Having recently moved back from New York to the UK, Alys is one of the trio who founded United Culture. Her PR, Brand Communications and Engagement background and instinctive creative flare make her a force to be reckoned with.
We caught up with Alys to find out how you build an agency fit for the future, and the role of purpose in building strong brands.
You have launched UC in the middle of a global pandemic.What do you think are the challenges facing agencies today?
Unfortunately, when anything like this happens it tends to be the external support that gets scaled back first, so many agencies have seen big budget cuts or projects being stopped completely. So, lack of opportunity is a concern. But a lot of organisations also recognise that in a crisis, when companies need to think differently like never before, an outside perspective is really helpful.
Agency and client relationships are based on chemistry and trust, so the COVID-19 restrictions are particularly tough for us right now. It is very challenging to build new relationships when you can’t meet face-to-face.
We are operating in a very competitive space. There’s a lot of noise out there and it is difficult to be heard and build your brand. I think agencies have a responsibility to be clearer and more honest about their offer so they can create clear differentiation and be the best partner they can possibly be for clients. There are a lot of consultancies that have added services to diversify when they simply don’t have the capability. If you want to add to your existing offer, I think you need to ensure you invest in genuine expertise first.
The pandemic has pushed us to be sharper and more focused about what we do and how we do it. We’re innovating to solve engagement problems in different ways and have used this time to focus on our company and really think about how we can best support our clients at this time and help them have a positive impact. We’ve also developed some exciting new products which we will launch early next year.
How does a new business respond to the current situation, and plan for the long term?
We run a tight ship, but we are also investing to get ahead.You don’t build and grow if you don’t invest. When something like this happens, you need to continue to innovate and find the opportunities. You have to listen to and understand client needs more than ever, so you can help them make a difference in their organisations. I also think it helps when you can be super agile and creative, and adapt to those client needs quickly.
What is it about UC that gives you the belief it is fit for the future?
A company like ours can help reshape the world of work and help businesses have a more positive impact on the world. Our purpose is “to make the world of work better”, so our north star makes us well suited to help all businesses respond now and in the future.
Helping people find meaning in their roles is more important than ever before. We spend too much time at work to not find it fulfilling. Businesses who focus on the operational response to this crisis without reviewing how they engage their people will struggle in the long term.
That’s where we come in.
What do you think will define the successful brands in the future?
Being incredibly true to who they are, and ensuring their purpose is manifested in everything they do and everything they say. Having a laser sharp focus on the customer and delivering on the promises they are making to them will be the only way companies will drive true loyalty.
We are living in a world that is so cynical, reactive and “real-time”that there is no longer anywhere to hide. Honesty and authenticity will win out.
How important is purpose?
Purpose is critical. Not just at a moment like this, but for the future health of the business as a whole.
But a watch out - purpose needs to be genuine. It is not a vacant soundbite. It needs to be tangible to have commercial impact. The words matter, but how it is delivered matters more. Building a purpose-driven culture is sometimes uncomfortable and challenging. And you need to be prepared to do the hard graft if you want to leverage it to help your business grow.
A lot of brands articulate their purpose, but how do you really make it core to what you do and how you do it?
There are three things I think businesses need to think about as a starting point;
The first thing is making sure everyone understands and is aligned to your purpose. You have to think about how it should show up and the behaviours that people need to adopt so it really lives in your business. And you have to ensure you have a truly connected team who can deliver against it.
You need to make sure that your purpose is connected to your strategy and your goals too. It has to be tangible and have commercial impact. You can make money, be profitable and make a positive difference to the world.
Use it as a catalyst to help close the gap between your customer and employee experience. It will make you more authentic as abrand and will ultimately help build your reputation.
How does purpose link to culture?
In so many ways purpose is part of the foundation of your culture– and alongside your strategy it can really help you to dictate the behaviours and values that you need to see as a business. It should be your guiding star –it gives people shared meaning of the work you do.
Your culture is how you actually live up to your purpose and deliver against it on a daily basis. If you don’t have the right culture in place to support the activation of purpose, it just won’t fly.
Culture is a living and breathing thing - it shifts and evolves. It’s something that needs to be nurtured and the values and behaviours that underpin it need to be continually re-evaluated every few years. Whereas purpose is generally more fixed for a defined period and is often only changed when the business undergoes major transformation and changes the reason it exists.
When you talk about culture at UC you talk about it being an outcome. What does that mean, and what do you need to consider when driving the cultural outcome you are looking for?
Culture is created by a set of lived behaviours and beliefs within a business. It is manifested by its people in their actions. You should be upholding your company culture at every stage of your employee journey. It has to be steered from the top but delivered by all daily through every interaction to make sure those behaviours show up in the right way.
How can a business define the culture they have today, and the one that will be required to power their business in the future?
They need to assess which behaviours are being exhibited first and consider the mindset and beliefs of their people so that they have a starting point. That includes leaders, managers and employees. Those behaviours often define the culture you have. When you know where you are, you then need to look at your purpose and strategy and think carefully about the behaviours that will drive both.
Considering whether those values and behaviours still add up for the direction you want to take your business is critical. It’s OK to decide to change those behaviours if they’re not fit for the future anymore – it’s why we always say that culture is constantly evolving.
UC has developed a tool that gives businesses clear visibility about the culture they have and where they need to focus to change their culture. Watch this space - more coming soon on that.