In early October, Havas Chicago mounted in its lobby framed anonymous comments left on the online industry bulletin board Fishbowl that attacked the agency and its employees by name and the office's culture more broadly. The agency claimed the installation was an anti-bullying exhibit — a contention that triggered social media blowback, with some commentators calling it hypocritical or saying the agency was a "shallow, toxic work environment," as one former employee posted on Fishbowl. Some commenters suggested the agency's leaders were taunting complainers in an effort to silence them.
Since then, Ad Age has talked to a dozen current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity about the culture at Havas in Chicago. They described a polarizing environment where some thrive and others feel isolated outside an inner circle. Hip-hop music blares in the hallways of the Havas Chicago office in its River North location and TV screens display Vice programming, at times about stripping or drugs. They say the agency also hired a bikini-clad woman to portray an exotic dancer from a Quentin Tarantino film for a Halloween party last year.
Havas Chicago defends the music, the TV screens and art installations as part of its ethos. "We structured our agency to be different," says Tatia Torrey, president and chief client officer at Havas Chicago. "We're really trying to bring culture from the outside in, so on a daily basis our team members are immersed in it and wanting to bring that culture to our brands."
But one employee who left the shop earlier this year echoes the sentiment of several current and former Havas employees in describing bifurcation between the "cool kids" and everyone else. "It's a tone set by [Chairman and Chief Creative Officer] Jason [Peterson] that says, 'Here are my favorites and pretty much everyone else is mediocre,'" said one. "I've never felt so belittled or bullied," another former employee says. "I've never experienced politics like I have at that place. I never once felt invested in as an employee."
Peterson did not respond to phone calls and text messages for comment, and Havas Chicago instead made two other executives available for an interview, who vigorously dispute this account. They said concerns are taken seriously and dealt with — and that senior leadership, including Peterson, listen to the needs of employees. Some Havas staffers interviewed by Ad Age, in fact, said they have a direct line to leadership to a degree they describe as unusual for agency life.
As for the art installation: "We're never going to be vanilla about our approach to a conversation," said Lisa Evia, Havas Media president. "It's just part to how we operate. It's in our ethos … I think when you put something out that's a bit provocative or polarizing there's going to be reactions that range both ways. I had people sending me emails saying how much they fucking love working here."