44’s Digital Partner, Alan Coates, talks about being 44’s first employee, the biggest issues clients are facing, and shares his best advice for starting out in internal comms…

Hi Al – tell us a bit about your career so far with 44. 

Absolutely. I joined 44 in 2009 straight after finishing university, as employee number one. In the time since, I’ve experienced life as an Editorial Assistant, working three days a week, a Project Manager with my own publications and channels to manage, then Account Manager, looking after entire clients, to Head of Digital where I looked after that whole service, and now Partner – digital, where I focus on the health of all that, the agency itself and my colleagues.

Can you remember the first project you worked on? And tell us what type of things you are working on now…

I specialised in digital projects pretty quickly, but in the early days those were mostly additions to established print magazines, which is what I spent most of my time on. I came on board when we won our third publication, a newspaper, and then saw the process that went into pitching for the fourth, a monthly magazine. That was a real lesson in efficiency and creativity at pace.

Over time, however, I learned that agency life isn’t just about the channel – the editorial, design and quality of work that goes into creating that particular product – but about everything around it too. The strategic rationale for it from the business; the mood of colleagues at the time; the wider industry context the publication lands in. It may be cliché but as time goes on, your vision widens through experience and you to try build these factors into the execution of the work you do.

What makes 44 stand out from other internal comms specialists?

That’s a good question. When asked, I always mention the virtual model – about how we were founded right from the start on the process of bringing in specialist partners to projects to add skills or expertise around projects for as long as that project needs it. That helped us be an efficient and cost-effective option for clients – especially as we were founded right after the 2008 financial crisis.

I have to be honest, though, and say that what makes us different is the people in the team. Our model, our values, our expertise – these only exist through the quality of people we bring on board – and I can say that I respect and trust every one of them to do great work, and to challenge each other when they think things can be done better.

What are the big issues 44’s clients are wrestling with at the moment?

In my role as partner – digital, I’ve been doing a lot of research around AI and came across a model I really like called the Gartner Hype Cycle. It essentially puts any big technological change on a two-to-three-year timeline, ascending to the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’, all the way through to the ‘Plateau of Productivity’.

AI is right at the top of that peak, and we’ve got a couple of years to help each other figure out how Generative AI will help (and not hinder) internal comms teams, and employees and businesses in general. I’ve written an article on this already and there’s a podcast you can listen to here.

But the other element that applies to this is the post-Covid working patterns of businesses, and how hybrid/virtual working has impacted the need and refinement of digital channels as both tools for communication and productivity. I’ve helped a lot of organisations understand how to make the best out of Office 365, and SharePoint in particular, around this.

There’s a lot of pressure on people leading teams − how do you deal with that?

Another really good question! Okay, so for something like this I find myself coming back to the four enablers of engagement, according to Engaging for Success report by Nita Clarke and David MacLeod. Three of these include: Strategic Narrative; Engaging Managers; Employee Voice. I think if we hit these, we’ll be able to give both senior leaders in the business, and line managers, all the tools and information they need to lead their teams.

More importantly – after a bedding-in phase of ‘this is how you do it’, this kind of focus can evolve naturally into a ‘here’s a little room for you to make your own decisions on how to engage your teams’ so that individual leaders can bring their own personality into the mix – and add the fourth enabler of engagement – Organisational Integrity.

If there was one piece of advice you could give to someone starting out in comms, what would it be?

The best lesson I can give is to not be afraid to create something that’s never been done before.

In my time at 44, I’ve been able to learn from a lot of very creative and skilled people. But I’ve also added to the business a great deal by doing things that had no blueprint. New proposals for clients for multi-channel integration, new project briefs for brand new audiences, complex technological digital solutions, hundred-page reports on intranet best-practice, and helping to shape and develop our own internal policies and ways of working.

If you can trust yourself to learn what you can – and then to jump into something without a safety net – you’ll add a great deal of value to the agency, and never have a boring day in the office.