Behind the village spirit

Despite a global headcount of over 20,000 employees, communication group Havas espouses the ideals of community and kinship within its ranks. HRM Asia finds out how these principles shape its HR strategies

At a glance

Number of employees:

- 250 in Singapore

- 2,500 in Asia Pacific

- 20,000 in globally

Size of the HR Team:

- 4 in Singapore

- 27 in Asia Pacific

Key HR Focus Area:

- HR as a business partner

- Attracting, retaining and developing talent

- Learning and development

- Career Development

- Performance Review

- Embracing company culture

When you’re heading the HR function for one of the largest global communications groups – with employees dabbling across a wide spectrum of roles – streamlining people practices can be an arduous, and even intimidating prospect.

For Kevin Zhang, Director of HR, Asia-Pacific, Havas, it is a throwback to the past that helps he and his team maintain focus on the big picture.

With Havas comprising chiefly of creative and media work, the organisation has steadfastly refused to view these different arms as two separate units.

Reminiscent of a village-like culture, where residents tapped onto the collective wisdom of their peers and relied on unity to overcome trials and tribulations, Havas aims to be a single community.

This “Village”, as it is known within Havas, entails the creative and media departments coming together to foster a communal atmosphere.

The mentality cascades down to manpower needs and even forms the basis of the organisation’s HR policies and practices.

“As a business, we’re integrating a lot more between our media and creative businesses,” says Zhang.

“This is why we’re breaking down the walls in between our two departments and many offices are partnering together. Our offices are coming together as one unit.”

Open and fun culture

Cultivating a village-like atmosphere doesn’t impede what Zhang describes as the “very fun culture” at Havas, especially due to the nature of its work.

For example, floor spaces in its Singapore office have been deliberately designed in an open manner to allow employees to easily connect and collaborate with each other on projects.

Many senior leaders also sit in open cubicles, reflecting the company’s open-door policy.

“Because of the culture we have built, there is also a lot of fun with the clients that we work with, and with the products that we work on. A lot of our creative people get their best ideas when they’re at the office due to the open concept and collaboration opportunities,” says Zhang.

Building relationships to find talent

With technology and digitisation permeating the media sector and disrupting the way employees in the creative industry work, Zhang admits the industry is presently undergoing “a dramatic shift”.

“Things move incredibly quickly. Hence, we really need our employees to understand the different platforms and at the same time, react quickly to the market conditions,” he says.

One pressing recruitment bugbear for Havas in Asia-Pacific is finding talents who possess creative skill sets in digital media.

For instance, the organisation has found it difficult to hire candidates for user-experience design positions in the last few years.

“Even though we have all these open positions, we just cannot find the right talent fast enough and at the same time, our competitors are also going after all these talents,” says Zhang.

The organisation banks on the relationships its employees have cultivated with educational institutions and external markets to alleviate its talent crunch.

For example, several Havas employees double up as adjunct professors in universities across Asia-Pacific, and tap on these networks to source potential employees.

“Our CEO in the Philippines has huge connections with the universities over there so they actually adopt those programmes and act as partners with the organisation,” says Zhang.

Managers in Havas are also empowered to recruit as and when they deem fit.

These managers are not from HR departments. Rather, they hail from the accounts, creative, and media teams.

“The hiring managers are connected in the market, so they really are the right people to go out and hire the best talent,” says Zhang.

Besides tapping onto open platforms such as LinkedIn and online job postings, Havas also has a referral programme in place that tries to incentivise its employees to share contacts who could be good additions to the team.

Employees who successfully refer a candidate will get a monetary reward.

In addition, the company is creating its own database where swathes of résumés from candidates will be stored and then scrutinised when roles become open.

“We’re increasingly participating in events where we are amassing contacts for potential roles,” says Zhang.

“We have also made a number of acquisitions in Asia and that’s given us a good story to tell in that we’re really serious about our expansion.”

Fluid career paths

The loose and open structure crafted in Havas is also translated onto the employee development front.

There are no fixed or defined career pathways for employees, and flexibility in manpower and operational needs allow staff to dovetail freely between creative and media functions.

“What that means is that if you have a very strong talent coming up and if they are rising more quickly in the process, or if they’re doing amazing creative or account-servicing work, we have a fluid career map for them,” shares Zhang.

“It’s really based on their performances for these individuals who want to move up the career ladder.”

This framework is all the more pertinent considering that many millennials who join the business don’t necessarily know where they want to be in the long-term, says Sheryn Small, HR and Talent Director – Australia.

For example, in Havas’ Sydney office, there have been many instances where the organisation has facilitated opportunities for employees to move within the agency from different departments.

“We’ve had an account executive moving to the planning department, and had an account manager becoming a copywriter. We’ve also had one of our top designers moving to a user -experience role. So, it’s good to create opportunities for people to move around the business,” says Small.

“Lofty” ambitions

Havas has crafted fixed training programmes for its more than 20,000 employees globally, and there is a strong culture of follow-up for each event. Employees who have attended these programmes engage in sharing sessions with colleagues, and try to apply the lessons learned into their projects as early as possible

One key training programme is a four-week global exchange programme, called Loft.

Employees participating in the programme, known as “the lofters”, travel to another agency in a different country and gets mentored by a more senior colleague. They earn the opportunity to sample a different culture and witness the different ways that the agency can operate within the same brand organisation.

These employees then share the lessons learned with their home agency upon return.

“When you talk about the US and Europe, these places are rich in creative content and when employees come back, they share their learning experiences with their colleagues and try to apply it within their own operations,” says Zhang.

Employees undertaking the Loft programme also blog and share their experiences in the hope that other employees will follow suit.

“It gets everyone excited, and everyone wants to become the next ‘lofter’,” shares Zhang.

Small has witnessed first-hand the benefits of this programme.

One of her colleagues in Sydney participated and still keeps in touch with several colleagues he met while overseas.

“He deals with them on an almost-weekly or fortnightly basis through the sharing of ideas. It brings all the offices a lot closer together as well,” she says.

This essence of constant dialogue and sharing personifies the village culture painstakingly crafted by Havas.

Many creative and media groups also engage in informal sessions where they share with each other about the work they have undertaken, when pitching ideas or proposals to clients.

Employees simply sit on the many beanbags strewn around the office and bounce new ideas off each other.

“They bring those examples back and share with the rest of the team, explaining how they came up with such concepts and why did they pitch it in this particular way,” says Zhang.

“This is a key strategy for us to engage with millennial employees, because they really want to learn from others.”

My Favourite Friday

Employees from the creative department of Havas’ Singapore office convene from 1:30pm onwards on the second Friday of the month for the company’s “My Favourite Friday” programme.

Kevin Zhang, Director of HR, Asia-Pacific, Havas, says the Managing Director will address employees on the month’s happenings, including client pitches won by the company as well as the pitches they are targeting.

What follows next are a series of sharing sessions by employees.

Zhang says, for the past few months, one of the creative department’s employee who is digitally-savvy has been sharing with colleagues about user experience functions within virtual reality.

“He has allowed employees to wear the device on their heads to experience this type of augmented reality,” he says.

Engaging Matilda

With Havas employees relying on their creative juices to come up with creative and compelling media products for clients, it’s no surprise that the organisation’s engagement efforts stretch beyond the norms of any company.

One example is a programme called Matilda taking place in the Philippines.

An employee from its office was so passionate about books that she created a library for a school for disadvantaged children in Manila.

“The school didn’t have a library so they went in and cleaned the place, painted it and filled the whole place up with books. This was one of the projects done for the Philippines and we endorsed it,” says Zhang.

Rewarding contributions

Havas makes rewarding talents for their contributions a key plank of its reward and recognition strategy.

One of the most prominent annual rewards and recognition programme for Asia-Pacific is the organisation’s global leadership meeting.

While the leadership team convenes to discuss strategies to move the business forward, it also consists of a rewards and recognition awards night.

The top two performers from each market are invited for this global leadership meeting, and Zhang says it’s a “huge privilege” to be attending.

“We will recognise employees for the contributions they have made to the organisation and they get an award for their performances,” he shares.

In 2015, the organisation also kicked off a programme called the Red Collective, where employees who continue to perform and deliver are provided with a small stipend on top of their regular salary.

“We’re in an extremely competitive market and employees do leave because they get better opportunities and better offers in other markets,” Zhang says candidly.

“But the reason why a lot of them also stay is because we are investing in their careers and we are offering them career pathway and mobility platforms.”

Analysing the Workday advantage

Sandeep Aggarwal, Chief Financial Officer of Aon-Hewitt Asia-Pacific, shares his thoughts on the Workday finance and HR analytics platform. He says the cloud-based system is intuitive and easy-to-use, but still provides powerful insights across the functions.

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