The word "transformation" is often used to describe the process companies go through as they seek to evolve and meet the shifting demands of the market. But what does transformation truly mean, and how can we effectively evoke change in our own businesses and help others navigate their own transformational journeys?
In this episode, Bradly Howland shares his thinking about transformation as a multi-layered process of organizational change. Transformation involves making fundamental changes to how a company operates, looks, and acts both internally and externally. It is a response to market shifts and requires a deeper level of adaptation than simply evolving or growing the business.
In South Africa, the concept of transformation takes on a deeper meaning. It is not only about responding to market shifts but also about redressing legacy issues of the past, providing opportunities, and planning for the future. The country's history of apartheid has created systemic challenges that need to be addressed in business and society.
Bradly explains that transformation in South Africa involves considering the needs and experiences of marginalized groups, such as those who have been historically disadvantaged. This includes gender equity, racial diversity, and cultural inclusivity. By layering these considerations into the transformation process, businesses can become more relevant, responsive, and impactful in their communication and operations.
In short, transformation is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires a layered understanding of the market, the people, and the unique context in which businesses operate. By starting with the people, valuing diverse perspectives, and communicating effectively, businesses can navigate the complexities of transformation and drive meaningful change.
About the Guest
Bradly Howland is CEO of Alkemi Collective, a results-focused integrated marketing and communications collective with offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. Originally established in the 1990s as HWB Communications, Alkemi Collective has grown, adapted, and transformed in tandem with South Africa itself. Bradly has over 20 years of experience working in strategic marketing communications across a wide range of sectors and brands in Southern Africa. With a focus on developing multi-channel and integrated campaigns, he has raised brand awareness and driven direct business results for the clients and brands he has worked with, including the likes of the Virgin Group, Coca-Cola, ABB, The Elders, and the City of Cape Town.
About the Host
Abbie Fink is vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.
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From the Public Relations Global Network, this is PRGN Presents. I'm Adrian McIntyre.Abbie Fink:
And I'm Abbie Fink, vice president/general manager of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we serve, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in markets spanning six continents across the world.Adrian McIntyre:
Our guests on this biweekly podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They discuss such topics as the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, content marketing, reputation management, and outside of the box thinking for growing your business.Abbie Fink:
For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.Bradly Howland:
I'm Bradly Howland. I'm the CEO of Alchemy Collective, an agency based in Cape Town, South Africa, with offices also in Joburg, Durban, and South Korea. We have been around for 20 years, focused primarily on telling great stories in the local market for a number of brands across every type of sector.Abbie Fink:
Telling great stories, what a fantastic way to describe what public relations practitioners do. And oftentimes, what some of the stories that we're telling are around organizational transformation, businesses that are thinking differently, wanting to be thinking differently.
I'd really like to get your thoughts on this concept of transformation and really how we evoke this idea in our own businesses and how we are helping others think through a transformational effort on their own behalf.Bradly Howland:
So, I have to take it back to what the definition of transformation is, especially in the business context. If you look at the dictionary definition of it, it's about ultimately making fundamental changes to the business in terms of how it works, how it looks, how it operates and how it acts both internally and externally in order to respond to various market shifts in the environment. A lot of people use the term, “We are evolving the business,” “We're growing the business,” but it's a lot deeper than that.
I think if we look at the world around us, it's constantly changing. The pandemic made a change quite significantly. It's changing even more with everything that's going on in the market. And in doing so, it's about that layered change that happens within an organization, both for us as agencies in the market, but also if you look at business in general.
So if we have to deal with clients, there's a lot of change that's happening all around us. And it's how you're adapting and responding to that change that really is where transformation plays such an important role.
In the South African context, it is a little bit bigger. We use the word transformation on a much deeper level because transformation is also about redressing legacy issues of the past. It's about providing opportunity and it's also about ensuring that we're planning for the future. And a future that's not just taking into account business needs and operations but also national needs and operations.
So, for us, when we think about transformation, it has to really look at how are we just moving beyond, okay, we're introducing a new service, we're growing a particular market, we're helping to create awareness for a particular brand. It's about taking every perspective, every idea, every thought, and making sure that that's infused into that change.
For agencies, I think it's also about looking at it from the perspective of not just adding new services, but looking at how each generation, how each culture, how each person and their experience adds to that transformation. Because if you look at consumers and the markets that they're playing, they're constantly changing their needs.
And I often say there's this idea of what we know as a myopic trap, that as businesses, as business leaders, even as markets, we fall into where we think we know what everybody else is wanting and what everybody else is doing, based on our own assumptions and our views of everything. Unless we're constantly infusing perspective and experience and insight into the things that we're doing and change in it, we're going to constantly miss the mark.
There is something I think that adds to it a little bit more as well, is that transformation is ultimately looking at an inward approach first that is responding to the external environment. And then in turn, it's that external change that happens as a response to something internal.
For agencies, it can be a matter of one thing or the other. The first is huge opportunity and growth, or it could be the biggest threat that agencies can have in the market. And we've seen this globally. We see it in South Africa is that people haven't been responsible enough to the importance of transformation beyond just the functional things that people do.
There's this quote that somebody said to me recently by Seth Godin who said that successful people are the ones who break the rules. And for me, when you think about what true transformation is, it's all about that. It's about taking a step out of a comfort zone, it's about looking at things differently and understanding different perspectives and experiences and innovations to keep things moving forward.Abbie Fink:
Oftentimes, when we think about transformation, it comes from the top down. A CEO, a leader says, we need to do something different. One of your opening statements talked about a layering approach, which leads me to think that there's multiple places in an organization that need to be considered.
It can't just be a directive from the top. So can you talk a little bit about some of the potential layers and where in the business does transformation begin once the idea is we need to do something that's different than what we're doing today?Bradly Howland:
Well, the most obvious place is with the people, right? If you think about any business, everybody always has that saying around the people make the business. Fundamentally, if we look at industries worldwide, there has always been this push that true change, true transformation, true governance of a business and growth of a business stems from the leaders themselves.
I agree and disagree with that for a number of different reasons, and it's actually also based on personal experiences from our own agency where we've gone through a significant transformation over the last year and a half to evolve our brand, to evolve our organization and to evolve our services for our clients.
And through that entire experience, one thing that I realized is that when we talk about that layered approach of change, yes, you can easily tick the boxes and say, okay, we've changed operating systems, we've changed the equipment, we've changed the office environment, we've changed processes and systems and even the organizational chart. We've also introduced new services into the company that benefit clients.
But all of that means absolutely nothing if you haven't started with the people first and getting their buy-in. And this is something that for me, is it's been a big learning.
I think when we went through a change recently, I started all the tick box exercises of thinking about, okay, well, the market is shifting, consumer needs are shifting, client needs are shifting. When we think about communications as a whole, it's shifting, so we must respond to that.
We did all the changes and it fell flat. And the reason it fell flat is because I realized immediately that the team themselves hadn't really bought into the change. It's me as a leader coming in and saying, this is what we're going to do, this is how we're going to do it because this is what the market needs.
Not realizing that it starts with them. And the reason it has to start with them is because their experiences, their diversity of thought and their subtle nuances to the way that things work and don't work, help improve that change and help improve the impact of that change.
And it's something that it took me quite a long time to really drive that with the team to get them to buy into everything. So, when it came to looking at how we transform things, how we responded to the market, we focused on really making sure that they bought into the idea and it almost – we made out as if they were the heroes of it.
So, they ultimately became the governors and leaders of that change rather than us as the leaders of the business, steering it and saying, well, this is what we're going to do, because ultimately that meant that we had to implement everything, we had to do everything, and if it failed, it was all on us.
And so for them to really own that change, we made sure that every idea was their idea that turned into something, that every thought that they had contributed to the ultimate shift that we had, whether it was introducing a new service, whether it was changing our company values, whether it was changing a particular system or process, that's what really mattered.
And I think in the South African context, it was a little bit more deeper as well in the sense that for us, we've got a very nasty past, as most people know, around the era of our history known as apartheid. And as a result of that, it's created systemic legacy issues that we're seeing in business. And a large part of this is actually around people transformation.
So, you've got those who had opportunity, had wealth, had access to education, had the right networks in place, who managed to elevate themselves in their careers, and they became the leaders of businesses here. They became the managers here, and they were given opportunities that others weren't.
In South Africa, we've got a governing legislation called BBBEE, which is Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment. And what that means is that our priority is to, even when changing a business and how we operate or changing what we do, is we always have to think about that first in terms of those who didn't have. And those who didn't have becomes a global conversation around gender equity, all those kinds of elements too.
When you layer all of that into it, you come up with different perspectives. If you're focusing on making sure that the women in the agency or the business matter, that the people who've come from a disadvantage matter, that people of different religions and culture matter, that people with different races and experiences matter.
And when you start layering that into it, it's amazing what you come up with and where the transformation begins because you're becoming more relevant to the market, you're becoming more responsive to the market because you understand it better, because you're factoring all those things into it.
So when we go to clients and we talk to them, offer a new service, we engage with them or come up with an amazing campaign for them, we're thinking about all those layers of things already because we've contributed to it as a collective rather than as individuals, or just with that myopic view of thinking, “well, this is how it should work, and given that instruction to say, well, we're changing and this is how we're changing.Adrian McIntyre:
Bradly, what I love about what you’re saying is that it really addresses the question, why is transformation a communications challenge, not just an operational challenge. Because these embedded layers of experience are what needs to get communicated internally as well as externally. Campaigns need to speak into the lived experience of groups who have gone through these historical changes, which have left them differently situated in a landscape of power relations, economic advantage, and so on.
And what's interesting is, as a cultural anthropologist who's worked all over the world, certainly aspects of the South African experience and history are unique. And at the same time, that nasty history has played out in many other places, just in different forms. Certainly in this country, a legacy of chattel slavery that has not been addressed in a robust way. Many other examples around the world where legacies of oppression, whether colonial or otherwise are a lived reality for folks in different ways.
So, whereas what you're saying is getting at these things and the words are very precise—the words are very intellectual and accurate—there's also something raw there. There's also something very real. I mean, people have gone through stuff and are going through stuff! Could you speak to that in terms of this is a communications, marketing, and public relations issue, not just a business efficiency issue?Bradly Howland:
Absolutely. I think you've hit the nail on the head. One of the things that I wanted to touch on as well, and it really is around exactly what you said, is that we've gone through a very unique experience in South Africa that has layered the way that we approach business. It's led the way we approach communications and marketing in general, but it's also been something that we've been very cognizant of in terms of how it's impacted the way that people respond to information, the way that they respond to if we're running a campaign, if there's a new product in the market.
People respond very differently in South Africa to the rest of the world. But that said, I think the one thing that is very important is that this isn't something that's completely unique in terms of the challenge that we face and the importance of thinking about these things.
So to your point, globally, every single region, every single country, every single community and town experiences the same challenges where there are marginalized groups of people, there are marginalized groups of experiences and thoughts. And by not considering that, whether it is a cultural thing, whether it's a racial thing, whether it's a lived experience thing, is that we're not communicating the best way to everybody that we need to communicate to.
Usually the people who are in a position of influence as communicators, we don't necessarily know exactly what somebody else is living like, what they are being impacted by and what resonates with them. As a white male in South Africa, I have no idea, coming from a place of privilege, what somebody who's living in a township, living in a shack, which is a shanty town, or what their experience is like, where they have to spend on average about 40 to 60% of their monthly income just to get transport to the place of work.
The way they engage with brands, the way they engage with communication, the way they even resonate with listening to a show on a radio station or reading a newspaper is going to be very different to the way that I do it. And by understanding that better, as communicators, we fundamentally have quite an important role in making sure that we guide clients on how to communicate with people where they're at.
I mean, if you think about it, communications, PR, is about people talking to people. It's about connecting with others and connecting on their level, not yours. I was listening to a podcast about a year ago around the psychology of copywriting. And the one thing that stood out for me in that conversation was that you've done your goal, you've reached it, when you have made the other person the hero in every moment and in every story. And for us as communicators, I think that's so fundamentally important.
So when we think about transformation in a business, like we've done in terms of actually evolving our agency through transformation of a client's brand, through promoting a campaign or introducing a new service product for them, is transformation fundamentally has to start with that. It's about first understanding the people that you're engaging with and communicating to them on their level. By doing that, you're more likely to get the change in response that you want. You're more likely to get that impact.
And that's really where I think, when we look at it from a South African context or even an African context perspective, we're seeing that big impact. It's why so much investment is coming into the African market at the moment, and especially in the tech space, because it's such a unique industry, it's such a unique space where people are communicating on their phones. Most business in South Africa happens on a mobile device. And so by understanding that, understanding how people engage with brands, it's no longer a traditional approach and it's very different from how people would communicate with somebody who's in Europe, in the Americas, or in Asia, or anywhere else in the world. It's a very unique way of engaging and so it's about understanding people on their level.
It means also taking yourself out of a comfort. If I'm going to affect the change, it means about getting other people to create that change. And that means making sure that I understand what their needs are, I understand what their lived experiences are, and I keep encouraging a diversity of thought.
It's one thing that we see in business all the time in terms of when we talk about, you know, what limits transformation. And in the workplace environment, we consider a toxic workplace as the sort of the be-all and end-all of what's killing business nowadays. We know that with the shift that people are prioritizing their health and balance more than they're prioritizing the workplace, and for good reason, right? So, if we want to change anything, if we want to transform things, we need to make sure that we're really going down to those lived experiences. We're making sure that we're encouraging not a culture of fear, but a culture of difference.
That's something that my team cares all the time for me, is talking about this idea of a culture of difference because that's where you get transformation. It's different opinions, it's different thoughts, different ideas, different experiences that really resonate with others because ultimately there might be somebody like you. And at the same time, there might be somebody like the person who's working with you or the person that you're talking to and engaging with. And so through that, that's where you start seeing that change happen is it's about making sure that you're pulling all of that into everything that you do.
Functioning as a business, I think to your point and really to kind of answer that question, it's the functional stuff can happen. It's not going to create the change that you want and it's not going to create that transformation because it will only get you so far. It's kind of like pushing a product to a person. It's why most advertising in the world is dying a fast death because the reality is that if you look at traditional advertising, even traditional PR, people have become a lot more discerning. They can see beyond that. It's not real to them. It's not relevant to them because it's not talking to their lived experience and their perspectives.Adrian McIntyre:
Thanks for listening to this episode of PRGN Presents, brought to you by the Public Relations Global Network.Abbie Fink:
We publish new episodes every other week, so follow PRGN Presents in your favorite podcast app. Episodes are also available on our website—along with more information about PRGN and our members—at prgn.com.