Tuesday, May 29, 2007

After the Lord Mayor's show

Last week was a good week - hectic and challenging up front, with a curate's egg of a conference to follow.

I'd taken on a workshop at short notice so spent Wednesday in one of those classic windowless conference rooms provided by older hotels talking catering strategies with a disparate group from across the UK and Ireland. There was just time to change when I got home before hitting the motorway for a drive up to Newcastle - 280 miles when I was already feeling tired.

I was peripherally involved in the organisation of the CiB's Annual Conference which culminated in a glitzy awards evening attended by almost 400 people.

The conference attracted about a third of that number and when not trying to talk to members about their issues and thoughts on the Association, I was able to attend some of the sessions - and what a mixed bag it was.

To be honest, the first day worried me. There was no 'wow' factor, and the event was pitched at too low a level. The senior communicators I met were restive, after the likes of Shay McConnon had told us at great length about the basics of business relationship building (a few great nuggets, but stretched to nearly an hour - and delivered quite aggressively!) and Dr. Steven Windmill had told us how he'd won the war....single handed (at least that's what he sounded as though he was talking about). The lesson learned? Never book a speaker unless you've seen them in action. The CiB audience is bright, demanding, savvy - and a bit more senior than one might expect. Ever more, we demand stronger speakers.

Steve Bevan of the Work Foundation took us through some interesting , though not ground breaking, findings from IC.UK Work Foundation Survey which begged the question - is the UK falling behind the field? Social communication hardly got a mention and the survey appeared to show we're still a nation of Generation Xers using our tried and testeds to communicate to (and occasionally with) the Yers and after now rapidly advancing in organisations.

Somehow, it felt like a trick was missed.

Thankfully, Friday showed the upside of the conference Ben Page from Ipsos Mori was great; I particularly enjoyed the crap-cutting Judith Thomas ex-of 10 Downing Street, and apparently (though I'd scuttled off elsewhere), Em Whitfield Brooks and Jim Montague from The Sage had the participants on their feet and singing.

My gut feel was that the conference was pitched too low. We needed more Ben Pages and fewer Steven Windmills - and getting 60 people singing was probably more for a workshop than a plenary session (the fact that half the participants weren't in the room says quite a lot). Actually, we needed more workshops and less chalk and talk.

The evening dinners were carried off with panache and the look and feel of the conference was good - all credit to the organisers. But it suffers from being coupled with the Awards dinner.

Too many people attend conference only as a forerunner to the Awards. Therefore we get agency bias and too may people involved whose focus is creating great media rather than digging deeper into the drivers that will enable communication to unlock organisational success.

I came away feeling that what I know has been validated rather than that I'd learned anything new.

I'd love to go to a CiB Conference in a few years' time and really be challenged. I'd love to come away feeling uncomfortable: feeling that I had to change to keep up. This felt a little too cosy - and dominated by the Awards evening.

I carried most of the conference kit back in my car - and spent yesterday's Bank Holiday catching up on the work I'd missed while up in Newcastle.

This morning's back to reality and the 'down' that inevitably hits after a big week. Anyway, it's straight back in today and little time to reflect.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Famine or feast - confirmed

So, for the middle two weeks of this month, the tumbleweed tumbled, the moths turned slowly in the air and static filled the air. Two nicely chunky projects had come to completion and those factored in to kick-off had all gone quiet.

It happens: it's the nature of running a micro-business. And there are two ways to deal with it. You either have a break, put your feet up and wait for the next round of regular work to start, or get on the networking round again to pump up some business.

Now, in the first four years of Leapfrog I'd have taken the former route. Work came to me, and I never really had to market my skills and experience. But it all went a bit pear shaped in 2005 when I made three bad project choices. The client lost its nerve on one project; and I pulled out of two - one because the project was about to be pulled anyway and the other simply because I was the wrong person for the job. The result was a gaping hole in my finances with no quick fix.

In fact it has taken me 18 months to get the business back on an even keel - thank God for Jac's ongoing contract, it really bailed us out for a while last year.

Just last month we finally got a bit ahead - debt-free on the business, all taxes paid and actually banking some money. And then, of course, the phone stopped ringing.

This time I couldn't afford to sit back through a whole month and wait for the next magazine round to start. Thankfully, the emails and phone calls have paid off. Now we're full to capacity for the summer.

In the last fortnight I've picked up two new projects for an existing client and one for a new client - albeit through an existing consultancy relationship. I've also got back on the radar of another client, and have been given two new very worthwhile contacts as an extension of existing relationships.

My diary's completely full for May and most of June, with regular, profitable work mapped in for the following two months as well - on top of the regular commitments.

Mr. McCawber's definitely a very wise man!

Monday, May 14, 2007

Apathy rules!

Let's Go CiB!........Or not.

A couple of months ago I wrote a piece in CiB's monthly journal - Communicators - on the Catch 22 facing the organisation. We have around 1200 members, though fewer than 5% or truly active in the sense of doing something to move the organisation forward.

We need to move the organisation on to a platform where it is the first stop in the UK for all issues related to internal communications. To do that, CiB needs to be seen as the leader in continuing professional development (not just for IC pros, but for all managers with a foot in IC). We also need to be seen as a credible home for leading edge research - whether that's as a research sponsor or publisher.

But with only about 60 proactive members - and most of those in agencies where involvement comes with a tacit aspect of business development (and I'm very much in that space) it's hard to get anything moving. So I put out a plea or a challenge or even a request for more people to get involved. The response? A very big, fat nothing. Well, almost nothing. One person has sent me some information on membership recruitment and retention. But that's it.

Then last week, I found out I'd been elected by my peers for another year on council. Out of the successful candidates, I polled about in the middle. So far so good until you realise that i got 46 votes. Out of an electorate of 1200, 79 people voted. That's pathetic by any standard.

I don't know what it will take to light the fire for CiB, but for whatever reason, it's not happening at present. Too many people seem happy to sit and wait for professional accreditation and high class research to land in their laps without putting anything other than their membership fee back in.

without putting more in, CiB will not grow. And if it doesn't grow it will not be able to deliver what communicators want or need. If that's the case, someone else will fill that gap and CiB as an organisation will be redundant. That's rather depressing.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thoughts from far down the food chain

There always comes a time in the year when I get a little worried. It's when the phone's not ringing and the workload looks a little thin. I'm there at the moment. I shouldn't be worried. A new piece of work starts tomorrow, and one of my regular magazines will start grinding its wheels in the next week or so.

Yet, for the last three days I've been treading water - and I'm no good whatsoever at the froggy stroke.

I operate fairly far down the decision-making food chain, and am suffering at the moment from slow decision making higher up that chain. In one instance, a project has been far slower to get off the blocks that I'd hoped - my meeting tomorrow morning should move it on, but the decision's not in my hands. What had been budgeted as a medium sized piece of work seems to have shrunk - and even the piece I originally did back in February remains billed but not paid.

I've also been in pitching mood recently. A few slightly bigger fish have called on me to reinforce their bidding teams and we've put some good, inventive and cost effective proposals together. But the clients - or in one case, the clients' clients are still circling. Now at the top of the chain, a month's delay on internal comms activity is pretty unimportant - in fact they probably don't even see it as a delay. For their consultancy, it's an inconvenience, but there are other pressing projects they can redeploy their consultants on. For their agency, it's a bit of a nightmare. The goalposts keep moving, they keep revisiting a shifting brief; a lot of time is spent meeting the new goals....and then those posts shift again. For me, in this case right at the tactical end of the project, it's sheer frustration. Do I start chasing new work and abandon a potentially attractive project, or hold on in the hope that the clients will finally land on action.

For me it's the above scenario times three at the moment, plus a couple of smaller projects I've pitched directly where I'm still waiting on any response.

It's at times like this that I wish I had the support system of an employer around me. But for the last seven years, when I've reached this point before, something McCawber-like has happened: something's turned up. It's never through luck, and most often has come from a few phone calls, emails and good connections. I hope Mr. McCawber's still on my side.