Interviews

“Change isn’t something that brands are prepared for”

Paul McEntee, Founder of Here be Dragons on why now is the time to ditch the tokenism and recognise the true power of purpose.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“The really interesting thing for us as a business, and the really interesting thing for the world right now, is change,” Paul McEntee, the Founder of Here be Dragons is discussing the possibilities and opportunities for brands attempting to thrive in the midst of a world in flux. As we collectively get our heads up after the most bruising of years, plotting a new path to growth is a question which hangs heavy across the industry as a whole.

In the midst of lockdown our interview is taking place within the four screen walls of the now obligatory Zoom call. Yet, it is clear that rather than feeling increasingly hemmed in by the pandemic, Here be Dragons has instead chosen a different path, that of actually doing.

From the relaunch and rebranding of the agency from Mc&T to Here be Dragons, to the creation of TAILWINDS, its trends forecasting service and publishing tool which will undertake research projects underpinned by a global network of academics and writers, internally and externally this focus on change has been accompanied by tangible actions.

“Change isn’t something that brands are prepared for,” explains McEntee, who believes that brands often don’t cope well with change when it happens. This is particularly true when it comes to brands simply skimming the surface of sensitive cultural shifts they simply aren’t equipped to deal with. McEntee points to the way in which brands got it wrong when it came to addressing the Black Lives Matter Movement. “You can't be tokenistic about Black Lives Matter without educating yourself,” he explains.

PR’s brilliance is that it can give strategic advice and support brands through uncharted parts of this change.

Paul McEntee

Mapping a new path

It is apt that in the midst of these changes and challenges the agency turned to an old mapping term ‘Here Be Dragons’ as the brand name to guide it through its next phase of growth. The rebrand is in part a response to a fundamental shift in the way consumers view their relationships with brands. According to the agency’s research more than half of consumers (52%) would stop using a brand if it didn’t reflect their stance on societal issues. While in the wake of the pandemic 52% of people are now worried about how employers are treating their staff.

McEntee believes that brands which don’t have the anchor of brand purpose may well find themselves unable to withstand the economic fall out of the pandemic. “Unlocking your brand purpose has never been more important,” he explains. He points to the example set by the Kopparberg brand which immediately moved to support its on-trade partners in the midst of the pandemic. Through partnerships with artists and venues, the brand underlined its commitment to its community.

“PR’s brilliance is that it can give strategic advice and support brands through uncharted parts of this change,” explains McEntee. It is an approach which means a brand must base its internal compass on who they are and what their true purpose is.

The power of honesty

Marketing commentators have long poured scorn over the concept of brand purpose. Yet in the wake of a global pandemic which has upended every aspect of consumers’ lives, as well as business as a whole, it is increasingly impossible to ignore the truism that how a business behaves is the guiding force to how a brand is built.

For McEntee the leadership lessons of the pandemic are firmly focused on the value of looking after your people. This extended to not leaning on the furlough scheme as much as possible and dialling up on both over-communication and honesty.

Recalling a day he refers to as ‘Black Wednesday’ where the agency saw 40% of revenues reduced in one day as clients slashed fees, McEntee notes the role of leaders in setting the right tone. He explains: “If you are sullen and silent as a leader people will mirror you. It’s OK not to know all the answers and having that vulnerability was important.”

With honesty in mind the team was quick to create Zoom-free Friday afternoons and put the conditions in place to ensure people could thrive in difficult circumstances.

If you can get shit done it doesn’t matter where you are.

Paul McEntee

Transcending the transactional

Notably, at a time when extreme convenience has by necessity topped the consumer agenda, McEntee is clear that having a brilliant product and seamless customer service is simple table stakes for brands. Once these things are in place, brands can take the opportunity to to tackle broader issues.

Refreshingly he doesn’t view the debate surrounding brand purpose as a binary one; it's possible to create a brilliant product and service rooted in a broader brand purpose. The key, he believes, is that brands don’t automatically turn to ‘broadcast mode’ when it comes to discussing brand purpose.

“People are tired of ‘woke washing’,” he explains, urging brands to tread carefully to avoid appearing like they are simply pushing their messaging down consumers’ throats. When it comes to sustainability, he believes that a shift is afoot. “Consumers are now looking at how they offset their own purchasing habits,” he explains. “They recognise they can't be perfect, but they are choosing to change whether that is getting their energy from a more viable source or choosing to shop with Oddbox, Able & Cole and Farmdrop.” When consumers act with their wallets, brands are sure to follow. 

Post-pandemic positivity 

Yet modern marketing is about more than simply following where consumers lead. It is clear that McEntee believes the unique inflection point we find ourselves in as businesses, individuals and society at large demands a shift from the status quo.

“Diversity, equality and inclusion are massive issues for the industry at large,” he says, pointing to the growth of global activist movements. He believes that employee activism will be a huge trend over the coming years as employees mobilise to review and evaluate their employers. Highlighting the success of the Timpson brand which has been built on action-focused ethical behaviour and the hard, yet important work of hiring and supporting former inmates, McEntee believes successful post-pandemic workplaces will place respect for their workforce at their core.

Alongside this respect McEntee believes that greater creativity surrounding where and when people work will be key to building thriving creative cultures. It's clear this is more than just a pithy soundbite; the agency has traded in its Shoreditch office in favour of a Shoreditch art gallery. In place of desks will be one round table and the desire to create a ‘creative nucleus’ for the business rather than expecting employees to produce the most creative work simply by virtue of sitting in the same chair at the same desk for the longest amount of time.

“The beat of work has changed. We know you don't need to be in the same place at the same time. You can recruit amazing talent from anywhere,” he explains.

“Technology has been an incredible enabler and the pandemic has led to a complete re-evaluation of how you show up when you work,” he continues. Not only is the hybrid model here to stay but McEntee sees the potential to move beyond the confines of presentism and attract talent from across the globe. As he declares simply: “If you can get shit done it doesn’t matter where you are." 

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