In 2015, corporate communications at Argo Group, the company at which I'm executive vice president, were in transition, and my team and I were tasked with cleaning the slate. There was a need to mature the overall communications function at the company, and we really needed a full root and branch review of how we operated and where we could improve.
What we realized is that we were functioning in a disjointed and disconnected way. A new approach was needed. We decided to start completely from scratch: We would consider all the possibilities, including how to get the biggest impact on a modest budget, and then decide what was right for the company.
Ultimately, a communications model changes and adapts all the time; being able to evolve is key to its success. We set out to construct a communications function with strong fundamentals, yet one that could flex and adapt. The difference between the previous static model and what we attempted to build — successfully, I believe — was like day and night. It was also important to keep in mind an outside perspective; benchmarking data helped to guide our spend compared to our peer group, as well as build a model that enabled us to punch above our weight.
This experience highlighted many valuable lessons all communications professionals can keep in mind when building or revamping a communications model in their own organizations:
Striking the right balance
My team and I wanted to focus on a model that could provide outstanding client service and exceptional quality while remaining cost-efficient. Typically, one of these aspects is compromised in many organizations that I’ve seen. Either the internal client is let down, quality slips or price gets out of control.
Our focus was always achieving best-in-class results. Through long practice, we’ve learned to maximize our spending by creating integrated plans and designing the right staffing model. We selected a few strategic external agency partners that provide us with access to talent. In some cases, this includes specialized talent we couldn’t or wouldn’t need to employ full time. This approach has enabled us to scale up and down quickly. It is vital to build a cross-team, cross-agency process and partnerships to help these teams work together.
It's not always easy to find the approach that works best for your company. We have all experienced an assortment of organizational models — the traditional communications model, a shared services setup, the decentralized team model — and there will be variations of those. Some are more siloed, while others are more integrated. You might find one or multiple agencies in the mix, or even a specific agency just working for the CEO. But we were not satisfied with these models.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so the real challenge is finding that fine balance that works for you. Your aim should be creating a fast, scalable, high-quality approach that has access to top talent and encourages innovation and creativity — all while maintaining a core competency focus and keeping a lid on costs. On the other hand, you should avoid an overly organizational focus that results in confused clients and a slow, unscalable operation that is complacent, conventional and expensive.
We landed on a process-driven model with “equal partners at the table.” We have one brand and one message, but our (lean) in-house team consists of three core competencies supported by three agencies — each with its own specialties and expertise — that work closely together.
We’ve structured our team around an internal client model, where all our organizational stakeholders have direct access to the communications team leadership. The goal is to maintain a flat working structure in which everyone involved in the communications team strives to operate without hierarchical distinctions. The closer we come to that idea, the smoother the operations of the communications function will be.
It has to be said — big fan though I am of what they do — I've found communications people are not always great at processes. It isn’t their focus. But, like any part of the business, it is important to have repeatable, explainable and clear procedures so that both clients and agency partners know exactly where they are and how they can proceed. My team and I simply call this “the way we work," and it’s important to coach the playbook by regularly reminding the team of the priorities and the focus. After all, we’re only human, and we all need help staying on track sometimes.
Added to that, I recommend including regular metrics and scorecards, which are critical to hold you and your team accountable and to pursue continuous improvement. For example, my company had been printing annual reports for many years. In 2016, we moved to replicating print and digital, while in 2017, we added a fair amount of video. But by 2018, digital was leading the process. So last year, we launched our annual report as a social-first campaign, which outperformed anything we had ever done before. We changed how we viewed the report and, in turn, learned how to maximize its effectiveness.
There’s no doubt it’s a challenging time for marketing and communications. From the 24/7 news cycle to channel fatigue, through disparate audiences, balancing being first versus being right and the blurring and overlapping of paid, owned and earned media content, our world is changing. We’re moving toward a new normal in marketing and communications.
Whether you have the benefit of starting from scratch, it’s important to think about how you organize your communications and marketing function. Fundamentally, this comes down to two simple questions: Who is your primary focus? Always the client. And how can you exceed their expectations in a cost-effective manner?