Q&A: Havas CEO Yannick Bolloré Addresses Systemic Racism in Advertising

By Minda Smiley Comment

Adweek invited the CEOs for each holding company to participate in a discussion regarding systemic racism in the advertising industry and what steps they are implementing to promote diversity, inclusion and equity at their agencies. We asked the same set of questions of each CEO.

Below is the interview with Havas CEO Yannick Bolloré. (Editor’s note: Bolloré did not agree to speak with Adweek, instead opting to answer questions via email. Responses were sent through a Havas spokesperson).

What are you doing to communicate with and support Black employees at this moment as a holding company? What are you doing personally as a CEO? 

Yannick Bolloré: The first thing to note for any leader is that this is a particularly challenging time, specifically for Black employees. Our key priorities these past few weeks have been the personal safety of our people, their mental wellbeing and the actions and preparedness of our leadership teams. This has included support communication from every global leader in our company, bespoke employee assistance programs for our Black employees, inclusive leadership and action training with DE&I experts for over 550 leaders across North America, office closures for solidarity and reflection across North America and the U.K. and toolkits for all of our employees with learning resources and guidance on tackling racism and discrimination in and outside of our business. I’ve been involved personally with our global leaders on a daily basis driving this activity across our business. There is also tremendous response at the divisional and agency level. I can’t tell you how passionate our people are about this topic, and the overwhelming leadership, support and input we’ve had from our employees across the board. Even within a highly difficult time, many of our employees of color have bravely shared their stories and their crucial point of view, and I thank them personally for that. We have much work to do, but I’m deeply proud of our people.

What actions are you taking as a holding company to address systemic racism?  

We have great DE&I initiatives all around the world; it’s a deep passion point for our network. Havas All In is our global DE&I effort, which represents a cross section of initiatives that serve underrepresented communities, including ethnic and cultural representation, gender equality, LGBTQ+ inclusion, disability, wellness, age and other topics. Last year, All In launched 100 actions in 39 agencies and villages. This year, there are over 150 actions across 42 agencies and villages. As we amplify our prioritization of these efforts, we’ll look to scale these programs and carry several of them across the globe.

Specific to addressing gaps in racial or cultural equality or awareness about systemic racism, we have several programs. A few specific examples—our agency BETC participates in a co-mentoring program to support refugee job seekers. Through Kodiko, refugees are able to participate in immersive training at BETC while receiving mentoring—and in turn BETC employees are exposed to different cultures and perspectives. Each mentoring relationship requires a six-month commitment. At the end of the program, 50% of participants are able to secure a concrete job opportunity.

Another great example is Black at Work, a multiyear, award-winning platform established by our team in Chicago and now celebrated throughout most of our North American agencies. This year’s Black at Work explored the concept of The Dream Gap. The Dream Gap is defined as a lack of representation in certain jobs, which in turn limits Black professionals aspiring to those roles. Through a series of installations, agency events and learning experiences, the Black at Work team discussed the impact of racial bias on Black Americans in the workplace.

There are dozens of other platforms, including a fabulous apprenticeship program in the U.K., which allows noncollege graduates opportunities for work in the advertising community, and our female development and advancement program Femmes Forward, which has resulted in a 50% promotion rate for participants once they graduate. These types of programs have been very impactful for us and we’ll look to broaden their reach while also designing new programs that focus on the advancement and development of people of color specifically. We also partner with several outside agencies on diverse internship placements and will do this on a larger scale moving forward.

How are the actions taken to address systemic racism at this time different from what you’ve been doing before?  

The dialogue and sentiment around this topic has evolved, and we have to be sympathetic and aware of what that means. There has been a global call to action to make significant systemic change, and like many others, we want to answer that call. We have had amazing DE&I programs in the past and they will continue, but what I feel we need to do is address the “systemic” part of systemic racism. This will look like analyzing our own systems and processes to assess where we need change, evaluating how we hire and promote diverse talent, looking at our suppliers and how we support minority-owned business, training our leadership to have ongoing courageous conversations with their people around racism and bias, looking at our current D&I programs and assessing if they’re supporting the dialogue to the extent that they need to in the current conversation and much more. We also have to look at how what we put in the marketplace can advance this dialogue. Representation in creative work is deeply important, and we need to continue to work to engage brands to consider diverse audiences and represent them in a way that feels authentic and meaningful.

What are you doing to ensure that this continues to be a priority?  

We’re looking at maintaining this as an ongoing priority in two ways. Firstly, how do we layer in accountability for our leadership on an ongoing basis, for myself included? This has to be a part of the consideration and KPI set for all of our leadership across the business. Secondly, how do we staff and support this work in a meaningful and contemporary way? I want to be sure that we have the right voices in place who keep the business accountable to staying on track and making real progress. They will have my full support in doing so. We will also look at our ongoing programming and training and ensure that these topics are not only addressed a few times a year when they’re considered more “relevant.” These topics are always relevant. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we’re working hard at maintaining a continued culture of open dialogue. This is a deeply important part of fostering inclusion. We have to keep talking and allow our employees to feel that their voices are heard.

Does your D&I lead (if you have one) report directly to the CEO or to another executive? Is that structure being reconsidered?

Our global chief talent officer and her team have tackled a number of our DE&I programs so far, reporting directly to me. Our belief is that DE&I needs to be integrated within our business systems, with mechanisms for both support and accountability for leadership and employees. This includes our hiring practices, policies and protocols, major partnerships, investments, leaderships, KPIs, CSR activities and how we’re upholding representation in our actual creative work. Moving forward, there will be more resources around this work but also increased leadership accountability to uphold certain standards at the individual agency, division and team level.

Do you believe there are systemic problems with regards to racial equity within your holding company? What are you doing to address them?  

I wish that I could say with certainty that there aren’t. We need to look at what systemic issues there are in our broader industry and the business community at large and how we can play a role in addressing them with a nuanced understanding of what’s broken. I think as an industry we’ve made some progress in this, but not enough. This is why we have started conversations with our peers. Our first step is to thoroughly and critically review ourselves and assess where we need to make change. Some systems may have inherent bias that isn’t overt. Our second step is to look at how we engage with parties outside of our business and assess whether or not our actions are helping to address broader systemic issues in our communities—are they neutral or whether they compound gaps in equality. Our third step is to look at our work, asking ourselves what we can do to reflect society in all its diversity.

Do you plan to further invest in and hire Black talent moving forward? How will you go about doing this?

We will continue to look to invest in diverse talent across the board, and absolutely Black talent specifically. We have prioritized this for some time now, but we need to do more. We have several major partners in place to help us find and recruit Black and diverse talent in general, but we’ll be looking at things like our college and university partnerships, general recruitment practices, promotion practices, internship programs, leadership development and teaching our recruitment teams to avoid inherent biases when hiring, among other things.

We’ll look to launch a midlevel development program specifically for our diverse employees and allow them real opportunities for growth. Senior leadership will be another key focus area for us. I will personally engage regarding the process to improve senior-level hires and am now getting input and feedback in order to put a plan together.

What percentage of leadership roles at your agencies are held by Black people? By people of color more broadly? Are you content with this level of diversity? What concrete actions are you planning to address this issue and improve that percentage? 

Because we’re a French company, it’s prohibited for us to collect global personal data related to ethnicity. What I can tell you for certain regardless of this is that we have to do more. Our 20,000 employees are spread over more than 100 countries. Inherently in our structure, we have a tremendous and wonderful mix of cultural backgrounds and vibrant villages around the world filled with different languages and skin tones. Even as we factor this into the equation, we don’t have enough representation of diverse communities. The entire industry doesn’t, with the recent data in the 6% range for Black employees specifically within advertising. As an industry that specializes in awareness and behavior impact, this isn’t good enough. As mentioned previously, we’re taking a 360 assessment of our own business, including the programs and efforts mentioned above.

Do you track your diversity numbers now, i.e., how many people of color you employ and how often they are promoted compared to white colleagues? Have there been conversations about potentially sharing these numbers externally to be transparent?

Refer to answer above**

The industry has been aware of issues around diversity and inclusion for decades, but change has historically been very slow. Talent of color have been vocal in the past week about feeling as though agencies are quick to talk but frustratingly slow to act on this topic. So how will you ensure that your Black employees and other talent of color within the industry will believe that your holding company’s commitment on these issues is serious and will actually yield change in the short term? How will you hold yourselves accountable?

Firstly, I think it’s fair to say that we need to seriously look at what we’ve done to date with a critical eye. I understand why our Black talent and employees of color across the industry are frustrated. We’ve been talking about this for years and the numbers haven’t progressed the way they should. As we do every day with our clients and partners, we need to apply the best of our leadership, strategy and creativity to this. We’ll create belief by continued action and by making real change. We’ll hold ourselves accountable by integrating this into our business metrics, not layering it on top as a project. I have faith in our ability to do this as an industry and as a business, and I’m deeply grateful and proud of our leadership and employees around the world who have used their voices and talents for this already. To our Black employees and all our diverse employees, I’ll say again, you have our entire global leadership team unified to support this and support you. We draw strength from diversity and our business would not exist without the cultures that fill our villages around the world.

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