How edgy is too edgy? Havas Chicago's culture proves polarizing

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Credit: Illustration by Ad Age

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."

The party

October 26, 2017 Instagram post
October 26, 2017 Instagram post Credit: yasmindelriodance via Instagram

Just weeks after the New York Times' reporting on Harvey Weinstein set off a wave of #MeToo complaints last year, Havas hosted an office Halloween party with the theme of "From Dusk till Dawn," a vampire thriller film written by Tarantino. The agency says it hired people to portray various scenes — one of those scenes being a sexy dance by Salma Hayek, who in the film performs at a strip club called the "Titty Twister."

In an Instagram photo posted Oct. 26, 2017, the dancer posted a photograph of herself in a bikini at The Annex — a Havas sibling shop in Chicago — with a caption reading, "Channeling my inner Selma [sic] Hayek for @havaschi's company Halloween party!"

Evia said a small employee committee planned and staged the event. The dancer, she said, was meant to represent Hayek's character, an exotic dancer. She said there was no nudity or stripping, and noted that "it was a fun party."

"Women in the office were upset," another former employee said. "When [Havas leaders] addressed it at the all-agency meeting, they sort of apologized but it was more, 'Sorry you were offended by something we did.'"

Evia said the agency didn't get any employee complaints directly, but "they sort of came through an outside channel." She said that after learning some employees were uncomfortable, agency leaders addressed the matter in an all-agency meeting, saying "if anybody was offended that was not the intention and that it was part of the themed party and they were all in character."

Some other employees say they were surprised at the reaction. One current employee says she thought the matter was overblown. "I didn't know that people were uncomfortable in the moment," she said. "To be honest, I was totally fine with it. I thought it was cool. But I'm also the type of person that doesn't really care how women dress as long as they're opting into it and they're comfortable with themselves."

Anat Lechner, a clinical associate professor of management and organizations at NYU's Stern School of Business, said that having an office party with a partly clothed dancer is disrespectful to employees and indicates that such behavior is tolerated at the highest levels. "In a day and age when Me Too is so pervasive, to hold an event like this you have to be ... I don't even know what. Blind at best," she says.

The Annex is not new to parties with scantily clad women. Before The 88, the New York-based digital agency, was acquired by Havas last year and rebranded as "Annex88," the shop threw a holiday party in December 2015 in which partygoers posed for Instagram photos with a woman squatting in a bejeweled thong over a pile of what appears to be money. Harry Bernstein, founder of The 88 and now Havas New York's chief creative officer, posted a video from the same party showing a woman shaking her nearly bare behind as what appears to be paper money flies through the air.

Adam Copeland, whose LinkedIn profile currently lists himself as head of production at Annex88, Instagrammed an extreme close up of a woman's behind in a thong with the words "What was your holiday party like? #crazy88nights #blessed." Copeland could not be immediately reached for comment.

December 18, 2015 Instagram post
December 18, 2015 Instagram post Credit: aface1 via Instagram

Havas' leaders declined to comment on those photos and referred comment to Annex88, which declined to comment.

Fitting in

Over the summer, Peterson prompted industry headlines after an internal Havas video popped up on Fishbowl and prompted a wave of negative industry commentary. In the video, which also featured Havas Creative North America CEO and Chairman Paul Marobella, Peterson characterized shops like Leo Burnett, FCB and BBDO as "shitty agencies" and said that Havas' competition is instead "kids with iPhones and millions of YouTube followers."

At the time of the video, Leo Burnett CEO Andrew Swinand also told Ad Age "He is right, Havas is definitely not competitive with Leo Burnett and probably should be worried about losing business to kids with iPhones."

While Havas took a beating on social media for the video, Sarah Pak, VP of strategic accounts at Robert Half's The Creative Group, says that she is seeing more agencies trying to stand out by being brazen about their personality. "Even though the market is so tight for creative and marketing professionals, our clients are still requiring personality and cultural fit to be No. 1," she says. "If you fit the culture, then we'll make sure you are happy here. But you have to fit our culture first."

Some current and former employees say that Havas Chicago is upfront about what things are like on the inside. "People definitely knew what they were signing up for," one said. "The minute you walk into the office there's rap blaring … it's kind of your own fault if you didn't pick up on it."

Torrey says the agency has a structure called "hiring for culture" to ensure candidates understand Havas' environment and they meet multiple people on their potential team and others. "We try really hard to make sure that people understand what the culture is," she says.

The lobby installation — which appeared to lambast current employees for indicating unhappiness on anonymous channels — seemed to be an indication that this system is not working flawlessly. Torrey claims a brochure Havas distributed as part of the installation with contacts for recruiters at other agencies was intended to be a conversation starter. "The brochure was more of an extension of the opportunity for dialogue," Torrey says. "The intention in no way was anti-feedback."

Voicing of concerns

Several ex-employees said that when they expressed concern over music or sensitive Vice content playing on TVs in front of clients they felt they weren't taken seriously. Multiple former employees described agency leaders as reading back certain complaints out loud at all-agency meetings and laughing them off. When asked about the content on the screens, Evia says that anyone who has a problem with content on a television has the ability to change it.

"One of the ways we bring culture into the world is through music and through what we're viewing on our videos. But that said, if anyone is uncomfortable with the video content, there's a wall unit right next to all the screens and they can change it," says Evia. "Is it a mandate that every client appreciates Viceland and what's playing? No." she says. "But cultural relevance and creating connections with consumers that are authentic and relevant to them is important to us."

One current employee, however, says things like an out-of-touch leadership or concerns about not being heard are not uncommon in agency life regardless of where you work.

Katie Knish, a former Havas employee who wrote about her experience on Medium, shared screenshots of emails that she says she sent to human resources in 2014, in which she alerted the department to music being played loudly at a coworker's desk. Knish characterizes the music as uncensored rap which refers to "'bitches' and violence, particularly toward women."

Knish wrote that she never received a reply from HR. She eventually was moved to a new desk, and finally left. Reached by Ad Age, Knish declined to comment further.

Walking the walk?

It's clear Havas is trying to portray a certain image in the market. But some say that bleeding-edge image isn't necessarily reflected in client work. Avi Dan, founder and CEO of Avidan Strategies, gives credit to Marobella and Peterson for doing a "tremendous job of increasing the visibility of Havas since they took over."

"Jason is a legitimate Instagram influencer, and arguably the best creative director at understanding social media. I certainly think that his photographs are breathtaking," Dan says. "However, their new business record has been spotty, perhaps because the work is sometimes uneven."

Havas' clients currently listed on its website don't appear to reflect the finger-on-the-pulse-of-culture roster the agency seems to want to attract. They include Cracker Barrel, Ragu and AutoZone, all of which declined to comment for this story or could not be reached. CKE, which last month moved its Hardee's account from Havas Chicago to sibling shop Arnold declined to comment.

"I don't remember the last time I saw anything coming out of Havas Chicago, at least from a client [perspective] that was anything more than a viral video type of thing," said another former employee. He added: "I think they're very good at being sexy on the surface."

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