James spoke with us about how and why positioning is so important in business, and the role marketing teams have to play in ESG communications and driving good business.
Walk us through your background, James? How did you get to where you are today – and what excites you about your role?
Here’s the whistle stop version. I spent 11 years in the British Army as an officer. Then I decided to have a career pivot and turned my hand to journalism. I spent five years working as a broadcast journalist covering a wide range of stories, travelling a fair bit and working for organisations like Sky, ITV, and Forces TV. Then I made another move, this time into communications, working client side for Network Rail in a very busy press office, before going into consultancy and specialising in financial services firms. I was approached without working for AECOM. It sounded exciting and so I joined as head of media relations. Two years ago, I was promoted to be the lead for marketing and communications across Europe and India.
What excites me about my role comes down to the freedom and influence I have at AECOM as a strategic leader to deliver beyond the traditional parameters of marketing. My role is really embedded within the business – I play an active role in terms of where the business is heading, where we focus, defining our priorities, and how we bring together a very complex and diverse region, with many different business lines, to share a common vision and goal.
Why should organisations think more carefully about the impact they are having on society and the environment?
I’d be amazed if there was a business that didn’t say that they wanted to leave the world in a better place, particularly within our industry. We’ve got a responsibility to do things properly, to use the influence, power and reach that we have for good. We as corporates need to work together to have the biggest impact – we can’t sit around waiting for governments or legislation to do the job for us. We should put our competitiveness aside when it comes to driving major, necessary change. The easy bit is reacting. The hard bit is continuously looking at and appraising ourselves and constantly trying to do better, to be better, to push forwards across the sustainability agenda. Collaboration and communications is an important part of that.
That seamlessly leads us into marketing and communications role in driving good business…?
Firstly, we need to reach, engage, and communicate with our employees, so they understand the strategy we have as a business, so they embrace the values that will get us from A to B, and so they’re excited about the role they play in breathing life into that purpose. Then we need to reach, engage, and influence our clients, policymakers, and the wider market. A big part of communicating is listening. It’s not just about broadcasting what a company thinks or what a company is doing – it’s about asking the right questions, being open to different perspectives, and working together to find solutions. We need to use our voice and our ears to get to a place where we understand the challenges that lie ahead so we can carve out ways to meet those challenges.
What’s AECOM’s approach to ESG communications?
I’ve been at AECOM for almost six years and we’ve always had a very good approach to ESG. But we lacked coordination until mid-pandemic when ESG really came into its own. Suddenly, the market and investors became laser focussed on it, and so we needed to bring it all together and coordinate the effort. Part of that involved understanding where our strengths and weaknesses are, where are the gaps that we need to fill, and how do we share best practice and that commitment across the business to encourage the right behaviour and to learn from each other. We don’t call it an ESG policy here; we call it Sustainable Legacies – and it’s something that we talk about constantly. When I look at my key marketing campaigns for the year, Sustainable Legacies is not one of the key campaigns, because sustainable legacies flow into and underpin everything that we do. That’s how it should be. It’s not an excuse for a marketing campaign. It is, however, incredibly important when it comes to winning work, and for talent retention and recruitment. So, there’s a business case on top of the fact it’s simply the right thing to do. Making sure that we communicate that is vital. It’s about ensuring that we have real employee advocacy in terms of understanding what we’re trying to achieve and the impact we can have.
To what extent does marketing have sway at board level to make ESG or Sustainable Legacies manifest into being? Or is it ESG driven?
I would always advocate for the marketing and comms team to have more power, but I think it’s a bit of both. Marketing can and should facilitate that conversation with the wider business to understand what an organisation is trying to achieve. Marketing is not just about producing banners, brochures, and booklets. Okay, that is a part of it. But good marketing is about supporting the direction of the business, influencing clients to choose us over our competitors, persuading recruits to choose us over other organisations, encouraging employees to carve out a rewarding career and pushing for better. This is about influence. This is about changing people’s minds. It’s beyond winning work or people. It’s about supporting strategic priorities. It’s about growing the business. That means having some difficult conversations sometimes, facing challenges head on, and sometimes saying no.
How does marketing work alongside ESG & HR to ensure values are embraced across an organisation?
Collaboration in large organisations is always tricky. We were pretty good before Covid. When the UK went into lockdown, and we had the ability to meet with anyone and everyone over Teams, I believe we went overboard and over-collaborated. We got too much into the weeds. Now we’re getting back to a healthy balance. The HR and marketing duo is a good example. When it comes to recruitment, everyone wants to go out to market to sell their message. Everyone thinks they’ve got the best way to do it. As a large organisation we’re trying to be efficient. I don’t want to stop our recruitment team going out and using social media to reach potential applicants, but at the same time I want to be involved to ensure we’re all saying the same thing. Consistency is key, as is bringing people together to understand the bigger picture. Collaboration is not enough. It must be efficient collaboration.
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If you’d like to find out more or talk about how you and your business can get involved, email me on email@example.com.