A YEAR IN… AND LEARNING
ByDesign Communications, the ‘new kid’ on the strategic communications block is celebrating its first anniversary today. Led by industry heavyweights Kevin Welman and Vanessa Baard, each with two decades experience, ByDesign started off claiming to be different… Different ByDesign. And their first year has proven this aspiration true.
With a SABRE Award for Best Newcomer PR Consultancy EMEA Region for 2017 already on their trophy shelf and a prestigious client list that includes SAP Africa, Anglo American, Raizcorp, adidas (to name a few) on their books; Welman and Baard, and their team, are making their mark by doing what they know best, differently to the rest.
Vanessa Baard says that their first year has been interesting, not just in terms establishing the ByDesign brand and growing it exponentially in the SA marketplace, but also in terms of operating within the ever-changing global space.
“The era of fake news, heralded by the Trump administration, and unbelievable as it seems, has become a factor that communicators need to work around. Given the rampant spread of unverified, unquantified information on social media and the resulting erosion of trust in the traditional media, it will become even more important for news organisations to scrutinise content that looks and sounds like the real deal. And while doctored content might not pass the scrutiny of a rigorous newsroom, there’s real potential for public relations, political and diplomatic disasters arising from grainy videos going viral on social media.”
Essentially, says Baard, fake news has brought about a world in which reputational value exceeds authentic brand value. “And separating the one from the other is going to become even trickier with the widespread development of software that is able to manipulate video footage of public figures to allow words to be put in their mouths – literally, and in real time.”
The advent and uptake of fake news is a direct consequence of ‘the rise and rise of social media’ says Welman, and this phenomenon has also shaped how ByDesign is gearing for its future. “Social media, influencer marketing and paid-for content are all interconnected concepts and the role of the influencer, especially, has become a critical aspect of a successful strategy. Going back to 2013, a Technorati report showed that bloggers are the third most powerful online influencers of purchase decisions, after retail sites and brand sites, with 31% of consumers stating that their decision to buy a product had been influenced by something that they previously read in a blog – and this kind of product endorsement is ever-gaining in importance.
“While the jury is still out on where this influencer focus sits as a discipline within the traditional marketing / PR / communications structures, or whether these structures are becoming so amorphous that they will soon no longer exist, smaller boutique firms like ByDesign are possibly best-positioned to leverage this new requirement because of our agility.”
“The lines are definitely blurring. The MD of one of SA’s most prestigious ad agencies recently described himself as ‘a communicator who happens to do advertising’. We’re, indeed, working through interesting times,” concludes Welman.
SO WE’VE BEEN IN OPERATION FOR ABOUT 150 DAYS, AND THERE HAVE BEEN A FEW LESSONS, MANY IN FACT - I DON’T THINK 150 DAYS HAVE EVER SPED BY SO QUICKLY!
Looking back, a few things have surprised me and stand out. Nothing I say will ever be used in a business book on business ownership, these are mere observations, but I guess these observations help shape my daily routine:
1. Relationships – sometimes the best ones aren’t where you thought they would be, so don’t only look in the obvious places. Nurture every relationship, give it time and it will bear fruit. To use a farming analogy, before anything bears fruit, you need to water it – you need to give, so give everything and you will get something back.
2. Reputation – I realise ByDesign Communications is in the business of reputation management but I’m truly amazed at how important your personal and your business reputation is… the promises kept years ago, the relationships formed, how we treated people years ago, come back to ‘bear fruit’.
3. Respect – every interaction, every person, in every circumstance. And you get what you give, right? Right!
4. Run the race – but be gracious in victory and in defeat. This is a hard lesson to learn because, believe me, there are more losses than wins in the first 150 days. But in the instances where we’ve won… we actually haven’t won yet, a door has just been opened, it’s how we walk through that matters.
5. Cash flow, cash flow, cash flow – it’s about closing the financial discussion quickly, honestly, showing value, billing early, getting your revenue in on time and paying suppliers’ invoices before you pay yourself. I’m amazed at how much ‘head space’ cash flow occupies.
6. Be real – I’ve learned to stop saying ‘I’m busy’. Everyone is busy. Thinking you’re too busy inhibits your ability to take on new challenges. My reality is that I chose this path because I love what I do. It’s all about attitude.
Bearing these points in mind has helped us grow ByDesign Communications beyond my expectations, in just 150 days. So bring on a 1000 days, we’re ready. I’m not going to bore you with day-to-day updates but I’m learning so much from this journey.
BY: LEIGH ANDREWS (bizcommunity)
1. Where do you live, work and play?
Baard: I’m a Joburg girl through and through. My two favourite times of living in Johannesburg are now, Jacaranda season; and in December when everyone flocks to the seaside. Joburg becomes a treasure chest of interesting places to eat, drink and be merry.
2. What’s your claim to fame?
Baard: I pride myself on my relationships, whether it be my personal or professional relationships. This is even more important as an entrepreneur! I focus on building strong relationships with clients, media and influencers. Clients demand and deserve high-quality, experienced communications counsel. There is no substitute for a high-touch service offering in this industry.
3. Describe your career so far.
Baard: I would describe my career as one hell of an adventure! I started as a communications intern in 2001 at an international communications agency, some 15 years later, I left this same company as a director and partner. Let’s not forget there was a short break in those 15 years, when I worked at a management consulting firm for about a year. I’ve always loved communications and the pace of agency life – so returned to the realm of agency life.
I’ve recently started a new strategic communications firm, ByDesign Communications, with a long-time friend and respected colleague, Kevin Welman. We are a couple of months in and I know this is one of the best decisions I’ve made – to embrace entrepreneurship!
4. Tell us a few of your favourite things.
Baard: As I’m all about relationships, I love spending time with people – professionally or in my downtime. The cycling bug (both mountain bike and on-road) has bitten and I enjoy time out riding (trying most of the time to stay on the bike and not in the bushes)!
But above all, my two favourite things are my little people. I’m absolutely privileged to have Jessica (7) and Ethan (4) call me mom – #BestJobOnEarth.
5. What do you love about your industry?
Baard: When things go wrong, I love to help clients fix them! Some people shy away from dealing with a crisis, not me. I’m usually first in line to roll up my sleeves – a communication triage nurse of some sorts, maybe.
One of the very first projects I worked on as an intern was the Ellis Park Stadium Disaster, which is recorded as one of South Africa’s worst sporting accidents. On 11 April 2001, spectators poured into the Ellis Park Stadium for the local Soweto derby association football match between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. Overcrowding resulted in a stampede where 43 people were crushed to death. I will never forget that event, and I will never forget 43 people who tragically lost their lives that night. My agency at the time was assisting stadium management in handling crisis communication and my role was to send out the media statements (via fax, nogal… it’s hard to believe email wasn’t such a thing back then). There was something that happened in that process that I think rewired by work-DNA.
6. Describe your average workday, if such a thing exists.
Baard: As an entrepreneur, I’m finding my day is filled with many cappuccinos at coffee shops (which seems to be my new office space), meeting with new contacts and connecting with old colleagues and business networks.
I love that I wake up and no two days in the communications industry are ever the same. It’s a fast-paced environment and you have to have the ability to multitask.
An average workday starts with trawling news sites (Daily Maverick, Rand Daily Mail and Business Day are my starting point). Then it’s a quick review of what’s happening on my social networks (which continues throughout the day, in between meetings and events).
7. What are the tools of your trade?
Baard: Curiosity is at the top of my list!
8. Who is getting it right in your industry?
Baard: As a business owner of a small agency, of course I’m going to say the small agencies are getting it right. But, here’s my argument: Clients want to be challengers and often small agencies have fearless leaders. There are many consultants at big agencies, they win awards, they get paid, they go home. Someone who is brave enough to start a business is more likely to have an edge, and I believe clients want that. Smaller agencies are aggressively seeking more business outside of their geography and expertise and larger agencies are going after smaller opportunities in order to keep growing. Specialists will continue to broaden their service offerings to go after new prospects while generalists will add services to keep up with the evolving needs of their clients.
Why does everyone love craft beer? We love the little guy, the underdog – we want the small guy to win, the ‘homebrewer’ to conquer the global mega brewer. This analogy seems very relevant in the South African media and marketing industry. Over the last five years we’ve seen many global players enter the market by acquiring an established local agency. The market is now experiencing a major influx of smaller owner-run agencies, the new marketing ‘craft brewers’.
9. What are the biggest pain points/challenges/areas for improvement?
Baard: Companies spend millions of rands every year in building a brand or protecting the reputation of their organisation. In recent years, many companies have opted for a myriad of communication agencies from above-the-line, digital, activation and corporate communications – offering a little bit of this and that, rather than having all their communication needs met by just one agency.
But, clients will only realise the value of many agencies through integration – having an impeccable conductor who can pull it all together – a chief communication integration officer of some sorts. The importance of integration does not only refer to different agencies servicing a client. Integration of the marketing and communication departments remains a real problem.
Unfortunately, added to this, there is still a culture amongst agencies of protecting their own turf and fighting for the piece of the pie as opposed to doing great work, even if that means working along-side other agencies, for the best benefit of the client.
10. What are you working on right now?
Baard: I’m working on some really amazing projects at the moment. At the end of October 2016, the ByDesign Communications team worked with Libresse SA and Net#work BBDO to launch #VaginaVarsity. Many girls and women feel uncomfortable and even ashamed to talk about vaginas. Libresse realises that women blush to even say the word ‘vagina’, which leads to shame, silence and possible health problems – and so we wanted to do something about it. Vagina Varsity aims to spark some important discussions around female health in South Africa and be a starting point for girls and women to better understand and love their bodies.
I’m also working on a number of change management and issues management programmes – but those are a little more internally focused, so can’t share too much on these. What’s really exciting to see is how communications is increasingly taking a seat at the CEO table.
11. Tell us some of the buzzwords floating around in your industry at the moment, and some of the catchphrases you utter yourself.
Baard: Collab (although this is one I try to avoid as much as possible)!
12. Where and when do you have your best ideas?
Baard: There must be something about water and my ability to problem solve or come up with ideas when surrounded by water. I love swimming and it’s my morning ritual after I drop the kids off at school to try swim a mile. I love the quietness of swimming – time to think. Maybe it’s the rhythmic breathing, or the melody of hearing myself blow bubbles during every stroke. That or the cliché of great ideas in the shower… but hey, that’s sometimes where some creative-goodies come from.
13. What’s your secret talent/party trick?
Baard: I’ve been known to introduce tequila, tomato and tobacco to a few people in my lifetime.
14. Are you a technophobe or a technophile?
Baard: Definitely a technophile. My husband often says I should be married to my phone.
15. What would we find if we scrolled through your phone?
Baard: Selfies my kids have taken while I’m not looking! And probably way too many emails – I’m an email hoarder! Although I never have unread emails – I can’t handle unread emails.
16. What advice would you give to newbies hoping to crack into the industry?
Baard: Don’t be afraid to fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not learning. Allon Raiz, CEO of Raizcorp, has a great tweet that goes to his community most Sundays: “Same question as every Sunday: ‘What have you tried and failed at this week?’ Nothing = Bad #takeashot.” As an entrepreneur, I’m finding this thinking even more relevant – embrace change and failure and learn from it.
The second thing for newbies is read, read, read! Pick up a newspaper and read. Don’t just check social media feeds for news, but get varying opinion and analysis of what’s happening in the industry. Yes, I love consumer magazines… but its perhaps because I’ve predominantly been financial services/corporate focused for most of my career that I lean towards media outlets such as Business Day, Daily Maverick and Rand Daily Mail for my daily news fix – and varying analysis.
Simple as that. Click here for more on ByDesign Communications, visit their website, follow ByDesign on Twitter, as well as Baard’s personal account. You can also email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 082 331 8158.
*Interviewed by Leigh Andrews.