Gabey Goh
Aug 29, 2016

Transformation, comms and crisis: Q&A with Commvault’s Bill Wohl

INSIDE IN-HOUSE PR: Commvault’s chief communications officer discusses lessons from his time with HP, the relationship between comms and marketing, and the fun of working with B2B brands.

Bill Wohl
Bill Wohl

SINGAPORE - Bill Wohl stepped into the newly created role of chief communications officer for Commvault in early 2015, at the request of its chief marketing officer, Chris Powell.

The data and information management software company was in the midst of an internal transformation, and Powell was looking for assistance with figuring out how to better position the company.

Wohl’s current role includes management of the global portfolio of communications and creative agencies, in addition to leadership for all corporate branding and creative production activities.

He admits that it’s a “little non-traditional” to have a communications person thinking about those functions, but add that “when you really climb behind the organisational structure, messaging is messaging.”

“We spent the first 12 months really rebranding the business and positioning ourselves for what changes were occurring in the IT industry, so that Commvault was better positioned for its future,” Wohl said. “It's been an exciting ride and our work is just getting started.”

Many industry pundits on the PR side of things have long lamented that they should be leading strategy and positioning and not marketing, your thoughts?

I have long believed that communications and marketing approach company messaging from two different perspectives. Marketing is all about the brand, that is what the company is to say to the market about themselves. And communications is all about managing a company's reputation, and reputation is what the market says about the company.

Interestingly, because of the proliferation of social media and the Internet, the traditional lines that separate those two are becoming less and less distinguished and it is becoming more of a cross-disciplinary effort between marketing and communications. I think every company approaches it from a very different perspective. When I was previously at SAP and HP, communications reported directly to the CEO. Here at Commvault, communications is part of marketing.

The organisational structure is actually not the most important thing. It really is, what is the commitment of the business to use communications as a powerful weapon of change to drive its image in the market? We are in a time period where marketing and communications are coming closer together. For example in the case of the Arthur W Page Society, one of the world's leading organisations for communications practitioners, the last two leaders of the society have been people who have held the CMO title.

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And most interestingly, a lot of leadership has come from a guy by the name of Jon Iwata who is the CMO at IBM. Most people don't know Jon as a communications practitioner who took over marketing. Some people believe that these two functions coming together is marketing taking over communications, but in many companies, it's communications practitioners taking the lead.

I think over time they will separate again, and we will see communications stand outside of marketing. The pendulum is swinging back and forth. It's just important that you focus on both.

What has been your biggest challenge as CCO?

I love this job at Commvault. There are so many aspects to it and when you think about all the disciplines in communications: how do we talk to employees, how do we change the opinion of the business in the market with industry analysts, how do we get Commvault's message out in a very competitive space. The challenge in this role, in fact, I think in any communications role, is to balance all of those tasks and find the ones that are the most important for the business.

This is an incredible juggling act because in every area of the business we have the opportunity for communications to make the difference. So we’ve got to be really smart about getting the basics done right and leave enough bandwidth for the unexpected things because we're in a highly changing market.

I'll give you an example. Just when we felt that the market was relatively stable, two of our competitors went through an enormous merger-and-acquisition phase. Our largest competitor, EMC, was swallowed up by Dell in a US$62 billion transaction, and our other competitor, Veritas, broke away from its parent company and got consumed and became a private company.

That disruption in the market was something that we had to react to, and you can't plan for that. These changes in the market happen all the time, for example, the move to the cloud, the arrival of hyper-converged technology. What we have to do in communications is to find a way to balance for the things that you can plan for, and be ready and anticipate the things you don't know.

What is the biggest misconception about doing marketing/comms for a B2B brand?

I think there is a misconception that B2B is as boring and not as fun as consumer. I think that that's way off track. The opportunities to represent amazing brands in the B2B space are just as good as they are in the B2C space.

Frankly, many of the techniques used by B2C companies—whether it's to make a brand entertaining and fun—are totally available to us. B2B businesses are involved in sports sponsorships. They're also involved in talking to reporters as if they were talking about consumer brands. We can use the same techniques in social and event-driven marketing to create excitement about our brands.

Any funny anecdotes you’d like to share?

I remember when I was running communications in HP (Hewlett-Packard), you could use TweetDeck to watch the social stream of yourself and your competitors and topics in real-time.

The problem at HP was the hashtag "HP" was also the hashtag used by Harry Potter fans. So it used to drive me crazy as I sat at my desk trying to follow HP on TweetDeck. As much as HP is one of the biggest companies in the world, there's nothing bigger than the fan base of Harry Potter. So we had to give up on hashtag “HP” for that reason.

When it comes to working with agencies, do you feel that shops out there today are meeting the needs of today’s brands?

I think the agency model is rapidly changing from the client’s perspective, particularly in the world of B2B. There has been a historic view that an agency that can provide all services across all geographies was well worth the investment. And what I've seen happening over the last 10 years is a clear move in the opposite direction.

The smart communications or marketing professional now is looking at boutique shops or geographically specific shops who can deliver local services and local relationships, or consultancies who have a great roll of decks of talent available but without paying the high retainer relationships that traditionally you would find in the largest businesses.

That's a dramatic change that really is shaking this market, making it really difficult for the big global agencies to maintain their book of business. Small firms who can bring really great experts in and out of situations without maintaining a high retainer overhead are challenging them. It's becoming harder for those of us in the marketing-branding leadership roles to justify those big retainers on the global scale.

How many agencies does Commvault have on its roster?

We maintain about a dozen and a half, actually slightly more, agency relationships around the world. They run from the larger relationships—for example, we use Eastwick in the United States, not only as our American agency but also as our corporate agency. And then, depending on the geography, we have individual country-based relationships like for example, Ying in Singapore and Howorth in Australia.

We chose those agencies based on their local expertise and their understanding of tech reporters and tech topics in their market. Some agencies will span several different countries, in a sort of mini geography, like here in Asean. We have some large agencies that work for us. We use Text100, for example, in China but we don't use Text100 anywhere else in the world even though they have a global portfolio. We make those decisions based on the right value for our marketing dollars and the relationships that exist.

Any pet peeves?

I guess if I have any pet peeve is that I see a lot of practitioners on a global scale unwilling to take on the responsibility of protecting reputation. We should take that job really seriously, particularly if we work for corporations that are public. We have a responsibility to the business to make sure that the right things are said about our business in the market.

When I started in this business 30 years ago, the role of a corporate-communications professional was to control the message. We were the ones who determined what was said about our business. That's no longer the case.

We now have to learn as communications professionals that we can't control a message. We have to be comfortable that there's a conversation taking place about our companies and to join that conversation to influence is the best way we can to leverage the power of that conversation to improve our brand positioning in the market.

You headed communications at HP during CEO Leo Apotheker’s tenure, when the company was going through some bumpy times. What were some lessons learnt?

Working at HP was an interesting experience because it was one of the largest companies in the world in any industry with 320,000 employees and 24/7 operation. This company that’s worth US$120 billion is one of the largest enterprises running, and so communications had its challenges for two reasons: first, from an internal perspective, just communicating with 300,000 employees is sort of a challenge.

It is impossible to have one global conference call and put everyone on it. It's just too many people at one time. And with employees spread all over world, just getting an email out to 300,000 employees was a multi-hour problem. So it really challenged your ability to engage an audience that broad.

Second, HP was a company, and still today is a company, that was going through enormous change and conflict. And finding ways to keep the company's messages going in the market while we were dealing with the questions about the company's leadership and the future of the business really required a focus on maintaining priorities.

When I arrived there, the company had a very low profile. It's PR people didn't want to talk to reporters because the company was in crisis. And what we learned pretty quickly is we needed a group of people to focus on crisis communication so that the product-PR people could go back to talking about what HP was really good at—some of the best technology in the world.

Those lessons about how to manage a company during a period of enormous change and crisis are lessons that any communications provider or practitioner can bring to a business as large as HP or as small as Commvault, which is that you have to maintain focus on supporting the business and growing it to be successful about continuing even in the phase of challenges. To be the expert at your craft, to understand communications has a really important role in defining the company's message and even in the time of the most challenging crisis season. Clearly HP had them during the period that I was there—you still have a responsibility to get out there and tell your version of the story.

I've been a practitioner of crisis communications my entire career, and I learned very early on and in the midst of a crisis, communication plays an enormous role in helping executives and the marketplace remember and focus on the company's primary message. We are supposed to be the calm in the eye of the storm, that's the role for communications to play.

And despite the fact that there can be enormous challenges, we have to support the ability of the business to continue to operate and to give the marketplace confidence in the business despite the crisis. Those are lessons that I learned very much at HP and can now bring to my new communications assignments. And I shared them very often with other communications practitioners.

I think when you're in the midst of the kinds of crises that companies like HP goes through, you really begin to understand the strategic role that communications plays in the business and then you can apply it in companies that are in better times than HP.

What’s your take on the future of the communications profession?

I think this is a very exciting time to be a communications practitioner particularly in the technology industry. Today's techniques—the increasing role of social media as an important channel for communications, the rise of what I call influencers in the market (people that are somewhere between reporters and industry analysts who are often a great source of information for customers to make buying decisions)—these are all audiences and channels through which communication now takes care of its business.

This is also a time where communications has the opportunity to really directly publish company information to the consumers of our companies. We're no longer completely reliant on the media to get the job done, that means we can be highly targeted and effective at telling our story without the filter of going through a traditional media.

 

At the same time, we can never lose sight. Even as our business is changing, the core disciplines of communications stay the same, which is to be truthful and accurate about the company's information, to be very good at writing and communicating, to not ignore the traditional media while getting enticed by the new practices of social media, and to always be the standard-bearers of the company's reputation. Those core practices of communications are still important, even while we think about new approaches. 

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