August 19, 2020

Leading an effective change strategy

by Aalastair Sibley in News

By Rachael Sansom, Managing Director

As a leader, managing your company through a period of significant change can be a privilege, and potentially one of the most exciting points of a career. However, it is not without its challenges. Fresh and effective change requires solid infrastructure, a well thought out plan and the ability to adapt, strategise and innovate on a near day-to-day basis. 

When we consider change in companies, there is no one-size fits-all strategy; we may often think of incrementalism – small but significant changes that build up to a larger shift in a company’s culture or operations, built up over time. Change can be planned or unexpected.

A global pandemic

Never before have businesses been faced such an immediate need to adapt. COVID-19 has challenged all businesses, no matter their size, scope or sector to transform almost overnight how they operate on a day-to-day basis, re-asses their business models, and change how they communicate to customers, stakeholders and importantly, employees.

Many companies have had to completely shift to home-working, and the whole set of implications, challenges and change this posed. It is now looking unlikely that we’ll see a ‘return to normal’ anytime soon, as this is set to have long-term effects for all companies. Barclays boss Jes Staley has said “the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past”, while other companies, Shopify, Twitter and many more have said their companies will become digital by default. Pre COVID-19, around 30 percent of employees were working from home, an number which has set to have jumped as high as 88 per cent now, according to Gartner.

Other sectors have had to overhaul their operations and structures completely. Take the travel industry for example, one of the hardest hit sectors from the pandemic. The World Travel and Trade Association estimates 100 million tourism jobs are on the line, with travel companies set to lose billions of dollars. This is impacting nearly one-third of an industry that employs over 330 million people. It’s not just the travel businesses that are impacted, its consumers too – new research from Which? shows that trust in the travel industry has dropped from a net score of nine in February this year to -12 in May – a drop of 21 points. As a result, the industry is going to have to completely go back to the drawing board and think hard about how it can adapt– how can we rebuilt trust, protect the wellbeing of our employees and make a resurgence in a new, border dependent world?

Organisations are having to make the shift from mobilizing during this time, to stabilising in the new environment and strategising for what’s next.

A shift in business priorities and/or consumer tastes

While some of these business changes may be being quicker or are more drastic than others in its transformation, they all have one thing in common – a changing purpose – to move and adapt with new realities and changing times.

  • Netflix started in 1997 as a mail-order DVD-by-Mail business with monthly subscription fees so that consumers could avoid late fees. After realising the demise of its existing market and noticing the shift towards digital the demise of its existing market, it made a transformation. Since starting its video streaming services in 2007, Netflix has successfully grown its business globally and has changed the way we consume TV and film.
  • Fujifilm – once known only for its credentials in photography, has gradually increased its investment into medical and healthcare screening capabilities – moving itself, and its purpose, into a new and dynamic market.
  • Amazon – moving from an online marketplace, to now offering a film and streaming platform, and even its own B2B cloud offering, with Amazon Web Services.

A key skill for businesses leaders in the modern age is to have the ability to anticipate and recognize when a change is about to occur among consumers, the industry or the wider economy. Being able to almost predict what’s coming while being agile enough to adapt the core business model to these changing trends and long-term shifts in the landscape is now becoming somewhat crucial to business survival.

We’re not short of examples of previously successful enterprises now being almost unknown to the next generation due to their inability to see the change coming, address new competitors and adapt accordingly- take Blockbuster and the new era of streaming for example, or MySpace – failing to adapt and move on as it saw Facebook largely overtake its customer base.

Identifying industry shifts

I’ve taken on a new role at a fairly new company – one year old now. How did we get started? Well, like some of these previous examples, we anticipated a shift in the industry landscape and are today taking the first mover advantage.

As a business we realised that the traditional lines of communications that underpinned the business—earned, owned, shared and paid—were not just ‘crossing’, as seemed the trend of the past few years, they were intersecting and merging. It was found that 60% of public relations leaders, CEOs and students surveyed in 2019 said that within five years the average person will not be able to make a distinction between paid, earned, shared and owned media when consuming information.  

This meant that for consumers – the primary target of our industry – public relations – is one and the same: multiple platforms and channels form a singular experience, one impression. 

We also identified that many of the channels that once fit neatly into media silos no longer do, as new platforms emerged, and the models underpinning them changed. For example, it’s challenging to continue categorising social as shared media, as it’s become so massively pay-to-play, with influencer marketing blurring the earned and paid lines, particularly when it comes to platforms like Instagram or TikTok.

Unsurprisingly, this merging of media sources has coincided with the way that we all now consume content across devices and platforms. Fueled by constant access to mobile devices, a 24/7 daily media landscape and the democratisation of news, information on through social media, has meant that consumption has increased steadily over the years. GWI did a recent study on consumer media consumption, which found that individuals consume approximately 11 hours of media every day. Although we know, media is not consumed in a vacuum – users multitask.

We had to adapt and create a company that was fit for the new times in order to allow our clients to achieve cut through.

Our new agency model emerged as a world-first “merged-media” agency. Uniting two leading businesses, with expansion into London, our new Merged Media global micro-network set itself on a mission to reinvent what PR means, is and does. It was developed to replicate the convergence of consumers’ media consumption—blending traditional and digital publishing, content, social media and data in a way that we believe defines the future of PR as a category.

Meeting the challenge

As I said, times of change can be exciting and for many, a once in a career opportunity. It has been for me on many occasions. For example, in my late twenties I was given the opportunity to buy-out my firm with some other senior colleagues. It was an unexpected opportunity and a risk, but it’s the type of challenge and change I’ve not shied away from.

But it isn’t an overnight process. There are huge challenges and obstacles to overcome for any leader – no matter their experience in managing a change. Every leader must be prepared to step outside their comfort zone and rise up to the challenge – the long-term view must remain in mind at all times.

Mentally, it requires you to think outside the box – how can we innovate, but in a fresh and dynamic way? It also requires you to take a holistic, birds-eye view of the business – how can we manage this change across every area of the business, and bring it together in a way that works smoothly?

You also need to be able to combine a complexity of skills yourself, and some may be more natural to you than others. Business change needs to be driven by a clear vision – creativity, fresh ideas and innovation, but on the flip side, it also needs to be grounded in practicality and a solid understanding of finance, business and organisation. The combination of these skills is crucial to retain structure and order and ensure stakeholders and investors will also buy in to the new plan.

The questions for senior leadership during times of change should foster around, how we evolve deeply the ways we work, while maintaining the heart of our work, the strategic and deliberate management of reputation and the insertion of relevant content into the cultural ethos to drive a desired outcome.

People are power

One of the key foundations of this is your people. While you and your other senior leaders may understand and back the new vision or change, it’s not going to be successful without the wider team on board. Ensuring that each member of the existing teams can genuinely buy-in to the vision, share the same long-term goals and have faith and confidence in the business, is therefore paramount in order to build a successful, credible, award winning brand. If your team don’t back you, then who will?

Once you have your team’s buy-in, you need to make sure that the existing roles, skills and job descriptions are compatible with your new vision and can help bring it to life. While many may think to jump to a huge recruitment drive, I’d say the first step is looking at what and who you have, and how you can upskill and job-reallocate to make your business work. Loyalty will go a long way during a time of business transformation. In fact, these are some tactics many businesses are deploying now during COVID-19.

For me as a business leader, it’s about bringing together the plethora of creative specialists, ensuring our talent pool is both well-rounded with a much broader set of expertise.  We already had some fantastic talent on the ground, so for us, it was about how we elevate these roles and people into positions that will help drive our growth. We created new, global roles to bring together our brands with a strategic direction, for example, creating a Global Head of Content and a SVP of Client Services.

By thinking smart about the current talent, you have and how you can move this to the next level is imperative to help your people underpin the new vision, rise up to the new challenges and drive your success,

Bringing together the new global business all under one, metaphorical ‘roof’ was also crucial in ensuring success. We had a responsibility to break down the borders across continents and ensure there was strong relationships among agencies, increased collaboration and communication. We still do this to this day, always seeking opportunities for cross-agency collaboration and communication on projects, as well as on the social side.

Brand positioning

Once the initial change has occurred, it doesn’t stop there. No leader should underestimate the importance of putting time in to ensure employees, shareholders, clients/consumers and the broader public remain confident in your offering. You need to be able to bring everyone into the journey, keep them invested and interested – as that will be the loyalty that can see your change become a long-term reality.

This is something that should always be front of mind. It is easy for many to forget that your brand itself should be one of your biggest clients. Maintaining the momentum around your business, and constantly thinking of new and innovative ways to elevate your reputation and story will help those on the outside remain confident in your business.

Consider how your business can add greater value to society. An example could be through team insights and marketing strategies – thinking about what you can give back to your stakeholders while remaining forward-thinking and innovative. How do you set yourselves apart from the competition?

We produce regular insights through our owned channels, are in regular correspondence with the media and encourage our team members to contribute to thought leadership and content to bring our brand to life. A brand personality on social media is crucial to driving engagement, business leaders and company culture.

A new normal

Change does not stop once the decision, or mission has been ‘fulfilled’. As an innovative, future thinking agency, we are constantly thinking of ways we can adapt and evolve to fit with changing times, and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has never been a greater need for this.

Important to this, will be how we show our purpose as a company, and help clients do the same. COVID-19 has hugely impacted how people view brand communications. Our most recent Prosumer Report, which gathers propriety data and insight, led by Havas companies and its clients globally, found that 71% of prosumers now believe large companies are more likely to effect positive change, and their trust in companies that do so, will sky-rocket. It will therefore now become our mission to make sure that we can help clients deliver this, create meaningful change, and communicate this effectively.

While not completely overhauling how we work, COVID-19 has marked a monumental shift, providing us new opportunities and challenges that will lead the direction of the company. From how we operate on a day-to-day basis as we have seen the proliferation of working from home, to how we manage employees during times of uncertainty, and maintain trust, motivation and team spirit.

So, while much has been achieved and learned throughout our change process over the past year, change is an ongoing process, and with recent events bringing this to light, in one sense, our trajectory of change has only just started.