we have a little bit of an advantage from that view point versus a more conventional ad campaign response to a brief. We’re starting with: How are we going to create meaning and relevance? It might be through functional utility, it might be through personal connectivity, or trying to deliver on the brand promise - what are all the stories that we can tell and then using this modern story telling in all forms, that’s what Havas represents to me. 

It’s about making a meaningful difference in our own employees' lives and in our communications for our clients. We genuinely care about their whole life and well-being, that is then translating into our work, which is making a meaningful difference. But we're not working from the top-down. We start with the people and it’s benefiting our clients and our business. I think this is Havas.

AdForum wishes to thank Laura Maness, Harry Bernstein and Carly Wengrover for their amazing hospitality and openess in talking with us about Havas' remarkable culture. We came away impressed, inspired and much wiser.  


Check out Havas' work for ADP, RB's KY & TD Ameritrade below: