How to Become a Top Global Employer with Empowered Brand Ambassadors

By Alan Brew

The evolution of Elsevier, one of the world’s most storied publishing brands, into a global information and analytics company that helps institutions and professionals to push the boundaries of knowledge in science and healthcare, has been duly acknowledged and celebrated.  However, to be truly enduring and convincing, the internal culture had to make a similar journey in order to attract and retain a different kind of employee.

The results are equally transformational. Elsevier ranks in the top 10 for Best Global Company Culture by Comparably, the global workplace culture and compensation monitoring site, and is also represented in the 2020 50 Best Companies to Work for List, both in Best Companies for Women and Best Companies for Diversity.

How was the achieved? Catherine Adenle, Elsevier’s Director Employer Brand, talks with BrandingBusiness Founding Partner Alan Brew about the development of Elsevier’s brand ambassador strategy and its role in making Elsevier an employer of choice for the people essential to its future.


Episode Transcript

Alan: Our guest today is Catherine Adenle, Elsevier’s Director Employer Brand. Elsevier is a Netherlands-based information and analytics company specializing in scientific, technical, and medical content. It is part of the RELX Group, known until 2015 as Reed Elsevier. Welcome Catherine to Expert Opinion.

Catherine Adenle: Thank you very much Alan. It’s a privilege to join you today to talk about one of the things I’m passionate about. Thank you.

Alan: The privilege is entirely ours Catherine, thank you for coming to the call. So, just to set the scene, Catherine, you were based in the UK, in Oxford. You joined Elsevier in 1998 and in 2017, you were appointed to your current position of director employer brand. Was it a new position at that time or did you follow somebody else’s footsteps?

Catherine:  What a great first question, Alan. It’s a good one to start with too, because yes, it was a new role at the time and I happened to be the first ever director of employer brand for Elsevier. So, I’ve had to create everything from the ground up.

Alan: So, you created the whole job and the whole job description. Catherine, how was such a role identified within the organization then, what was happening at the time and was it a part of a larger initiative or were you just appointed director employer brand and told to get on with it?

Catherine: Well, before I was appointed to the role, I was the head of communications in another group within Elsevier; however, I was asked to come and work on a special project that would showcase Elsevier as a top employer, especially for tech candidates. Historically, I’m sure you know, we’ve always supported the work of our research and health partners for more than 140 years now. So, growing from those roots, our roots in publishing and with the iconic publications, such as The Lancet, which you must know of, which was founded in 1823; and then the Cell, one of our flagship titles from Cell Press; and then the iconic referenced works, such as the Gray’s Anatomy. We had no challenges at all hiring candidates. In fact, they were knocking on our door to work for a great publishing company. You may ask about why we focused on employer brand. It’s simply because our brand was well known and candidates, especially in STEM, those in science, technology, engineering, as well as mathematics, wanted to work for us.

However, with the vast amounts of data that we have accumulated over 140 years, we also offer knowledge. We offer knowledge and valuable analytics that help our own users spend more time making breakthroughs as well as drive societal progress. So, as an information analytics business, we had to hire highly talented technologists, which was a challenge then. So, in a fiercely competitive business environment, there was a massive amount of effort that we needed to put on that. So, as part of a larger initiative for us to be successful at getting tech talent through our door, we needed to stand out as a top employer for tech candidates as well, so that they can come and work for us, both the passive ones and the proactive ones that are actually looking for work. It was a case of one thing that led to another for me. I completed the project which met and exceeded the objectives. And then I was promoted to the role of director of employer brand to focus on employer brand one hundred percent. I loved it. I was really happy and delighted to take on the role.

Alan: That’s interesting, Catherine. So, the organization was changing. It has changed over the course of 140 years, as you said, but you were trying to focus your attention on the technologists / programmers, I assume, looking to attract people who did not understand what Elsevier had become. Is that correct?

Catherine: Yes, that’s correct. So, it’s just in a way it’s like a digital transformation and having to look for the talent that will help us really expand the analytics part of our business.

Alan: Got it. So, your focus is as much external as it is internal in terms of evangelizing the Elsevier brand.

Catherine: Yes, indeed. Because really when it comes to branding, it’s got to be inside out first, because you’ve got to get your people to understand the purpose and what differentiates you from the competitors. So, we had to do that, get enough people on board and then be able to go out and talk about our workplace culture and the purposeful work that we do.

Alan: Catherine, so when you stepped into your job and you had to invent it, what was in place, did you have to create the whole program? And if you did, how did you start? What was your starting point?

Catherine: Well, the first thing I did… Because I looked at the responsibilities, the first part is to promote Elsevier’s employer brand, and the values through various mediums. You cannot just go out and do that. The first bit is to derive, and then lead and oversee the execution of the employer brand strategies. Part of this is actually getting our own people, training them up to become brand evangelists, able to talk about our brand offline as well as online, train them to be able to elucidate clearly what our information is: What is it that makes us a top employer, why should any prospective candidates look at us and think ‘I’d be interested to work for that particular employer.’ So, those are the key things. I didn’t do this alone. I actually brought a lot of people along with me to be able to help me make that happen. For instance, last year alone, we were able to reach over 350 million people online with our stories. That’s just because of the… We were able to just unleash the combined powers of our employer brand ambassadors.

Alan: Congratulations, that is a lot of people you are reaching.

Catherine: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Alan: And it’s done entirely through… You say through the brand ambassador program, reaching out to people and they reach out to their contacts, networking. Is that how it works?

Catherine: Yes. That’s how it works. When you think about it, if you have just 10 people within your network online, those 10 people… We think about it as those 10 people, too, will have 10 people within their own network. So, that is how… And then before you know it, it’s a ground swell of content. So, we’ve been able to build an ecosystem of content that people readily disseminate. As well as that, we don’t actually force them to do that. They do that because they see the purpose behind everything that we do. So, they are really happy to share our content and they share their own content. They also share content that’s curated for them. Giving them [content] and trusting them is a big part of this, so that you are allowing them to share authentic content that they believe in.

Alan: Do you create the content, Catherine? Or do you have a team working with you? Or do you get it from the employees? Do they provide you with ideas on content?

Catherine: It’s actually a combination of both. We have a platform, a social advocacy platform, where we curate content on, but the content… We’ve created the content there, the content is there for you to share if you wish, and you believe in the content and you love the content. But within that social advocacy platform, we give our employer brand ambassadors the opportunity to create their own content. So, we all leverage the content that is placed within that advocacy platform.

Alan: Did you find in the beginning of that people were enthusiastic about the job? Did they recognize the need for it, or did you have to explain what your objectives were, evangelize the job and persuade people to work with you? What was in place Catherine, at the time?

Catherine: Actually, getting our people to understand why it is important for them to talk about Elsevier as a great place to work, I think that was part of the… There was this research that actually shows that more than 80% of people believe in good reputation and they will consider an employer’s brand when they are applying for jobs, if they think that the employees within the business are speaking highly of that particular employer. So, it’s actually telling them what’s in it for them as well, in that it promotes their professional profile on LinkedIn and some of them actually pick and choose the topics they share online, which makes them after a while… you look at them as thought leaders as well in a particular area. For instance, some people only share things that are talking about diversity and inclusion within Elsevier. Some share tech information and so on. So, it is actually giving people the opportunity to talk about Elsevier in their own way, using their own tone of voice, as well as believing in the message they are putting out there.

Alan: Interesting. So Catherine, everybody I’ve met within Elsevier is extremely smart, but has the profile of the employee changed since you were doing this? I know you’re looking for more technologists, maybe more programmers because you are becoming much more of a digital organization, what’s happened? Are you attracting those people that you were looking for?

Catherine: We now have over 1,600 technologists all over the world and we have different hubs, we have them in the Netherlands, we have hubs in the UK, the US, and now we’ve extended to China and we are extending our hub in India as well. So, now we don’t even have to tell them about the great work we’re doing or that we’re an information analytics business. We see them actually looking to work for us, because we see the companies they are looking to work for as well when they look at our jobs. They are looking at jobs for Google. They’re looking at jobs in Facebook. They’re looking at jobs in Amazon. They’re looking at jobs in all this big tech companies, which means they realize… I think what draws them to us, actually… what draws them to us is the sheer amount of data, the vast amount of data that they are able to play with when it comes to working at Elsevier, especially looking for data scientists. That was a challenge at first, but not any longer.

Alan: So, what’s happened? Obviously, your role has played a part in this, but has word gotten out among the community, the data scientists’ community that Elsevier now is this great place. And it’s a welcoming place for technologists. Has word of mouth been a part of this Catherine, or what else happened? How are you tracking these people?

Catherine: I think it’s a combination of everything really. It is word of mouth, our own people, and especially our own technologies, bringing their own people in as referrals.

Alan: Right.

Catherine: As well as what people see online, a digital footprint, the content we put online, tech content, as well as the great work we’re doing when it comes to technology or what we could do. Our people are going for instance, to conferences, women in tech conferences, women who code conferences, to actually speak about the tech work that we do at Elsevier. I think it is a combination of everything in its entirety.

Alan: That’s terrific news. I know this has been a long journey for the organization for many, many years, 140 years, as you said, Catherine, Elsevier has been known as a publisher and they think of magazines and print, but it has changed, but positions are difficult to change. So, your job is helping to build the total brand in terms of how people understand it. My question is, how does the employer brand fit into the overall brand? Is it connected somehow? Is it deliberately connected? Or how does it work, Catherine?

Catherine: If you look at it, you cannot talk about employer brand without mentioning the word brand. So, it’s a combination of both, but at Elsevier, we have a team working on our brand because what connects both is reputation reach. And then people’s engagements to your stories. What people see as the purpose, as a value you add as a business, it’s just a combination of everything getting people to understand the cultural differentiators. What makes you tick as an employer? What is it about your brand, especially when it comes to B2B or B2C, what is it about your brand that should enthuse people, and it is finding that emotional connection and been able to play with it in terms of the kind of campaigns you run, the information you put out there, the storytelling you do and what you encourage your own people to do as well.

So, it’s interconnected, but in a way it’s different. When you look at our brand, you are thinking of a logo, you are thinking of tags, you are thinking of colors. You are thinking of a design, how we market a brand. But at the end of it all, you are still thinking about our reputation. You’re still thinking about our reach. And then you are thinking about the engagement, but when it comes to employer brand, it is really totally focused on what makes us an employer that anybody or a potential candidate would want to work for.

Alan: So, reputation, reach, and engagement. You’re global. You have 8,000 employees around the world. Do you sit within a group that takes care of the overall brand? I assume you do, is that correct?

Catherine: Yes, I do. We now have 8,600 employees in over 180 countries globally. So, utilizing and leveraging the combined power of everyone is really important for us to be able to get to where we want to. So, it’s been really helpful. Historically, employer brand directors or managers or associates actually sit with HR. But the new thinking now is that they have to sit where the communication is, where the information is, where the news is, where you can easily leverage great content, where you can get success stories and put it out there for everyone. And then let talent acquisition as well as HR focus on bringing people in. Utilizing everything you provide for them in terms of assets, in terms of narratives, in terms of digital content and using that to bring candidates through the door via great candidates’ experience as well.

Alan: Got it. Thank you. I was just thinking about the size of the organization and the enormity of your task on a global basis. How do you execute on a global scale?

Catherine: I’ll tell you what, the greatest opportunity is by engaging and training, and then unleashing the powers of some of our enthusiastic employees in an internal and external way. Making them internal employer brand ambassadors, as well as external brand ambassadors, because these are people who are helping to showcase and grow our brand on a global scale. That’s also the power of social media and having a strong workforce culture that could easily be celebrated by anyone within the business. So, this extraordinary power I talked about is something that any organization needs because the people that can help you do this effectively, they are sitting right there within your four walls. You know?

Alan: Yes.

Catherine: They are amazing marketers if you tap into them, into the skills they have. They will influence their network for you, they would go out with your stories and they will do everything that they need to do for you to be recognized as a top employer.

Alan: You mentioned the four walls in which we all sit these days. Over the last year, a lot of people have been working from home. Did the pandemic change your focus? There wasn’t an extra challenge, or did you take it in your stride? How did that work?

Catherine: No, is the short answer to your question Alan, because we’ve always utilized flexible working at Elsevier before the pandemic. We could work from anywhere, anytime, because we have VPN, we have everything. You have your laptop, you could work anywhere. So, it’s been business as usual for us. Except for one thing, which is a physical presence at industry events, which means we now have to do that as well, virtually.

So, from a business perspective, despite the impact of the public health crisis, we continue as a business to make a meaningful contribution to society at large, to accelerate the fight against the Corona virus. We built the Elsevier COVID-19 information center, which you must know about because within a short time, it gained over 20 million views. Which I think is phenomenal on its own. And then, not only did we set this up, we also enabled full text and data mining of the important and good body of knowledge within that platform. And all of this we did for free and without copyright limitations. So in a way, we’ve virtually stayed connected to our customers and to our colleagues during this time. And that’s really enabled me to continue to do what I do. And so could be said about everyone else within the business.

Alan: So, you didn’t miss a bit. Congratulations.

Catherine: Thank you.

Alan: Coming down to the end of our time, Catherine, we’ve got a few minutes left. How do you measure success? It’s a big job. You created it yourself. Are there any benchmarks in place that you look to for measuring success or do you rely on other people to assess that? How does that work?

Catherine: So, the way I see it is that you can never truly measure what you don’t monitor.

Alan: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Catherine: Yes. So, we measure via various ways by actually leveraging data insights, to measure impact. So, we measure impact via sentiment, that’s sentiment measuring. What are people saying about us? What are candidates saying about the candidates’ experience? What are people saying about working at Elsevier? What do people say about Elsevier culture? And then the job acceptance rates is another one. The percentage of people accepting a job once we offer the job to them. The time to hire is a massive one. It’s a lot shorter than it used to be, then the quality of hire, as well as the costs of hiring people.

We look at our own employer brand promises versus the experience people get when they choose to come and interview with us, as well as our own hiring manager satisfaction and the number of referrals we get per year. Also, we measure engagement rate on all social media platforms. All of those things put together, as well as awards, because for us, you can really know how well you are doing if you benchmark your work against the competitors. So, winning awards for us actually showed us that we are doing a good job.

Alan: And it sounds like you are doing a great job, Catherine. One question, in our work with clients today, diversity, equality and inclusion has become a major topic of importance for everybody. Does that impinge upon your role, Catherine? Is it part of your job? How does that splice into it?

Catherine: So, we have a team, their main work is to work on diversity and inclusion for Elsevier, but I work closely with the team to make sure that I always share our stories, our diversity and inclusion stories. Elsevier is doing a wonderful job in that particular area, because we have CEO, Kumsal Bayazit, whose target was to actually overhaul and ensure that diversity and inclusion are at the forefront for us as a business. And because of that… Not only that she did put resources, budgets, efforts, they even gave us two days free in a year to just dedicate to diversity and inclusion at Elsevier, that’s per employee. So, that’s how great it is when you think of all the work we’re doing in this area.

So, it makes my own job a lot easier in that it’s easy for me to curate content. That’s talking about the great work we’re doing for Pride; the great work we’re doing for Thrive, which is Elsevier women’s network; the great work we’re doing for African American Ancestry Network within Elsevier; and the great work we’re doing for Embrace and Elsevier Enabled and so on. So, we are doing a massive amount of work in that area that has been of a tremendous help to me in being able to talk about everything we’re doing in diversity and inclusion at Elsevier. We even won an award, I’m sure you know about this.

Alan: Yes, I do.

Catherine: We recently won an award as the best organization for diversity and for women to work.

Alan: That’s quite an achievement, Catherine. Kumsal, your new CEO, relatively new, has done a fantastic job at restructuring the culture at the organization. Curious fact for me, I’ve worked with Elsevier for many years, and most of the people I’ve met and worked with are all women. I don’t know what percentage of your workforce is women. But to me it seems like everybody I meet is female.

Catherine: I’ll tell you why that is, I think it is the flexibility within Elsevier. So, you are given time, you can attend to your family. And then there’s a leadership training program, especially for women at Elsevier as well, which helps. We are more than 50% female within Elsevier. And then our leadership team as well, we have a good number of females in our leadership team, which is fantastic.

Alan: It really is. And it’s remarkable and unusual, but I hope it’s getting more common. Final question, Catherine, given your experience, since you took the job in 2017, what advice would you pass on to someone else who was stepping into a similar role at a similar organization? Or what one piece of advice would you give them?

Catherine: I would probably say to them, you have to be intentional in whatever you choose to do because employer branding has to be done first from the inside out. You cannot tell stories outside of what is not happening inside, because your own employees would be the first ones to actually pull you up on it to say, “No, that’s not true. That’s not what’s happening within our culture.” And you have to always be authentic in the stories you tell, because your organization has to be culturally ready. Your first task would be to get them ready, before you even step out of the confines of your organization. Then think of the fleet of foot communication activities that’s going to focus on storytelling. You have to build the content, an ecosystem of content, that will enable you to talk about your employer in a great way. And build in a longer time platform to drive talents as well as employee engagement is really, really important and harnessing everything is in its entirety. And as well as collaboration to accelerate employer brand breakthroughs within your organization would be what would really get your message out there.

Alan: I imagine patience and diplomacy to play a considerable part in all that. Catherine.

Catherine: 100%.

Alan: Catherine, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for joining us today at Expert Opinion.

Catherine: Thank you very much, Alan. It’s been a pleasure of mine too. Thank you.