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“You can’t just have a team of junior people. You can’t have a team where you only get access to the senior people. You have to have the right blend.”

Welcome Nick Morris

Global Director of PR and Communications

Nexthink

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Nick Morris is a vastly experienced communications consultant, with previous Head of Communications roles at Oracle, Microsoft, and Dropbox. Having both worked in-house in the world’s leading blue chips and startups, as well as having founded his own agency, Nick gives his opinion on the agency/client relationship, having been both sides of the fence. Nick also discusses the impact of COVID-19 and the influx of content based on the pandemic.

Transcript:

Nathan Anibaba:

Nick Morris is the global director of PR and communications at Nexthink. He has held senior positions at Dropbox, Microsoft, and Oracle. He’s an experienced communication’s consultant, specialized in PR and media relations, particularly with business, national, broadcast, and IT trade media. His experience has been predominately in the IT sector, but he is a specialist in corporate business-to-business consumer and trade communications. Nick Morris, welcome to ClientSide.

Nick Morris:

Thanks for having me. Nice to be here.

Nathan Anibaba:

Absolute pleasure speaking to you. You started your career as an account executive at Harvard public relations in 1995 when nobody really wanted to be in PR at that time. How did you start your career in the industry?

Nick Morris:

Really by accident, and most people I know in PR sort of fell into it rather than had it as a childhood dream. I was leaving university. I did a business degree. Thankfully at that time, and especially with a vocational degree like that, most people left with jobs to go to. I applied to a few things. I wanted to go into magazine publishing out of all things. Thankfully, that didn’t come off. I contacted someone that I knew. I’d done a two week work placement with them before, and I said, “Could I possibly do another couple of weeks?”, and I stayed for two years. That was the beginning of my career in PR, but most people I know fall into PR and don’t have it as a lifelong dream.

Nathan Anibaba:

In the pre-interview, you said that you moved to many agencies. You also sort of started your own agency as well. We’ll talk about that a little bit later. In the early part of your career, you worked at sort of many agencies versus some of your other colleagues who spent a longer period of their career in one agency or with one company. Which strategy do you think ultimately turned out to the best for your career?

Nick Morris:

I think I still don’t know. I thought in the early part of my career that you did a job for two years, and then you’d move on. The challenging bit with that is that your first few months, you’re bedding in and you’re trying to work out your job, your name, your rent, your title, and everything out. Your last few months, you’re probably trying to get out. Actually, in the two year job, you’re giving what? Maybe a good 18 months.

Nathan Anibaba:

Interesting.

Nick Morris:

I thought that to progress you needed to move on. Actually, it’s hard to get promoted within a job. Really hard, and very often making a move out to move up, or a sort of diagonal sideways move may be strategically a good move to do, but I think you then get different kinds of experiences, but you might get less depth. You might get less sort of really under the skin of an organization. You have to start again every time.

Nick Morris:

I don’t know what the answer is, but there’s a woman that joined Harvard, I think, a week or two after me, and she and I have stayed friends 20-something years later. Our careers, I think, have sort of gone in different ways, and then almost come back to similar places. We almost end up in the same place, but our journey to get there has been quite different. She stayed at Harvard for many years and may say that she had less experiences of other worlds and other agencies. I had different experiences but, as I said, less kind of depth and real kind of deep understanding of that agency that I was working with.

Nathan Anibaba:

Fast forward a few years, and you become an account director at Bite Communications in 1999. You’ve got a lot of agency experiences we’ve touched on and you had a lot of success there, but you said that you actually fell out of love with the agency model. Discuss.

Nick Morris:

Yeah. Bite was an amazing place, and those with long memories back to kind of the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Bite was a really hot property. It was the tech agency to work at. When you stay somewhere for seven years, it’s a great experience. My role kept changing. I kept progressing through the agency. That was all really exciting. I found that the further up, and this is kind of obvious, but the further up in agency you go, the less PR work that you do and the more new business sales, HR, marketing, and everything else … Running the business that you take on and the less of actually doing the work.

Nick Morris:

Two things. Number one, I still wanted to do the work, and that was kind of what I loved about PR. Managing people and taking on additional responsibilities was great, but I didn’t want to lose that. Then, the second thing, and why I sort of fell out with the model, was because I felt like … This is going to sound dramatic, but we were being disingenuous with clients in that the senior guys would go in and sell the dream, and then pretty quickly you’d hand over to the junior, much less experienced and much less supported people, to just kind of do the work and not really deliver the dream.

Nick Morris:

That was the bit that I fell out of love with. That kind of account exec, account manager, account director, and then associate director or whatever the levels may be. Then, in a subsequent role, when I was running a tech practice I would go in and see clients maybe every three months. I would have a two hour meeting with them. I would try and deliver some value. I would apologize that I hadn’t seen them enough previously. We’d have hopefully a good meeting where they’d feel good about things, and we’d feel inspired and heading in the right direction. I’d end the meeting by saying, “We must not leave it so long”, knowing full well that I wasn’t going to see them for another three months.

Nathan Anibaba:

Interesting.

Nick Morris:

And that’s the model that I just didn’t feel like I could genuinely deliver that. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sleep at night, but it just didn’t feel [crosstalk 00:06:42].

Nathan Anibaba:

Didn’t sit well.

Nick Morris:

Yeah. It didn’t sit well. Absolutely.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting.

Nick Morris:

I think subsequently lots of smart agencies have adapted that model to say, “You don’t just get introduced to the senior people and then left with the junior folks.” Junior folks are incredibly important in any team.

Nathan Anibaba:

They’re ambitious. They’re creative. They’re all the rest of it. Right.

Nick Morris:

Jaded. In a world where I saw the growth of social media, suddenly the junior and the younger folks are really important, but you can’t just have a team of junior people that don’t have the right experience. You have to have the right blend, and you can’t have a team where you only get access to the senior, most experienced people every few months, and then the hope is that you get something good from that will last for the next few months.

Nathan Anibaba:

How do you ensure against that now that your client side, and you’re working with a number of agencies … Presumably you hire a number of agencies and you work with a number of agencies over the years. How do you ensure against them coming in and pitching with the A team but then delivering with the B, C, or even D team in some instances?

Nick Morris:

I don’t think you can ensure it, but they don’t last very long if that’s what you get. I was thinking after our pre-discussion … Look, it is really important for people at ClientSide to invest in relationships, and not just assume that you’ll get the best out of an agency because you pay them good money and you deserve it. Yes, those things are true, but you really have to invest into the relationship to make it work. If there are expectations that I have about engaging with certain people, with the senior people, and with the people that I felt were selling that dream at the beginning, then it’s as much my responsibility to make that happen as it is to just expect that it will happen.

Nick Morris:

I’ll give you an example. We’ve dramatically shifted our focus over the last few weeks because of the current situation, the COVID-19 crisis. We didn’t quite rip up our PR plans, but not far from it. We’ve re-evaluated what we’re doing. I convened we have three major agencies, three core agencies, that work with us. I convened a group of the senior folks from each of those agencies to say, “We need your help. Now is the time that we need to your guidance, your strategy, your insights, and your experience more than ever. Of course, we want to keep working with your core team.” We called it a senior leadership team check-in. It sounds very kind of dramatic, and that’s not to exclude junior folks, but it’s just to say, “At this time, we need you more than ever.”

Nick Morris:

No one came to me and said, “We think we should do that”, and neither did I wait for it to happen. You have to manage those situations. If you’re the kind of client that looks at that and says, “Well, I’m not getting the senior support that I need, and I’m just going to get pissed off about it”, then you’ll just continue to be pissed off. You need to affect that change as well.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. Just on the COVID-19 situation. There are so many agencies that I’m speaking to right now who are sort of unsure how to be speaking to their clients and how to be managing them in this situation, because A) they don’t want to be seen as opportunistic. They don’t want their clients to be seen as opportunistic by sort of taking advantage of the situation or even seeming tone deaf in their communications, but there is an opportunity right now to speak to your audience and gauge with your audience. A lot of your customers and prospects. Would be looking to you right now for how you are going to be communicating to them and sort of just a reassuring ear. How do you make sure that you’re not coming across opportunistic and you’re not seeming tone deaf, but you still need to communicate, engage your audience, and add value to them. How are you thinking about how you’re managing the COVID-19 situation at the moment?

Nick Morris:

Really, really, really carefully. It’s constantly evolving. I think we go through phases and, as I said, I kind of rewrote the PR plan. I think this was about four or five weeks ago, where there was a Monday where there was a briefing from the government. I can’t remember if it was as the lockdown was being announced or if it was getting close. It might have been the week before. I remember on the money thinking, “We can’t do anything. We would literally have to just down tools, and we can’t do anything.” Everything we planned, whether it was events or some research we were about to launch, that was now not appropriate or not going to be listened to. We just needed to stop and check what we were doing. Sort of that Monday, I remember thinking, “Okay. There’s nothing we can do.” I didn’t sleep very much that night, and then the Tuesday morning I kind of wrote in my head a plan while I was in the shower.

Nick Morris:

Then, I got up and got dressed, and then wrote it on paper. I wrote a document that said, “What can we do?”, because it’s changed dramatically. We recognized that actually the most important audience was employees and existing customers. It wasn’t prospects. It wasn’t those companies that might want our services and technology in the future. I think that we’re in a good place in that we’re a technology provider and we have offerings and solutions that can really help companies during this time, but we absolutely cannot come across as opportunistic. We should be informative. We should be guiding people. We should be sharing best practice. We can’t be promotional. I think it was good that was stopped, and we didn’t do anything for a week or so. We just kind of re-evaluated exactly where we were.

Nick Morris:

We also looked at these different phases that we were going to go through. Phase one was the kind of “Oh my god” phase like, “This is really serious. This is very scary. People are concerned for themselves, for their health, for their families, their loved ones, for their jobs, for the economy, and for all sorts of things.” That was phase one, and it was right and proper that actually we probably shut our mouths during phase one. I think we’re in phase two now, which is a little karma. A little bit of a new normal, which everyone keeps referring to, and an extended period of, “Do you know what? It’s going to be like this for a while. Better get used to it. We are going to be stuck in our homes. We are going to be working in a different way. We’re going to be kind of getting through this together.” There’s a different tone and a different conversation you can have during that phase.

Nathan Anibaba:

Interesting.

Nick Morris:

Then, phase three … Look, there are many more, but this is kind of a simplistic way of [inaudible 00:14:21].

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

Nick Morris:

Phase three is, at some point, we’ll return to some kind of normality, whatever that looks like. We are a long way away from that. We definitely shouldn’t talk about that yet, but in some stage we should talk about that. We’ve been through this massive experience together. What have we learned? What should we do differently? One of the things that I’m fascinated in, and that we do have a voice about, is how people work and the role that technology plays with that. People have talked about new ways of working for a long time. Should we continue to go into offices as we’ve always done? Should we spend so much time and money commuting all day every day, sometimes two hours each way to get to this dumb container, which is the office, to do our work when actually we’ve proven, a lot of us have proven but some haven’t, that we can work really effectively from … I’m in my bedroom at the moment. That’s become my office.

Nathan Anibaba:

Nice bedroom.

Nick Morris:

Yes. You’re seeing the good bit.

Nathan Anibaba:

Right. You set it up.

Nick Morris:

The window that is the Skype call is a mess over there.

Nathan Anibaba:

Right. Okay.

Nick Morris:

We should be asking ourselves questions, and as we go from kind of phase two to phase three, which is two things. Number one is, “What should we do differently, and how do we avoid just going back to that way of working that we had before?” We’re a tech company, but we can talk about those things. How do we avoid just reverting back to old habits? People are really bad at changing, and when this is over their temptation will be to go, “Okay. Back on the tube. Back on the buses. Back to the office. You’ve got to be in by nine. You’ve got to stay until five or six o’clock. You don’t see your kids as much.” I’m loving seeing my kids all the time. I take five minute breaks and make a cup of coffee. My days are absolutely slammed at the moment, but I go and make a cup of coffee and my kids are there. That’s a real gift.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah. It really is.

Nick Morris:

Then, the second question we should ask is, “How do we make sure that if something like this happens again, we’re more prepared?” Again, the role that technology plays within that. Those are the kinds of conversations, I think, we’ll be having as we move from phase two to phase three. It means that the comms is constantly evolving. If we’re in phase one or moving from phase one to phase two, then your comm’s strategy is very different to if we’re moving from that new normal to a return to kind of old ways of doing things, then the comms changes as well. That’s the lens that we’re looking through. We’re very mindful that, as I said, employees are a massively important audience for us.

Nick Morris:

We’ll be experiencing very different things. A lot of time, giving some guidance and working very closely with HR. Let’s give some guidance to people that have young kids at home that are struggling to work, educate their children, and keep them calm. Then, we’ve given some guidance on those people who have elderly relatives at home, and how are they coping with that? I have a friend who is properly self isolating, because his brother-in-law had a kidney transplant recently. Their world is very different to mine. I can go out a bit more. We started thinking about how do we give guidance to those people that don’t have any relatives and that they’re completely on their own. They may get their 30 minutes a day to go and get some air. They might be living in a block of flats. They might not have a garden. How do we help those people? That’s a very different kind of comm’s plan than the one that we had four weeks ago.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. Are you relying on your agencies to be proactive in coming to you with these ideas, because none of us have been in this situation before. We had it sort of thrust upon us. It came out of the blue. I think you said a moment ago that you were proactive in approaching your agency to sit down to create that comm’s plan on what the three phases need to be over what period of time. What would you have preferred? Would you have preferred your agencies to be proactive and come to you with ideas for, “Hey, I think this is the way that we should be looking at and thinking about this”, or is it your responsibility as the director of communications and PR to brief your agency and sort of guide them as to the way that we should be thinking?

Nick Morris:

The typical PR answer is that it’s a bit of both. I rely on our agency teams to kind of give us insights and guidance. They will rely on me to kind of give them direction and a perspective based on what our current needs our. I know the business and the business requirements better than they do. They know the outside world through other client experiences and through media relationships much better than I do, so the combination of those two are really important. We’re an extended team, where it’s not just clients and agencies. We’re kind of all in this together. I’m definitely relying on agencies to say, “This is what we’re seeing from others. Where are companies making mistakes?” There’ve been some very high profile mistakes made by certain companies in the UK and beyond. Sports Direct claiming that they were an urgent service, because people needed to do exercise at home and needed key fit equipment.

Nathan Anibaba:

Horrible.

Nick Morris:

Just insane. Knowing, recognizing, and understanding where others have made mistakes, because when you were saying earlier about avoiding being opportunistic, promotional ambulance chasing, and all of that kind of stuff is so important. You can really destroy a brand through this time if you mess up. Where have other clients done things that are really smart, that are thoughtful, and have been well received, and how can we replicate that? In all times, we need that from our agency teams as well, those insights that show best practice for communications that really show one of the things that I think gives us really good value from our agencies is their experience of working with other companies as well, because they’re not doing this for the first time. Most of their great consultancy will be based on what they’ve done before. It’s definitely a combination.

Nick Morris:

I think understanding when is the right time to speak to certain media is really critical as well. There are some media that we just can’t and shouldn’t talk to at the moment, because they’re entirely focused elsewhere. Look, media teams are very thin at the moment. Some journalists are losing their jobs. There are teams that may be struggling because they’ve got people that are either ill, self isolating, or unable to do their work in the way that they were expected to. There are people that are covering different and new beats because the world is a different place. Us going with a, “Hey, we’ve got a new product that’s terribly interesting”, at the moment is the wrong thing to do. There are also some journalists saying, “Give us non COVID-19 stories please. We’re trying to cover other things as well. We don’t want to all become Coronavirus publications.” There’s a role that we can play there as well.

Nathan Anibaba:

That’s super interesting. I’m asking you to sort of measure the mood of the nation at the moment, but is your sense that we’re sort of becoming fatigued with Coronavirus news and content? You only have to look at LinkedIn feed, your Twitter feed, or any sort of social media to know that everyone is creating content and talking about Coronavirus. That was acceptable in maybe week one, week two, or week three, but now as we come into this new normal, as you mentioned earlier, is there a risk that people are just like, “Okay. I’m over it now. This is the new normal. Let’s roll up our sleeves and sort of get on with it.” In that context, we need to create different sorts of content and communication to engage a new sort of audience in a different phase.

Nick Morris:

To a degree, I agree. I’m not sure if people are fatigued that there’s only so much information they can take in. Personally, I limit the amount of time I spend watching the news. Kind of the five o’clock briefing or the ten o’clock news I’ll watch every day, but I can’t do it every hour. It becomes too much, and I need a bit of an escape for that. I don’t think I’m necessarily alone. I think people are definitely, not necessarily fatigued with content that refers to the current crisis, but they certainly have a very low tolerance for things that are claiming to be associated with it or a solution to it. People are seeing through that really quickly. I saw a report last week, which claimed to be the COVID-19 productivity report. I couldn’t work out if I was more frustrated that a company had done that, or that it had gotten written up and that people thought that was worthy

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

Nick Morris:

A few weeks ago, when the crisis first broke, I know that a lot of journalists were talking to each other to call out bad behavior of companies that were claiming to have a COVID-19 response. That was one of the reasons that we wanted to take a breath and we wanted to think really carefully. Actually, the other strategy that we’ve got in at the moment, and we always do this, but it’s even more intense, is double, triple, quadruple checking everything and [inaudible 00:24:48] everything. Whether it’s a tweet that we’re about to put out, whether it is a headline for an announcement, or the way that we’re phrasing something in an opinion article, I’m checking it with more people than I ever would, because if one of them says, “Ah. Do you know what?”

Nathan Anibaba:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). It doesn’t feel right.

Nick Morris:

Yeah. Right. Then, I want to hear that. Normally, I would check it with one or two people, or a group would work on something, we’d agree, and it would go out, but I’m now checking it with other people to say, “Is there anything in this that you think could be taken the wrong way?”, because we want to avoid that. Hypersensitive situation, and not just because we want to protect ourselves, but because we want to do the right thing. We want to come across where we want to be helpful, and if we’re not being helpful, then shut up. Don’t talk.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super fascinating. Let’s talk a little bit about Nexthink. One of the reasons why we wanted to sort of get you on the show is because of your extensive experience with Dropbox and Microsoft. I think with Dropbox, you were really instrumental in sort of helping build the brand and transition them from sort of just a storage company to more of a collaboration company, and you also were very instrumental at Microsoft as well. I’m really interested in your experience around building brands, creating, and communicating value to a customer base over a period of time. That really brings us onto sort of Nexthink, because you joined in 2019 as the global director of PR and communications. What problems does Nexthink solve for your customers, and how are you communicating those challenges in this environment?

Nick Morris:

Dropbox and Microsoft, I was there. I’m not sure if I was instrumental, but I was definitely there.

Nathan Anibaba:

I’ve given you a bit too much credit there?

Nick Morris:

Yeah, no. This is good for my ego. If anyone’s listening, I just want to [inaudible 00:26:53] as well.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure.

Nick Morris:

Nexthink is really interesting. We always used to have a joke when I was in agency that, “The latest client was the best kept secret in …”, and we are the best secret in how people engage with technology in the workforce. The challenge we’ve got is, I guess, twofold. Number one is few people have heard of us. We’re a sort of less known entity. Having worked for Microsoft, and pretty much most people on the planet know of Microsoft, whether that’s a good or a bad reaction. When I tell people I was working at Dropbox, their first reaction I would always get is a smile. At Nexthink, people sort of repeat the name, don’t really know how it’s spelled, and certainly don’t know what we do.

Nick Morris:

Our world is around digital employee experience, which doesn’t sound massively sexy, but the dinner part conversation is that most people in the workplace struggle with technology. It’s a blocker. It’s an obstacle. It slows them down. Their experience with technology is not generally a positive one. The tech, especially at work and in our lives as well, is supposed to empower us. It’s supposed to free us, make us better, lift us up, and enable us to do all these sorts of things that we want to do that we couldn’t previously do. Actually, often it gets in the way. It doesn’t work properly, and we have a technology that identifies what the experience is for employees, and we’ll fix it sometimes automatically and sometimes by engaging with the employee. It will make those problems go away.

Nick Morris:

If I give you an example of Outlook keeps crashing. If it crashes once or twice, you’ll restart it. If it keeps happening, you might reboot your laptop. If it keeps happening, you’ll get a bit annoyed, and you might send a ticket into IT. By the time it’s fixed, it’s probably taken a few weeks, and it’s slowed you down. Your relationship with IT is not good, it’s frustrated you, and it’s stopping you being productive. It’s probably annoying you, and your whole kind of engagement with your working environment is negatively impacted. Imagine a world where actually technology can fix that problem, recognize it at the first sign of the problem, tell you that it’s been fixed, and just let you get on with what you were meant to be doing. That would be a better world, and that’s what we’re doing.

Nick Morris:

That takes five minutes to explain what we’re all about, and the snappy line is, “We’re the global leaders in digital employee experience”, but trying to convince people that they should really care about digital employee experience is a kind of … You know, if you have a good experience, then great. You don’t need to worry about it. If you have a bad experience, then you’re frustrated. We’re trying to define this category, which is a challenging thing to do. We are trying to elevate the role of technology and employee experience generally up to a higher level. Employee experience, if you think about your working environment, the main things probably are people and place, so who you work with, your manager, how people engage with you, your working environment, do you have a nice office … which is particularly challenging at this time, even to the extent that companies … You know, the San Francisco, and I worked at Dropbox …

Nick Morris:

The San Francisco stereotype is these amazing in house restaurants that are completely free, and the finest coffee that you could ever want. If your technology experience is negative, then it doesn’t matter how well you’re managed, how good the culture is, or how lovely the office environment is, you still will have a negative impact on your experience. What we’re arguing is that the technology piece is very underrated. It’s not more important than the other two, but it needs to be considered more. Without that, the experience that employees have is going to suffer. A few years ago, I think some very smart people realized that customer satisfaction and sort of a score around their satisfaction levels for customers wasn’t enough, and they looked more holistically about what’s the whole experience for customers. Then, a couple of years later, some very smart people realized, “Well, if that’s true for customers, then it’s probably true for employees as well.” Actually, to make the knock on effect, if you’ve got good employee experience, you’re more likely to deliver a better customer experience.

Nick Morris:

All of that is kind of a really long story that we’re trying to tell, and we are a really important part of it. There are very big companies that are starting to move much more into digital employee experience space, and who do much bigger things, are recognizing the value, and it’s the core of what we do. It’s very interesting. It’s actually all about people, which is what’s always fascinated me with [inaudible 00:32:34]. I’ve been in tech PR for many years, and it’s never really been about the tech. It’s always been about people that are using the technology and how it can kind of enable people to work better, improve society, or enable better communications. It’s not an easy challenge. When I pick up the phone to a journalist and say, “I’m from Microsoft” or “I’m from Dropbox”, it’s an easier beginning of a conversation. “I’m from Nexthink, and we’re the global leaders in digital employee experience”, and it’s a kind of, “Okay. You’ve got about eight seconds to explain why I should possibly be interested in that.”

Nathan Anibaba:

Really makes a lot of sense. Creating a category from scratch, defining that, and taking it to market, I assume is a very challenging situation that you’re in, and I would assume that you’ve never really been in that position before working at global market leading brands, which is Microsoft and Dropbox. How are agencies helping you define or create that category, and then communicate that to the market?

Nathan Anibaba:

One of the questions I had on this is also for the brands that have tried to create a category before that have been the first to try to create a category, it’s the second and third … It’s the followers that usually have a lot of success, because the brand that initially created the category has done a lot of the heavy lifting and a lot of the leg work. What danger is there that you spend a lot of time, effort, money, and resources creating this category, and the followers in the market actually sort of piggyback on your coat tails after a lot of the heavy lifting that you’ve already done?

Nick Morris:

I think there are a couple of things that are happening. Number one is that the category creation work is actually a much broader marketing effort and certainly not coming from comm’s. We’re a part of it. I think the role that comms can play is the “Prove it.” There’s a whole bunch of work that’s been done around what is digital employee experience and why is it important. It’s up to us to kind of make the case to prove that customers are buying this from you and have a need for it to prove that there is a problem in the market that you’re trying to solve. We’re about to launch some research. We were about to launch it a few weeks ago, and then everything erupted, so it delayed it, but we’re putting some research out next week that looks at the disconnect between the delivery of IT. IT departments deliver tools and services to employees, and the consumption of employees, which is how the employees are using that technology. The research looks at the disconnect between the two.

Nick Morris:

The IT team will say, “All the lights are green. Everything seems to be working”, but the employees will say, “I still have a bad experience.” How do you prove that there is a problem that needs to be solved? I don’t think we are necessarily creating a new category and then starting from scratch. We’ve been around for 15 years, and the company has evolved. We’re a kind of scale up rather than a startup. I don’t think we’re creating something new, and then the risk is that others will just execute better than us. I think we are redefining what we’re doing and what we’ve always done for a time where the need is really important. Actually, what’s happened with the current crisis is the experience that employees have within organizations with their technology, when they’re all in the office, sucks to a certain degree. Multiply that by 100 times or more, because none of us are in the office.

Nick Morris:

We had a customer recently say that they went from having eight offices, that they had to look after everyone in those eight offices and manage the IT, to over 2000 because everyone is now working from their own offices. That’s a very different challenge. It doesn’t mean that everything is ripped up. It means that it’s a more extreme version of the problem that you were trying to solve previously. Without being opportunistic, I think there is an opportunity or chance for us to explain the current climate as an extreme version of actually whatever anyone had been experiencing for a while. The more that we, as the comms function, can help define the problem and then articulate how we are a solution … I know that sounds really basic, but if you’re a solution and people don’t know what the problem is, then that’s a really tough sell.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah. Sure. You need to articulate the problem first.

Nick Morris:

Absolutely. We’ll take that initial categorization work, and we’ll spend a lot of time saying, “Okay. Let’s prove this. Let’s develop the arguments around it. Let’s develop the precision and the perspectives. I’m never a fan of crystal ball gazing, but you can make some assumptions about the future, and you can certainly ask some questions about, as I said earlier, the change that we’ve gone through recently. What does that mean for how organizations are going to manage their workforces in the future and how IT is going to play a role within that? Those are the questions that we’re going to ask. That massively plays into the digital experiences that employees will have.

Nathan Anibaba:

You mentioned earlier that you work with agencies as more of a sort of collaborative team. Talk a little bit about how you’re working with agencies to help you define that problem and prove that there is a problem in the market that organizations should be spending money on to solve it. What sorts of agencies are you working with, and how are they helping you solve that problem?

Nick Morris:

We have a U.S. agency and a U.K. agency that are kind of an extension of our team. They’re more of our arms and legs. We have an internal team of just two people at the moment. In the current climate, having a lean team is a good thing. We’re relying on our agencies to help write some of the content, to pitch stories, and to engage with the media to not just reach out to the media, but also listen to what the media are asking for, are talking about, and where we may be able to engage with that. We also have another agency that we work with, which is more of a kind of virtual PR agency that I’ve worked with for a number of years. I’ve worked with them at Microsoft, at Dropbox, and now at Nexthink. I like to kind of describe them almost as a sort of minister without a portfolio.

Nick Morris:

Maybe once a month, we’ll look at just what needs doing. They helped with some of the re-writing of the PR plan, because a month ago it looked very different to what we’re doing now. They often help with our messaging. We’ve done some media training work with them. They are doing a whole bunch of different things. Very often, the biggest risk or the biggest challenge that I’ve got is that there’s a whole bunch of stuff in my head that I just don’t have the time, the energy, the ability, or the resources to figure it out. The more that I can share my challenges and the pains that we are going through with other really smart people that I trust and I know that can deliver, the better we’ll be, the more relaxed I’ll be, and actually the more challenged I’ll be as well. You don’t have a conversation with yourself and then come up with the best solution. You have the conversation with other people who challenge you and say, “What about doing it this way?”

Nick Morris:

The best brainstorms start with really terrible ideas, but then morph into some good ideas. Yeah. Relying on people, both internally and externally, who are understanding the challenges that we’ve got. I had a colleague when I was at Microsoft who often used to talk about, “Agencies should walk a mile in my shoes.” They should really not just try and decide what they think we need, but try and understand the challenges that we’re facing. That might be, “How do we communicate as a business?” It might be, “How do we report back into the business about the role of PR and comms and how we’re delivering?” I’m not a fan of justifying our existence internally, but I’m a big fan of PR in the PR of demonstrating where we’re delivering value so that we’re arming sales, marketing, and others with the results that we’re generating.

Nick Morris:

You can’t just assume that the articles that we secure are going to get read. You have to feed that back into the business. How we are PR-ing the PR, which is a horrible phrase, but I can’t think of a better way of explaining it. It’s also really important. That takes a whole village to do that, and that’s not just individuals that can do that on their own. Having been the sole PR person within the organization for the first six months last year, and then I brought someone in who’s running comms in the U.S., and she’s really smart and really great … The relationship that we’re building is that we kind of feed off each other, challenge each other, and certainly the best people that I’ve ever worked with aren’t the ones that say, “Right. What do I do next?” They’re the ones that say, “Okay. This is what we’re doing.” They push me as much as I push them.

Nathan Anibaba:

Do you have a … [crosstalk 00:43:28].

Nick Morris:

Sorry. I was just going to say that goes for external people as well. Those agencies that say “Right. What should we do next?”, won’t last very long.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting, so they need to be proactive to come to you with ideas and strategies as to how they think you should be best moving forward. Super fascinating. Do you have a view on whether you would prefer to work with a large integrated agency that have lots of service offerings under one roof, or do you prefer to work with those smaller and more nimble specialist agencies that are excellent at one thing and working with a number of those specialists?

Nick Morris:

I don’t really view it that way. I like to work with agencies that really get us and where the chemistry is good, and certainly in all the agency reviews and pitches that I’ve done, it always comes down to relationships, chemistry, and where those relationships go sour is often where good people move on and they’re not necessarily replaced in the right way. I think for a company like us, we don’t want to get lost and be any agency’s smallest client, but equally I don’t really ever want to be the biggest clients either. I think an ideal would be, depending on the budget that you’ve got, maybe in the top three or the top five, because then you get a lot of attention. Also, it’s kind of a good balance. It’s definitely about the relationship, and services can be brought in. I think most agencies will be multi-serviced, multifunctional, and will at least have access to people that can do other things as well. I think that I wouldn’t ever just go for an agency that only did one thing, but I also wouldn’t expect them to do everything.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super fascinating. The other question that I had was around giving feedback. This is a question that I get a lot from agencies, because it’s a big issue and concern that they have around clients not really giving them feedback in the right way or timely enough for them to make decisions. Clients typically have very different communication styles if they’re unhappy with something. Some clients tell an agency straight away, giving the agency sort of time to deal with it. Other agencies take a little bit longer. I think most agencies would like to know quite early so that they can sort of deal with this situation. What’s your approach to communicating something that you’re unhappy with, with your agency?

Nick Morris:

This is such a fundamental issue, and I’ll start with the fact that I’m quite non-confrontational. I’m not sure my wife would agree, but certainly in business environments I try and be non-confrontational, because I don’t want to upset people. I think it’s as much our responsibility to drive people hard as it is to motivate and inspire them. It’s both carrot and stick, which is really important. Having been agency side, I don’t want to be constantly criticized, but I also don’t want to not be told if something is not quite working. I think we need to get that balance right. I feel like I’ve said balance a lot throughout this discussion. Look, there’s the stereotypical shit sandwich, which is your start with something positive, you give them the kind of harsh feedback in the middle, and then you end with something positive. I think that can be a little too transparent sometimes as well.

Nick Morris:

You want to be honest and open without being overly critical. I think current climate is “I need to be very sensitive to the fact that our agency teams are struggling with the new way of working as well.” One of the benefits we have from having agencies is that they kind of sit together. They talk across desks at each other all the time. They have lunch together. They do all sorts of things, where those kind of water [inaudible 00:48:03] conversations that they’re not having at the moment, and I need to be mindful that is a current dynamic. At the same time, if something is not working, then we need to give that feedback, because if it continues to not work for long enough and it becomes normal, then that’s when it’s either accepted and doesn’t get fixed. That’s not fair on the agency as well, so not giving feedback, I think, is less fair than maybe being too critical.

Nathan Anibaba:

Super interesting. Nick, last question before we get into our favorite questions at the end of the interview, our more sort of exciting questions. Although brands appreciate that unique skills are really required to manage their agency, they don’t typically think about agency management as a distinct discipline that they need to really build into their organization. The thinking is almost, “How hard could it be? Shouldn’t agencies manage themselves anyway to serve the needs of my business? We’re already paying them to be self reliant and motivated.” How do you think about that?

Nick Morris:

Yeah. I think this covers some of the stuff we talked about already, which is it is absolutely my responsibility and people in my team’s responsibility to manage those relationships in a positive way. There’s the [inaudible 00:49:32] state that we talked about. You drive people hard, because you want to get value for the often very big money that you’re spending, but also you need to inspire people. You can’t just wag your finger, shout, scream, and demand. You have to inspire. I know that, in previous roles, I have been an agency’s best client and I’ve been an agency’s worst client. When you’re an agency’s worst client, people are not motivated and inspired. They are frustrated. Often, it means that the relationship is breaking down or might have broken down already.

Nick Morris:

It would mean that, “I’m frustrated. I’m making demands that I don’t think the agency is delivering. I’m coming across as being difficult.” That’s a really bad place to be. I’ve also been in a place where people have been fighting to try and join the team. People outside the agency team have been asking if they can work on my account, because it’s working really well. That’s a much, much better place to be, and it’s kind of stating the obvious. I’ve always told people that I manage that them managing the agency is a really important discipline. I remember an old boss saying to me once when I was very frustrated with an agency, and it’s haunted me for a long time … I was saying I felt we needed to do a review and move on. His words were, exactly word-for-word, he said, “I just need to work out if the problem is with the agency or with your management of the agency.”

Nathan Anibaba:

Oh interesting.

Nick Morris:

I was really stuck, because it then meant … And I don’t know how calculating this was, but it then meant that if I ever went to him with a problem, it was through the lens of, “Is this me not managing it properly, or is it the agency?”

Nathan Anibaba:

Sure. Interesting.

Nick Morris:

It was much more for me to try and fix it, but it is my responsibility to make sure that anyone I manage is working out well. There might be a point when you’ve done everything you possibly can do, or you’ve done anything that is reasonable, but just to kind of, “It’s not working now, or try different ways.” … Maybe that’s a different conversation with certain people. Maybe there’s not enough clarity. Maybe there’s a lack of direction. Maybe there’s something that’s not working. I’ve definitely encouraged people in my team to go and spend time within the agency’s offices, work from their offices for a while … Difficult at the moment, but get to know them. Go and take the account lead out for lunch and we’ll pay. You hear often the agencies do kind of the client service and client hospitality stuff, but we’ll pay for lunch. Work on that relationship, because it’s not a one way thing. Those clients that think it’s a one way thing will not get what they need.

Nathan Anibaba:

Absolutely. Fascinating. Nick, we’re just getting towards the back end of the interview now. Let’s get into our speed round where I’ll fire some questions at you. If you can fire some short sharp answers back, that will be fantastic.

Nick Morris:

Less of a boast, then.

Nathan Anibaba:

Sorry?

Nick Morris:

Less of a boast.

Nathan Anibaba:

Right. Let’s start with some of the fun questions first. Which CMO, in your opinion, has the most difficult job right now? Based on what you said about Sports Direct, it might be the CMO of Sports Direct.

Nick Morris:

Yeah.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah.

Nick Morris:

That was definitely the example I was thinking about, but I also think that there are some industries that are just … I’m working in tech at the moment. Sorry this was supposed to be a short answer.

Nathan Anibaba:

That’s fine.

Nick Morris:

Tech can provide some solutions in the right places during this period. I think that entertainment, hospitality, travel, and tourism are just … I don’t know. I feel for those guys, and I think that must be so tough. We all pray that this is as short a period as possible so that they can start their journey to recovery.

Nathan Anibaba:

Which brand is doing the best in your opinion right now, from a communication’s standpoint?

Nick Morris:

I need to spend more time looking at what other brands are doing.

Nathan Anibaba:

Okay.

Nick Morris:

I keep my eyes on Microsoft, because I used to work there. I think they’re doing some really smart stuff. They have some amazing technology. I think that they are doing stuff with AI to try and come up with some proper solutions to some very big problems. I think they’re being very supportive to industries like health care and education by giving products away, and it’s not just a kind of three month promotion. This is a proper, “We’re giving it away. We recognize …”, and I think those brands that are being just really supportive for those that really need it are doing the best job. I know that he’s not part of the organization anymore, and Bill Gates is being pretty quiet, but him calling out Trump for stopping funding to the WHO at the moment when they need it, I thought was … You know, the world stops and listens when Bill Gates tweets.

Nathan Anibaba:

Satya Nadella is obviously CEO of Microsoft now, and they’ve had their troubles with the former CEO. I can’t remember his name. The really loud gentleman. I forgot his name now, but how much of a shadow does Bill Gates still cast over Microsoft? How much of his culture is still intertwined with the way that the company communicates, thinks, and acts now?

Nick Morris:

I left a few years ago, so Steve Ballmer was the last …

Nathan Anibaba:

Steve Ballmer.

Nick Morris:

Steve, and he was quite a character.

Nathan Anibaba:

Yeah.

Nick Morris:

Actually, I joined Microsoft literally as Bill Gates was leaving. He was still on the board, but he was leaving. The joke that I was telling was that he knew that I was arriving, so everything was [inaudible 00:55:52].

Nathan Anibaba:

Phew. Thank god.

Nick Morris:

Yeah.

Nathan Anibaba:

Nick’s here.

Nick Morris:

Exactly. While I was there … I mean, Bill Gates was obviously the history of the company, but he wasn’t the then present. There were stories, and he was legendary, but he was very much focused on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and on trying to cure some very, very big world problems with the fortune that he’d made. I think he’s more part of the history rather than still casting a shadow.

Nathan Anibaba:

Interesting.

Nick Morris:

I’ve been out of the business for a few years now.

Nathan Anibaba:

Really interesting. What annoys you about working with agencies, and what do you absolutely love about working with agencies?

Nick Morris:

What annoys me? Little things. Missing a deadline. Making me chase for things. Deadline can be re-negotiated, but not after the deadline has passed. If I’m chasing a deadline, it means that I’m already annoyed. What do I love? There was an agency relationship I was trying to fix a few years ago where we said that we wanted to be more surprised and more delighted, and unfortunately we were neither surprised nor delighted. If I’m ever surprised in a way that makes me think, “Oh wow. I haven’t thought of that” … People thinking of things before I have delights me and surprises me. If it’s related to challenges that we’re facing, then that’s gold.

Nathan Anibaba:

We all hit a low point from time to time, especially in these crazy times that we’re in right now. How do you motivate yourself at low points?

Nick Morris:

I’m not sure I do. I think I stop. I need to be fitter and healthier. Swimming helps. I can’t do that at the moment.

Nathan Anibaba:

True.

Nick Morris:

My son ridiculously bought an exercise bike last year and never used it. It was where he hung his clothes, and now it was the smartest purchase he ever made, because we’re all cashing in on the exercise bike. I think he’s going to claim some contribution. Sitting on the bike, watching something on Netflix, and escaping is how I kind of wind down.

Nathan Anibaba:

Netflix and exercise. It’s a bit of a new … Quite a new phrase there.

Nick Morris:

Better than the other one.

Nathan Anibaba:

Right. Final couple of questions. What’s the single biggest thing that you’re working towards that you haven’t yet achieved in your career?

Nick Morris:

That’s a hard one. Again, my wife gets frustrated that I’ve never had a two year, five year, or a ten year plan. I find that quite scary, so I’ve never had that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s an award, an industry award. I’ve got one. Actually, there are a couple, but one is less significant. I’ve got one, and that was a real highlight of my career. It was kind of a black tie deal in Paris, a convention center near Notre Dame. It was amazing, and we won a big award. That was great. I think recognition for something that’s really different would be great. I often challenge and motivate my team and my agency teams to think about what awards we should go for, because I think they are less valuable to impress other people, and they’re more valuable to motivate and inspire people that have worked on something and should get recognized for the work that they’ve done.

Nathan Anibaba:

Great place to end. Nick Morris, thank you for being on ClientSide.

Nick Morris:

It’s been a pleasure. As they say at the end of desert island, I’m going to say thank you very much.

Nathan Anibaba:

If you’d like to share any comments on this episode or any episode of ClientSide, then find us online at fox.agency. If you’d like to appear as a guest on the show, please email milly@fox.agency. The people that make this show possible are Milly Bell and Natasha Rosic our booker/researcher. David Clare is our head of content. Ben Fox is our executive producer. I’m Nathan Anibaba. You’ve been listening to ClientSide from Fox Agency.

Nathan Anibaba:

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