“You have a real shot of making a real difference in this business these days” Chris Perry, Chief Innovation Officer at Weber Shandwick is laying out the unique opportunity and challenge facing game changing talent today; namely completely relearning what you need to do to be effective in marketing communications.
In a post-pandemic ecosystem, Perry believes that truly committing to collaborative learning will be vital to long-term success. As he explains: “No one person is going to be able to figure out how to make communications work in an environment which has the complexity it has in the marketplace.”
Perry was talking as part of the Game Changers interview series in partnership with global talent consultancy for the creative industries, The Blueprint with The Blueprint’s founder Gareth Moss, giving a whistlestop tour of two decades of learning at Weber Shandwick.
Two decades at the agency has placed Perry in the driving seat for the global transformation of the group’s business model. He explains: “The great thing about Weber is that it's a firm that's highly entrepreneurial, very flexible and we adapt very well.”
In line with this, he points to the evolution of the agency's structure and services noting that now the company has built one of the largest social media agencies in the world, alongside one of the largest content agencies.
He explains: “More than ever you have to be able to make sense of very complex challenges in the market. Whether you are marketing into complexity or you are dealing with risk from a reactive standpoint.”
Yet it is not just the blurred lines within agency disciplines which are changing the company; it is the fundamental shift afoot when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“There is a huge shift pre and post pandemic towards being in culture,” says Perry. Ultimately to be part of culture, you need to reflect that culture on a global scale.
Perry notes that the agency benefits from ‘incredibly deep practice expertise spanning the public and private sectors’. He explains: “We are able to solve at intersections that few agencies can bring those various points of view into, in some cases completely new client problems.”
In this complex environment and in the midst of seemingly never-ending culture wars Perry views scale as a competitive advantage in a complex marketplace.
Perry speaks passionately about the way in which the internet has revolutionised engagement; not just with brands, but as public forums.
“The notion of advocacy has changed incredibly over the last couple of decades,” he says. It is a shift which powered the proudest moment of Perry’s career; working on Stand Up To Cancer, the charitable program of the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
Having lost both of his parents to cancer it was deeply personal to Perry, who pays credit to the founders for really coming together to change the way in which charities raised funds and communicated. An achievement he attributes to ‘guts, a different point of view and incredible collaboration’.
Central to the programme was a telethon which was broadcast in over 170 countries and raised over $100 million, which was subsequently distributed by the American Association For Cancer Research.
Perry shares that in just three years Stand Up To Cancer became one of the most recognised health brands in the world. He explains: “Social at scale at the time wasn’t necessarily a thing, but we captured lightning in a bottle with that one.”
Sharing the impact his family has had on his career and inspiration, Perry notes that while there are a lot of ways to talk about inspiration it always starts with family. “I’m inspired by my wife everyday,” he says.
His approach to his career is deeply shaped by his experience and notably, his father’s career running a thriving studio which went on to face the sharp edges of automation.
Seeing his father go through that painful experience made him committed to ensuring that he was never on the wrong side of that cultural current or technological curve. “That was a formative experience,” he explained.
Notably, it's a commitment which is evident not through a fear of change, but a relentless commitment to continual education. It is clear that for Perry this commitment is not a box-ticking exercise, but instead a hard won and core belief in the importance of re-learning what really creates effective marketing in the midst of so much complexity.
This commitment to learning is evident in the agency’s Media Genius programme, which began in 2018 as a newsletter which curates and breaks down new, intriguing and at times, mind-boggling signals. With a fellowship programme and a growing band of students, the growing project reflects the diversity of the world; not just the agency world.
“There’s enormous opportunity in risk in communications as it relates to technology,” says Perry. He points to the disconnect between communications and business at large when it comes to embracing technology.
Noting that every function inside a global organisation runs on technology, platforms, data flows and CRM systems so they can be responsive to employees or customers, he believes that the communications industry is lagging behind. He notes: “It’s still more art than science”.
“There will always be art in a creativity based business, PR has always been a business where you have to be extraordinarily creative to earn engagement and favour in the market
but the industry cannot survive if we don't use the tools at our disposal to enhance our creativity and our relevance in sharper ways,” he continues.
It is a disconnect which is rising up the agenda across the industry; both when it comes to attracting and recruiting game changing talent and evolving agency propositions. As Perry explains: “You have to be digitally fluent and you have to know how to use those tools not to just automate what you do but make your work better because there are more tools in the toolbox to work with.”
So what constitutes game changing talent to Perry? The three ingredients he cites are: ‘Energy, deep curiosity and an incredible passion for what they do.’ Unsurprisingly these traits must be supported by an ‘almost maniacal approach to learning’.
Pointing to the importance of being able to break things apart and put them back to really understand how creative ideas exist not on a desktop or in a boardroom - but out in the world - it is clear that Perry believes that the game is changing.
It is a transformation which he believes allows talent a ‘real shot of making a difference in this business.’ He explains: “I think what is hugely advantageous for anyone who wants to get into this business. What worked pre-pandemic is not necessarily what's going to work post-pandemic.”