Havas’ Anthony Freedman: “It’s Never Been More Straightforward For Consumers To Avoid Advertising”

Havas’ Anthony Freedman: “It’s Never Been More Straightforward For Consumers To Avoid Advertising”
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B&T sat down with Havas’ ANZ Chairman Anthony Freedman from his London office to discuss remote leadership, the power of pop culture, and all things Havas.

In 2017, Havas was acquired by Vivendi, which also owns a range of other culture companies, including film and television production and distribution company StudioCanal.

This investment in culture, for Freedman, is the “most differentiating part” of Havas, being “within a global entertainment and media company, because it means that our sister businesses are in music and film and TV and publishing and gaming and live events.”

“As Vivendi, we are all immersed in popular culture. It’s what the company collectively creates. And so if you allow it to, it really can permeate the culture of the agency, the agencies within Havas, and the way that they think.”

“I think that can bring with it interesting benefits. I don’t just mean benefits in terms of preferential access to music artists, or film properties or things of that nature, but more a mindset that is enabled to understand popular culture and to think about ways that brands can be part of it.”

At the core of Havas’ ethos, Freedman believes, is an understanding of popular culture that has the capacity to build powerful relationships.

“[We are] in an era where it’s never been more straightforward for consumers to avoid advertising, whether they’re using ad blockers, or whether they’re using second screens, or subscribing to ad free environments,” he explained.

“Finding ways to connect people with people, through being part of popular culture and the things that they’re interested in, rather than just an interruption to them, seems to me really important.”

Also central to Havas is what Freedman describes as an “entrepreneurial spirit”, something he ascribes to the continued shareholding that Bollore has in both Havas and Vivendi.

That “permeates the culture of the organisation and the way that we work. I [also] think locally we kind of have an entrepreneurial spirit.”

Discussing the Australian business specifically, Freedman pointed to the shared background he has with Havas’ local leaders: Laura Aldington, CEO of Host/Havas, Virginia Hyland, CEO of Havas Media Group, and Simone Gupta, CEO of Havas PR.

“My background has been in the creation of companies, rather than always working for large corporate organizations and many of the senior people within our Australian business have a similar background in terms of having come from startups and independent businesses,” he said.

“Laura worked at Host for many years, Virginia obviously started her own business and ran that for two decades. Simone also has spent quite a lot of time in independent businesses.  I’d like to feel that we are in Australia, as a group, a business with independent spirit and network clout, bringing the best of both worlds together.”

Reflecting on how this sets Havas apart from its competitors, Freedman said: “if you look at some of our bigger competitors, they will have two or three or even four advertising agency groups. We have one – we have one media business and so on. So there are some practical things that probably make us a bit more fleet of foot as well.”

One of Havas’s biggest contributions to the industry is their research, with Freedman pointing specifically to the Meaningful Brands report, which has been running for 12 years.

The purpose of the report, he said, is establishing what makes brands matter to people. The most recent study was conducted in late 2020, and the results “illustrate the difference between expectation and experience.”

This year’s report is titled ‘The Age of Cynicism’.

According to Freedman, the headline reflects a strong theme from the research, that “consumers expect brands to play a more positive and collective role in society. But how much brands claim to play this role, but then leave promises unfulfilled, is creating high levels of cynicism.”

“When you look at the Australian market, for example, that cynicism is even greater than is the case when looking at the global averages. So for example, just 39 per cent of brands in Australia are seen as trustworthy compared to 47 per cent of brands globally.”

“We live in an era of cynicism as a result of broken promises broadly in society, but also within the context of brands,” he continued.

According to the report, 61 per cent of Australians believe it is people and consumers who are in the best position to save the world. This is higher the number of people who believe it is governments and scientists who are in the best position, and double the responsibility they assign to companies and brands.

Additionally, only 43 per cent of Australians were willing to make sacrifices to save the planet, and only 49 per cent were willing to pay more for brands willing to take a stand regarding the environment.

“Almost 80 per cent of Australians think that companies and brands should be transparent around their commitments and promises. But only 39 per cent of people think that they are being transparent,” said Freedman.

“There’s this broad cynicism that exists in the gap between what people expect – or what brands say that they will do – versus how they are perceived to actually be behaving.”

This cynicism could ultimately lead to the decline of brands as we know them.

“The headline stat from Meaningful Brands, he cited, “says that 75 per cent of brands could disappear tomorrow, and people wouldn’t notice.”

“So I think that the flip of that is to say that if brands, generally speaking, aren’t demonstrating value adequately, and why they should matter to people, it presents a phenomenal opportunity to better understand what it takes to become a brand that is considered meaningful, and that would matter, and to be one of the 25 per cent of brands that people find indispensable.”

One of the ways brands can demonstrate value is by authentically embedding themselves in pop culture.

“There is an opportunity for us to play a meaningful role within aspects of popular culture that our audience are engaged in as an alternative way to build relevance and connection. And I think in that respect, it certainly begins with understanding the audience and what aspects of popular culture matters most to them, what they’re passionate about.”

“I think there’s obviously an important element where consideration is given to where a brand can most naturally sit, where it might have license or relevance. And then beyond that, I think it is about having a real commitment to that aspect of popular culture, to really understand it, even potentially  to find a way to be part of it, whether that’s through sponsorships or funding or anything of that nature.”

Brands should be “adding something [to culture] rather than detracting”.

Over the last eighteen months, Freedman has been governing Havas Australia and New Zealand from, quite literally, half a world away. In his more than four years as chairman, he has grown accustomed to visiting the ANZ offices at least once a month. As a result, the shift to totally remote working during COVID-19 meant some significant learning experiences, particularly around the importance of prioritising mental health, and flexible working.

“I think we’ve also come to learn what we lose as creative businesses when we don’t spend time in an office environment together on a regular basis,” he reflected.

“Personally speaking, being based in London with responsibilities in both Australia, and in the UK, I think I found that initially, I was quite familiar with remote working because I was used to working with a team in Australia with whom I wasn’t always face to face. In that respect, I had a working dynamic [given the]  amount of experience that I had accumulated through working remotely part of the time on a regular basis under normal circumstances.”

“But over time, I also began to recognize that my Australian working rhythm meant that I was rarely if ever, not in the office with everyone for a period of more than three weeks… when that didn’t happen, I started to recognize that the importance of me being able to feel what was going on, rather than just being told what was going on and to be immersed in a market, and absorbing that context, rather than reading about it, almost researching it remotely.”

That connection and immersion is enhanced by Havas’ ‘village’ model.

For Freedman, “the notion of the village is, is that it is about assembling a group of best in class agencies that represent all of the marketing communications skill sets that a brand might conceivably have need off.”

The foundation of the village, ultimately, is the “power and importance of the individual brands”.

How Havas, and its leadership, will continue to adapt to our new world remains to be seen. But at its core will be uplifting its brands to create culturally relevant, impactful work.

As put by Freedman, “the power of the village isn’t the village, it’s the strength of the individual businesses that sits within it.”

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