Nunatak Principal Juliane Veits on agile marketing and communications, corporate perseverance, and the benefits of closer collaboration

The unintentional release of a disturbing social media video by the VW automobile group has scared companies in all industries. Alarm bells are ringing – especially in company departments of marketing and communication. Everybody is asking themselves: Can something like this happen to us, too?

At Nunatak, Juliane Veits, in a leadership role, advises numerous customers on agile working and digital marketing and communication (marcomm) strategies. In this interview, she analyzes the sources of error and potential dangers of outdated organizational models in the marketing and communications sector and gives tips on how to avoid such missteps.

What was your first thought when you heard about the incident?

The incident initially scared me a bit. Of course, I assumed that the effect of this video was by no means what VW intended. Nevertheless, customers rightly expect such problematic content to be checked in advance and not made public.

Based on your experience in advising corporations and medium-sized companies, what do you think went wrong? And what can others learn from these mistakes?

The assumption is obvious that there are difficulties in the authorization processes and at interfaces. This is not unusual, especially in large corporations. To understand the background, we first have to look at the completely changed world of communication in the present. Today there are so many different channels and formats, especially through social media. Customers expect continuous communication from companies. The demand for content is growing more and more and increases the time pressure. And customer-centric companies naturally try to meet these demands. This starting position poses enormous challenges for marketing and communication divisions. These challenges, in our experience, can only be mastered by agile structures with clear responsibilities and coordination processes. 

Sounds like a lack of control and unclear responsibilities are the cause. Maybe even the result of the highly praised agile working, with its idea of abolishing clear hierarchies?

On the contrary! Agile organizational models, in which small groups work on a level playing field, are even an excellent safeguard against the mistakes of individual decision-makers. And I am glad that many companies are now recognizing the advantages of agile working – especially at the interface between marketing and corporate communications. We at Nunatak have successfully introduced such agile organizational models to many customers. For example, we developed an agile marcomm organization model for a large German food retailer and implemented it internationally, merging the divisions of marketing and communications. During the coronavirus crisis, this agile organization ensured that communication was faster, more reliable and more consistent. Without these new structures, this would have been much more difficult.

You advise many companies on making this change. What kind of structures do you encounter?

Often, there are still some very big difficulties: ineffective processes, overlapping responsibilities, enormous time pressure. Very often we still encounter two departments separated like silos – one for communication and one for marketing. The dangers and frictional losses resulting from this have actually been known for a long time. And sometimes you can already find initial, often insufficient attempts to eliminate these problems by introducing agile processes. But this is not so easy, and isolated measures are not enough. I can only emphatically warn against approaching the introduction of an agile organizational model piecemeal in internal experiments. The result is then often that it does not work, and the agile process burns out internally. You have to approach organizational models holistically.

Is there a checklist?

At the very beginning of such a process are the definition of the goals to be achieved and the agreement on a corresponding culture, a common mindset. The core concept here is more freedom – but without neglecting quality control and the essential authorization processes. At the same time, the structures must be considered. What is the best way to position ourselves to be able to work in a more agile way? Parallel to this, we look at the individual processes and tools with which this can be implemented. And then we look at the individual roles and competencies of the people involved.

Such upheavals are usually not without resistance. How do you make it clear to management and employees that something fundamentally needs to change?

That depends largely on how hierarchically a company has been structured so far. There are well-established, often deadlocked processes. Changes and more freedom frighten some people – they feel secure in their old structures, they know exactly what is expected of them. Among managers, the realization that something has to change, that agile processes can do the company good, is usually present – but this realization also causes a lot of uncertainty.

But isn’t agile working also associated with a loss of power?

That is true. Leadership tasks are changing, and for many managers this means moving away from strongly hierarchical leadership to more professional leadership. But for many managers it is also a relief. They can once again focus fully on the specialist areas in which their core expertise lies and are relieved of administrative and management tasks. I know from companies that we have supported in this process how liberating this can be for those involved.

How do you manage to create this positive spin when it comes to the general mood of the workforce?

We advise companies to identify the right people to act as multipliers to drive the change process internally. Pioneers who exemplify the new values, processes and structures and convince their colleagues – with our support, of course. But the most important success factor is that the top level of the hierarchy must be able to let go. Freedom is extremely important for the agile work culture to develop. But you shouldn’t confuse the two: Agile does not mean anarchy. What is important is a combination of freedom in the right place, but still with clear responsibilities and authorization processes. VW now seems to have noticed this and wants to set up a new unit for social media, which will act across the board to ensure clear processes and faster reactions. In my opinion, this is the right measure – but probably far greater adjustments to the entire organizational model will be required.


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