The hard sell

HR often feels under-valued as a profession, so how can it successfully be
sold to the board? Compiled and written by Scott Beagrie, Philip Boucher, Liz
Simpson and Ed Peters

We’ve heard it all before: HR is a profession frequently overlooked,
sidelined, dismissed and downsized. Clearly, such complacency calls for radical
tactics to change this mindset. What if the profession was to call in an
advertising agency to come up with an advertising/marketing campaign to give
the board that much-needed wake-up call and convince them that HR does make a
vital contribution to an organisation.

To devise the campaigns, we approached three agencies located in the UK, US
and Asia and gave them a brief as to how HR wants to be seen. So as not to be
constricted by costs, the campaign did not have a fixed budget. It was up to
the agencies to maximise the effectiveness of their message through clever
choice of media.

Each of the three agencies came up with very different interpretations of
the brief, solutions, methods of delivery and rationales for their approach.

The campaigns

Agency: TBWA, Hong Kong

TBWA is a major Asian advertising agency with a network of offices
stretching from Korea and India to New Zealand. Its clients include the
Australian Tourist Commission, Adidas and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.

The campaign

TBWA chose to produce a TV-led advertising campaign based on three themes:
‘Competitive’, ‘Ambition’ and ‘On Top’ – each of these themes were made up of
three short ads, of which we detail one from each:

Competitive A sample from the first, entitled ‘Copier’, sees two employees,
a man and a quiet, looking younger man, approach the photocopier in an ordinary
office. They both reach it at exactly the same time. The younger of the two,
holding a single sheet of paper, says: "I hope you don’t mind if I go
ahead," and places his document on the machine. The other man yells:
"Oh no you don’t – I was here first", before shoving his colleague
into the copier and slamming the lid down on his head. As the younger man
slumps to the floor, the older colleague nonchalantly begins making copies and
the voice-over cuts in: "Increase your company’s competitiveness. Use
human resources."

Ambition In ‘Meeting’, a board meeting is interrupted by the arrival of an
internal messenger. But instead of dropping off a message and leaving, he takes
an empty seat at the table and adjusts the seat to make himself more
comfortable. The confused board members don’t say a word. Then the tea lady
walks in and the messenger ostentatiously orders a café latté and the voiceover
intones: "Nurture ambition with human resources."

On top ‘Factory’ took on a different approach. A woman works on a tedious
production line, where large stamping machines pound the conveyor belt in front
of her. She calls her supervisor over, apparently to ask a question, but as he
leans over, she pushes him on to the conveyor belt and a scream is heard. The
woman looks around to make sure no-one has spotted her and continues with her
job. The voiceover says: "Let your employees know there are other ways to
get ahead. Use human resources."

Key message

The benefits – what HR can give; rather than attributes – what HR can do.
That the core benefit any board is seeking relates to competitive advantage and
that HR at its best can shape attitudes and culture, which for a board is one
of the key, yet hardest, things to address.


TBWA chose TV citing mainstream news programmes as prime slots, in addition
to cable channels such as CNN and CNBC. As TBWA chief Neil Ducray points out:
"TV is by far the most intrusive, persuasive and memorable medium."
He also says that in Asia, it is several times more cost-effective compared to
other advertising media than in Europe or the US. The TV campaign would be
supported by billboard and print advertising in publications such as Hong Kong
Economic Journal, Hong Kong Economic Times and the Singapore Straits Times.


"We thought it was time to get HR away from corporate advertising
sameness and make a bold statement to set the discipline apart," says TBWA
chief Neil Ducray. "The programme had to be highly disruptive if we were
to yank HR out of its current perceptual rut."

Agency: The Cherenson Group, New Jersey, US

Cherenson is a full-service PR and advertising agency with a recruitment
arm. Vice-president Mike Cherenson worked for the democratic national
convention committee in 1992 and as a consultant for local and state-wide
politicians. Clients include: BOCGases, Hard Rock Café, US Water, RayBan
Sunglasses and Virgin Records.

The campaign

The Cherenson Group approached the task as a political campaign that must
win support throughout the organisation. "In corporate life, no-one is
going to get anywhere until they accept that business life involves political
fights, including the ability to show why you’re important and need to be
listened to," says Mike Cherenson.

Step one, he says, consists of HR going out to ‘press the flesh’ and have conversations
with employees throughout the company to find out what their issues are.

"Like any good political candidate, you can only solve people’s
problems if you know what these are in the first place," he explains.

This internal, qualitative research can be translated into a series of case
studies outlining all the ways in which HR has actually helped employees with
their concerns. "Case studies are a wonderful tool for illustrating the
value of HR and we’ve taken a number of everyday situations in which HR can
make a demonstrable difference to employees lives," says Cherenson.

"Once you’ve found your own real-life examples, these become a series
of messages." These examples could be used as a series of messages to
employees conveyed through large wall posters, inserted into employee mailings,
the corporate intranet and even screensavers. Cherenson believes attracting the
‘voters’ in this way builds a network of advocates throughout the company, who
will help disseminate the message to line managers (whose support is vital in
persuading the board) that HR is an effective and essential business partner.

"Today’s companies are always looking to slash overheads and increase
revenue. HR is the one department that has ties to all employees and it needs
to develop and utilise those relationships, and the tools at its disposal, to
solve the company’s problems."

Then, he says, it must promote itself constantly using the language that’s
appropriate for the audience. With employees, this is couched in the ‘how can
we help you?’ approach," he says. With senior management, it is how
intangibles like corporate reputation and employee satisfaction are assets that
continue to be invested in – because without them, the bottom line suffers.

Key message

The overall theme is that when people have a problem and want to know who
can help them, the answer is human resources. HR needs to present evidence to
the board that what it does is not an expense but an investment and that such
investments have demonstrable returns.


Wall posters, inserts into employee mailings, the corporate intranet,
screensavers and short executive briefings.

Sound bites

"There is no magic dust and putting up some posters will not fix the
problem overnight. This must be a long-term, sustained programme where HR is
seen as an advocate for the workers."

"Today’s companies are always looking to slash overheads and increase
revenue. HR is the one department that has ties to all employees and it needs
to develop and utilise those relationships, and the tools at its disposal, to
solve the company’s problems."

Agency: Ward Diamond Advertising, London

WDA was established more than seven years ago and has an annual turnover of
£4m (US$6.2m). It has a team of recruitment advertising specialists and its
client base includes British Film Institute, British Airways Travel Shops,
Thomas Cook, Rail Europe and Macmillan Cancer Relief.

The campaign

To brand HR as HRMY – a pun on army – and use a series of events leading up
to an HRMY delivering a "substantive" dossier with analysis,
statistics, projections and examples of HR’s successes in other organisations
to the board.

The rationale for the pun is that an army is powerful and able to achieve
ambitious and complex objectives as a result of leadership, planning and
strategy and HR should be perceived in the same way. To avoid seeming overly
militaristic, WDA decided that its campaign would contain no inappropriate
reference to conflict, weapons, attacks or anything similar – it wouldn’t even
mention the war for talent.

The tagline to the campaign would be performance-enhancing force (again
promoting HR’s ability to influence the bottom line). Having come up with the
concept, the strategy would be to present a document pack. Called Operation
Links, the document would be delivered to the board by an HRMY team in bright
coloured uniforms.

In organisations where HR and the board work together to make these links,
performance is improved.

"We would focus our document around these links, and use our facts, figures
and case studies to justify making them. The name Operation Links was a natural
choice," explains Samantha Diamond, managing director.

To match the army theme, the campaign would be run in phases, like the
build-up to a military operation. Each phase would take place weekly, and start
on a Monday, leading up to the final brief to the board.

The first stage would be an announcement to the board that something big was
coming. This would be a huge, inflatable billboard outside the office, carrying
a pastiche of a film poster with a typical gung-ho statement relating to the
bottom line.

The twist would be that the HRMY would be, quite literally, coming to the
boardroom soon.

The second phase would involve adding a bit of intrigue. Everyday of week
two, an envelope marked ‘For Your Eyes Only’ would be pushed under each
director’s door.

Envelopes would contain a task and a method by which to achieve the task.
The tasks would all relate to improving business performance; the methods would
refer specifically to proven ways in which HR can achieve this improvement.

In the third week, directors would receive a package – the HRMY operations
kit. Mocked up to resemble a survival kit, it would contain the following
items, each with a label attached with one word printed:

Compass – direction

Radio – communication

Flare – attraction

Chocolate – energy and motivation

Antiseptic – problem prevention

The words all refer to key ways in which HR can aid a business:

– Ensuring workers understand board goals and work towards them

– Promoting effective communication

– Attracting (and retaining) people who can help the board achieve its goals

– Motivating staff to raise productivity

– Providing the flexibility to counter external threats and problems within
the organisation

The final stage would be a short meeting at which all the directors would be
present. A group of people would burst in wearing bright uniforms with the logo

The team would make its way swiftly and efficiently around the room, placing
the Operations Link dossier in front of each director. Then the most senior of
the group calls for attention and begins the briefing.

Key message

The best way to get through to the board is to demonstrate how HR can affect
the bottom line.


The campaign would run in several phases: Billboard advertising, direct mail
and publication

Sound bites

"We should portray HR as a confident, credible and capable force."

"An army is powerful, is able to achieve ambitious and complex
objectives thanks to leadership, planning and strategy. HR should be perceived
in the same way."

The brief

HR in a bad light: How it is
frequently seen

– HR professionals lack foresight, influence and credibility and
play a marginal role in many companies

– The board is (often) mystified about what HR is for and
ignorant of the relationship between good people management and financial

– Even when companies put people issues at the heart of their
policies, HR does not get the recognition for putting these in place

– HR’s role is primarily stuck at the lower end of the scale,
hampered by managers’ failure to understand what it can offer but also by HR
professionals not being assertive enough and not having enough authority (see

– However talented an HR director is, if the board does not
want to listen, it won’t. Equally, if line managers don’t buy into HR strategy,
getting anything done may prove nigh on impossible

How HR wants to be seen:
Convincing the board of its merits

– To be a dynamic, credible force with business acumen that
makes a positive contribution to organisational performance and the bottom line

– To be considered a priority – involved right at the beginning
of any strategic agenda or business planning and able to draw people strategies
from the business objectives. And be seen as a ‘value-adder’ to any commercial

– For business leaders to recognise the value of good people
management and high performance HR policies

– Considered as an effective business partner with a seat on
the board, or failing that, disparaged to at least have a strong relationship
with the top team

– To be seen as accessible and effective by the workforce,
shedding the human remains image

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