Lucinda Peniston-Baines, Owner and Managing Partner of The Observatory International, a firm specialising in marketing and communications consulting, describes 2015 as a good and busy year. “We didn’t experience quite the same level of growth as in 2014 (which had been exceptional), but it was more than satisfactory. Our business was strong and stable, both in London and across the world.” Lucinda attributes the marginal reduction in activity to some client hesitancy about what support they required, given the more unpredictable market conditions that emerged last year.
“Of course, those challenges themselves often drove work. In tough commercial contexts, clients often seek innovation and new market opportunities. And for us, some of this is countercyclical. Take oil and gas. That remained a substantial client sector for us, despite its well documented challenges. Energy and resources firms need to secure efficiencies. So they have turned to specialised consultancies like ours to improve their approaches.”
Lucinda says that growth for The Observatory stems primarily from clients in all sectors seeking to optimise communications and marketing structures and to make their associated supplier bases more efficient. Clients also want to explore new ways of working and new technology. “In food manufacturing and consumer goods, for example, we have clients looking to globalise their brands. They want to make progress quickly and efficiently. To do so they need the right systems. But they also need the right marketing partner ecosystem. We can design that ecosystem. We help firms find the best mix of agencies to support brand, communications and marketing. We also help them identify relevant digital capabilities and skills, in customer data and insight, for example, to underpin their brand proposition.”
Some of the hesitancy Lucinda noticed in 2015 stemmed from ongoing shifts in consumer engagement emphasis in marketing functions. “Historically, marketers specialised in the transmit element of communication management: they pumped out information. When the dash for digital began, they acquired new technology and channels. But some marketing functions used these relatively crudely: as another transmission mechanism. However, the Digital Revolution transfers power, influence and choice to consumers. Properly used, technology can provide great insights into consumers’ needs and demands. But while many client organisations have been ‘doing digital’, some haven’t been doing it right. They haven’t risen to consumer expectations or understood their demands.
“Connected to this, we have moved into consulting around using marketing technologies to support the new approaches confronting marketers, especially concerning data insight. These are now fundamental to a modern marketing function. We have developed our skills base and our own specialist partner ecosystem to ensure we provide holistic solutions for clients. We’ve recruited (and continue to recruit) experienced technology consultants and have retrained existing staff. Increasingly, we also deploy specialist task forces across our business globally.”
Lucinda says managing data insights and communications channels properly has immediate and practical implications for clients. “A multinational firm may possess a global communications platform. Yet its standard models may not work for a particular local market. So the firm will need a bespoke approach to ensure that local needs are met and local insights captured. It must find a way to make the insights captured globally available and relevant to the local market. And it will require mechanisms to incorporate local insights within its emerging global data stock. None of this is easy.
“For firms to be optimally dynamic in their engagement with consumers and in their use of data, they need a fundamentally new approach to their technology and infrastructure. They must foster new partnerships. And they must challenge their culture and workplace mentality, with staff changing how they view and discharge their responsibilities.”
2016 has started strongly for The Observatory. “We have a huge amount of new business. Iconic brands are asking us to examine and redesign their processes and structures because they are not ‘digital ready’. We are also helping those firms globalise their brands. Many of our other offices across Europe and APAC are also very busy, running tender processes to secure new agency partners for firms, helping multinationals assess their digital fitness, their infrastructure, ways of working, and supporting them as they try to do more with less.”
For Lucinda, the principal challenge for clients – and thus for The Observatory – is how to futureproof their businesses in the context of increasing unpredictability. “Building a communications strategy is very challenging for a Chief Marketing Officer, whose role is now broader and more complex than ever before, with multiple channels and multiple touch-points with customers and potential customers. Understanding consumer data in itself is a huge task. Predicting which communications platforms will be most enduring or what the next big technological innovation will be, and how it will change customers’ expectations, is impossible.
“Organisations prepared to do more than just a quick fix will rise to these challenges of uncertainty most effectively. If you can’t predict the future, you can at least ensure your underlying business architecture and processes are flexible, and that the combined skills base of your firm and your partners is comprehensive. This will facilitate the rapid adoption of emerging channels or business systems, and the equally rapid discarding of obsolete ones. But the associated change in organisation, structure and staffing is hard. Some clients ask us if a sticking-plaster solution is possible. And of course it is. But it will only work for a short period.”
Lucinda suggests that while these conditions are challenging for The Observatory too, they also present great opportunities. “We are helping multiple clients wrestling with these problems. So we have a breadth of perspective in our favour, which we can offer as a client benefit. Bringing perspectives and experience from one client or market to another is central to our offer. Of course, this requires investment, in thought leadership and research. We allocate time to attend events and conferences to ensure our insights are up to date. We ensure our people are learning, building expertise, engaging with relevant business associations and acquiring skills. We have to stay several chapters ahead of our clients. But that’s exciting. It’s what gets us up in the morning.”
Lucinda Peniston-Baines, Owner and Managing Partner of The Observatory International, was interviewed as part of The definitive guide to UK Consulting Industry Statistics 2016.