5 questions with Patrick Affleck, Havas Media Group's new UK CEO
Affleck reflects on his experience moving agencies mid-pandemic and why he decided to make the jump, reveals his thoughts on ethical advertising, and considers whether the industry's predominant pitch process is still fit for purpose
Patrick - you've just moved from leading one agency (Dentsu X) to leading another mid-pandemic. What has that experience been like? How are you settling into the role, and how has it been affected by the crisis?
This question has been posed to me a number of times these past few months, often accompanied by a bewildered expression as people try to understand what possessed me to pursue such major upheaval during a pandemic.
In all honesty, day one was very surreal. My wife Lucy chuckled and wished me good luck as I closed the door of our front room with the soothing, reassuring hum of a pneumatic drill breaking concrete in the background. Not a typical start to my new gig as CEO of an agency I only had a superficial grasp of.
On day two, I got on a train to London. Luckily, I was able to go into the office for the first two months, albeit it two or three days a week, with only a handful of staff vs the pre-Covid norm. If I had been obliged to work entirely remotely, I think I would have found those first few weeks pretty challenging.
I also benefitted from having a few friendly faces from my old Vizeum days within our leadership team. The team has been tremendously supportive and helped me to quickly get a solid grasp of the agency and wider group.
The first few months have, for the most part, been highly enjoyable and rewarding. The people are brilliant, the culture has remained positively buoyant despite the pandemic, and the work is strong.
Like most agencies and other businesses right now, we’ve had to fundamentally adjust the way we work, interact and play, and we’ve started to trial new and more interactive ways to build chemistry with prospective clients, whilst creating stronger and more meaningful connections with our existing clients and own people.
Retaining Telefonica and the BBC, along with winning JDE Peet’s recently, have helped to reignite the momentum the agency had heading into 2020 following a sterling 2019. We’ve also got some exciting plans and developments set for 2021, which I’ll share in due course… but not today.
In all honesty, my biggest personal struggle has been my inability to address the entire agency in person - something which I’m genuinely missing. It is what it is. For now, at least.
Why did you decide to make the jump from Dentsu to Havas? What about Havas Media Group appealed to you?
If we put the pandemic aside for one moment, I’ve joined a business which has achieved some phenomenal success over the last couple of years. Reputationally it is strong, and its recent new business performance speaks volumes.
Genuinely, I never imagined leaving Dentsu for another group. The 12 years I spent at Dentsu were extremely rewarding and enabled me to work across a whole host of agencies, and indeed continents.
But on meeting Havas Media Group's global CEO, Peter Mears, and learning more about the group's mission and strategy, I was inspired by their entrepreneurial approach. Particularly in their pursuit of making a meaningful difference to brands, businesses and people they work with, which acts as the connecting tissue across the wider Village of agencies within Havas Kings X.
The village model was also a major draw. Having such a diverse portfolio of businesses in a single building does truly enable greater thought leadership, collaboration and action.
A number of clients within Havas Media Group are also shared with Havas London and Havas helia, which enable us to design and deliver more meaningful ideas and experiences that make a real difference to their businesses.
Take “Long Live the Local” as an example, which was an award-winning campaign that Havas Media developed in conjunction with Havas London for Britain’s Beer Alliance in response to the Government’s plan to raise beer tax. The campaign highlighted the important role local pubs play in our community, our culture and our national identity, demonstrating that they are a force for good. It was such a success that the Chancellor froze beer tax. That is making a meaningful difference.
Havas isn’t afraid of taking risks and behaves quite differently to other agency groups, in my opinion, which perhaps comes from being owned by the entertainment group Vivendi (which was another major appeal, incidentally).
What has quickly become apparent is that Havas empowers its leaders to lead, providing suitable levels of autonomy to make choices in the pursuit of something better and more differentiating.
Havas made quite a lot of noise a couple of years ago about moving all 24 of its UK agencies into one building – the Havas Village. Now, the entire workforce is working remotely. How has the business had to adapt and how do you think remote working compares to being in an office?
The business and our people adapted pretty well during the first lockdown and we found ways to remain connected. We also took a temperature gauge every couple of weeks with a representative sample of people to understand how they were feeling and what more we could be doing as an employer to support them.
Alongside that, we introduced a number of initiatives that kept people inspired and informed, from our Covid-19 Media Behaviours and Consumption reports (we’re now on Wave 13), to Beyond the Hype sessions that offered deep dives into a particular area of emerging technology, and showcased presentations from the various businesses across the Village.
In all honesty, my biggest concern has been and remains around the mental and physical wellbeing of our staff, as people struggle to deal with inevitable bouts of loneliness or in striking the right balance between work and home life as lines become blurred.
To help combat this, we have introduced a number of wellness initiatives through our Havas Equalise programme. For example, during International Stress Awareness Week at the beginning of November, we held a number of sessions, from Stress Less webinars and guided meditations through to an interactive seminar that explored imposter syndrome.
My other concern is that our younger employees in particular are in danger of missing out on development opportunities. Working from home means their regular sphere of people and contacts shrink as they spend the majority of their time working with their immediate teams and clients.
Meeting and working with new people and teams is a genuine challenge, particularly for those new to the industry and in their first jobs. Creating that community is a critical part of their learning and development, which is simply harder to replicate in the virtual world.
To combat this, a number of our client leaders have created a community to enable our junior execs to come together, a forum in which to meet and share experiences, work on new ideas and to receive mentoring support, help and guidance on all things related to media, the Village and getting the most from their career.
As an industry we thrive on being physically together. We feed off each other’s energy and we adapt ourselves and our narratives through our innate ability to read the reactions of our audience. Video calls are frankly crap for that, not to mention the fact that they are physically and mentally exhausting at times.
But what it has shown is that productivity for the most part can be maintained and that we should be open to more flexible ways of working and partial remote working arrangements in the future.
Havas Media Group recently joined the Conscious Advertising Network, which is a voluntary coalition set up to ensure that industry ethics catch up with the technology of modern advertising. What does ethical advertising mean to you and why is it important?
There is no denying that we’ve witnessed some new lows this year in terms of misinformation, prejudice and manipulation. Facts portrayed as fiction, fiction portrayed as facts.
Championing ethical advertising has never been more important in my opinion and it is our collective duty to ensure that ad spend is not inadvertently funding such damaging practices.
We are the first agency group to join the Conscious Advertising Network. The vision of CAN very much mirrors our own: to make a meaningful difference to brands, businesses and people, and as a group, we need to ensure that we continuously pursue and maintain the highest standards of ethics, diversity, equality and inclusion in everything that we do.
Joining CAN is just one of the steps we are taking to become more accountable as a business.
We have pledged our commitment to CAN’s six key manifestos, from eradicating ad fraud through to the development and deployment of new advertising safeguards to protect the wellbeing of children. Alongside this, we have also introduced a number of our own internal initiatives that are designed to promote tangible change across our own network.
In September, we also launched our own Social Equity Marketplace, following the success of a similar initiative in the US, as a way of offering advertisers an easier route to support underrepresented groups with their digital media investments.
I’m proud to have joined a group which is embracing such high ethical standards for communications. In doing so, it is my belief that we will create better media experiences that are more meaningful and trusted by consumers, and as a result more effective for the clients and brands we work with.
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be and why?
What has become increasingly obvious during these spates of lockdown (and something that I have suspected for a while) is that the predominant pitch process is no longer fit for purpose, and needs to change, irrespective of Covid-19.
We all talk about the need for pace and agility and how businesses and marketing need to evolve to meet the growing needs and expectations of the consumer …and yet we still seem to get entangled in these long, protracted pitch processes with multiple stages that often fail to emulate real-life exchanges and relationships and which risk the danger of becoming over choreographed and, at worst, artificial.
Don’t get me wrong, I love pitching, but I’d like to see more pitches that allow the agency and the client to truly collaborate in a way that gives the client a better and more authentic insight into what it would actually be like to work with the agency.
I mean, who is actually reading those dense RFIs. For the most part all agencies possess similar tools and systems, but why are they uniquely placed to help brand x solve problem y?
If I was in the client’s shoes, I’d be wanting to get a proper sense of how an agency might mobilise the right talent and people to partner with my team to devise more creative solutions to the challenge(s) posed, not a solution that they’ve waited many weeks to receive, which they’ve had no real input on and which they’ll never implement.
To quote one client, “in all honesty, we don’t have the time to go through all of these stages either”.
Oh, and please can everyone keep their cameras on, and let’s agree to “a pitching over Xmas” amnesty.