As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Hirst, Global CEO, Havas Creative global network. Chris has been widely recognized as a change agent in the UK. Having been appointed to Global CEO of Havas Creative in January 2019, he is now poised to bring his unique approach of leadership to the marketing services group and make waves in the U.S. and beyond. In this role, Chris’ goal is to heighten Havas’ creative reputation and operations, as well as strengthen the group’s “global village model” and forge more integration with parent company Vivendi and its entities like Universal Music, Gameloft, and more (Chris is a board member of Vivendi).
Thank you for joining us Chris! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I studied Engineering at Oxford and my first job (before university) was working as an apprentice in a glass factory in St Helens, an industrial town in the North West of England. I learned how to weld (acetylene; Mig; Tig — those who know, know); heavy current electrical engineering; managing warehouses; that the answer to a surprising amount of mechanical problems was to hit it with a very large hammer and how to drink unfeasible large amounts when the shift ended often at 2pm. The factory was basically a huge furnace at one end and then a long-complicated process of shaping, cooling and cutting the glass. We’d wear clogs as the heat would melt rubber soles and broken glass cullet would cut through them. In truth I loved it — for a year. But after a year in a factory and a four-year degree, the one thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to be an engineer.
Somehow or other, I ended up with a job as a trainee Account Planner at an advertising agency.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The funniest ones are definitely not fit for publication.
However, I do remember one occasion when I was with my super organized and subsequently super successful Account Director. In those days all presentations were done on overhead projectors anybody under 35 — look them up. It was a pitch, and because he was so sorted, he made a big deal of the fact that on top of everything else — he had even remembered to bring a spare bulb. The bulb going mid-pitch was the 90s equivalent of the laptop not syncing with the screen. Anyway, lo and behold — the bulb went! With a flourish he whipped out the replacement. On fitting it, and just before re-commencing the pitch he noticed that the surface of the projector was a little dirty and in order to give it a clean, spat on the top prior to giving it a wipe with a cloth. Forgetting that the whole room could now see his spit projected 8’x8’ on the screen.
Not sure what the lesson is? Don’t spit in pitches?
Is there a book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I can’t think of any book, but I was lucky enough to spend 8 weeks on the AMP program at Harvard Business School in 2008. It is no exaggeration to say that it changed my life. But perhaps not in the way, and for the reasons, you might expect. Yes, I learnt a lot. But what I really got was a sense of possibility and an experience of release. I realized that as I walked into their classrooms each morning nobody had any idea who I was, what I had done (or what I hadn’t); of my successes, failures, anxieties and background. I realized I could be whoever I wanted to be and that in reality so much of what holds us back, so many of the barriers we feel we must overcome, are self-imposed. They are simply stories in our heads. The secret of true release is to unshackle ourselves from ourselves.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I have two — which are in some ways complimentary, although also respectively probably kind of reflect both who I am, and who I wish I was.
1. Keep buggering on (a favorite of Churchill)
2. The thing that most holds us back is ourselves
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I don’t think I have faced any challenges that wouldn’t be familiar to many millions of people during these very difficult times. I also feel a lot of this territory has been thoroughly covered: the initial shock and adjustment; novelty giving way to deep anxiety; uncertainty; fear of first the unknown, followed by fear of what was coming.
I think we kind of all adjusted to a new normal, but now as the wave starts to recede, we face a whole load of new and potentially more difficult challenges around returning to work, to society, to school, to friends and family. I wonder — have we got to the most difficult bit yet? Variations of this we all have in common I believe.
On a personal level, there is no question that a once in a lifetime event like this create unprecedented challenges for leaders. But those can be both negative and positive. Discontinuous change such as this: a sudden universal shock that hits everybody makes us initially spend huge amounts of time trying to work out how we continue doing what we’ve always done. But the effective leader should already be asking themselves, how much of ‘what we’ve always done’ can now be cast aside? How much of this horrible time can be turned into opportunity; personal and professional?
Certainly, there has never been a better time to lead huge change. Of course, we initially focus on reactive change that circumstances force upon us. But the most effective and rewarding change will be proactive, creative destruction; change that we search out, discover, have the courage to embrace and turn into opportunity. We will look back in 5–10 years and there will be many people and companies (perhaps even countries) that have found and embraced this positive change (and of course had the courage to follow through on it). The question is, can we be one of them?
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge is managing the status quo while searching for and focusing on positive change. We will use this pandemic to fundamentally change how we work and to address the longstanding challenges that have always seemed a bit too large so get pushed to tomorrow all teams and organizations have plenty of these. Carpe diem!
We will permanently work more flexibly. We will still need offices, but their role will no longer be a repository for people but a place of inspiration; interaction and innovation. We will re-commit to creativity — it is the silver bullet of our industry and many others. Those who are truly creative will always out-perform and always find growth. We will continue to focus on our vitally important Diversity & Inclusion agenda and use this discontinuous change to find ways to accelerate our programs.
In London, we are already the first B-Corp certified creative agency — we will re-commit to the urgency of driving this program through all our businesses around the world.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
- The 5G revolution will massively accelerate the ability to work effectively remotely
- Tools and techniques that enable effective flexible working will expand with bewildering speed.e-commerce has accelerated and will continue to do so. The companies that embrace this, can innovate further in this space and provide tools to help, will thrive. This is a major focus for us.
- Distance learning and distance healthcare will expand rapidly. Smart societies will grab this chance for change. Companies and organizations that make this happen, will thrive.
- New forms of social media that erode the mega-monopolies will emerge as people search for post-Covid brands that they see as ‘new world’.
- Entertainment and social events will come back — but may come back in different forms. People are social animals so organizations that can find smart solutions will win big.
- People love purpose driven brands — but are also cynical as so much that is claimed as ‘purpose’ is simply stuck on or is marketing conceit. Brands that have authentic purpose have a bright post-Covid future.
- Our societies will change. I hope that we will see a re commitment to international institutions that help us understand and embrace how inter-connected we all are and that we are undoubtedly better together. That said — I’m not necessarily optimistic this will happen, and we may see the opposite — a rise of economic nationalism (and worse). It is incumbent upon our international institutions, from the EU and WHO to the UN, to embrace their own much needed opportunity for change.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
How we work has a symbiotic relationship with how we live. We can’t really consider them individually. If we commute less, we live differently for example. We will spend more time working from home, but counter-intuitively this may result in people working more hours as boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘life’ erode. I would expect the shared workspace revolution to continue, although the nature of this may also change. For example, now these locations often simply replicate existing office blocks: large, city-center locations with open-plan layouts. People may want smaller non-home-based work locations nearer them. Perhaps the village pub becomes a shared workspace during the day; perhaps libraries get a new lease of life?
A watch-out is however, that greater ‘work’ flexibility may lead to greater uncertainty and consequent mental health and societal issues for people. An increasing number of employers may seek to keep a higher percentage of their workforce as flexible / non-fixed contracts or as freelance. People may find flexible working to be a double-edged sword. This will work for some, but not all.
The pressures of environmental change, Covid and the recent social upheavals of Me Too and most recently the global Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd put more pressure than ever before on the values of employer brands. Purpose isn’t just a consumer brand issue, but an issue for every employer.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid economy?
First, there are the very real and present hurdles that we face in the logistical challenges of our phased return to the office environment. Different countries are moving at different speeds, on different timelines, and our priority is to keep our people safe. It could take many months before we can say that we have overcome that first hurdle all around the world. But of course, as effective leaders, it’s not just our job to look to the things we need to do today, but to keep asking the longer-term questions — how much of what we did before do we want to return to? What can be consigned to the history books as examples of the way we used to do things? That’s the process we’re going through right now as a business and the answers will mark a significant turning point for us and our industry.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
In my view, leadership is not the highfalutin, complex discipline that many a management consultant or business studies course would have you believe. It’s difficult, but not complicated. Leadership is the activity concerned with the navigation of a group of people from a defined start point in the present to a different and clearly defined state that exists in the future.
So, start by defining where you are now and then asking yourself as a business or organization, or even as an individual, where do you want to be when this is all over? Be ambitious about that destination. Leadership is the journey that you go on to get there. Define your start and end point, identify what you need to do to get there and then act. Change can only happen if we act so don’t be afraid of action — or of making mistakes. The enemy of good leadership is inaction.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible.”— T.E. Lawrence