A look inside Havas' transformative 'Chicago Village'

by Sam Dewey
September 6, 2016

For the past couple of years, the mere concept of Millennials in the workplace has triggered a maelstrom of coverage by media organizations across the country. It’s a theme often met with amusement, endorsement and fierce debate — especially for writers and readers interested in business and workplace trends.

The truth is, work as it once was is changing. But labor itself has never exactly been static — it’s morphed right alongside new standards spurred by innovation, regulation and the breaking of barriers based on identity.

And some companies have done a better job than others of keeping up with a status quo whose whole tenor is to break the status quo.

Havas, a Paris-based marketing communications holding company, is one of the largest of its breed in the world. The company employs 20,000 people who sit in about 400 offices across the globe. Six hundred of those employees hail from Havas’ Chicago office, where a new model for work in the 21st century is brewing.

Belying the sluggishness often associated with organizations of its size and scale, Havas Chicago is challenging what going to a job and doing your work needs to look like. Dubbed the “Chicago Village,” Havas Chicago’s new approach has caught on with some 50 other Havas offices globally.

“When we took over three years ago, this office was kind of struggling,” said Havas Chicago CEO Paul Marobella. “But we’ve been on a journey to transform our culture and our business. We’ve been on a run with double digit growth year-over-year for the last three years. We’ve gotten to about 600 people here, but what makes us different from our competitive set is that our village model is an integrated model.”

An invitation inside the Village

Marobella said stepping into the Chicago Village is, in many ways, like stepping back into the 1960s. Instead of segregating media strategists and account managers from, say, the creative department, Havas has its teams sit together by account, built up as pods that take a holistic, data-driven approach to delivering on client needs. It’s a different mindset than some of their more traditional competitors, who often have disparate departments sitting on separate floors — and in some cases, different buildings entirely.

“It’s definitely a rational decision based on what’s best for our clients,” Marobella said. “Our clients and brands have all asked for consolidated, streamlined teams. There’s pain in the overall industry, where you have large agencies with the resources we have that get so big they just can’t get out of their way.”

Havas' answer is to flatten the traditional model, inviting media and creative to cohabitate the same playing field.

That mentality is made possible by structures rooted in the physical world. Havas Chicago was an early adopter of the open floor plan model, a now-popular approach that lends itself well to collaboration — as well as to a contagion of productivity, positivity and enthusiasm, Marobella said.

“Everything we do — including how we built the office — is built around transparency and radical collaboration,” he said.

But Marobella added that the floor plan isn’t only a perk for the gabby extrovert in us.

“One of the reasons why is that people love coming to work here because of the way we designed the office, but we also designed private spaces,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities for people to find nooks and crannies of the agency if they want to hide away for a couple of hours.”

Though the company has been in the same office space since the late 1990s, Marobella — who took over as CEO for the Chicago office about three years ago — said the space went through a down-to-the-studs remodel two years ago as part of the adoption of the Chicago Village model. In total, they occupy about 100,000 square feet, including a new, 25,000 square foot space on the fifth floor of their 36 E. Grand Avenue office, which they recently leased in order to build a data command center to help inform the type of content they create.

Working for the future of work

Havas’ goal is to upend marketing and advertising as we know it. As one of the newer trends on the block, artificial intelligence might actually hold some potential for real, smart business applications — and Marobella said Havas has a head start on the competition when it comes to cognitive integration data and marketing and advertising data — an advantage helped by a longstanding partnership with IBM.

“Cognitive will be used to understand and predict the behavior of a consumer so that we can create content in a more predictive, proactive way to understand what a consumer may do next in the purchase path process,” Marobella said. “For example, we may aggregate social data in new and interesting ways, and may be able to ask Watson questions in a verbal Q and A ... Today, we may do focus groups, but with this approach, we can be faster, more nimble, and go deeper than we have before.”

But that’s not the only experimental work being done in Chicago. A year ago, Havas Chicago launched what they call the Annex. Based in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, the Annex is an experiment in immersing a brand in the culture of its customers.

“The bumper sticker for the Annex is 'for Millennials, by Millennials,'” Marobella said. “It’s part cultural center, part agency. We believe you have to surround yourself in culture to truly understand culture. If you were to go over there at any given day, there might be an artist painting in the front lobby, or a band playing, or a DJ spinning. We have a working bodega there. It’s a really cool space.”

From a business perspective, Marobella said the Annex exists as a way for brands to understand the emerging, Millennial consumer (and younger) who are gaining in buying power.

“One of the things I’m allergic to is rhetoric. When you have a guy like me whose in my mid-forties talking about what Millennials want and what’s good for them — it’s bullshit. Of the 55 people at the Annex, 50 are under 50, 45 are under 30. Why not have the work being created for those consumers be done by those consumers? It’s more relevant, interesting and meaningful.”

Marobella projected that Chicago will become the global headquarters for the Annex model for Havas, with plans to introduce the model to other countries in the next year.

Images via Havas.

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