It’s Time to Buy into the Benefits of an Open Culture

“I want to make us envied by our competitors and coveted by great creatives.”

That was the goal Chris Hirst set out to achieve when he joined Havas Creative Group last September as CEO of the UK and Europe. Since then, he’s taken great strides to take the business to new heights. Over the past year, the team has welcomed a number of star players, brought in a slew of new business, and produced a fair amount of creative work that would make anyone jealous.

We checked in with Chris to learn more about his strategy for growth, plans for the greatly anticipated London Village, and the keys to building an effective culture.

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The Mag: We’ve seen a lot of great work coming out of London recently. What do you want Havas to be known for in the region?

CH: Two things—both of which reflect where we’re finding ourselves in the industry at the moment. First, I firmly believe that all creative businesses are basically trying to do the same things—we’re just trying to do them better. So I want us to be known as a business that’s super creative. If you come to us, you’re going to get great solutions to your brand’s problems.

On the other hand, the industry is changing so much thanks to the role of data and digital transformation. We’re very strongly placed given the breadth of our offering, especially in key markets like the UK. The Village strategy really allows us to be the place where clients can get the answer to that question of digital transformation. That’s a good place for us to aspire to be.


The Mag: Tell us about the transformation of the UK and Europe business so far. What’s your strategy for growth?

CH: It’s a work in progress. We may not be a caterpillar anymore, but we’re still in the cocoon. My strategy has been to simplify. At agencies, there are a lot of things you’re asked to do: please clients, make more money, win awards. So you need to prioritize and pick just one thing. That doesn’t mean that the other things aren’t important; it means that one thing is the most important.

I believe that our root to transformation is through growth. That comes from a number of things. We need to be more commercial. We need to look at areas where we can expand our skillsets. But ultimately, the most important thing is to win new clients. In all of the European markets, the total amount of the available market isn’t growing. So the only way that we can grow is by stealing share. We need to steal the competition’s clients. And to do that, we need to really learn how to win pitches.

In order to win pitches, you need to have the right things in place: You have to have the right people. You have to have a culture that allows for client retention. And in our business, we need people to understand the commerciality aspect. We’re here to make money. Let’s be proud of that. Because when we as a business make more money, that’s great for all of us.


The Mag: How would you define an open, collaborative culture?

CH: An open culture is really about flipping the hierarchy on its head. If you imagine the traditional organizational structure as a pyramid, the most important people are at the top. In a business like ours, we need to think of the pyramid upside down. By that, I mean the most important people are the ones interacting with our clients all day long. And it’s the management’s job to help those people solve the challenges they face every day to better deliver what our clients need.


The Mag: What can business leaders do to transform their culture?

CH: Ultimately, culture comes down to people. And that really starts with the leadership team. You need people leading the business who truly buy into the benefits of the culture.

Think of culture a bit like concrete. When you pour it, it flows and fills a set mold. After time, that concrete sets. If you want to change the culture, you have to break the mold—take a hammer and smash it. You have to physically do things differently. You have to demonstrate, as a leadership team, what your culture means. And then you have to walk the walk.

Culture doesn’t exist on a list of values or on PowerPoint slides. It’s not about throwing a great summer party. (That’s called having perks.) It’s not a soft, squishy thing. What matters are the behaviors that surround your values. It can be as simple as saying, “We believe as an organization that everyone’s time is super important, so we respect each other by making it a habit to not be late to meetings.” And then you hold yourselves accountable. Even though culture is driven by the leadership team, everyone ultimately must feel like they co-own it. Everyone has to buy into it, believe in it—and hold each other accountable to it.


The Mag: We’ve heard that the London Village will be opening early next year. Tell us about the office space and the agencies that will be included. How will it help us better service our clients?

CH: In January 2017, 1,800 people will be moving into the new Village in King’s Cross. One of the opportunities we have is to create a place where the whole is better than the sum of its parts. These days, clients want increasingly complicated solutions as their problems are increasingly complicated. We need to be more responsive, more nimble. What we want to do is create a place where a client can come through the door, tell us the problems they’re facing, and build a team around that—rather than try to fit them into a company-specific box. With everyone co-located in one space, we’ll have a shared language and a sharp approach. We’ll be able to build ourselves around the needs of our clients. Yes, we have different P&Ls, but the client will only see one.

In terms of the building itself, we’re going to limit the amount of difference shown throughout the floors. We won’t have heavy branding. We’ll have signs so that you know where you are. But as much as we can, we’re going to have a physically open space. When you’re in Arena, you’ll know you’re there, but when you go to Conran, it will still feel like the same company. The advantage of not having heavy branding is that we’re able to have the flexibility to shift people around. We’ve mixed the various agencies into the building, mixing up Media and Creative teams. I don’t want to say, “There’s Havas Worldwide,” I want to say, “There’s the Heathrow team.”

There’s a balance between fluidity and fixed. That’s something we’ll play around with a bit.


The Mag: What keeps you up at night?

CH: I think businesses progress based on their ability to make decisions. What keeps me awake at night is not: “Are the decisions we making right?” It’s: “Are we making enough decisions?” With most decisions, there isn’t an obvious right or wrong answer. It’s more important to actually do things—and hope that more than half of them are right.


The Mag: What do businesses need to focus on during the aftermath of the Brexit decision?

CH: Our industry everywhere is very closely tied to the overall state of the economy. For international business, that’s a global challenge as much as it is a domestic one. With Brexit, I’m not worried about trade barriers. We deal with clients based in Japan, Australia, all over the world. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. I think the issue is going to be an economic one. If, as a result, the UK, European, or global economy suffers, our industry will suffer. That’s what it boils down to.

The other factor—that is particularly a UK challenge—is the talent piece. We need to be super clear about the fact that the UK has always been a trading nation and has always been a mix of people. Our industry (and others) is built on diversity. We have to make sure that we hire the best people around the world and that the best people around the world want to work with us.