For the team at The Villages at Havas Health & You, 2020 delivered humbling managerial moments. But it also opened up the agency to entirely new ways of looking at leadership — and the possibilities ahead.

With staff working remotely due to the pandemic, group president Cris Morton confesses he felt helpless as social unrest spread in the early summer, leaving many employees feeling bruised
and emotional.

“I’m an outgoing guy, so there were some very low points for me,” he recalls. “As the protests grew, I thought, ‘How am I supposed to have an honest conversation about racial injustice? How am I supposed to know how they may be feeling? They’re all in their apartments by themselves, just like I am.’”

The Villages at Havas Health & You

While many agencies experimented with forums to help employees heal and be heard, Morton believes the Villages’ town halls have been transformative. At one, focused on hate crimes against Asian-Americans, a staff member asked to share his story about coming to the U.S. as an immigrant.

“The level of trust it took for that to happen amazed me,” says group president Cheryl Fielding. Morton agrees, adding, “Even though we’re much more isolated, we are more together than we ever have been.”

The year 2020 saw parent Havas Health & You relocate one of the three Villages — the one devoted to diabetes and cardiovascular care — into a sibling agency. This resulted in a lower staff count (205) and revenue (an MM+M-estimated $62 million) in 2020 than a year prior (248 and an estimated $75 million, respectively).

That said, the two existing Villages thrived, with the hematology/oncology Village growing around 30% and Village X, which focuses on which focuses on omnichannel, CX and tech solutions, seeing revenue surge from around $25 million to $35 million.

Fielding says the approach continues to resonate with clients. “It turns the agency model on its head, because it’s purpose-built with real expertise under one roof,” she explains, adding that the overarching goal is to spare clients “the crazy amount of time they spend getting their agencies on the same page.”

Villages’ 2020 gains came after a crash course in pandemic pitching. Like everyone else, its execs had participated in myriad formal presentations (“dog-and-pony shows,” Morton quips). And, like everyone else, they quickly learned that virtual pitches are very different animals.

“There were opportunities we didn’t want to lose out on because of weird Zoom vibes, so we had to make it fun and interactive,” he says.

Additions included assignments from ViiV Healthcare, Novartis’ Advanced Accelerator Applications unit, Teva, Kyowa Kirin Group and Phathom Pharmaceuticals. The Villages also deepened its footprint at Sanofi.

Morton touts the agency’s work for Orexo, which offers digital therapies for depression and alcohol use disorder. “It has been so timely for us, because so many people are stuck in their bedrooms with drug and alcohol use increasing,” he explains.

Similarly, the pandemic prompted the agency to tweak its work on Emergent BioSolutions’ drug overdose reversal drug Narcan, which it landed in 2019. As part of the #CutOutOverdoses effort, Villages filled baseball stadiums with cutouts, each linked to the story of a person who died from an overdose. “It’s some of the best work we’ve done,” Fielding says. 

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The idea I wish I had…

The art of taking a simple and functional attribute and turning it into an exciting relatable anthem is just what GMC did with Tailgate to End All Tailgates. People from various cultural backgrounds are taken to a place where song, dance and stunning cinematography are brought together to celebrate the dawn of something better. It’s culturally relevant and gets straight to the point. It’s fun to watch – and shoot, it just makes you feel good. — Cris Morton