Business communications and following your instinct

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Martin Knight, MD of Home, talks to Shaun Weston about employee engagement and internal communications in this podcast transcript.

by Shaun Weston

Business communications and following your instinct transcript

Introduction

Shaun: Martin, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Martin: Hello, Shaun. How you doing?

Shaun: So my guests usually have a roadmap of career markers that I can draw on to plan each episode. And you may be the first guest on the show who has been incumbent, if you will, in your current role for about 28 years. So please tell the listeners a little bit more about what seems to be – pardon the pun – your home from home.

Martin: Well, you know, technically I’m still on work experience, Shaun. I joined as a starry eyed designer from Falmouth College, and I met this wonderful woman called Carol Whitworth. She asked me to “come in and show me your portfolio”. And I came in and showed it with clients there, with friends there, with all sorts of people and was like, “Oh my god”. A baptism of fire, and this kind of thing; a spotty youth showing this portfolio. We hit it off from there, actually. And actually, it’s sort of a relationship made in heaven really, if I’m honest. We both got on like a house on fire. And after a few years of being a designer, she asked whether I wanted to become a kind of partner with her and grow the business out, and we’ve not looked back ever since really. We’ve gone from strength to strength.

We were, at that stage I guess, all things to all people in terms of designers. We would do branding, we would do internal comms, we would do campaign stuff on. And actually, we really hit on that: the fact that it’s the people we really resonated with. And when we did brands, and when we created these brands for people in doing workshops and understanding what it meant for the organisations that we worked with, what it meant to work for that particular place, that was the really interesting thing for us, and kind of galvanising that and harnessing that.

Shaun: That initial stage, though, if we step back a little bit … that initial stage of throwing you in – that “baptism of fire” as you put it – that shows a lot of trust in you, the “spotty youth” as you modestly called yourself. That’s a lot of trust for someone to come straight from an educational environment to this very creative agency.

Martin: Yeah, like I said, I think it was just one of those meetings of minds really. I can’t put it any different than that, in that we hit it off. Carol trusted me and I trusted her. She had a lot of wisdom and I had a lot of energy and we just bounced off each other. We were only talking the other day about some of the deadlines and some of the things that we used to … we’d still be there two o’clock in the morning, not an idea between us, but we would enjoy it, we would have fun, and then we would get there and get the ideas done. Go have a shower at seven o’clock. Get on the road again. Yeah.
Eight o’clock. Go to the meeting at nine. And nine times out of 10, win it. And that was the kind of adrenaline rush and I guess the excitement of it all at that time, you know? And that’s really fostered this great relationship. And I think respect for one another.

Shaun: Yes, very very important as well, that sort of respect, otherwise nothing grows from it.

Martin: No. Exactly. And you’ve gotta have that respect, you’ve gotta have that trust. I think we’ve both earned our stripes with each other, if you know what I mean. We’re there for each other, and still to this day, we speak all the time about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. She trusts me and I trust her, and that’s what it’s all about.

Understanding others’ pressures

Shaun: Now, the person who works at Home is called a “homie”, is that right?

Martin: That’s right.

Shaun: Does that make you Chief Homie? Or at least co-Chief Homie?

Martin: Ah, yes, it does. It does.

Shaun: How would you actually describe your role then, at the moment?

Martin: Well, I am in the fortunate enough position to have done every role within Home, apart from the accounting.

Shaun: Who wants to do that?

Martin: Who wants to do that, right? I joined as a junior designer and worked my way up through all levels of design. We didn’t have any account managers initially, so we would go to the meetings and do all that meeting with the clients and managing that. I’m in that fortunate position to be able to empathise with every single one of our employees and get what they’re going through, and understand the pressures that they feel. I guess I can glue all the bits together and make it all work, and make sure that people have that line of sight and empathy for one another. That’s really important that we get each other’s pressures in our jobs and what we’re trying to achieve and all trying to achieve it together.

Shaun: I think it’s an important point you’re making there as well, is that you have been through lots of different roles and levels – I suppose if you want to talk in a hierarchical sense – within a business. There are many people who have done that throughout their career as well, but have gone from business to business and perhaps from industry to industry. You’re quite unique in that your position is within one company in one industry. You know that inside out. There’s an extra level of that understanding. I think that’s to your benefit. Would you say so?

Martin: I will agree. And actually you make an interesting point now, where people would chop and change from different organisation to organisation. I think the thing Home has managed to do is just keep … not reinventing itself, but keep being progressive, keep winning bigger – not necessarily bigger – but keep winning clients that really excite us and challenge us. And that is the bit that it’s all about. We want to be excited, we want to be challenged, we want to be stimulated. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to win those clients that have enabled us to do that. It’s not always about being the biggest – it’s actually just having the biggest challenge that stimulates me and all my people and designers, but also strategists. It’s testament to what we’ve done over the years: to be able to pick and choose the clients that we want to go for and want to work with, and those partnerships we want forge.

Multi-region skill sets

Shaun: Let’s talk about those clients a little bit. Having a look at your client logos on your website, for instance, mainly British but there’s a lot of US companies in there as well.

Martin: Yeah, we made a decision … So Carol is a great, great public speaker and does a lot of speaking around the world. There were too many conversations she was having at events that she was talking at in America, where people are, “Your stuff is wicked. We need that here. It would fly in the US.”

We sat down – like I said, we talk all the time – it was just smacking us in the face; it was too much of a good opportunity to miss really. So let’s give it a go. Let’s go and speak to them a bit more seriously about how we could potentially help them. I guess the US idea was born, and off Carol went with her suitcase. Yeah, about having more robust conversations with these people about what we could actually do for them. And now the US is a big part of our business; a considerable part of the business, and one that we really enjoy working with those people and those challenges. Again, that’s another one of those great challenges and milestones within Home’s existence of, “OK, we’re gonna try and do this and try and export. What does that entail and how do we do that? Do we open offices there? Do we export? How do we do that?” It’s just keeping it all fresh really, and those challenges front of mind really.

Shaun: Did those challenges include any differences in the approach to the creative side of things? So obviously practical and logistical skills of working with the different regions and different country, but what about the creative side? Do they do things differently in America and were you able to understand and then meet those new targets and new challenges?

Martin: I think there are quirks between different regions, but people are people and we work in employee experiences, so it’s all about trying to communicate with people, to be honest with people, to be real with people and to bring them on (I don’t like to say the phrase) the “journey” with you. And so yes there are challenges, but ultimately we’re all made up the same way and we all want the same things. So slight quirks, but not radically different, and that played into our hands really.

Shaun: So the transferring off your knowledge was pretty smooth?

Martin: Yeah, I think so. Obviously, we had to establish a way of working – we were gonna export to the US and we had to work out and prove that we could do this. But the world’s a small place nowadays, as we’re finding out in enjoying lockdown. We can be wherever, and record sessions like this or speak to people, interview people, understand cultures, do big workshops with people and then bring that back and get our creative team, who again have a lot of of history with Home and a lot of experience – use all that experience to go back with solutions to their business challenges.

"We want to be excited, challenged and stimulated. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to win those clients that have enabled us to do that."

Business communications in 1992

Shaun: I’m gonna list just a few of the key words behind homes offering, which are internal communications, culture, engagement, HR, creativity, CSR (you can tell this is a list) values, strategy and planning. Is this a collection of its various skills over the years, or was it that from the get-go?

Martin: This is a collection of the skills that we’ve acquired over time. Like I referred to at the beginning of this, from the get-go Home was just a pure design agency – Carol’s a designer, I’m a designer – and it was just … we did creative. We’d love creative.
We did it for the joy of it and creating something beautiful for our clients. When we were doing branding for people, it was those workshops where you got to meet the people that work within these organisations, and really harnessed what it was to work there, that really stimulated us and got us on to thinking about, wouldn’t it be really great to foster this energy that these people have working for this organisation, into some of the larger organisations that we worked with. And we’ve worked with Royal Mail – we’re doing some internal comms with them, and we’ve been doing that for 25/26 years.

Shaun: A really long time.

Martin: So it was like, how can we get this magic into an organisation like this? And that was really where the idea came from, was that passion to energise workforces really.

Shaun: Yeah. Can we focus on the communication side of things for the moment? So you may not know what the landscape looked like in 1981 when Home came to fruition, but what did business communications look like in 1992 when you joined?

Martin: I think if you had a newsletter, you were lucky!

Shaun: Was it Gordon Gekko land?

Martin: Yeah!

Shaun: For those who don’t know Wall Street – Gordon Gekko’s character in Wall Street– business communications may perhaps not have been quite as flexible as they are these days.

Martin: Yeah, absolutely. And we were just told, “this is what’s happening; this is how it is and suck it up”. This is it! Now, obviously, we talk a lot about well-being and the experience. We try and drive great customer experience through great employee experiences, and that is the nugget.

Before, I think people used to just really concentrate on the external marketing and just “attract more customers, more customers, more customers, big churn. And if they don’t like it, well, they can go with … just attract more, just attract more.” I think those days are long behind us now. It’s about retaining the market share that you’ve got and making sure your customers are advocates for you. People are savvy to that now. It’s not just a great advertising campaign anymore. It’s actually about the whole deal. Is the product good? Is the experience good? Does it work? What was it like? And people buy from people, and that’s what it’s all about.

Client expectations

Shaun: Well that’s a really good point. There’s a sense that companies – any business, I suppose – have a ‘sense of self’ now that they may not have had in the early 90s or whatever, where we are a sum of our parts. There’s more inward looking at what the business can achieve if people are happy within that business. And then if employees are happy, our customers will be happy, and I don’t know if that existed in the 80s and 90s as much as it does now.

Martin: I don’t think it did, if I’m honest. It certainly wasn’t very apparent to the way that people wanted to come and communicate. Now there’s obviously huge emphasis on people’s well-being and the whole experience, and that whole thing of “a happy employee will deliver a great experience”.

Shaun: And it filters through their work, and then they pass it on to the customer.

Martin: Yeah.

Shaun: With all that in mind, do clients know what they want more now, or do they come to you for ideas? And has this changed over the years?

Martin: That’s a good point. Back in the early 90s, people would be very prescriptive about what they wanted: “We want this and we want that. We want a brochure to say this, we want a recognition scheme to say that.” Or a newsletter or an internet banner, or a few years ago “we just want an app”. What do you want to do? “I don’t know. We all feel like we need one!”

Our thing is always about understanding the problem. People may come and say, “Look, we think we need this,” and we’ll obviously take that onboard. But we’ll also say let’s do a little bit of digging around this. Do some research. Let’s talk to some people about the challenges and where you are in the landscape and then try and find something that actually fits and will help and solve that challenge. I think people still come to us on a tactical level and say, “We want a recognition campaign”. OK, let’s talk about that. But a lot of people come to us and say, “We’re sort of failing at this”. Or actually, we will highlight that something’s not quite working through some of the immersions and some of the conversations that we’ve had, whether that’s board level or down to the work force, the guy driving the van or sweeping the floor. It’s about speaking to the people, understanding the business, where it is, what it’s trying to do, and then working out where things can be improved.

Reaping what you sow

Shaun: Yeah, and you preempted a lot of our current challenges of 2020 – and Covid-19 – in getting your ‘Digital Sofa Sessions’ up and running. Can you tell us a bit more about those?

Martin: We started the Sofa Sessions to give people the knowledge about being able to tackle some of these challenges we talked about a minute ago. You need to try and bring it to the people. And the world is a small place. Technology works in our favour. We do these digital Sofa Sessions for people today – let’s say an EVP (employee value proposition) … people sometimes just don’t know where to start or how to have that conversation with senior leaders within their organisation. They sort of know they want to do it, but “how do we go about it? What does what does it entail? How do we get this ball rolling?”

We wanna be able to help people. We want to be able to give them the tools to be able to have the conversations and maybe take things forward on their own. But if we can help out and give them some advice, or actually get involved with the project as well, then all great.

But we’ve been doing them for a few years actually, and they’ve been good, they’ve been really good. And people, I’m pleased to say, are really happy when they come, and have given us some great feedback. I’m not saying we’ve got it perfect. We always try and evolve it and listen to any thoughts people may have, but it is certainly going in the right direction. And it’s certainly helping people out there in the world doing what they’re doing.

Shaun: I think it’s really nice actually. There’s a real warmth to how Home seems to market itself, and engage with even the people it doesn’t know. It could be lead generation if you look at it from a business point of view, but it seems to be very much “let us try to help you through this”. I’ve looked at quite a few sites that offer what you offer, but not quite the same as the way you offer it. I’ll come to the Home toolkit, for instance. You put together a little package there to help people, to help businesses through this sort of thing.

Martin: We felt passionate that we needed to be there and actually communicate and help people in these difficult times. We put these toolkits together as quickly as possible and got them out and made them a reference point to be able to take them through the next stages.

It felt very reactive, because we were in a reactive world at that point. Things were changing very quickly. How were these HR managers and people going to be able to communicate, how are they going to talk to people, what were the challenges that everyone was facing? We’re in a fortunate enough position to be able to speak to lots of organisations and have a little bit of insight into all of those. We see that we’ve got this special power, to some degree, for being able to look at this organisation, have these conversations and then pull these pearls of wisdom together and kind of go, “you’re not alone. This is what’s going on.” And I think that’s really, really powerful.

We felt that compelled to do it, you know? People have written and said “your toolkit has been great, it’s really helped” and we’ve had such great feedback from it. Like you said, it’s about being there and trying to be open and honest and. It’s the long game. If we can help somebody, you reap what you sow.

The evolving leader

Shaun: Let’s talk a little bit more about you now. Let’s put you on the spot! You started out in graphic design, so are you an accidental managing director, or did you find your true calling quite early in your professional career?

Martin: You could say I’m an accidental managing director. I went to Falmouth School of Art & Design and really enjoyed my time there. What a wonderful place that is. I joined up with Home (and Carol) many years ago and just loved being on the boards, as it were, in those days. I really enjoyed that challenge, really enjoyed meeting people, talking to people and creating, and that whole buzz and vibe. But then there’s the account management side to it; there’s the other bits to it. And so, as you evolve and other people come into the organisation, I think (for me anyway) you naturally take that leadership role to some degree.

Shaun: And how tough was that, Martin? So when people started to enter the business and were looking to you … how did that feel?

Martin: Well, it’s obviously a challenge and a responsibility, but I relished it actually. I don’t think I’m ever one for sitting back. I’m definitely always near the front of the queue in terms of trying to be involved and sort things out, or try and steer. I’m not shy with my views. I enjoy it! I enjoy working with people. Again, going back to staying within Home for so long, it’s about the people; it’s always been about the people; it’s always been about the work. We can do great work, and if I surround myself with great people, then you know I’ve got no appetite to go anywhere else really.

Shaun: So did the leadership responsibilities start to overtake your creative daily life quite quickly, or was it a very gradual process? And just as an added question on that one, how much do you contribute creatively now, 28 years on?

Martin: It was a gradual process and that was OK. It was quite challenging obviously to flip between the two and manage people, doing all the creative and being responsible for that, and making sure we went to the meetings and delivered it, and do all things. Now, obviously, we’ve got a great team of strategists, we’ve got a great team of creative people, great account managers, and great people surrounding us. So I guess I rarely get involved. It’s more just working on Home and making sure we deliver what we promise to our clients.

Shaun: Driving the business.

Martin: Yeah, making sure it’s healthy and we’re doing things the right way; forward planning and that. So that’s the one thing that is difficult: I will get involved and I’m fortunate enough to be able to just sit in a room and just listen in or be involved with a brainstorm, or talk about Royal Mail – who I’ve worked with and have experience of 20+ years – and talk about how that business is changing and how we can help with some of our creative thinking there. I can dip in and out.

But if I’m honest, it’s becoming more rare, which … I guess … do I struggle with that? There’s parts of me when I wish I could be back there doing it, but then nine times out of 10 I’m more than happy to be doing what I’m doing now, and getting the satisfaction from what we achieve as a collective and not selfishly sometimes. When you’re a designer it’s like, “this is going really well, and that’s gone great and the clients really love that” and you feel that benefit. I feel the reward now from every single one; every single person, what they’ve done and how they achieve it. The wins we win together.

"If I surround myself with great people, then I’ve got no appetite to go anywhere else really."

Staying up to date

Shaun: Do you stay up to speed on the new tools on the graphic design side of things? Do you feel that, “I’ve got old. I don’t know how all these new Photoshop tools are looking these days?!”

Martin: For the last 12 weeks, I’ve had to do a lot more myself! I’ve got to say I’m a bit rusty.

Shaun: Yeah, it happens, doesn’t it?

Martin: Yeah, because they’re evolving all the time. They do such amazing things now, I think god this is incredible. But no, if I’m honest, I can’t stay abreast of it and I’m getting a bit ring rusty, it’s got to be said.

Instinct

Shaun: All right, so we’re coming to a close. Half an hour’s almost up. I like to ask at this point what advice you would have for young people listening in who are looking to perhaps, in this case, enter the world of internal communications.

Martin: You’ve got to really follow your gut. For us – Home – we followed our gut about seeing something that we were passionate about in terms of galvanising people within an organisation. Like I said, back in the early 90s, “employee experience” wasn’t even a phrase. It was just internal comms – just communicate that. But we felt really passionate about galvanising those people, and speaking to people as people, bringing them along with the business and connecting them to it.

We were pioneers really, and we drew a line in the sand and went, “you know what, this is what we’re going to do and this is what we’re really passionate about”. And that’s what we did from that day on. All of our decisions have been about enhancing that and making that the best it could be and not watering ourselves down and going “well, we could do employee experience and internal comms, but we could also do a bit of this or also do a bit of that.

Shaun: Stay flexible.

Martin: Yeah. People want to buy experts now. That’s what we did and thankfully it has paid off. But it’s about gut and what you’re passionate about.

Shaun: I’m glad you said that. I think instinct has almost become a dirty word for some. That relying on your instinct is not as good as showing us some evidence of what the landscape will look like. Anyone with great experience is able to provide success on a foundation of instinct more often than people who are inexperienced. I think so, anyway.

Martin: I agree. Let’s take America, as we talked about earlier, as an example. If you had done a balance sheet and worked it out, it would have gone: “It doesn’t make any sense to just invest so much money into this to try and kick it off.” But instinct and gut told us that actually this was the right thing to do, and we’ve got to go forth and give it a go at least. If it doesn’t work, well it doesn’t work.

There’s a lot of instinct and intuition and listening to what people say, and then having the conviction to go forth and go, “You know what, the door’s half-open. Let’s go and walk through it and see what we can find.

Shaun: You have a birthday coming up soon. How old will you be?

Martin: I can’t divulge that, Shaun. Old enough! Enough.

Shaun: You’ve already told me you’re a keen surfer, so are you able to get back out on the water for your birthday at least?

Martin: Well, I’m hoping so, yes. Now that obviously we can travel a bit more and visit the beach. I haven’t visited the beach since mid February, so I’m craving it. I’m hoping that middle/end of July I’ll be able to get myself down there.

Shaun: And of course Home will celebrate a big birthday next year.
Any celebrations planned?

Martin: Yeah, we’re not shy of a party! We haven’t forged any plans yet, but I’m sure it will be a raucous affair. It will be good, and you’re obviously invited.

How to contact Martin Knight

Shaun: I’ll thank you very much. That’s really nice of you. Well, how do people get in touch with you, Martin?

Martin: Well, obviously there’s email they can get me on, and LinkedIn. You can just find me on LinkedIn. Yeah, just drop me a bell, give us a call – the number’s on the website and stuff. Please hook up with me on LinkedIn.

Shaun: Fantastic, and thanks again for joining me, Martin.

Martin: Thank you.

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