VMAGROUP publishes The Pulse 2017. Now in its fourth edition, the report, pulled from research from over 300 APAC communicators delves into the issues and challenging facing these professionals.
The slowdown hits communications
Last year we began to see a slight tapering off in communications resourcing after years of buoyant growth. That trend has broadly continued this year; in some cases, team sizes, budgets and influence even dipped slightly. The economic outlook in Asia has been paused at ‘uncertain’ for years now; rarely has a region experienced such consistent growth while living in such a perpetual state of anxiety about it. That unsettled climate seems to have begun to imprint itself upon resourcing in Asia communications. Half (49%) of the practitioners in communications functions have seen headcounts freeze over the last 12 months, and one in seven have seen their teams shrink – both slightly worse numbers than in 2015. A quarter (23%) now say they feel their working hours are excessive as a result. More than half across every discipline described their team as ‘under-resourced’, with those in brand (86%) and internal communications (72%) particularly adamant on the issue. It is important to note that – similar to the wider Asian economy – this is not a downturn, merely a slowdown of the exuberant growth of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Most indicators still point upwards, only less bullishly than before. 34% of inhouse professionals still saw their teams grow this year and an impressive 60% have seen a pay rise. Most communications professionals are confident that growth – even if only slight – will continue into the future. Two thirds (34%) predict that their budget will rise in the coming two years, and 73% believe that the influence of the function will increase in the same period. Nonetheless, in aggregate across the survey, the mood this year was much more subdued.
Digital communications comes of age
Unquestionably, the star performer in the profession right now is digital communications. It dominates VMAGROUP’s conversations with talent around the region and seems to overwhelm everything in the industry. Both our The Pulse survey respondents and our thought leader interviewees repeatedly told us this year of its seismic impact on everything. Digital is no longer just a channel, it drives overall strategic planning and tactical delivery. It now shapes recruitment policy, training, competency frameworks and budgets. It is fundamentally altering the very architecture of the function, upending the methodologies that have been used for a generation by communications practitioners. This was the year when digital became the axis around which everything else pivots. All of that has given digital communications teams particular power. In The Pulse this year, they outperformed all other communication disciplines in a host of key areas – ranking outright first on headcount increases, levels of executive support, and feelings of job security.
One of the reasons for this boost in stature and confidence sits deeper in the data: digital teams are taking on a wider commercial brief, with a doubling of those who said digital’s core role was ‘to develop new businesses, and an eight-fold increase in those saying its purpose was ‘commercial gain.’ The main casualty was a declining interest, among digital practitioners, in using their work for social endeavours like ‘community building’. Digital teams, it seems, have received notice that their employers are pinning great commercial hopes on them; ambitions that go much wider than communications messaging. CEOs back up that analysis: in recent Gartner research, chief executives singled out ‘generating revenue’, ‘increased business’, and ‘creating new markets’ as the primary business impacts represented by digital – far ahead of ‘engaging and empowering employees’ for example (their second lowest ranking ambition for social technology).
Eight out of 10 CEOs expected digital to increase their company’s profit margins, and they estimated that, within the next four years, it would represent 46% of the perceived value of their product portfolio. Among regional responses, one third of Asia-Pacific’s CEOs said they expect substantial business transformation, and 9% anticipate that their industry will be unrecognisable by 2020 as a result of digital’s influence.
The rise of the generalists: is separation of functions a thing of the past?
However, digital has had an even deeper impact on communications than in its upending of channels and strategic models. In the process of the revolution, it has eroded the boundaries between different specialisms in the communications arena – media relations, internal communications, marcomms and brand increasingly now are digital communications. As a result, our five in-house thought leaders in The Pulse all picked out the same talent trend, one we at VMAGROUP see every day: the vogue in recruitment right now for ‘integrated communications’ practitioners – in other words, generalists. Businesses now want people who can use the digital to find audiences from anywhere in the stakeholder spectrum – journalists, employees or consumers – regardless of their previous specialism. Nearly half (45%) of all respondents to The Pulse this year classed themselves as generalists. Does this spell the end of the road for communications functions with diversified talents and individual channel responsibilities? Will ‘all become one’ very soon? Some have questioned whether there will even be separate marketing and communications functions in the coming years. Is this trend for ‘integrated communications’ – like the late-1990s fad for ‘integrated marketing communications’ – one that will flame briefly and then die? Does specialism have a place anymore? These are critical questions for the profession.
Writing skills at crisis point
From media relations to marcomms to internal communications, practitioners across the communications spectrum have consistently picked out one key skill missing in the talent pool this year: great writing. It suggests that as content gets more diverse, and as social media disrupts classic content models, the profession fears that essential skillsets are being lost or disregarded in the process. It would be incorrect to assume this is solely about English-language skills (although that is also a constant challenge, as is the gravitational pull of Hong Kong and its
demand for trilingual capabilities). There are positive external signs that things are changing on the language front in Asia. This year Singapore blazed a trail by becoming the first Asian country ever to crack the top six of the international English proficiency index (EPI), and Shanghai outscored Hong Kong for the second year running. The English-language capabilities on the continent are moving in the right direction. Nonetheless, functions urgently need to invest in the core capabilities – writing, storytelling – that will always allow the function to prosper.
Time to make the case
It has been a sobering year for communications in Asia, but still far from a terrible one. Business confidence is still high, the function continues to grow in credibility and, bit by bit, is finding pathways to genuine value creation. But the slowdown in resourcing is undoubtedly a concern. For a continent with growth predictions still in a very healthy 5-7% range4, the mood is unduly negative. If communications is – at heart – a function centered on the skills of persuasion and influence, then the profession needs to step up and make the case more stridently to organisations. While Asia’s overall economic confidence has been dragged down by the Chinese slowdown, the region still contributes 40% of global GDP and, according to the IMF, will deliver nearly two thirds of global growth in the next few years. China’s slowdown is not just a rebalancing away from production to consumption, it’s a rebalancing from exuberance to sustainable growth. But it is still growth. It does not require businesses to go into lockdown. It in fact behoves them to continue on the path to progress and stable investment, an intrinsic part of which has been the welcome and progressive development of the communications function in recent times. That journey must not end. We hope that the results of this survey will help you make the case internally that now, more than ever, your function needs all the resources it can muster.
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