Embracing the new environment

Will the upheavals of the next few years become the catalyst for growth in the firms which manage their marketing best? The top two marketers at Arcadis UK explain how the design and consultancy firm is changing. Simon Light, Client Development Leader, and Sophie Brewitt, Head of Marketing and Communications, talk to Neasa MacErlean.

Turbulence, controversy and rapid evolution – these are the conditions that Arcadis expects to operate in for the foreseeable future. The provider of services in ‘Design & Consultancy for Natural and Built Assets’ is one of those large professional firms which has decided to embrace the new environment, moving quickly away from the days when stolidity, respectability and an unwillingness to change were seen as the principle hallmarks of professionals.

For the 3,700 staff in the UK’s 33 offices, the Brexit referendum in June 2016 was the firing of the gun for the start of this new era. Arcadis began discussing the controversial prospect of the UK leaving the EU in that month, making plain the potentially dramatic prospects for the construction industry. These include a shortage of 215,000 workers in the case of a ‘hard’ Brexit. “Our clients are asking us to help them determine how to successfully lead through the challenges of tomorrow” says Simon Light. “They say that they know what is happening now.” And Sophie Brewitt says: “We came out with a strong voice. In turbulent times that’s important. As long as you can evidence what you say.”

Brexit and other controversial subjects are also the subject of the Arcadis Business Breakfasts. And reports produced by the firm saw Light and a colleague invited to Westminster to discuss their analyses with politicians. “Our clients were crying out for data and evidence so that they could build their strategies,” he says.

Arcadis – which reported gross revenues of €3.3 billion for 2016 – is one of those firms which has proved how successful sector specialisation has become. (And it certainly is specialist. “We even have experts in bats,” says Brewitt.) But, while in the past the specialisation route was intended to show clients that their sectors were understood, Arcadis and some other firms are not just understanding but leading. And in globalised markets and times of political upheaval, insights into what could happen in two years time could make a decisive difference. “Clients that will be successful are those which are willing to be bold, innovate and to take some educated risks,” says Light, who leads a team of 100 BD professionals.

The firm predicts enormous change in its sector. “Our market will look very different in five to 10 years’ time,” says Brewitt, head of a team of 12. “There will be a lot of reshaping.” To prepare for this new world, Arcadis has done a lot of its own reshaping. This takes place both within the UK and as one of Arcadis’ seven regions around the globe. So, the revamp of the CRM (Client Relationship Management) system is a worldwide initiative; whilst some of the techniques used to improve internal communications are particular to the UK. As well as relaunching the intranet this summer and using Yammer’s social network system for business, Arcadis UK is finding that “traditional face-to-face communications” can prove inspiring. Brewitt says: “People are relishing having the CEO or head of a team standing up in front of them and saying what we did for the clients.”
The rebranding of Arcadis two years ago was the trigger for major internal change on the marketing and BD side. At that stage, a range of brands were wrapped into the Arcadis name – but most of those names were dropped. Shortly afterwards Brewitt arrived: the marketing focus was changed to concentrate far more on thought leadership, closely liaising with the business development team (to work on important issues for clients as and when they arose), and backed up by the research team.

Arcadis now takes a campaigning approach to communications – and it usually highlights long-term issues. “We are sensing that short-term measures are yesterday’s news,” says Light. A campaign topic – such as the effects of delays on infrastructure projects – will be developed for different audiences. There will typically be three ways of putting over Arcadis’ research data and analysis. As well as the PR focus, there will be discussion of the research with clients by the BD teams and then the release of the data to the broader community via social media. “It’s interesting how responsive the political communities are to social media,” says Brewitt. The firm has developed dialogues and relationships with MPs and councillors, for instance, through this route. Holding discussions in the political sphere is a major aim. “We feel as though there’s a responsibility on us to influence at government level,” says Light.

Being as ambitious as possible in the widest way is very much a part of the new marketing/BD approach. The firm’s ‘passion statement’, as the marketing head describes it, is “to improve the quality of life”. Much of Brewitt’s work has been about communicating to staff how they can all deliver on this very broad goal. Measures include ‘What’s your story?’ workshops in which all employees can explain their role in achieving this aim.

But the story of Arcadis is not a fairy tale – and, even though the firm has decided to be bold, it knows that there will be no easy wins. Like other leading professional practices, delivering consistently strong organic growth has been something of a challenge in the current climate.

On the other hand, it appears to have been repaid (so far) for the brave rebranding step of discarding prestigious names (such as ‘EC Harris’ which had served it well for over a century). In February this year, it became recognised as a ‘Superbrand’, only 18 months after it switched to the Arcadis nomenclature. This is a listing of 100 business brands, independently drawn up and not requiring any payment or entry fees. “We were quite shocked at how quickly it came through,” says Light.

If Arcadis is telling its own clients that they need to be bold then it clearly needs to take its own advice. The story of its rebranding shows that it has done that. So far the educated guesses that it has made have paid off. But, as Light is the first to admit, “Demand patterns are changing very quickly. It’s a very fast-moving market landscape.”