Jul 302015

Communication between groups of people is most effective when participants are engaged, and the discussion is both inclusive and collaborative. Creating an ethos of conversation, rather than a one-sided presentation, for critical discussions can better leverage the collective intelligence of the team, make solutions to organisational problems better and more comprehensive, and improve ownership for execution of ideas.

I wrote last year of the importance of being prepared to defend your pitch – ie approaching the meeting with a view to actively engage in a deliberately stimulated dialogue, rather than hitting and hoping an unbriefed audience with a battering-ram of a deck. This piece in the Harvard Business Review looks in more detail at how to effectively define the setting and content to generate a conversation. Of course there’s always the question of giving away your thinking before the meeting (although whoever has the deck ready before the morning of the day – and isn’t there always the assumption that no-one looks at it prior anyway?).

The HBR piece speaks to the importance of engaging with the client during the development process – and this is a challenge in itself with the increasing limitations on client contact during the increasingly regimented pitch processes. However, by setting out with the intention to deliver the pitch content ahead of time it should help structure the pitch development process to build in rather more time to reflect on the content than the time it takes to drive to client HQ. And by taking the time to really challenge the internal team on the anticipated questioning it should stand the pitch team in an ideal position to go beyond knowledge demonstration, taking advantage of a captive audience, and starting to build a relationship through the chemistry of conversation.


Create a Conversation, Not a Presentation

Mar 302015

An interesting piece in the HBR to encore yesterday’s post…

We have become a society of specialists. Business thinkers point to “domain expertise” as an enduring source of advantage in today’s competitive environment. The logic is straightforward: learn more about your function, acquire “expert” status, and you’ll go further in your career.

But what if this approach is no longer valid? Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark. There are many who have deeply studied its nooks, grooves, coloration, and texture. Few have developed the understanding that the bark is merely the outermost layer of a tree. Fewer still understand the tree is embedded in a forest.

Mar 292015

Frequently I’m contacted by recruiters casually sounding me out for names of likely candidates for their obviously hard to source positions. Fairly frequently I have agencies talk to me about starting an offering in Asia and likewise they want to understand the availability of talent on the ground or the unique qualities that might be called for to practice in the region.

First the proximate challenge, the ready availability of individuals with prior experience in Asia. It’s true that there simply aren’t many. The real reason though in my view are the blinkers that have recruiter and agency ring-fencing their candidates into subdivisions that make increasingly less sense in the real world. Health care is niche enough, without actively forcing disciplines apart.

Asia is increasingly driving the bottom line of global pharma, pharma are increasingly looking to establish themselves in the region, eg GSK Consumer’s move of its global marketing operations to Asia. Many new R&D centres have sprung up across the region over the last decade.

So with what looks to be on the surface at least a burgeoning sector, why the lack of an across-the-board spread of talent in the region. If we start by looking at the disciplines and their traditional descriptors and then pin then to an outcome-relevant framework we end up with the representation in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Integrated or Siloed?

In summary what this sets out is:

  1. Science builds the Foundation – This is the Diagnostic phase, understanding needs and gaps
  2. Creativity drives brand Recognition – This is about Exploring responses to proposed product positioning
  3. Connections create a web of BeliefConviction will follow dialogic engagement around a consistent message
  4. The economic Value story leads ultimately to commercial Success – Payers can hardly look beyond a Compelling proposition.

Siloing and hyper-specialization in any context, and as discussed in the linked piece – especially in science, diminishes effectiveness. The situation we have globally in the health care communications sector is akin to having four distinct silos with little crosstalk. In Asia Pacific in reality the situation is somewhat different given that regional and market-level work is mostly focussed on branding and PR. Figure 2 represents the state of play here. That the scientific aspects of market shaping are primarily managed globally, and health technology assessment is not yet critical to many emerging markets might explain the lack of available talent in these disciplines in the regions, but it doesn’t help with efficiently articulating a complete go to market story.

The amount of meaningful devolution to key emerging markets by pharma will ultimately shape the regional communications sector and talent availability in the region. But back to the question at the top, who’s actually struggling to hire if the sector in Asia doesn’t need full spectrum integration?

Put simply, it comes down to the big groups having a macro level perception of a pressing need for integration, which combined with any number of loose acquisitions and global networks (that are in reality so peripheral as to be in reality competitors) is seeing a knee-jerk response to get ahead of the curve. Instead of understanding the market and how they might better leverage their current regional capabilities they announce a sudden strategic imperative to ‘understand the science’ perhaps to potentiate opportunities in specialist pharma.

In the end all this achieves is a lot of over-extravagant resourcing briefs, for positions which – if they are filled – are likely to leave their new occupiers, in the absence of any realisable strategy, and any definitive uplift in client spend or strategic decision making authority, beating against an impossible wind.

Fragmented and Incomplete

Figure 2. Fragmented and Incomplete


Dec 122014

How do you effectively manage creativity to result in a more innovative organization? Particularly in a science-driven sector where silos exist between functions at both client and agency sides and the cultures of creative, strategic, scientific, medical and marketing span a continuum that is often hard to interconnect. Achieving a balanced approach to the fundamental tension between harnessing and unleashing these distinctive talents is not easy. This piece in the HBR characterises the important paradoxes well.


Organizational innovation requires both organizational willingness and ability. Clearly, any group that wishes to innovate must be able to collaborate, experiment, and integrate possible solutions. That is, it must possess the skill to undertake those activities productively. But, given all the barriers to innovation, leaders and their people must also be willing to do the hard work of innovation. Successful organizations develop a deep sense of community that helps individuals endure the tensions and stress, and that prevents the organization from flying apart due to all the opposing forces at play.

Aug 302014

If it’s true that many people fear public speaking more than death, it’s equally true that businesspeople are condemned to a thousand small deaths in client pitches, in boardrooms, and on stage. And that death can turn slow and torturous when you are asked to speak unexpectedly with little or no time to prepare. One of the key demands of business is the ability to speak extemporaneously. Whether giving an unexpected “elevator pitch” to a potential investor or being asked at the last minute to offer remarks to a sales team over dinner, the demands for a business person to speak with limited preparation are diverse, endless, and — to many — terrifying.

Too many in agency land go for quantity, as if by anaesthetizing the audience, those tricky questions aren’t going to come at you. The point is not (usually, anyway) that quality is lacking but it seems there’s a belief that the more knowledge you can demonstrate you have – and by laying out that sheer mass of evidence of days and weeks spent crafting your approach – somehow this is going to be the differentiating factor. Quite apart from wasting the real dialogic engagement opportunity of having your client in the same room for two hours, there has to be a better way than struggling to get your less comfortable presenters into a space whereby their values and insights rather than their presenting shortcomings are brought into focus. And anyway, who wants to sit through, let alone present a 2-hour monologue?

Five Steps to a Positive Pitch Presentation

Five Steps to a Positive Pitch Presentation

Mar 242013

Just came across this piece from a few months ago. Still, a perennial question remains about how to extract value from networks. Beyond the veil of security offered to clients from the array of dots on a map, which is nothing more than a virtue of scale, what really is there in terms of value-add? Given the realities of network members, namely…

  • the unique market parameters within which any given business unit works
  • the market-centric nature of the P&L
  • no apportioned P&L reflection of cross-market collaboration
  • few tangible rewards for individuals driving value growth beyond their profit centre,

what us there in reality to motivate networks – and their key business drivers – to leverage their collective potential. Surely agency roles should exist to disrupt this shortsightedness and focus on extracting bottom-line benefits accruing from collaborative drivers. Quite aside from the bottom line benefits, which should be motivating enough to mandate this approach, without adding some tangible nature to the nebulous concept of ‘the agency network’, in reality what evidence is there to help the client visualise the value?


Jul 012012

As I’ve written previously headline-grabbing graduate numbers might make an employer think he holds all the HR aces. That’s not quite the case, as this Economist piece points out. Given that the attraction of working for one of the world’s biggest consumer brand groups must surely have held pretty wide appeal this is a worrisome statistic. Not just for foreign direct investment, but also for China’s expectations of continued +8% growth, which cannot forever be driven from ever more shoe factories in Wenzhou (温州).

May 052012

China is a conundrum when it comes to human resourcing. With more than 6,000,000 graduates entering the job market this year it should be an employers’ dream, right? Especially given the oft-cited perceived advantages of a foreign employer. Not so fast. As with so many China stats without a healthy dose of perspective they risk overwhelming to the point of irrelevance. For a start most grads are still soaked up by the state owned enterprises (SOEs) where cheap liquidity means over-resourcing is routine. In fact once you drill down to what you re really looking for you’ll find that China is strapped for employees. Tertiary education is a bit uneven and the aforementioned SOEs aren’t overwhelmingly discriminating.

There are positives though, English-language competencies are improving and there are very many young enthusiastic and entrepreneurial Chinese. One perennial problem is job-hopping – evidence again of there being little shortage of demand for employees. This is a real problem and probably the overwhelming issue for an agency whose business is fundamentally built on being able to develop relationships – not to mention guan’xi (关系) – over a reasonable time frame. Losing your staff every two years or less creates ongoing instability – especially during establishment and reputational build through to your China operation achieving critical mass.

How do foreign employers compare in hanging on to their staff? One study showed that Japanese and Hong Kong employers are more successful at holding onto their Chinese employees compared with their US and European counterparts. Some of this might simply be due to better cultural compatibility (after all Hong Kong hardly leads the way in terms of progressive employee relations and Japan offers very traditional workplace relations). It is essential though that western companies embrace their new China operation from the outset as an integral part of their global offering. Given the shift in global economic power any agency for whom their China operation is a crucial commitment to offering a global offering should be looking to a 360 degree approach in learning just as much from their new market as they want to benefit from it. You don’t have to look far to find potential examples, eg the uptake of social media in China and its creative utility puts developed markets in the shade for innovation. Too often the process of induction ends up being a one-way exercise in addressing the functional underpinnings of traditional healthcare communications techniques and agency SOPs. The new operation is seen as a minor add-on. Of course the basics are important but can be alienating given the differences in nature of the business and sheer amount of cultural assimilation required at the outset. Social enterprise utilities like Yammer and SocialCast should be implemented if they are not already and interaction across the business network should become second nature with globalized, multicultural, self-directed teams being the expected norm.

While there are rigid employment constraints and the unevolved nature of Chinese employee contracts can make hiring in China seem somewhat dominated by legalistic procedure, western companies don’t help themselves by for example considering the hiring of a skilled local HR manager at the outset as an avoidable indirect expense. In reality finding the right HR is a priceless up-front investment.

Top 10 tips then for hiring for your China start-up

  1. Appoint an experienced Human Resources Manager; after all your business has no assets without its people
  2. Generally avoid recruitment agencies generally for most positions – they will provide only the barest functional matches and are inclined to offload screening to the client
  3. Utilise social media to reach out to potential candidates; LinkedIn is a good starting point but your HR Manager will know the Chinese channels
  4. Provide a realistic job preview prior to an offer – say a two-week pre-contract period to ensure the best chance of compatibility
  5. Make a point of understanding the essential contractual conditions of your employees; there is no getting away from the fact that there are big cultural differences… understanding these elements will help you get a wider perspective
  6. Provide a comprehensive induction with history and overview of the company and be clear on the mission and vision and China’s key future contribution
  7. Provide a clear  appraisal system and offer clear line of sight – be prepared to be directive at the outset
  8. Be creative with incentives and ensure positive instrumentality – eg consider a secondment to HQ once value is being demonstrably delivered
  9. Avoid a sense of ‘them and us’ – encourage your growing China team to profile themselves in the wider organization; engage regularly and in person with your China team
  10. Consider possible China in all pitch opportunities – fully leverage your new resources’ potential