Woman’s realm

New management, new premises, new outlook – it’s all change at Coley Porter Bell. Jane Lewis talks to Amanda Connolly, managing director with The Vision

ONE of Amanda Connolly’s biggest challenges when she took over as managing director at Coley Porter Bell last summer was what to do about the staff. Not that there was anything wrong with them. It was the impact of all the changes within the consultancy that she was concerned about. When a company loses three of its directors and the managing director within 18 months there are bound to be repercussions among the ranks.

She said at the time that she would be introducing some changes, and those have certainly taken place. The WPP-owned consultancy has moved premises, merged its activities, set up an entirely new senior management team and introduced some ambitious programmes with the principal aim of keeping staff reassured and fulfilled.

While some companies offer canteens full of celebrity food, multigyms and private health schemes to tempt and keep employees, CPB has opted for a rather more ingenious method intended to motivate staff, foster company loyalty and, uppermost in Connolly’s mind, improve the consultancy’s creative prowess.

Having been through major changes at the top, and then a major move and restructuring of the whole business, employees had to feel more than just part of the consultancy, concluded Connolly. They should be given as many opportunities as possible to air their opinions and be rewarded for good work.

So each member of staff is being treated to a fairly rigorous training programme while incentives such as a monthly award scheme have been introduced.

What’s interesting about CPB’s approach is that it is research-led. Although designers are used to commissioning research for clients, few have brought in researchers to assess their own set-ups.

According to Connolly, the CPB management team wanted feedback from clients and staff on the new CPB brand. This had evolved from the bringing together of the branding and identity divisions which were previously housed in separate buildings.

She admits there was a “certain amount of concern” about moving to the new Knightsbridge premises and merging the group’s departments: “We used to be like two different companies with two different corporate cultures, so moving here was a symbolic thing.”

The findings of the research, code-named Enigma, showed that the consultancy was perceived as a good place to work, that staff wanted to feel they were learning and developing, and that CPB could have more of a creative profile. “People internally – and even clients – feel we’ve been marketing-led, so we feel that while strategic input is important, we want to be known for being creative, that’s what our business is all about,” comments Connolly. She points out that the group perhaps needs to make more noise about its work for clients, which range from British Telecom and Cadbury’s to organic supermarket chain Planet Organic. “We want to push ourselves and be more leading edge, come up with more surprises,” she explains.

Hence the Ace creative awards acknowledging creative excellence within the consultancy. “Ace is setting standards and also setting a style. If we can get it right internally, we can start to get it right externally,” says Connolly. Each month the best design work is selected and put forward for quarterly awards, culminating in an overall annual winner. Prizes include trophies and dinner at a restaurant of the winning team’s choice.

There is also a Farmer of the Month equivalent for staff finding new business, who stand to win a golden wellie for business developed from existing clients.

Staff training has become a major investment for CPB, with this year’s budget between 60000 and 70 000. In response to staff wanting to learn and develop, an intensive training programme known as Jaws has been put in place. The focus is on selling, and it is aimed at all staff with some modules completed at a residential centre.

Connolly defends the bias of the programme by suggesting that “staff are not only learning new skills, but also bonding and learning from each other. It seems to have really motivated and inspired people.” Whether subjecting all staff to an intensive selling-based training scheme will prove beneficial or popular remains to be seen, but Connolly claims people come to her “begging to go on the course”.

Connolly is convinced that the ongoing measures introduced internally are helping to create a real “buzz”, and likens the whole CPB approach to “discovering a new religion”. The worrying analogy becomes more evident when she reveals the name given to the quarterly meetings which everyone must attend entitled The Vision.

It would be easy to imagine that many of the measures have been put in place mainly to further the CPB brand name. But Connolly and the other directors are prepared to listen to staff and take what they say seriously. They are only too aware that a design business relies on its people: “When people buy CPB they also buy the people, so it’s important they’re happy, motivated and energised,” explains Connolly.

The Vision meetings are held to inform staff about what’s happening, to report back information such as the Enigma research, to present awards and to enable employees to have their say. Staff are encouraged to voice opinions and, according to Connolly, “are creating the agenda so it’s not just the senior management team telling them what to do”. She claims that as a result of the new-style openness “people are feeling more confident and part of the company”.

Obviously there is some resistance to change, but Connolly stresses: “We make the point that CPB is doing well and is successful, but we can’t sit still because we may lose that edge.”

Connolly believes the group is already reaping the rewards. After shedding some staff during the tough years, numbers are up to 60 and growing, while turnover for its last financial year grew by almost a half.

The programme is an evolving one, and further research from Enigma is planned to monitor progress. But the comments from a recently arrived designer are encouraging: “To be honest I never knew what it was like before, but for me it’s a really good atmosphere and everyone’s really happy.”

In brief: Amanda Connolly

In keeping with Coley Porter Bell’s tradition of having women managing directors, Amanda Connolly is the third in succession after Jan Hall and Helena Rees. She joined the consultancy in 1989 as a marketing manager after being poached from client Nestlé, and is a self-confessed Coley Porter Bell addict. “I love CPB, that’s why I’ve been here for six and a half years.”

She’s a Lancashire lass who grew up in Burnley, and almost became a teacher, which perhaps explains the staff initiatives at CPB. But with a degree in marketing and French it was inevitable that she would join the big world and began her career with Burton’s Biscuits.

When she first started at the consultancy she confesses she had second thoughts. “As a client you feel you’ve got more power, and I found it really difficult to cope with. It’s as if you’ve had the rug pulled from under your feet because I’m quite an autonomous, independent soul.”

Connolly soon found she enjoyed the variety and the people and worked her way up to become head of the former brands department, and was offered the managing director’s role when Helena Rees said she was leaving. “I think women have the sort of drive this business needs.”

Her plans for the group, in addition to the measures such as the in-house research, awards schemes and training programmes already in place, are to grow CPB’s international business and focus more on the consumer perspective.

She’s been pretty active since she took up her new role, and is not shy about patting herself on the back. “I think we did stand still for a while. I’m trying to take a gigantic leap and I’m really pleased with the progress. I feel in a different gear all together.” And she claims the euphoria has rubbed off on chairman Colin Porter: “He’s probably more motivated than I’ve ever seen him.”

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