Why comms has a pivotal position in the boardroom

Comms is having a growing influence in the boardroom as business reputation becomes increasingly important to investors and customers. But how can comms professionals best structure their operations and processes to ensure this influence remains significant and effective?

Group Director of Marketing at the recently formed EssenceMediacom Claire Ferguson and Beth Wade, Global Chief Marketing Officer at VML Y&R, are both highly experienced comms practitioners. They joined Propeller Group Director of Strategy Rose Bentley to discuss the big issues at our latest Comms Club online event.

Opening the discussion Beth said: “We are sitting at the table because we have the insight to see everything holistically. We have a perspective many don’t have because we  see everything and we are the ones responsible for bringing the business story to life.”

Claire added that this audience empathy point was crucial to understanding the capabilities of comms and that the best practitioners “really had walked a mile in the audience’s shoes.”

Taking the initiative

Comms decision-making often takes place under press and at speed. While the mantra “It is better to beg forgiveness, than ask permission”, attributed to former U.S. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, might seem appropriate, Beth stressed “nothing is done in a vacuum.”

She added: “We need to have different perspectives weighing in but need to move with agility. I can pick up the phone at any time and talk to our comms partners in the network. It’s very important to create relationships of trust with those that can quickly get an answer [to a query] together.”

The need to forge connections and find supporters across the business is vital, said Claire. She added: “I think striking the right balance between being punchy and navigating politics is always a constant tightrope we walk as comms experts. There’s not really a one size fit all answer – it depends on what that specific challenge is.

“I think it’s always important to be as transparent as possible, follow your gut instincts –  be open and honest and clear about intentions… and be flexible and stray true to your own and your team’s guiding principles to navigate those challenges.”

Steering cultural change

Businesses are under scrutiny for how they handle Environmental, Social and Governance challenges and meet the changing expectations of customers and clients. Comms has a huge role in helping businesses navigate around these issues and evolve a point of view for internal and external use.

Beth pointed to the relationship between “the comms team and the people team” being essential for success. A decade ago years ago such departments were fairly siloed but developing DEI approaches now mean working closely to tackle such issues and to explain to clients why inclusivity is important and needs to be reflected in the work. She added: “We can set a strategy and an approach but it will take every department lead, office lead and team meetings to make that happen. It’s about real conversations and accountability at a variety of levels.”

Claire highlighted the need for global organisations to understand local cultural attitudes. “There are massive nuances culturally in countries and regions globally that have to be taken into account. And this means looking at everyone’s considerations and objectives, not just the comms and people teams.

“There needs to be clear KPIs for every single person in leadership roles and everyone in the operation in an agency – this is the only way to actually really drive change. There has to be control at a local level because the cultural differences can be so big.”

Double vision

One of the hardest things about the comms role is knowing how to navigate between prioritising day-to-day strategic decisions and giving longer-term operational decisions the attention they need.

Claire said it was important to have a mix of different senior comms “types” in the business with different skill sets and capabilities to handle this dynamic between the short-term and big goals.

“It’s easy in junior roles to get very distracted by the urgent and the churn – there’s always a crisis somewhere.” She advised holding regular team meetings to make sure the correct balance was being achieved and that there could be course corrections as necessary.

The need for constant communication to keep an eye on future goals – “where to go and how to hold hands to get there” – is essential. Beth explained the importance of the VML Y&R annual global meeting to explain the agency’s vision to its 13,000 employees and stressed that it is imperative that the vision is clearly communicated and “people are inspired and excited about what is next.”

Giving a helping hand to the next generation

The agency comms directors of today should be an inspiration for the next generation and Claire and Beth both had advice for those who hope to eventually exert influence with the C‑suite. Claire pointed out that “it’s really good for comms people to see their careers can progress like other senior leadership team members. Effective comms play a crucial role in leadership and decision making across our agencies, industry and all of our clients as well.”

The need for broader experience is important. Claire highlighted how her career not been linear in terms of comms and marketing and said: “Having that zig zag approach to my career has helped me in the boardroom – I understand the agency operating model to a degree  in a way I would not necessarily do so if I was just siloed in comms and marketing all the way through – I would not necessarily understand the nuance of all the different aspects of the business.”

Beth actually started her career client-side and has worked in client services. This means she has a good grounding in the client perspective – what clients what they are looking for, how to present to them and how to tell the agency story “and find that differentiator”.

She advised comms practitioners looking to work their way up to agency CEO to build experience working directly with a client. There’s a need to learn about creating, delivering and explaining the work. “As a leader you have to be able to have those conversations to build that trust… and embrace change and embrace different opportunities.”

And everybody recommended finding mentors and supporters who can act as sounding boards and role models as essential for aspiring comms leaders looking to develop their careers.