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John Davenport of Havas: “An unhappy workforce is, I think, by definition an unproductive workforce. It’s bad business to not be getting the most out of them.”

An unhappy workforce is, I think, by definition an unproductive workforce. Your people are your most valuable asset. It’s bad business to not be getting the most out of them. And you only get the most out of them when they’re happy. More and more businesses are finding out that their major, and sometimes only, […]


An unhappy workforce is, I think, by definition an unproductive workforce. Your people are your most valuable asset. It’s bad business to not be getting the most out of them. And you only get the most out of them when they’re happy. More and more businesses are finding out that their major, and sometimes only, asset is their people. As the service sector and creative industries expand and older ones decline, a company’s people and how they behave are more and more important. You can call it “human capital” or whatever, but for me as someone who has started and run advertising and communications agencies, having people who are having a fun time at work at least SOME of the time, is vital. When people get along with their co-workers they are MUCH less likely to leave, they are MUCH more creative and MUCH more likely to recommend you to their friends as an employer. And you (as their boss) are much more likely to feel okay about yourself as a human.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Davenport, the Chief Creative Officer at Havas.


Thank you so much for doing this with us John! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Advertising is a funny business. NOBODY, okay, very few people (and they’re probably quite odd) grows up wanting to be in advertising. You just kind of end up in it, because you don’t fit anywhere else. I was going to be an economist until it turned out I couldn’t do maths, and then was going to be a historian until the ADHD showed that wasn’t going to happen…

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Hmmm. There was the time I had to bribe my way onto a plane in Nigeria because I’d lost my passport..the time I had to smuggle sausages through customs for client who needed them for a shoot…the time our business went from 250 people down to 6 people and then back up to 200 people in about six months…there are a lot of stories!!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’ve just joined Havas after having a agency I helped start 14 years ago. So this is an exciting and new challenge. They are a really interesting company because they are part of the Vivendi Group which owns Universal Music, TV channels and Game Loft which develops gaming products. So we can draw on all those different skills, rather than just advertising skills. This can make communications more interesting and make a meaningful difference in the world.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Because working can be quite crap.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

An unhappy workforce is, I think, by definition an unproductive workforce. Your people are your most valuable asset. It’s bad business to not be getting the most out of them. And you only get the most out of them when they’re happy

More and more businesses are finding out that their major, and sometimes only, asset is their people. As the service sector and creative industries expand and older ones decline, a company’s people and how they behave are more and more important. You can call it “human capital” or whatever, but for me as someone who has started and run advertising and communications agencies, having people who are having a fun time at work at least SOME of the time, is vital. When people get along with their co-workers they are MUCH less likely to leave, they are MUCH more creative and MUCH more likely to recommend you to their friends as an employer. And you (as their boss) are much more likely to feel okay about yourself as a human.

Just the savings in recruitment costs more than pays for the small investment in staff experience.

But the huge bonus is the increase in customer satisfaction when they deal with staff who are happy to be working where they are working, and aren’t disinterested and looking for another job.

It is this output that makes it easy to justify spend on staff communication and activities to executives. If they see it as an INVESTMENT rather than a frivolous and wasteful component of spend, they will be far less likely to make it the first item that gets cut when costs need to be trimmed.

Seeing it as an investment rather than an expense is the key here. Expenses are the first things to get cut. Investments aren’t.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

In advertising agencies, I’ve been at, I’ve always tried to have a sort of “Chief Fun-ness Officer” who (in addition to their actual job) finds out what staff need, want and joke about.

It could be anything from group figure skating lessons (we really did this) to a hotdog eating contest (for health reasons we didn’t do this) to seeing if we could get a hypnotist to hypnotise the CFO into giving everyone a pay increase (we did this but it didn’t work) — all these things are key in making a workplace feel a bit less like a workplace and a bit more like a place where you do stuff with people who you like.

Also work environment is key. The way it looks and feels isn’t a small thing. And it’s not a silly “expense” it’s also an investment. We have recently re-done the offices I work in. And it’s made a HUGE bloody difference. I recently mailed our CEO when I was at the office on a Saturday to say “Working on a Saturday feels okay when the offices are this nice” and it’s true. When people LIKE the space, they enjoy being there and are more productive.

Remember that people like being around other people. They have fun when they aren’t geographically split up according to their discipline. We once had an over-crowding situation at the agency when we had hired a bunch of people at short notice after winning a piece of business. We were forced to sort of crowd them into a space that was a bit small. We found some extra space ASAP and then proudly went to the staff to tell them we had solved the problem…at which point they said that they didn’t want the extra office space — they loved the vibe of all being nearby each other…

The great thing is that once you get a culture like this going, you don’t have to do anything to keep it going. People fuel the atmosphere and activities themselves. It becomes a machine that powers itself, and costs very little.

We once had a finance person question how much we spent on staff activities etc. So we measured our recruitment costs, and found that we spent virtually nothing on recruitment compared to other companies in the group. Because people were having fun at work, they told their friends, and were doing our recruitment FOR US basically. By SPENDING on company culture, we were SAVING the group big money.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Listen to what your employees are saying and also what they’re not saying. If you take time to listen, they’ll tell you what is working and what isn’t. The era of people working till midnight at jobs they hate, in offices they hate, with people they hate are over. Companies need to recognize this, and see that to attract the best talent salary isn’t enough. People want to be treated well and that involves investing in making them happy while they’re at work. It’s the right thing to do, and also the smart thing to do.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I hate formal management styles. People are human. And that’s how you need to communicate with them. So much of “management” is bollocks. It’s an excuse for not relating to your people as people, it’s an excuse for not treating them properly and it results in everyone being unhappy and not giving their best.

An example of this is open-plan democratic seating. We have long tables at the office where everyone sits wherever they want to when they arrive. Management sit wherever there’s a space. This emphasizes that everyone is of equal worth. It’s easy to talk about a “flat” structure, doing it is harder. But it’s the future.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

It’s a cliché that it’s important to give back. But it’s a cliché because it’s true. It’s also easy to just write a cheque (if anyone uses cheques anymore) and harder to give time. So in addition to the money bit, I try to give time to organizations who need it. I work with Hospice among others in this way. But it isn’t easy when one is a parent and a businessperson etc. I need to try harder and do better at this.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money. I don’t know who said it first, but a mentor of mine once said it. And it’s true.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I wish that I was a person of great influence! If I could get people do one thing it would be to be kind. If we do that everything else pretty much takes care of itself.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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