Louise Evans is global director of communications & marketing at Dentsu Aegis Network, the multinational media and digital marketing communications company. To respond to today’s business environment, companies need to communicate effectively both externally and internally – and Evans has recently been in charge of implementing a huge overhaul in the communications function at Dentsu Aegis, at a time when the company was going through the largest merger to ever take place in the advertising sector. “I’ve never shied away from difficult challenges,” she says – and the results she has achieved at Dentsu Aegis offer an exciting new perspective on pulling a global business together, while bringing a whole new Generation Y tranche of employees on board.
So: how do you build a communications strategy that brings together people of all ages and backgrounds, right across the world?
Don’t make assumptions
“Assuming you know what people want is very easy to do. It’s very easy to say ‘I’ve done this before, it’s worked before’ without really checking that’s right. I came here from a very different job, and part of the appeal – and challenge! – was setting something up from scratch, and I mean really from scratch, rather than being in an organisation that was already very sophisticated in its communications. When I came here, it became really clear that the audiences were really different to the audiences I’d worked with before. These guys don’t remember days before the internet or mobile phone, it’s quite staggering, and their trigger points, the things they’re interested in, are very different. There’s a greater expectation of a broad crossover between home lives and work lives and, when you talk to people within our business, they expect to work in a way they’re familiar with outside work.”
Accept it: your carefully crafted 500-word email just won’t get read
“Clearly email is still a core channel but the big difference is the absorption of information within email. Attention spans are getting shorter, the pull on people’s time is getting closer, overall people are time-poor, so from a communications perspective, if I want to get a message out into the business, I need to look at how people want to be communicated with on their own terms. It’s no good sending a long email saying ‘We’ve done A, B and C, and now we’re going to do X, Y and Z.’ People won’t read it – they don’t have the time or the energy, and Generation Y aren’t used to absorbing information in that quantity. So how do you respond to that and do things differently? You need to ask yourself: what do I need to give this person, of this age, with this experience? Working on their terms is really important.”
Exploring new channels
“As leaders, we need to be adaptable and accept that the world has changed – and is changing. We’ve seen a level of digital convergence in the past 10 years that people expected in to happen over 50 years. Back in 2000, future technologists gave their predictions for 2050 for the film Minority Report; more or less everything they predicted happened within eight years! If we don’t adapt to that speed of change, we won’t get the results we want.
“Suppose I wrote you a really long email, with some complex, interesting ideas in it – and you’ve already had 100 emails today. You might be more responsive if I sent you a two-minute video or a two-minute voice presentation, recognising that you’re time poor. What we’re trying to develop here is a suite of communication tools, looking at a whole range of communication channels. Voicemail is interesting: if I wanted to communicate with 400 of our main leaders in the 80 countries where we operate, I could do a voice recording and then send it to all those people, perhaps saying something like: ‘I just wanted to update you that we’re pitching to XYZ – if there’s anything you want to know, give me a call, it’s going to be going on for two weeks.’ A lot of these technologies are relatively cheap; they can be apps, for example.”
“One of our core backbone channels is an intranet, but what we’ve built there is, I think, unique at the moment. We’ve built an internal social network. It’s an intranet with all the information employees need to do their jobs – but it’s also a brand-driven site, run and rolled out by us as a team to our brands, who in turn roll it out to the teams that work within those brands. We did a huge piece of research before starting the project – I knew there was core stuff we needed to deliver, but on top of that, we wanted to create a platform where people could connect, create, collaborate. It’s called NEON: we did focus groups to make sure everybody liked the names and tested the winner in every language to make sure it resonated.”
Delivering what people want – and need
“People told us they wanted a place to create work, a place where they could get in touch face to face, not just by email, and they wanted to work together virtually. We then said: if those are the three things you want to do, what functionality do you need? A people-finder? Team sites to work in? A number of core things came back, and several big things resonated. People wanted instant messaging, for example, to avoid emailing. They wanted to be able to comment and reply in the same way they do on Facebook or Twitter – with short, character-based content. As well as having a very pure business element, which is key, this also addresses some of the ways of working that people are now used to.
“It was suggested that it was risky opening up work to comment, but we’ve absolutely not had any problems. Our culture is quite entrepreneurial, and people like contributing and promoting themselves – they are very proud of their work, and, with our system, you can showcase what you’re doing to your colleagues. We’re still in development, but we have already rolled out to about 30 countries and done about 60 launches – we’ve got about the same amount still to go. We work in local languages; the German site is written in German, although it links to the global site, which is written in English – that’s just common sense, you have greater understanding in your own language. And what’s amazing about this platform is that we can measure absolutely everything on it. That’s where you begin to see cultural differences.
“It’s super-interesting how culturally different people are; we can measure click-throughs, see who has downloaded what, and see, for example, that webinars work particularly well in one territory, but maybe not in another. The UK is very hot on commenting; the Germans don’t comment so much and they use Facebook and LinkedIn less, but they like uploading content. Once you understand that, the local team can adapt features on the site; if commenting isn’t something people are so interested in, you can downplay that and add features that do interest them.”
A cost-effective investment
“Part of what we wanted to deliver, alongside the benefits to our people, were financial benefits. People were working in pockets, in different silos. There were systems like this in lots of countries but they weren’t connected. Multiple systems, server costs and data costs, the people attached to running those systems – if you think of that on a global level, it’s quite costly. If you centralise, you get economies of scale. The other cost is around data transfer and storage. If I send an email with a 10-mb file to 10 people, that’s 100 mbs of information I’ve just sent, which costs money. If I upload that to what’s essentially a cloud-based system, all that’s involved is the cost of the cloud-based storage.
“There are also benefits to our clients, which are split between global clients and local brands. We need to be able to serve our clients in virtual environments where we can come together, with dashboards and homes on the extranet, rather than sending round spreadsheets and so on. It improves things for our clients as well as our people. We can work together globally in really sophisticated virtual environments. We’ve just built the first client interface for Reckitt Benckiser, an extranet that’s part of the system. All our people who work on Reckitt Benckiser, wherever they may be around the world, can go into that site and work together – with the client. The data security is owned by the client director, so access is restricted.”
Seeing change as exhilarating, not frightening
“The pace of change scares people but it’s really interesting and there are so many possibilities. I’m surrounded by people who are interested in media and technology and delivering for clients – they challenge me as well as being sources of information; this business is full of really clever people. One key thing has been recruiting the right people into my direct team – without them, we wouldn’t have got so far in such a short time. I’m not looking for people like me, but for people who have ideas, who can challenge my thinking – because I definitely don’t have all the answers. I’ve always looked for challenges and, coming into this job, I knew it would be one! I’ve never been constrained here over what I could do, other than how much money I could spend – we’re pretty frugal and cost-conscious. But my ability to be an entrepreneur within the culture and change things has always been supported. No-one has ever said ‘You can’t’.”