David Woods-Hale, director of marketing and communications for Association of MBAs and Business Graduates Association, thoughtfully lays out his path in communications and his guide for success. Read on for his take on always having back-up plans, whether your just getting started in your career or years in.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
I have wanted to work in communications since I was at school and was fascinated with the media, with journalism, and publishing. I love writing and I’m quite outspoken, so I knew I had to channel that into something constructive.
I have always been compelled by current affairs — from politics and international relations to celebrity gossip — I (for better or worse) have an opinion on everything, and I enjoy sharing ideas and listening to different viewpoints, whether or not I happen to agree with them.
I’ve been really fortunate because I’ve had the opportunity to work in variety of fields, since leaving university, and have had roles in journalism, book publishing, and PR, before finding a role that, I suppose, incorporates all these areas and more at AMBA & BGA.
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
I think you need to be perpetually curious, and not be frightened to ask questions even if it is just to make sure your assumptions are always in check.
I truly believe there is no such thing as a stupid question, if it means that you’ll be on the right track. I think some people feel intimidated to ask for clarification early on in the planning stages of a campaign, but I can tell you (from experience) this saves a lot of hassle down the line if you speak up.
I also think communications professionals need to be solutions-driven — if something goes wrong you need to be able to have a plan B, C and D up your sleeve to adapt quickly. This is something that comes with practice and experience, but even early in your career this is something to always be considering.
Resilience and emotional intelligence are key. Communications involves a lot of negotiation and influencing, and, in many cases, successful communications plans are based on winning hearts as well as minds.
The best communications professionals will have to have the EQ to empathise with stakeholders and understand their points of view in order to convince them of a strategy to ensure buy-in; but equally when they can’t secure buy-in, communications professionals will need to have resilience to regroup and re-plan (which connects to my point about plan B, C and D).
Finally, project management is vital. Managing time, getting things done, and measuring results are the key facets of communications and, with conflicting deadlines and the need to focus on numerous projects, it’s very easy to drop at least one of the balls you’ll inevitably be juggling if you don’t have excellent organisation and multi-tasking skills.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role?
There are three main challenges for me.
The first one is, as I said above, time management. With so many projects and campaigns on the go at one time, myself and my team have to keep to schedule on several deliverables.
The second would be innovation. In saturated, noisy communications channels through which our audiences will be receiving a deluge of messaging all day long, we have to innovate constantly in terms of our content and how we deliver it to delight and engage our customers and the wider audience to whom we want to communicate.
Finally, for me it is audience segmentation. AMBA & BGA has numerous audiences: university faculty and decision makers, MBA students, graduates, undergraduates, postgraduates, media, employers, sponsors and corporates, staff, and stakeholders — to name just a few.
We disseminate numerous emails, newsletters, tweets, press releases, commercials, reports, white papers, magazines, and podcasts per month, segmented to these audiences, so a lot of my time is taken up with planning the right and most appropriate style, format, medium, and message for each of these groups each and every time.
This involves both targeting for each campaign but also a lot of common sense.
Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
As I mentioned, I’ve been fortunate to move between functions, so I would say moving from specialist (journalism and PR) to a wider marketing role has been a challenge — this is because of the myriad of channels and deliverables that come with this position — and there has been a lot to learn and develop over the years.
This takes time, and it’s an ongoing challenge I think all communications professionals are grappling with every day.
I constantly tell my team and colleagues that when it comes to communications, you’re always on a journey and you’ll never necessarily reach the destination (because this changes, sometimes on a weekly basis), but in my experience the journey has always been more interesting than the destination anyway.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
I report to the CEO, and he’s a former marketing director, so he truly values quality communications. This has proved important for myself and my team, because we have a leader who ‘gets it’ when it comes to what we’re working on and we have always had his support to innovate and his trust to get things done.
The communications function at AMBA & BGA is quite comprehensive, so my team is responsible for two monthly magazines (which we manage 100% in house), most of the website content, mar-comms and email campaigns, advertising, promotions and associated design, social media, public relations, research and insight, the podcast, fortnightly webinars, internal comms, and — last but not least — conference production for numerous events throughout the year.
This means we’re working closely with teams across the organisation all the time, so they understand where and how we can add value and how we can best support them, and vice versa. This makes a huge difference in us being able to deliver what we need to for the business and for our stakeholders, customers, and networks.
What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications?
I think about the advice I would give my past-self all the time, and it changes nearly every day.
I would say that this is the right career for someone who wants to be busy; who wants to meet interesting people and have lots of job variety.
I would advise someone at the start of their career to ask questions from day one (ask questions in job interviews as well — this always impresses me), learn from colleagues as much as you can, read the news (and read it from a variety of news sources), explore different styles of communications in terms of writing, design, and content, to try and find the voice that fits with you.
Remember there will be tough days, challenging projects, and it’s not all glamour and cocktail parties (especially not this year).
The early years are hard, and there is a lot of admin, measurement, unanswered phone calls, unreturned emails — but use all this time to learn, to develop resilience to, and keep thinking of your plans B, C, and D.
Grow your network, follow influencers on several social media channels, attend events, conferences, webinars, and courses if you have time, volunteer to do things to support colleagues and go the extra mile when you can. But — balance all this with having a life outside of work as well. You only live once.
Keep learning, keep loving the journey and I promise that, when you run your first campaign that goes to plan and gives you the results you need, you’ll realise why taking a career in communications was the best decision you’ve ever made.
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Great question. I wish I knew the answer to that.
There’s no silver bullet in communications — it’s a sector that’s too fast moving and there are so many external factors impacting on strategies and I think that it’s impossible to expect you can ever be ‘perfect’.
But ‘perfect’ is overrated anyway.
I’ll share the four values — and some examples — that I try to live by that have helped me over the years…
Curious — seeking answers, fact checking, ensuring clarity, finding a mentor, building a network of interesting people, researching everything, covering all bases, ascertaining the basics before you add the ‘good parts’, asking ‘why?’ every time.
Creative — solving problems; offering solutions; researching innovations you can adapt and use; taking risks; working out when something can be done better — but not making change for the sake of it.
Confident — knowing when to assert your opinion but understanding when to keep quiet; knowing what good looks like but having the humility to admit when things are going wrong (and believe me this requires confidence); not being frightened to fail; not being reluctant to adapt; realising that feedback is a positive thing that comes from a good place in order to help you.
Collaborative — realising you’re not amazing at everything and that working with others will deliver the best results for everyone; seeking advice from colleagues — whether more senior or junior than you; understanding what others need from you, so you can get the best from them; understanding how having the strongest team around you makes biggest impact; becoming an indispensable part of the winning team.
We at React & Share live for helping communications teams through understanding website content sentiment and improving it off the back of feedback. How do you and your team approach content improvement?
Like I say it’s a never-ending journey.
The key for us is the right message, to the right person, at the right time, so they believe that we’re anticipating their needs and tailoring the communication exclusively for them.
It’s easier said than done, but we use preference centres from our email platforms, we’re restless in our measurements of traffic, to understand what’s working and what’s not, and we test our campaigns with smaller segments to gain some insight into how they will be received, so we can change tact if we need to.
On our website, alongside our marketing and promotional messaging, we have large proportions of the site dedicated to content marketing, and editorial. We publish a wealth of thought-leadership content each day, and measure the interest rating on Google Analytics and using tag metrics in our CMS. This gives us a clearer impression of the trends and content that are most attractive to our audiences at any given time.
That’s a very simplistic overview, but I hope that makes sense.
In saying that, data and analytics can only get you so far, and I’m quite ‘old school’ in terms of sentiments towards our online content, so I ask people… We run reader surveys and feedback questionnaires, we run focus groups and round tables, and I ask for feedback and suggestions in person, over the phone and via email, whenever I can.
This helps us build a more holistic understanding of our audiences and allows us to continuously adapt our content strategy as well as our UX and UI in real time.