Havas Group acquires BLKJ: What went on behind the deal?

Vivendi-owned Havas Group has acquired Singapore-born independent agency BLKJ to create BLKJ Havas - an agency whose stated ambition is to create un-advertising out of Singapore from regional and global brands.

BLKJ was founded four years ago by former DDB talent Rowena Bhagchandani, and creative partners Khalid Osman, Lester Lee, and Joji Jacob. The agency has over the years prided itself in what it calls “un-advertising - work that didn’t walk, talk, or could be pigeon-holed as mere advertising”.  

Some of the notable work BLKJ created include the "Fastest" network for StarHub, "Lifeproof Crew" work for Great Eastern and the "Love, Translated" piece created during the peak of COVID-19.

In a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, Rowena Bhagchandani, CEO, BLKJ, said what the agency has in common with the Havas Group is not just a vision of what advertising should be like, but also what makes for a contemporary organisation. “The independent creative powerhouses such as BETC, Host, and Buzzman that are now a part of Havas continue to retain their DNA and culture,” she said. She added that BLKJ’s success lies in its culture that helps create work that is relevant, meaningful, and impactful.

This partnership is also said to give BLKJ access to the Group’s partnerships with culturally influential companies such as Universal Music, Gameloft, and Canal+.

“These are relationships that will enable us to offer brands under our care work that’s doesn’t look or feel like mere advertising. Equally important is the fact that the alliance with Havas Group offers us and our people an opportunity to grow and impact regional and global brands. This lays the foundation for our ambition of taking work created in Singapore to the world,” Bhagchandani added.

Jacqui Lim to overlook integration

Following the merger, CEO of Havas Group Jacqui Lim will remain as CEO of Havas Media Group covering agency brands Havas Media, Arena Media, Socialyse and Red Havas, while helming a dual function as chief integration officer for Havas Group in Singapore to drive Village integration.

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Lim told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE, BLKJ and Havas have had a few organic collaborations, but it is the alignment of values, working style and most importantly culture that led to the partnership. Collectively, as a network – Havas embarked on a strategy – Better Together – several years back.

“The idea behind this strategy was simple – it was to best serve our clients’ needs and bring together the most talented people across all communication disciplines: creative, media, digital, design, activation. Our integrated approach has complemented our creative product and allowed us to be outcome-focused and responsive to our client’s needs,” Lim said. Lim, a media veteran, who has been with the company for over seven years, has since 2018 been leading the creative arm under the Havas brand. Under her guidance the agency expanded its portfolio of clients to include Jewel, SMU, Changi Airport Group, among others.

“However, in the fast-changing advertising landscape – agencies have to be future facing and our ambition for the future meant that we needed to further strengthen our creative offering and take the network forward as a leading creative player in Singapore as well as scale our presence in the region,” Lim said.

She added that with BLKJ now part of the Havas Group, it now adds a “unique approach of un-advertising” to solve brand challenges. She added:

BLKJ’s proven track record of creating work that challenges industry norms in both effectiveness and creativity stands out in the industry and that is exactly what we need to augment our creative offering.

(Listen to: Marketing podcast: A media veteran's creative journey)

Chris Hirst, CEO Havas Creative, added on: “BLKJ has such great creative pedigree and has already achieved so much while still in its youth. With Alberto Canteli, CEO Middle East and Eastern Europe Havas Group now overseeing the integration of all of our expertise across SEA, BLKJ will help us to strive and thrive in the region at a pivotal time. Welcome to the whole team.”

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What’s next?

Meanwhile, Yannick Bolloré, chairman and CEO, Havas Group added that: "Welcoming such an influential and well-known agency in the region to the Havas Family is an exciting move for the Group. With the BLKJ team we share the belief that advertising is a very powerful force in making the world a better place by helping brands create meaningful work that improves people’s lives. We look forward to BLKJ reinforcing our creative profile and our Village offering in Singapore.”

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With Southeast Asia being home to more than 650 million people, Bollore said it is an increasingly important growth region. “Singapore is set to become the centre for driving excellence across SEA in various disciplines including the creative industry,” he added.

(Read also: Havas boss confirms acquisitions on the horizon in Singapore and India)

Prior to the announcement, MARKETING-INTERACTIVE also had an in-depth chat with CEO Rowena Bhagchandani, and creative partners, Khalid Osman, Lester Lee, and Joji Jacob on what it means for the agency, their people, and their clients.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Why did you choose to join Vivendi and Havas?

BLKJ: For some time now we have been thinking of the next stage in the agency’s evolution. We want to be a "made in Singapore, for the world" brand. Obviously to do this we need to be present in places other than Singapore. But culture doesn’t travel well, and our culture is the secret recipe to our success. So setting up BLKJ offices around the world was not an option for us. So we decided to go with a partner who has an established presence around the globe.

Equally important to us that whatever partnership we entered in allowed us to keep what made us successful; autonomy, independence, our DNA and our culture.

And in Vivendi and Havas, we found both these crucial elements. We looked at the independent creative powerhouses that are now part of Vivendi and Havas like BETC, Buzzman, Rosa Parks, and Host, and saw that they benefited from the global reach of the parent company, but they also operated like a loose confederation of independents with zero loss of identity or quality of work. This, we think, is a testament to the entrepreneurial nature of the organisation.

Thirdly, Vivendi also has powerful entities like Universal Music, Game Loft, and Canal+ in their fold. These affiliation will help us create work that even more "un-advertising". In today’s marketplace, the boundaries between creative disciplines must necessarily blur.

So in sum, this partnership gives us and our people opportunities to work on regional and global brands out of Singapore, allows us to preserve our culture, and helps us create work that breaks industry moulds.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: Tell us about your culture.

BLKJ: From the outset, we said we will create a place where our people can create the best work of their lives, a place where they thrive and be happy with their professional and personal lives. So all we did was try to facilitate that. And we kept the agency flat, no multiple layers of reporting, no unnecessary egos, nothing that stood in the way of the work. In spite of COVID-19, we didn’t have a single retrenchment or salary cut. On the contrary, our best-performing people received promotions and pay raises.

And to our clients our promise was the same. Total accountability and involvement from the four partners, honesty in our daily dealings, partnership in every sense of the word. 

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What happens next?

BLKJ: We start by welcoming the Havas Singapore teams and clients to our family. They can look forward to a very warm and sincere reception. Other than that not much changes. We will still be the nimble, tenacious underdogs we’ve been so far. Our obsession with creating the best possible work remains. The four of us will still manage the agency. And what’s changed is for the better. Our clients and people will now benefit from our regional and global reach. We will leverage the relationships with Universal Must and Gameloft to create work that makes our brands and people successful. And of course, our offering becomes stronger and more integrated as we join forces with Havas Media.

MARKETING-INTERACTIVE: What does BLKJ Havas mean for clients?

BLKJ: To our existing and potential clients, BLKJ Havas means the best of two worlds. BLKJ’s undisputed flair in creating work that influences culture will now have the added edge of Vivendi’s entertainment assets. And of course, through the Havas Group our clients can fulfil their regional and global ambitions.