Claire Telling
Chief People Officer, NA at Havas
New York, United States

Do More and Do Better: Claire Telling, Chief People Officer, Havas NA

DE&I can’t be the responsibility of one leader with those letters in their title. The most effective approach is when DE&I is deeply integrated into your culture and how you run your business.

Havas New York
Full Service
New York, United States
See Profile

Tell us about yourself. Who or what inspired you to get into advertising and marketing communications?

My love of advertising started when I was eight years old. I would spend hours writing commercials for every product I saw on TV; and after much begging, my mom would actually mail my storyboarded “ads” to the brands’ marketing departments. (You’re welcome for the great ideas, CMO of Meow Mix.) Many years later, I landed an internship at Grey in Tokyo and realized I was still just as excited about advertising. Nowhere else do you find such a complicated ecosystem of highly creative people who also know how to build successful companies. I have always adored the humans in our industry and am proud to be a small part of their creative process.  In advertising, you constantly have to push yourself to think differently and solve business problems in ways that have never been done before.  I thrive on that kind of innovation, and it’s what drives me forward every day.


What is your opinion on the current state of diversity in the industry? Have you seen a significant change since the start of your career?

At Havas, we say that we need to “do more and do better.” We’ve had a thoughtful focus on DE&I for several years through our global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) program, All In, which focuses on a wide range of DE&I initiatives including ethnic and cultural representation, gender equality, LGBTQ+ inclusion, disability, wellness, age and more. It was a great start, but with the raised consciousness around systemic racism in the U.S. and low representation of diverse talent in the industry, we knew we needed to put a specific focus on our North America business across all our networks. Championed by our global chief talent officer, Patti Clarke, and backed by our NA leadership, we initiated our Commit to Change plan in 2020. This has seven initiatives specific to our BIPOC employees and how our business operates, as well as both long-term and short-term plans aimed at improving our representation. We were the first network to share such a comprehensive plan publicly; and we did that because in the DE&I space, we need not be competitive, but rather collaborative in how we collectively move the industry forward. 


Over the years, there’s been a rise of roles focused on Diversity & Inclusion, the introduction of quotas, and other possible solutions. What have you seen to be the most effective, and where have you seen these initiatives fall short?

DE&I can’t be the responsibility of one leader with those letters in their title. The most effective approach is when DE&I is deeply integrated into your culture and how you run your business. That starts with agency leadership making it a strategic priority and ensuring that everyone is an owner and understands its importance. To address this at Havas, one of the areas of focus in our Commit to Change Plan is Education & Ownership—the more senior you are, the more education you’ll participate in. We’ve already had all employees in NA participate in diversity and bias education sessions, and we’re launching a two-part, live interactive training for people leaders in the near future. Our most senior leaders will go on to participate in even more education and ownership sessions this year. We’ve also rolled out a process led by Julianna Akuamoah, CTO of Arnold & Havas Boston, in which agencies must audit every department and determine what they can be doing to improve DE&I in their own work. It’s a great way of getting the many North American Havas agencies engaged and owning the subsequent action plans.


Within your agency, what’s being done to increase/maintain the diversity of talent?

There are two areas I’d say are most critical: recruitment and retention & development. As part of Commit to Change, there is an area of focus on “breaking systems”—and recruitment is a system that Havas is committed to rethinking and redesigning. I joined as chief people officer for North America to lead this new approach and its complementary processes, such as onboarding. 

To date, we’ve centralized all our recruiting and are implementing specific processes to ensure that our leaders are focused on diversity recruitment.  We’re also focused on providing industry access to people in career transition or who have less traditional backgrounds. I’m particularly excited about a program we’re designing that is specifically focused on bringing in first generation college graduates. First gen college students offer invaluable talent but are often subject to financial, social and cultural barriers when job searching.  

In addition, we have regular sessions with our CEOs to check in on the progress they’re making with the hiring of BIPOC in their agencies and work together to set goals for improvement. I’m proud to say that three of our four most recent C-suite level hires have been women of color. We are also developing innovative approaches for onboarding new diverse employees—specifically those who come from other industries.  We’re spending a lot more time understanding why a diverse employee leaves the organization so that we can learn from it and improve.

As part of Commit to Change, we have also launched a specialized talent assessment process that is specifically focused on our BIPOC employees. These individual conversations are targeted at what the next role is for the employee and what we need to do to help them grow into that role.  It’s already yielding impactful results, with diverse employees being promoted and others on a path to their next role.

Finally, with a focus on development, we designed and rolled out our Emerge Management Development program, which helps accelerate the careers of diverse talent and ultimately increases representation in management roles across Havas’ North American agencies. The inaugural class is comprised of 27 leaders from 21 agencies in eight cities across 14 departments within the Havas networks.


Looking to the client-side, are there any brands you think should be commended for their efforts? 

There are a few companies out there who are leading the pack when it comes to DE&I: Wells Fargo, Lowes, Coke and Land O’Lakes, to name a few.  But it’s no coincidence that the companies with the best diversity practices and inclusive environments have the most diverse leadership at the top and mid-levels of the organization. People want to be where they see others like them succeed. And when you make a concerted effort to have a more well-represented leadership team, then more diverse talent will follow.


What do you think can be done at a grassroots level to open opportunities to create a more inclusive future in the advertising world?

There is so much potential with what start as grassroots initiatives. For example, Nick Elliot in our Havas New York office started Link it Black, an independent DE&I initiative he launched with three friends who also work in the ad industry. They’ve used their LinkedIn profiles and IG handles to invite everyone who works in advertising (or any industry lacking diversity) to start using their digital platforms to help draw attention to Black talent so that they are not overlooked and get more exposure to recruiters and industry decision makers.  We are also seeing some great initiatives come out of our ERGs. From our  #BLACKATWORK experiences to the Read the Room panel, and the many great educational initiatives around Pride month, we are counting on them to bring new approaches to DE&I into our agencies. 


Following one of the largest movements in history for racial justice, what was your agency's response? Have you launched or participated in any initiatives?    

As mentioned, our Commit to Change plan was developed through a 360-degree assessment of our U.S. business, best practices from category leaders, feedback from our employees and guidance from advocacy groups, such as 600 & Rising, Allyship & Action and Curiosity Lab, as well as leading DEI leaders and consultants. Our goal is to drive impact and change in a cohesive approach across our U.S. agencies, while also supporting the activism that has taken place locally.

Share on Linkedin

Create a free Talent profile and become a member of AdForum

Get Started