Accenture loves to talk about change. ‘Let there be change,’ its website proclaims. ‘Make change work for you’. And for 27 years, that spirit of change has been the one constant over marketeer Ulf Henning’s journey with the consulting giant.
Before entering the world of Accenture, Ulf was in the German army for a decade. That was back when the company was still known as Andersen Consulting. Looking back, the change in which the company markets itself is dramatic. Ulf notes that his arrival left many a little nonplussed. These days he’s CMO for Europe (across all of Accenture’s offerings) and had a key role in leading the company’s covid-19 marketing response – but back in the ‘90s marketing and communications wasn’t quite so high profile within the business.
“This was a time when no one was speaking publicly about what we do. I was the first PR person and people really asked, ‘why do we have this person on board?’. We said, ‘well, it’s time to speak up about what we do’. These days, when you look at Accenture Song, we are in the public every day,” reflects Ulf. “It has fundamentally changed.”
Indeed, Accenture’s acquisition of creative, design and marketing specialists has left its mark on the wider organisation and certainly on the way Ulf thinks about marketing. He jokes about the black suit consultant stereotype, and recalls the first time he ventured to the offices of Accenture’s design practice Fjord where he was shocked to see everyone dressed in the relaxed, creative business style. What soon happened was that the wider organisation realised it could combine the typical, highly-structured consulting processes with the less formal creative approach. Indeed, just recently, the company announced that its booming Accenture Interactive wing has been rebranded as Accenture Song, further embracing that spirit of imagination.
“I would say one of the big changes was, internally, that we understood that we could work differently,” he says. “That influenced us in a really good direction.”
At its core Accenture has always been a technology business, originally helping businesses find efficiencies through tech since the 1950s. Technology is still a key driver for the business but it’s not just about efficiency but helping clients reach and connect with customers.
“When you speak to clients, whether it’s a consumer goods client, retail client but also utilities (these days how you reach the customer is very important) then you see why it’s so important to close this gap and build this knowledge about the customer,” says Ulf.
That combination of strategy, technology and connection has, says Ulf, given Accenture a unique positioning in comparison to other major consultancies. And while its foundations in combining strategy and tech are both solid and deep, when the pandemic hit, he says that it had all the key ingredients in place to react quickly to clients’ needs.
“We really jumped into a pretty unique position. I must say that I was very happy when I saw this. That really worked out and we were always sticking to the same thing – now we get a proof point,” he says.
That positioning and messaging, says Ulf, revolves more around a purpose than category norms. This purpose is to ‘deliver on the promise of technology and human ingenuity’, as the company literature reads. Ulf says that this purpose provides the core jumping off point for its marketing and communications.
“We speak a lot about the end value which we generate out of this combination, and this drives all of our communication outside, whether it’s big advertising campaigns, media interviews, client meetings,” says Ulf.
Generally, across the advertising and marketing world, there’s been a shift from blasting out messages to the world to thinking about marketing in terms of the customer’s needs, experience and journey. And that’s something that Ulf considers to be just as important for Accenture as it is for its clients.
“You need to know how clients speak to each other,” says Ulf. “I would always say that one piece of communication is advertising, PR, media, but a very important part of communication is the experience clients have working with us and what they say to each other. For me, the point that we always deliver to the clients what we promise is extremely important. This always needs to be in line – that’s the best evidence in the end. We also know that when something doesn’t work, they’ll know it from each other.”
To achieve this positive experience, Ulf says the key is internal communications and employee engagement. His team spends a lot of time speaking about Accenture’s positioning, differentiators, and successes. Client account teams are always keen to learn about other projects from other teams, both to learn but to engage with clients in a more consistent way. “I think what’s very important is that you combine the internal education, inspiration and training with what you’re saying externally – and you do it systematically,” he says.
Thinking about internal communications, though, the pandemic also highlighted something else. The need for deliberate care and empathy. Ulf notes that the initial switch to at-home working and pulling together a response package for clients was swift and relatively pain free as the company already had virtual working platforms in place and was used to collaborating digitally. But as the lockdowns dragged on, the very human difficulties of working alone and without that spontaneous interaction emerged as a greater leadership and comms challenge.
“It started to be a mental challenge. In this case you really need to start every call with a conversation about how people feel, about the situation in each person’s country. That interaction, those kitchen chats, were something you usually didn’t do in virtual environments so we needed to replace it,” recalls Ulf, who’s thrilled that people can connect and travel again.
“You need this physical interaction after a certain time. This is very important for human beings. I think, personally, there are limits to creativity and developing new ideas when people don’t sit in a room together. You can do many things virtually, but something is missing in the end. It’s good that we come back to work, but my experience was that if you were digitally equipped, you can run the show if you pay attention to people and how they feel.”
As covid-19 hit, Ulf was tasked with leading Accenture’s marketing response. The first phase was to look at what clients really needed and how Accenture could support them, whether it was managing flakey supply chains or helping massive companies transition to working from home or moving data from servers in offices to the cloud. Ulf’s team also looked at every industry that the company supports, mining insight from their industry specialists, to help communicate to the market how the pandemic was hitting specific industries in particular ways.
And while many parts of the world are now adjusting to a living-with-covid reality, those choppy waters of change have not stilled. Indeed Ulf says that the Accenture teams are drawing from that pandemic experience to help inform how they’re helping clients through the current fall out from the Ukraine invasion.
“I can say, this time, we have a bit of a similar situation – a little bit different but somewhat similar with the impact of [what’s happening with] Russia and Ukraine. With the energy sector, everything is suddenly more costly. Suddenly, we’re missing the supply chain. So we’re doing a similar thing – and saying what is happening in your industry? What is the change?” explains Ulf.
“Covid was a big accelerator for our clients, but not all industries are affected the same way. Many industries felt the impact directly and suddenly, and so they were saying ‘we need to invest, we need to make these changes’. We need to continue to run at speed, you cannot slow down at all just because covid seems to be disappearing. It’s a new thing and doesn’t take away the pressure on them to move quickly.”
Ulf also has an eye on the changes to come down the line, particularly those driven by technology. For now, the potential of the metaverse is something that clients are clamouring to learn about.
“It’s a question about what’s happening to the metaverse, and how big will the impact of the metaverse be, in the end?” says Ulf. “I remember the days when we had a showcase in our technology centre in Southern France and we showed people the internet. I’m not joking. We said ‘look, you can do online banking through the internet! You can book a flight from London to Australia’ And everyone looked at us and said, ‘is this true? Is it really possible?’ And now look at the world today. Now when you look at the metaverse, the question is, will it have a similar impact on how we live and operate as the internet did?”
This is about careful consideration and understanding of behaviour and specific client industries, helping businesses understand potential applications rather than driving buzz. “What’s the value point, in the end? What is the business benefit? This is clearly where I think the focus needs to be, not just being a nice technological gimmick.”
Whatever the future holds, though, whether long-awaited technological developments or surprise socio-political events, the combination of ingenuity, tech and connection looks set to form the compass for Ulf and his colleagues.