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Havas London’s new chief plans to achieve sustainable growth, sustainably

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

April 19, 2023 | 10 min read

Havas’s British business has seen a changing of the guard. We explore the agency’s future under its new leadership.

Havas leadership holding mugs

Havas London’s leadership: (l-r) Britt Iverson, James Fox, Vicki Maguire and Xavier Rees / Havas

Most job interviews last less than an hour. At most, they might swallow up a morning. But for James Fox, getting the nod to lead Havas London took a full 12 months.

The newly named chief executive tells The Drum that his appointment a year ago as chief client officer was a de facto trial run for the big gig. “I feel like the process of being chief client officer was probably my audition.” It also meant he was appointed without the formality of an actual interview.

Xavier Rees, who was recently elevated to lead Havas Creative’s entire UK operation, had been running the London agency alongside his nationwide brief. Now, as he hands the reins over to Fox, he says: “Succession planning is so important – it’s one of the things that secure the long-term health of an organization. There was no interview because when we brought [Fox] in at that level, the next role would be the one that he’s just stepped into.”

Fox’s brief is to help guide the agency beyond the rollercoaster pandemic years and back to normality. Given morose business headlines about the state of the UK economy, plus the size of the growth figures achieved between 2020 and 2022, that might be an intimidating task. So far, it’s going well, with the agency enjoying a run of growth from existing clients such as Asda, Molson Coors and the Open University; Asda’s spend with Havas rose 128% in the last year.

“This year couldn’t have started better and we’ve been busy from the off because of the organic growth we’ve had from clients,” says Fox.

As a group, Havas will be hard pushed to maintain the 18.1% revenue increase it posted in 2022, but Fox says there has been “no stagnation” at its London business and that it is turning down more pitches than ever before, primarily to avoid hammering staff. The team plans on showing up in Cannes in full force, too.

“We’re firing on all cylinders, we’re getting more pitches and have more pitches being turned down than we would normally do because we’re at resource capacity,” he says. “We’ve got brief after brief, significant pieces of work coming out throughout the entire year.”

Sustaining sustainability

As well as maintaining the London agency’s momentum amid a rocky advertising economy, Fox’s brief also includes protecting its hard-won B Corp status. Under Rees’s leadership, Havas London became the first major agency to become a certified B Corp – a status since acquired by the network’s businesses in New York, Malaysia and the Netherlands.

It was one of the signature policies of Rees’s time leading the agency and he tells us: “I was a bit scared of talking to anybody at first – I thought people wouldn’t be into it and they might think I wasn’t the right sort of leader. Five years after certifying, we’re in a very different place.”

As well as influencing other Havas agencies, Rees has pushed the entire UK organization to adopt the standard, he reveals. “All of the UK entities are in the process of certifying at the moment. I’m not going to put a timeline on it because… it’s a very rigorous process. But we’re well advanced in becoming certified.”

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His successor faces a slightly different challenge – having to guard and renew the London agency’s commitment to B Corp as a custodian. Fox says that the label gives the business a clear commercial advantage though, by putting clear water between it and competing outfits with less ironclad claims to sustainability.

“In a market that is so small and that has lots of agencies, we’re competing on a lot of the same things,” he says. “Now that a lot more businesses are going through the process, even if it’s the beginning of the journey, they’re looking for partners to provide a perspective on that.”

Both Fox and Rees will need to stay convincing to keep bringing their colleagues and the wider Havas organization on board with this strategy. While the new UK chief notes that the agency’s stance on sustainability cost the London agency in the past, other nodes in the French network were named on the F-List – a register of ad agencies working directly with fossil fuel clients.

“We have turned down very significant revenue opportunities in order to maintain our B Corp status,” says Rees. “We’re lucky because we’re a good agency, so we’re able to go and find that revenue from more attractive places, and we are not afraid to make decisions that in short term might affect revenue in order to drive what I would consider a better, longer-term growth strategy.”

Gender pay gap

One area that will require a joint effort is the gender pay gap at Havas. The network’s UK media business, led by Patrick Affleck, recorded a major increase in the average difference between men’s and women’s pay in the most recently available statistics.

“If you don’t measure it, you don’t change it,” says Fox, and both he and Rees agree that the best way to permanently close the gap is by “fast-tracking” more women to the top.

Rees says: “[Fox] didn’t have a direct predecessor, but when our managing director left, James was the first senior male lead I’d hired in quite some time. The first tool at any leader’s disposal is simply to broaden the leadership team to make sure that you’re able to get diverse voices around the table.” He believes that transition has mostly been successful, pointing to female leadership such as Cake boss Rosie Holden, Helia’s Dominque Bergantino, and Havas London’s chief creative officer Vicki Maguire and chief strategy officer Britt Iversen.

Future growth

Though the agency’s recent momentum has been organic, not all of Havas’s expansion plans are. The network made a series of acquisitions last year, including Search Laboratory, Additive+ and digital agency Inviqa, and Rees has a particular focus on building up its customer experience capabilities.

“I’ve spent half my career working in direct marketing and analytics agencies. I don’t see myself as an adman, I see myself as sort of multilingual across disciplines. It’s a joy to exist in an organization that has pretty good strength in depth in those areas.”

While the Inviqa deal has allowed Havas to “extend and complement” its capabilities, he says he “wouldn’t rule out future acquisitions in that area”.

Social, too, is an area of attention, though Rees suggests expansion might come through hiring rather than M&A. “We’re looking at that right now. There will definitely be targets out there we might consider over the next couple of years. We’re very interested in bringing in hires to strengthen ourselves and give us an even greater advantage over the competition.”

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