Ryan Williams: “Landing the Big One”
“In 2008, I was working together with my father, Tudor Williams, and an application we’d submitted to speak at the IABC World Conference was accepted. As part of our preparation, we approached several chapters saying, ‘We’ll be speaking in June about this, would you like us to come and do our presentation for your chapter first?’ The Toronto chapter said absolutely and invited us to speak there on communication measurement and auditing… the really sexy pieces of communication! But it turned out a lot of people were interested in that, at the time, as it was specific to internal communications. So we went out there, had some good food, met with some great people, gave this talk, and didn’t think anything else of it.
A few months later, I got a note from someone who was in the audience that day, from The Home Depot, wondering if we could follow up with her. Turns out they were planning an organizational-wide, national communications audit. It wasn’t just a small slice. It was going to be a holistic project, looking at everything they do and communicate with store staff across the organization and in two languages.
The Home Depot has 35,000 employees across the country and their Canadian operations also manages Asia. So as they were talking to us, I was thinking, ‘Oh this is great’ and at the same time thinking, ‘Oh no, that’s a really big audit, how do we have capacity to do that? We won’t be able to do that with Tudor and myself out of Vancouver.’ Now, we’d done the very same work in BC, we’d done it for ministries in Alberta, we’d done it in small credit unions. We’d worked with larger organizations in the US. But we hadn’t done a national organization like The Home Depot. We had done a lot of things, but nothing on this scale. This was definitely a milestone for our business.
We knew that it just happened that they heard us talk and we were going to have an opportunity to compete for the project. But we also knew that we were not going to just naturally get this. They hire Environics to do research for them, which could have done the work. Edelman is also a big presence in Toronto and they could have done the work. And we’re not in downtown Toronto at the clubs and the different things with them. If they’re going to hire us to go to their centre in Don Valley, it’ll be because they believe we’re the best in the world at it. Not because of where we’re from.
So, how are we going to do this, we asked ourselves. And that’s where we laid back on our experience with IABC over the years. We’d both had this wonderful volunteer experience, where I volunteered on international committees, my dad had been on these things, and we had developed these relationships. So quite quickly we reached out to our network and said, ‘We’re the best at the research and planning piece, but we need someone who’s got the network in Toronto to support this work locally. We need someone in Quebec who can understand the culture and the language locally, and we need someone who knows where digital’s going.’ So if we’re going against the top, we’re going to show them we’ve got a better team than any of those that could be compiled at one of the major agencies.
And that’s what we were able to do. Shel Holtz out of California took on the digital strategy piece, Annette Martell, a former IABC International chair took on the local piece, and John Fleming from Montreal, who can do wonderful qualitative research, took on all our French language and translation. So our team was built through our IABC network.
You have to take risks in order to go after big things. You can’t not. But also you want to be smart about it. That reputational assessment and being able to present that, was incredibly important. But then also having the ability to deliver. Everybody working on the project was an expert, so we were well ahead of the larger agencies in the expertise and quality of our team. It’s not just that everyone on our team was an ABC, but three of the team were IABC Fellows and there are only 40 of those in the world! We’d also served together on Boards, judged awards together, gone to conferences, knew each other’s families, and developed those long-term, deep relationships.
So, the initial part of every job is excitement. You put together the proposal that you think will win, and you get the gig. And then you take a big swallow, and trust the process. We’ve done this before. We can do this again, it’s just a different context. With that client we travelled to stores all over the prairies and Annette went back East and in to the Maritimes and did all the stores there. We profiled the geography and broke down the impact that messages would have in those different areas by region and by level of employee. We went in to locations and we got to know people from the front lines all the way through to their CEO, as part of this process. And really created some unique solutions for them.
A lot of it was helping managers and how they get communications down to the employees. There were many opportunities where we looked at the whole system and saw that all sorts of deliverables were going to help the business, but they were also going to make the employees feel better. It had a real impact, it’s not just the company doing better, but the employees are doing better.
This was the first time we were able to demonstrate our full capability and led in to opportunities for our team to do the same thing with PepsiCo, with ConAgra Foods, and ESPN. All that happened after. If we hadn’t done The Home Depot work, we wouldn’t have been able to do the other work. And I don’t think we would have been known to do the other work. In the end, it was really successful in how we broke some new ground with how we did The Home Depot work, which was quite attractive to others. And who we did it with was also part of other people becoming aware of what we were doing.”
Some facts about Ryan
Current position: Partner, Tekara Organizational Effectiveness
IABC member since: 1999
Trend that interests me the most: How people communicate and create meaning. How they understand the world through their chosen modes of communication.