Sean Lyons of Havas on Risk-Taking and Designing an Agency for Collaboration [POV]

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Sean LyonsSean Lyons is the chief digital officer at Havas Worldwide. Previously, he spent 10 years at R/GA in New York.

Tell us a little about your position.

The existence of a role like mine, chief digital officer, is emblematic of the larger societal change brought forth by the internet. It’s obvious but also hard to overstate. The way we do nearly everything is being altered, revamped, or replaced. This has a tremendous impact on marketing, and as a result, the majority of people in a role like mine are in advertising, media, and publishing. The services agencies must provide clients today are as broad as ever, so I stretch my time across strategic, creative, and operational areas. The operational component is particularly important because, if done well, it enables the talent in the agency to produce great work without them noticing the "structure."

I grew up around advertising. My father built a career first in radio and then cable, and he founded his own company (Opportunity Media). Both of my brothers are also in the business. It's not a far leap from art school to advertising, and I was well trained at Carnegie Mellon in both conceptual (developing ideas) and practical (implementing your ideas) ways.

What differentiates Havas Worldwide from other advertising firms?

The range of services we offer and our strong ability to weave them together. We strive to develop broad platforms with our clients that span across many forms of communication. We also understand the power of utility and develop useful products and services with our clients. Doing work across a broad spectrum requires a wide range of talent and a clear point of view on how to orchestrate efforts for each client.

This approach informs our structure and our strategy. For example: We launched the Havas Village concept where our different teams and businesses all sit together under one roof. This includes media, creative, experience design, strategy, brand and product design, social, technology, and data — to name a few. This appears simple, but it’s hard to do right. The space has to be designed with collaboration in mind, the talent you bring in has to buy into the concept, and there needs to be places for everyone to cross paths and work together. The informal collaboration is usually the most powerful. We have 19 villages established worldwide, with more on the way. In the end, the village creates a more unified and integrated offering for our clients.

How do you avoid the mediocre in advertising?

It's all in the fundamentals. Hire the best talent — people who have a strong conviction but are also open minded and curious. Establish and maintain a high standard for great work. Have a culture that supports risk-taking; the best work often comes from the margins and not from a formal brief.

What do you look for in a relationship with a client? How do you turn a good relationship into a great one?

Any strong relationship is built on trust. The agency has to earn this trust with the client through the work. Trust can be built up more quickly and solidly when the client is deeply involved in the process.

What does a typical day look like for you?

When I am not travelling, a typical day in the office includes: Hosting our clients in our New York office, sitting with teams and digging into the work, interviewing new candidates, and connecting with our talent across the network.

What is one of your favorite campaigns your agency has worked on?

Much of the work I have been directly and personally involved in is with some of our new clients — Keurig, Green Mountain, Dish Network, and Liberty Mutual — is still in development. For the agency, I am most proud of the wide range of work we are able to produce from IBM Watson Paths, a mobile application that helps doctors diagnose and treat patients, the Fundawear work for Durex in Australia, and our work with Dos Equis across broadcast and digital, in particular our Foursquare partnership and Instagram launch.


What advertising trend do you find most interesting and why?

I am most interested in the different models content providers are using. I am particularly curious to watch the growth of subscription-based models versus the ad-supported models. This has big implications for the advertising business. In the end, the growth of subscription models is good for our industry because it will drive creation of more innovative models. Related to this, it’s been fascinating to watch platforms becoming increasingly more intelligent and helpful as they build off of smart use of personal data and aggregate consumer data (i.e., Google Now, Spotify, Netflix recommendations, etc.)

What's your must-read book?

It’s hard to pick one, so let me give you three:

"The Birth of the Modern" by Paul Johnson

"What Technology Wants" by Kevin Kelly

"Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World" by Michael Lewis

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