Telum Talks To... Carolyn Devanayagam, Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate, APAC, Weber Shandwick
Telum recently caught up with Carolyn Devanayagam, who joined Weber Shandwick as an Intern in Kuala Lumpur back in 2000. She has since embarked on a career with the firm taking her to Shanghai and New York as well as Singapore where she is currently based.
Can you tell us more about your role and the work your practice does with clients around the region?
I oversee Weber Shandwick’s corporate and technology practices throughout the Asia Pacific region. My day-to-day involves working closely with our many local markets and practice leads to develop strategies and solutions for our clients. Some examples of our work include building and managing reputations, developing and executing communication strategies, and working with organisations to amplify their impact - whether that’s their impact in a local community, on the lives of their employees, or in terms of stockholders and investors. As a regional leader, a lot of my role involves ensuring we’re leveraging the full scope of our network’s resources, expertise, and offerings for our clients.
What is Weber Shandwick’s approach when it comes to corporate?
As with all of our practices corporate is rooted in the idea of solving at the intersections. At this point, it’s an established truism in our industry that silos and swim lanes have become a bit old-fashioned. Rather than exclusively looking at corporate client problems through corporate perspectives, we work to develop strategies that draw on everything that’s affecting our clients at the intersections of business, media, culture and policy.
It’s one of the reasons our teams have such a developed capacity for data and analytics. It helps us deliver richer insights, solutions, and strategies to a broader array of clients - corporations, governments, stakeholders, not-for-profits. I love the diversity of our work. Because of our approach, our teams can easily counsel clients operating in B2B, B2G, and even B2B2C. We’re comfortable navigating everything from sustainability, ESG, DEI, and employee engagement, to CEO equity, reputational risk and geopolitical diplomacy.
What are the key trends you are looking at, at the moment?
Navigating the pandemic remains a clear priority. From the initial outbreak to the latest waves, our teams have been helping corporations, governments, and individuals manage the many complexities of the era (mental health, wellbeing, remote working, vaccinations, returning to offices).
More broadly, we’re collectively keeping an eye on the wave of cultural and geopolitical changes that have been moving alongside COVID-19. We’ve already seen numerous complex business scenarios emerge from rising US-China tensions and the recent Afghanistan insurgency. The challenges faced by brands around shifting supply chains and semiconductor shortages continue to expand into surprising areas. And, throughout, we’re engaging in the evolving conversations around DEI, sustainability, and ESG. And, I think it’s crucial that we understand all of these changes are connected. The semiconductor shortage, for example, is directly linked to sustainability conversations around water wastage. The Gen-Z stakeholders helping drive diversity conversations forward for brands are also embracing nationalist values around geopolitical shifts, especially in Asia.
As agency partners, we view it as our responsibility to help clients understand these situations, their intersections, and their impacts - as and when these things are happening. Our APAC Intelligence team, for example, produces regular bulletins and reports outlining the latest developments around sectors like manufacturing and identifying the key trends connecting the data.
How has COVID-19 changed the work you do and your clients' needs?
COVID-19 hasn’t changed our work, so much as strengthened our resolve. We have always been committed to data-driven insights and decision-making. However, COVID-19 introduced volatility and unpredictability to the world that made such approaches particularly essential. By investing in accurate intelligence, agencies and clients alike can better navigate what continues, even today, to be new and unchartered territory. Today, clients are more willing and invested in using data to test, learn, and evaluate approaches before adapting to the era’s latest twist or turn.
How important is employee communications?
Vital. In this era, more important than ever.
Right now, establishments of all kinds - corporate, public sector, NGOs, GLCs - are navigating critical transformations. Employee communications are an essential component of successfully managing those transformations.
Over the past eighteen months, we’ve seen the rise and fall of so many employee programmes. Even before COVID-19, counselling c-suite leaders and supporting employees with meaningful communications was part-and-parcel of our firm’s everyday work. In every quarter, we’re working proactively with clients to surface cultural vulnerabilities, develop crisis response strategies, and authentically shift cultures to embody values of ethics, purpose, and support.
Agency is often, in Asia, seen as a place to work for a few years only, before moving in-house. You joined Weber Shandwick as an intern and you are still there today. Why is that, and what does staying in agency offer to young people seeking to grow their comms careers?
Well, to further underline the importance of employee communications, I’d have to say - culture. Specifically, Weber Shandwick’s culture.
I’ve had the good fortune to work across a number of different offices in our network. And, in each one, what keeps us all together, thriving, and successful is that same culture. My colleagues have always shared a passion for work and for life. They’ve always helped me prioritise achievement while supporting me in finding my own work-life balance and living my values.
Our senior leadership teams have always prioritised people. They invest in careers, ambitions, and people’s happiness. I remain somewhat awestruck that I managed to start as an intern and enjoy roles all over the planet. And, I continue to grow with the firm today. I recently became a mother and developed an even deeper appreciation for the firm’s commitment to supporting women in business - supporting us in being both business leaders and mothers. I feel very fortunate to have struck gold in landing a career in my first job.
However I do think you get out what you put in. You need to have the right mindset. For those starting out in communications, agency work can definitely be challenging - but, with the right mindset, you’ll reap true rewards.