Alan Oram is the Director of Alive With Ideas, an ideas agency in the UK on a mission to make mundane internal comms marvellous.

 
Chuck Gose: Are you ready for maybe one of the biggest compliments you’ve ever received?

Alan Oram: Not really. I find it hard to hear good things. Weird, right?

CG: Well, I’m going to share it anyway. Alive With Ideas is my Duran Duran of the internal comms world. And those that know how much I appreciate Duran Duran, this means something.

AO: Well that doesn’t take the ‘pressure off’. I’m ‘fallin down’. Almost feel ‘the reflex’ coming. Shall I stop? Thanks, I really appreciate you saying. It means a lot.

CG: First off, nice work on dropping in the Duran Duran songs. You know how to butter my bread. But secondly, here’s what I mean by the comparison. Collectively, Alive With Ideas has built this creative force in the world of internal communications BUT I don’t think there are enough people who are seeing it and appreciating the work you and the team have done.

AO: That’s interesting. We’d love to spread our wings further. But, there’s a balance between delivering for our clients and spending time developing the business to be something more than what it is today. We started Alive with a simple plan -– to do some great work for great people. We have an amazing bunch of clients looking after them along with our team is the first priority. What’s your thoughts? What would you like to see us do? I’m curious as someone with an outside perspective. Have I turned the tables?

CG: I’m a known tables-turner so I like this. I think you face the same challenges other businesses face -- juggling promoting the business, taking care of clients and keeping employees engaged and interested in the previous two. But much like what internal communicators themselves face, the work you do for clients is internal to them and would likely never be seen by others. But it’s the work I see -- the creativity that you share publicly -- that makes me so curious about the work you’re doing for clients.

"Simplifying a message and distilling it back to it’s bare bones is a big challenge."

AO: I had an amazing day last week where I spent the day filming with a client – an NHS trust. We were gathering feedback from leaders on an agreement that has been put in place. It’s not our usual big visual approach in fact it’s the opposite. It’s stripped back. Just individuals talking to camera about different aspects and qualities it takes to be a leader in a tough working environment. The individual and personal stories and passion that came from these guys was amazing. I’m left with a warm glow and sense of pride not only in what we’ve created but in what they are doing and achieving day in and day out.

CG: This video sounds like a perfect example where less is more. Would you agree?

AO: Absolutely. While we try and make a statement with the things that we create for ourselves it’s not appropriate to do this all the time. The approach needs work in context of what the goal of the communication is.

CG: The context of creativity. . . there could be an entire conversation just around this. I think communicators can get lost on a project when trying to be too creative when simplifying the message might be the most creative approach. From your client's perspective, have you seen them struggle with creativity?

AO: Simplifying a message and distilling it back to it’s bare bones is a big challenge. Getting absolute clarity is tricky as things move fast and there tends to be various stakeholders who are all coming at things from their own perspectives with their own agendas.

The struggle with creativity tends to be related to brand, culture or personal taste of the internal client. We’ve worked with some great people that really want to push things. I think we’re lucky enough to attract those people that want to do something different.

CG: Are there any cultural attributes you can point to that encourage more creativity internally at an organization? Beyond the “be honest, be responsible, blah” stuff.

AO: Good question. When it comes down to it, it rarely relates to the values of the organisation. Someone once said that there’s no such thing as a creative organisation there’s only creative people within organisations. For me, it’s down to individuals to push each time they have opportunity to do something different.

"Sometimes people spend too long looking for the reasons why we can’t be more creative and not enough time seeing what they can get away with."

CG: And each culture, no matter how innovative or constrained, does have boundaries of what’s acceptable and not acceptable. And I think the opportunity for communicators is to find those creative pockets to expand those boundaries a bit more each time.

AO: Yes, 100% agree. Sometimes people spend too long looking for the reasons why we can’t be more creative and not enough time seeing what they can get away with. Losing the fight before you’ve even started isn’t a good place to be in. Creativity doesn’t need to be about bold visuals (although we like those) it comes in many different flavours. So, my question is what’s your flavour within your organisation? Taste plays it’s part and that’s often the thing that get incredibly subjective at times.

CG: That’s a great analogy. But I’m curious, where do you stand the forgiveness/permission spectrum?

AO: There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. Find out where the line is and step over from time to time. I’d rather be asking for forgiveness but pick that moment. Perhaps doing something weird and wonderful around a restructure when people are concerned about their jobs isn’t the right time so pick a moment that’s not so heavy and push your boundaries. Permission is needed from time to time so we can’t avoid it but I’ve met some many people (clients) that have their own great ideas and aren’t restricted by the weight of the organisation.

CG: And that weight of the organization can be heavy on some. Are there any recent examples in the marketing or external comms world you’ve seen that you’d love to see internal communicators adopt? Perhaps a message, or a tactic, or a design that you think would really resonate internally.

AO: The campaigns that have resonated with me recently have featured ‘real people’. This is a trend that keeps growing and is perfect for internal comms.

This is an older ad but get’s me every time I watch it:
 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsP0W7-tEOc

CG: I can get behind anything that features a Missy Elliott song. And that is a great message because guess who works at companies? Real people. I think the message is also about showing vulnerabilities and that we all have them.

AO: I’m also drawn to these type of campaigns that are created to make a difference and inspire. This blows me away and makes me want to cry all at the same time. Sorry, gets me fired up.
 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78mNZeDaMtk&t=4s

CG: You know what I love about content like that? It’s not the norm. For a healthcare video, you wouldn’t expect that type of imagery or music; that’s awesome. It’s so empowering. And from a brand perspective, it puts them into a different conversation. For those in internal communications, this is an example to steal this type of approach.

AO: We’ve seen a lot of this approach in the UK in external campaigns. Our public sector comms people do some amazing work with little or no budget or resources (small teams) tackling some really tough issues. I think this is something that would be great to translate into internal comms. I think you’ve got it spot on – showing that we’re human and we are all vulnerable at times. Community is a word that get used a lot internally and if we genuinely want to create communities we need more than transactional business and work focused interactions.

CG: For communicators who work in global organizations, how would you recommend they be creative when what might be great one in country could fall flat in another?

AO: Local translation of content and/or visuals isn’t enough although in many cases it’s the only option depending on the size and structure of the organisation. Take a look at this… it’s magical… ;)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=UdbOhvjIJxI

Perhaps we can learn something from Harry Potter. You need good people locally to translate the comms – as they need translating making relevant for specific teams. When I say translating I don’t mean in a literal sense it’s the sentiment and what it mean locally.

CG: So more of a cultural translation, and not just a linguistic one.

"We do tend to analyze more when something goes wrong. Rather than seeing it as a failure it’s got to be seen as an opportunity to learn but we must do this when things go well too."

AO: Definitely. Ideas need to travel well too so they should be checked by local teams before rolling out.

CG: What’s your advice to communicators when creativity misses the mark? They might see this as failure, but I’m guessing you don’t.

AO: We do tend to analyze more when something goes wrong. Rather than seeing it as a failure it’s got to be seen as an opportunity to learn but we must do this when things go well too.

I often hear from clients that they will get a request from someone internally ‘can you just do the same for us as what you created for the other team’. They’ve seen something they like, it worked and now they want the same. All seems to make sense but they’ve got a different objective and requirement – it’s not a one size fits all.

CG: Last two questions. First, describe your view of the world of internal communications in emoji form.

AO: sleuth-or-spy

CG: And the last one. If Alive With Ideas is the Duran Duran of the internal comms world, does that make you Simon Le Bon?

AO: No but I’m always “hungry like the wolf.” I think if I was in a band I’d be hidden behind the scenes.

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