Empowerment: Havas' Leadership On Equality

Laura Maness, Stephanie Nerlich and Nikki Laughlin share their perspectives on the state of the industry, equal opportunities and representation.

Nikki Laughlin
President Havas Chicago

Stephanie Nerlich
CEO Havas Creative Network, North America

Havas New York
Full Service
New York, United States
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Havas Chicago
Full Service
Chicago, United States
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How would you describe the overall culture at your agency?

Laura Maness: In a word? Growth. There’s a universal truth for all businesses: companies can’t grow if people don’t grow. I’ve always believed in putting people first and instilling a growth culture that focuses on all aspects of the employee experience. In New York, we have a clear purpose to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives, and our core values are HEART, HUNGER and HUMANITY. Heart is empathy, compassion and continuous collaboration; Hunger is entrepreneurialism and the drive to do things first; and Humanity is taking responsibility for the whole story—justice, sustainability and making us a better world.

Our value system is the tried-and-true basis of our decision-making—from the clients we seek to the talent we attract, to what we reward and recognize in our staff, to how we reinforce these values on a daily basis. By clearly defining our values and expectations for how we behave when we’re our best selves, we’ve created a radically transparent and inclusive culture that enables people to outperform. Creatively, this collaborative workplace inspires more meaningful work that’s fueled by surrounding ourselves in culture. It also truly empowers people to make decisions and enables them to feel that they are equal stakeholders in the business and overall process.


How did you find your way into the marketing and communications industry?

Nikki Laughlin: Being the president of an advertising agency was a childhood dream of mine. True confession: I wanted to be like Angela Bower on the ‘80s sitcom Who’s the Boss. Now I’m a little embarrassed. But in my defense, Angela was a powerful executive sporting big shoulder pads while being a mom who surrounded herself with a family system that supported her. That’s badass. That’s what we all still need.

I ran at my dream and put myself out there. I got my first industry job because I pitched an idea for Gloria Jean’s Coffees on the fly in the interview. Maybe I was too naïve to have any fear, but you have to be fearless. 

My advice for those starting out or starting again is this: Have ideas, informed ideas, and share them. Speak up. Just because someone is older or more tenured than you doesn’t mean they’re smarter or have better ideas. My advice for leaders: Make space for everyone to contribute and have their voice heard.


In your opinion, what do you see as the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the glass ceiling?

Laura Maness: I’m optimistic and proud to see more women in the C-suite and creative roles—private women’s networks and organizations like Chief, SheRunsIt, SeeHer, the Female Quotient, the 3% Movement, HeyMama, Women’s Purpose Retreat, Free The Bid/Work, among many others, have played a critical role in connecting and supporting women leaders across industries and spearheading meaningful change. Here at Havas, women are the majority and make up almost 60% of our employee population. We've worked really hard to cultivate and advance women’s careers at a faster pace through proprietary programs like Femmes Forward—our six-month women’s leadership accelerator now spanning more than 30 countries around the world that led to a 65% spike in promotions of women in one year. We also made a donation in the name of Femmes Forward to the Global Fund for Women, an organization working toward rights for women’s equality. As one of the first agencies to take the 3% Pledge for Pay Equity and one of the first major agencies to become a certified B Corp (in London, Amsterdam and soon in New York), we continue to take action on equality and sustainability and use business as a measurable force for good.


Do you think that women still face challenges in our industry, and if so, what are they?

Stephanie Nerlich: Yes, there is still more to be done. We have a saying at Havas when it comes to putting people first: “Do more and do better,” and this continues to apply to gender equality. Women still take on the majority of household duties, and one of the many negatives of this pandemic year has been women stepping back and sacrificing their own ambitions in the process. We need to continue to find ways to keep women engaged in our industry. Whether they turn away in a year like this or turn away from the industry because the hours are long and sometimes unforgiving, we will miss out on access to exceptional talent. We need to find flexible solutions to keep profoundly talented women engaged.

Pay equity is also an important topic to continue addressing as an industry. While I’m proud that Havas bridged that gap years ago, we need this to be the norm.   


Who inspires you the most, either inside the industry or outside? Why?

Nikki Laughlin: I come from a family of dreamers. It’s in our DNA. My grandmother was an Italian immigrant who came to America and built a pizza empire from nothing. Living and working in our family-owned restaurants was a special way to grow up. It’s a really tough business. But through any adversity, personal or professional, my family never stopped pursuing their dreams. Even at age 87, my dad is still naming his next restaurant. 

My Aunt Clara is my source of inspiration daily. In the face of a terminal diagnosis, she decided to pursue her dream of writing a cookbook that captured our family’s recipes, which for generations only lived in their heads. Aunt Clara passed away last summer while her book, Cooking with Clara, Recipes of a Lifetime, was being printed. It’s in distribution now and I have a copy on my desk that serves as a daily inspiration that anything is possible. There’s nothing we can’t be, do or have – if we can dream it, it can be ours.

Stephanie Nerlich: My two daughters, Olivia and Riley. They are smart, empathic, natural self-starters—profoundly aware of the inequities that exist in the world and unwilling to accept it’s the norm. It’s with great hope that the world truly is their oyster, whatever path they chose.