Happy, Hungry, Curious: Havas New York

Last 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 NY, the flagship agency of Havas Group, so unique.

by Dasha Ovsyannikova

Havas New York
Full Service
New York, United States
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The agency was recently named an Ad Age  “Best Places to Work” and last year, received Digiday’s Worklife Award for “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 class kick off, take home organic produce from the agency’s weekly organic farmers market and experience a guided meditation as part of their creative consciousness programming. We discovered that Havas is utterly genuine in its wellness practices for staff and this is having a positive effect not only on employee retention, but also on new business wins and re-energizing existing clients. 


Harry Bernstein
Chief Creative Officer Havas New York

AdForum: Exceptional work begins with empowered, happy people. What is it about the culture at Havas New York that has led 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 these conditions? We need to optimize the culture and make sure that people feel empowered and have clarity. 

Laura: It’s a lifestyle - whether you’re an account person, a strategist or a creative. When you work in this industry, you come in with the expectation that certain conditions are synonymous with advertising. But we need to set the tone for people to be able to out-perform and feel fulfilled, not only in their personal lives but here at work. So much of what Harry’s brought to Havas is a commitment to work-life integration. By breaking traditional Mad Men era behaviors, we’re thoughtfully creating new rituals. And breaking traditions in our own category has had a ripple effect – ultimately helping us break client conventions both on a business and personal level. The agency is growing as a byproduct of people growing, as opposed to chasing growth.

Harry: It’s also about finding that space to be creative while inspiring people to be 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 startup culture, and then the startup culture trumped us. Advertising became sweat shoppy, full of pressure and no evolution. With the support of Havas, we were able to take a step back. 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 programs that grow and empower people and ultimately it will feed 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 our meditation program. Every week on Monday afternoon, we host a different style of meditation for 45 minutes from singing to laughing meditation. Our other approach is food. Diet affects so much and your gut controls your whole body. 


Every Tuesday, we have an organic farmers market in the lobby, with the help of our CFO (Chief Farming Officer) Frank, who brings produce from his organic farm, Bhumi Farms, in East Hampton. He talks to everyone about food, the importance of enriching the soil, and we see these exchanges as the start of planting our own seeds and educating our employees. These are the conversations going on in the world. That’s the integration. 

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: We take internships very seriously and we vigorously structure them so that it’s not about making coffee or taking notes. The immersion is super important because it’s a very big agency. The first week is like school where we go through what everyone does. The entry week is so intensive that I feel like some of our veteran employees 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. We’re 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: As a global ad network made up of over 60% women, gender equality has always been extremely high on our agenda, and equally so for me personally. As the first female CEO of our flagship and a founding steering committee member for Time’s Up/Advertising, it’s my goal and shared mission to not only create an environment that is safe, fair and dignified for all, but to also provide the tools and create opportunities that enable our people to create the most meaningful work in their careers. With that in mind, we’ve started impactful programming, like being the first office to pilot a talent accelerator program called Havas Femmes Forward that helps our female employees accelerate their careers at a faster pace—something we were finding was lacking once they got to a certain level when compared to their male counterparts. The program, which was created by our Global Chief Talent Officer, Patti Clarke, has now been scaled to over 5 countries within our global network and has been a huge success. We’re also incredibly proud of our partnership with Lisa McCarthy, founder of The Fast Forward Group (FFG), and Facebook, to help our female employees create a playbook for high performance living – both at work and at home – giving  them the tools and confidence to outperform the competition. Accountability is also factored in to make sure our participants stick to their vision through a buddy system, with ongoing bespoke programming and workshops via partnerships with She Runs It, 3% Conference, SeeHer and more – all of which are designed to create a deeper sense of community and belonging—while keeping everyone on track, inspired and hungry.



AdForum: In the past year, Havas NYC won 9 accounts. How has your holistic approach to work-life culture positively affected new business performance? Have you also seen a shift in existing clients?  

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

Laura: Our clients have cultures that are shifting, too. We’ve seen this through our transformation of legacy clients like ADP and K-Y, an RB brand that is actually 100 years old. They lean on us not only as partners for holistic creative platforms, but also for guidance on purpose and culture.

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

Laura: We are not a traditional holding company; we’re not working from the top-down; we have this family-owned DNA, and we genuinely care about making a meaningful difference in people’s lives. Our network is organized into Villages and there is a natural and inherent generosity amongst best-in-class specialists, that agility 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 of Havas about two years ago, we now thrive within the world’s largest entertainment company—alongside film, video, music, publishing, television and communications companies. Havas represents the advertising arm…Universal Music represents music…Canal+ represents pay-TV and film…Gameloft represents gaming…and all of us represent culture. 

When we are creating connections with consumers, we feel like we have a distinct advantage from that view point versus a more conventional ad campaign response to a brief. We start with: “How are we going to create meaning and relevance?” It might be through a functional utility, it might be through personal passions, or a collective benefit that delivers on the brand’s promise. We ask ourselves, “What are all the stories we can tell, and how can we use modern platforms and storytelling in all forms to deliver meaningful experiences that break through? That’s the freedom, breadth and depth of capabilities our collaborative network provides. We care about people first and foremost, and we take responsibility for the whole story. That’s the real value Havas brings.

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