You can’t be anything other than authentic if it’s live

Danny Van Otterdyk, Head of Production in the Brand Centre of Excellence in Shell

Danny van Otterdyk is head of Brand Communications production at Royal Dutch Shell plc. He has been with Shell for 16 years, in a variety of roles, all related to communications. A Dutch national, he completed his tertiary education at Victoria University in Wellington New Zealand, before moving to Australia, and working for Wickliffe Limited, which is part of the Standard Register Group Inc in the US. He has worked in New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Qatar and the Netherlands, but has now settled in London with his family.

 He is passionate about the power of experiential communications, and has led Shell through a transformation in the last 6-7 years, through programmes such as The Shell Eco Marathon and Make The Future (#makethefuture), where shell actively engage millennials, and energy concerned citizens in the topics of energy, Innovation and technological evolution in the energy industry. Shell is positioning itself as a leader in the industry, and allowing audiences to experience the company is a key element in the strategy to engage bright young minds to create solutions for the energy future.

About the importance of live events

Live is important for a number of reasons. If you look at the company’s purpose, the term authenticity and transparency appears in it, and our current leadership is very focused on getting our stakeholders and the general audience with whom we engage to see the company for who it really is and what it really is - and that’s the good, the bad and the ugly. Our CEO is very open about that, he talks about the company’s challenges very honestly, he talks about the company’s abilities very openly, but mostly he talks about the need for the company to have conversation, and makes it very clear that collaboration is the new communication.

And creating experiences, especially live experiences, play to that. Because you can’t be anything other than authentic if it’s live, right? You can’t pretend to be somebody, or if you try, sooner rather than later people will see through you.

That’s why things such as the Shell Eco-marathon, Make The Future or Renovation Open Houses are about engaging with folks and letting folks engage with us on their terms - not ours. We simply provide the place to do that. Gone are the days of Shell amplifying and talking a lot, we now spend more time listening and absorbing and collaborating, understanding the context of where issues and perspectives are coming from.

About the split between B2B and B2C events

If you look at the construct of our company, both have unique executional elements to it. A live event in a b2b sector will be a different type of live event: exclusive, secluded, focused around a particular subject. You can’t really do that in a b2c environment, especially out there in a general public environment, like the Shell Eco-marathon that we had at the Olympic Park earlier this year. It has to be as broad as it possibly can be because if you invite 30-40,000 people to come and talk to you, as you can imagine, they all come with different views and angles and things they want to talk about and know. So from that perspective you need to create an environment that lends itself to that.

 An awful lot of work has been done on understanding our audiences better, because I think if Shell has been guilty of things in the past it’s that we have told our audiences what we think they need to hear, and that just doesn’t work. A decade ago, we thought that we knew best. We thought we knew what people would want to hear, or should hear about the energy industry, about our products and our services. But our new leadership and the leadership in the last decade has really understood the importance of engagement, which is as much about listening and understanding as it is about conveying what you think. And we’ve learnt to not necessarily convey what we think until somebody’s actually asking us. So our live events are set up for people to interrogate our content, to be able to share it, to challenge it, to interact with it, sometimes to sense it. It really is important to understand your audience but also to understand where they are. So somebody who is in the government for example, they’re also a member of the general public, and they’ve got to see you consistently. So when we turn up at Westminster we can’t be seen to be somebody, and then be in the Olympic Park a month later as somebody else. That’s where the authenticity comes in again, there has to be that red thread of how we present ourselves outside, which is why our brand builders are so important too.    

About the complexities of running global event

Shell operates in a wide variety of societies; democratic societies, autocratic societies, totalitarian societies, where the voice of people can mean different things. It doesn’t mean to say we hear it differently, but in a country where a single person may make a decision, your modus operandi is different to perhaps in a democratic society. And there’s positives and negatives in that.

 It’s about understanding the context in which you operate and to maximise, from a company’s perspective, the license to operate you’ve been afforded. In a live environment you have to always be authentic, but the challenge is being authentic in the context of that country. Authenticity in the UK may mean one thing, but in China or Albania that might mean something else all together. And external relations, the function in which we operate, is about sensing the external landscape and bringing the outside world into Shell, but also bringing the Shell world out there to those folks who want to hear it.


About brand & message consistency

I think at the core of everything is our purpose, because when you employ 95,000 people and a couple of hundred thousand contractors, for everybody to sing from the same hymn sheet is not easy. Therefore that central purpose is very important and it’s paramount that everybody understands that. You start from within. And for that we also create a lot of live events. We have these things called Lunch and Learns and Soapbox Sessions, people figuratively standing on a box and talking about their part of the company, so we do an awful lot of engagement internally, and if you do that right then you have a better than average chance that wherever and whenever you show up it is at least consistent. Do we always get it right? No. And sensing a landscape internally in places like the North Slope of Alaska vs the Niger Delta or the shipyard of Geoje is an incredibly difficult task. We have a central core narrative around which we manage our communications and activities, it’s challenging, but we do our best.

We’re not pretending that we have all the answers, but recognising the issues starts with accepting there’s a need to reassess.

In the advent of climate change for example, we were one of the first in our industry to openly talk about that and do something about it. We have this narrative program called Energy Transition which we bring to our customers, the stakeholders, the regions and the cities in which we work, to help them understand what we need to do to transition from carbon dependency to carbon neutrality, over a period of time that’s relevant for their country or region. We have a point of view around how that could and should be done and again, when you look at events, if you use traditional advertising methods, for example, you can’t convey messages and that complexity in a way that people can take something from it. So for us, experiential communication is therefore the greatest way of getting people to understand what it is that’s facing us and bringing their point of view into it. Because you can’t talk to an advert, but you can talk to people.

About the measurement of success

It’s a difficult question and I’m yet to come across anybody that’s cracked this. We don’t have one hard metric, we have a number of tools that we use to sense what is happening out there. So of course when we do an event like Make The Future in London, we try to sense the impact of our activities by capturing peoples viewpoints by using lots of digital interactivity that people can play with, because through play you can learn an awful lot. We do surveys, although my sense is that more and more you see in polling activity that people are getting survey sick, so you need to try and get your data from the interaction. If you try to do it too mechanically, you might not always get the accurate answer.

But there are a number of different ways of doing it, and we have tools such as media monitoring tools, reputation trackers, survey data - interactive data that we overlay to try and get to a point where we say ‘before this experience people thought this, now that we’ve had this experience -  how much has that needle moved? Or what does the viewpoint look like now? How much more awareness around issues like CSS or Climate Change is there?’ But at the same time we do need to use the intuition of our communications community who are out there in person really getting that understanding.


About planning for the future vs. delivering right now

When we do projects, when we build a gas plant or a pipeline or a drilling rig, those projects can have anything from 5-40 years from origin of thought to delivery. So if you think about the GTL plant in Qatar, there are people who worked on that one project their entire year, starting in the 70’s and then coming to fruition in 2005. By definition of what we do, we plan for the long term, and in communication we try to do the same. Climate change is here to stay and we need to tackle it and do something about it. The good news is there’s some very bright and clever people out there who have all sorts of technologies and innovations that can find the answers for the issues we face. But nonetheless an awful lot of things have to happen in order for us to protect our planet. And we’re trying to figure out what our role is and what it should seem to others to be. But it’s the coalition of the credible really, it’s government, it’s industry, it’s the public, it’s NGO’s, it’s academia - an awful lot of people have to come together to coalesce to create those solutions.

In live events we plan very much for the future, we have multi-year programs, and we try not to be reactionary, we try and think of a campaign-style program that helps us to engage with people over a period of time on subjects and issues that are important in that time.

And if you do that and plan better, then you have a decent chance of ultimately having good insight from the market and the market to have a consistent view of you and what you’re about. For example, the Shell Eco-marathon has been running for 30 years and we plan to run for another 30. We hold it in London, we hold it in Detroit, we’re now thinking about moving it to Silicon Valley, Shanghai, Singapore…and we plan with authorities to do this over a longer period of time.

About event people in the boardroom table of a Plc

I believe anyone can get to the boardroom. In fact, when our first CEO Jeroen van der Veer was first assessed for his career potential within the company, he was told the best he could hope for was a job grade of 4, out of a possible 10, at that time. 32 years later, he became CEO. The marketing and communications fraternity that exists within Shell is over 2,500 people who have a very good line of communication through to that board member so we are well represented even though he’s not a marketing professional. Is it ideal? No, but it is well represented as a subject at the board, even if there’s no practitioner at the board. And I think that’s also important to remember.

In external relations we don’t necessarily segment events people from digital people although they sit in their own departments, we are all communicators. And Ben van Beurden, our CEO, is very much in favour of live. As I mentioned, he says himself that to show up live you have to be authentic, because if you aren’t, then people can see through you. We look at the Shell Eco-marathon as an event we’re very proud of, we’ve the top 5-6 universities in the world that come to our event with their cars that they’ve engineered to showcase how far they can go on a litre of fuel, and if our CEO was just there on a big screen saying ‘Hi kids, good job!’, how impersonal is that? He’s actually there, he’s in there in the garages with the kids talking through their work with them - that’s real. In fact, when he comes to the event, he always asks to be left alone for a couple of hours so he can just walk around and meet with people. And when you do that, by default it shows a level of confidence that people don’t have, if you’re willing to go out there in front of 30,000 and put yourself forward for questioning and conversation it shows a level of commitment to being in touch with people, and a belief in the power of the real, meaningful engagement. 

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