Over 200 lessons in creativity and resilience: How the Havas Hustle helped an industry in crisis

Havas Hustle launched in June, an initiative to help media and advertising professionals grow their side hustles in light of COVID-19. Mumbrella's senior journalist Brittney Rigby speaks to Host/Havas CEO Laura Aldington about the wide-reaching benefits of the conversations and connections that ensued, and to Siobhan Fitzgerald and Suzanne Neate about what their 'side hustles' - a sex story platform and cancer research charity, respectively - got out of the program.

Siobhan Fitzgerald’s commitment to The Good Bits, the sex story platform she co-founded, was solidified when she lost her job. In April, her role at M&C Saatchi was made redundant in response to COVID-19. It was just six months after she’d returned from maternity leave, and a week after she says her boss offered to send her to London to speak about the fledgling business he thought was “brilliant”.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing’, because I’d been quite nervous about talking to the agency about it,” Fitzgerald recalls.

“I’m like, ‘Mum and dad, I’m going to London to talk about my sex site, and my boss is paying!’ And then the next week, everything closed down [due to COVID-19] and the rest is history.”

The day after her redundancy, Fitzgerald updated her LinkedIn profile. She was no longer ‘associate creative director at M&C Saatchi’, but ‘co-founder and CCO at The Good Bits’. It was a public promise; she was “taking ownership of something that I was, in fact, really nervous to take ownership of”.

Fitzgerald was on maternity leave with her now 20-month-old baby, and had “pretty much no desire” when she had the idea.

“I was reading a book one night and came across a sexy passage and realised that a part of myself that had been lying dormant was in fact, still there,” she remembers. “[And I realised] there should be something that brings together these great, beautifully written scenes into some sort of platform that women can read, that makes us feel good without feeling gross.”

She didn’t know much about the sex industry. “I was coming back to work as a new mum. I have Catholic heritage. In my sex education at school, we weren’t taught what the clitoris was.” But she did know there was a gap in the market. And so her fear that “I could never do this ’cause it was a sex thing” was overridden by the realisation that sex content online was largely created by, and for, men.

Fitzgerald (left) and her co-founder, Carol Battle, were “both breastfeeding our babies at the time” Fitzgerald raised the idea

Like any new business owners, Fitzgerald and co-founder Carol Battle needed help in the first few months: “Honestly, our heads were so jumbled about all the things that we were about and all of the things that we could do.”

Enter the Havas Hustle, an initiative created to give industry talent the chance to access free “no strings attached” advice on how to grow their ‘side hustles’.

Fitzgerald was connected to Red Havas’ Reema Babakhan, who helped The Good Bits establish its foundations: “This is what we’re about. This is who we’re for. And from there, we were able to sort of channel it.”

The Havas Hustle saw 36 of the holding company’s most senior team volunteer their services – from CEOs and creatives to finance, HR, and IT staffers – to, “in a time of crisis … help and give something back”. More Australians were turning to their side hustles to cope with the financial impacts of the pandemic, but that meant more pressure to turn them into revenue-generating businesses, with very little budget.

Havas also knew that the number of people with side hustles “would only be higher in a business like ours, where there’s so much inherent creativity and entrepreneurialism”.

“We were watching COVID-19 hit the industry so hard, and so many people that we all knew were finding themselves either without roles or they were having their pay or hours reduced,” explains Host/Havas’ chief executive, Laura Aldington.

“We could see that a lot of people were offering their help on platforms like LinkedIn with introductions and interview support and that kind of stuff, which is very generous and awesome, but we felt like we were in the privileged position where we could maybe go just a little bit further with what we could do to help.”

More than 200 ‘side hustlers’ filled out the online form and participated in the program, including Fitzgerald, and REA Group’s Suzanne Neate, whose “mum was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer that had spread to her spine” in December 2014.

“There was just so much I learnt along the way about what happens to someone who has [a rare] cancer where there is little knowledge around it,” she explains.

“And that has massive impacts mentally on not only the patient, but the family members and friends, and there’s this literal aftershock and ripple effect of a cancer diagnosis.”

Suzanne with her Dad and brother on The Aftershock’s annual Teresa’s Trotters event. The 6km walk is held on Teresa’s birthday every year to mark the 6kms Teresa walked daily before her cancer diagnosis.

When her mum, Teresa, passed away two years later in 2016, Neate asked herself what she could do. The answer was The Aftershock, a not-for-profit that raises money and awareness for high mortality rate cancers. Since launching in 2017, the organisation has raised more than $250,000 for research, but Neate knew there was more she could be doing in the partnerships space when she discovered the Havas Hustle.

She was paired with Havas Sport and Entertainment’s general manager, Francis Coady, who introduced Neate to a cancer researcher, who introduced her to a colleague, who introduced her to the CEO of Rare Cancers Australia, who introduced her to pharmaceutical companies. It turns out the initiative has had an incredible aftershock of its own.

“What it’s done is just open doors,” Neate says.

“I’ve tapped into Francis since and said, look, we’re launching a podcast. I’d love some advice … and he’s been super, super open with that.”

The Aftershock held an exhibition last year, documenting 16 cancer stories. Pictured is Michelle Hensel, whose son, Braedon, passed away at 22 from an aggressive Ewing’s sarcoma.

The soon-to-be-launched podcast involves Neate working with radio presenter Ash London, Adrian Brine – London’s husband and assistant head of the Hit Network at Southern Cross Austereo (SCA) – and an editor from SCA. Brine is part of a line up of guests that will also feature a current patient, a director of surgery at a hospital, and a neuro-oncologist.

“Ash’s husband was actually our first guest, because tragically his [first] wife passed away from cancer at the horrific age of 32,” Neate says. “The point of the podcast is to represent the whole aftershock of cancer, not just the patient, not just an oncologist, but the whole ripple effect.”

The Aftershock held an exhibition last year, documenting 16 cancer stories. Pictured is director of surgery at The Alfred, Wendy Brown, who invited The Aftershock into her operating theatre to capture the surgeon’s point of view.

The Good Bits launched its own podcast last week, in partnership with Australian Radio Network’s iHeartPodcast and sponsored by adult store Wild Secrets. Fitzgerald says the series is “different from everything else that’s out there that I’ve come across,” featuring both American and Australian voices reading the work of New York Times bestselling authors aloud.

“They’re not an audiobook, but they’re not your standard podcasts. They’re these moments of escapism to make you feel good.”

The Good Bits’ podcast launched last week

For Aldington and the wider Havas team, Fitzgerald and Neate’s businesses “felt really fascinating to us. The sort of ones where you go ‘I can’t believe no one’s done that before'”. But while the entrepreneurs received the benefit of Havas’ specialist advice and support, the holding group benefitted too.

“One of the best things about the Hustle was just all of these brilliant, clever, inventive, interesting, passionate people that came through the virtual doors,” Aldington confirms.

“Everybody loved the reminder of how special the people out there in our industry actually are.”

It’s a program that, like the hustles themselves, could very easily have not gotten off the ground during COVID-19. Havas is, like every other advertising company, grappling with the effect of the pandemic on resources and budgets.

But it’s a clever move. The program meaningfully connects Havas team members to other creatives at a time during which they’re isolated, yet expected to solve bigger problems, better. And it gives the company future access to a talent pool of dreams; many of the side hustlers are only throwing themselves at their projects because they’re out of work elsewhere.

Host/Havas’ Aldington

“It was really stimulating and inspiring … to have this really broad range of just fascinating conversations about such an insanely broad range of topics that sit a little bit outside of the day to day of everybody’s day jobs,” Aldington agrees.

“And we were often talking to people who might have had a pretty hard time, personally, but the fact that they were just getting on with it with such passion, excitement, and commitment was a real lesson in resilience for all of us.”

The program wrapped up a few weeks ago, and there’s no concrete plans to launch a second iteration at this stage. But Aldington’s team is considering it, because the feedback from both sides was “really positive”.

“The team would say it was really rewarding to understand the value of what they do, because in an agency you are surrounded by people who can do what you do, or a version of it,” she adds.

“And so you take it for granted, but seeing what a tangible difference their expertise could make … it just really underlined the power of the [Havas] Village and how much we can all help each other. We can apply that [creativity] to answer pretty much any question.”


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