EthicalVoices

What to do when the story you are told just doesn’t add up – Andrew Healy

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Andrew Healy, co-founder of Water & Wall, an award-winning marketing and communications agency and he’s a former PRWeek 40 under 40. He discusses a number of important issues, including:

Why don’t you tell our listeners more about yourself and your career?

Water & Wall is a nine-year-old marketing and PR agency focused entirely on financial services. We work with brands across the financial spectrum, namely asset managers, hedge funds, tax consultants, investment banking, real estate and FinTech. As I describe it, anyone who advises on money or touches money or influences it, or creates the FinTech plumbing that helps transfer the flow of assets around the world, we’re interested in.

I started my career in 2004 at a boutique crisis financial shop, moved over to a midsize firm, and then around the financial crisis, I went in-house to Oppenheimer Funds for a little bit, just to get a sense of what that side of the table was like, and I always had a lot of respect for that brand. I went back to agency life, then launched Water & Wall in 2012.

We started as a very traditional B2B PR firm focused on institutional finance, but over time we’ve expanded. We moved into the integrated comms space in about, say 2015, about today 35-40% of our work now is in the content/digital marketing/social space. We expanded into the B2C area as well and we touch on professional services a bit, but we’ve just been growing over that entire time and just offering more and more services to a larger universe of clients based in New York City

Thinking about your career in financial services, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

It was a pretty big one and it was actually very early into us launching Water & Wall. One of our first clients was a startup hedge fund and we were very excited about it. We were a young business and did not have much of a reputation under the Water & Wall banner. We were excited to start with them, but very early on, something felt off in the way that they were describing their investment strategy, their asset base, and how they managed money. They couldn’t quite really articulate in a consistent way what they were doing.

We’re not security analysts, our clients are the experts, but we’ve been doing this for a while, we’ve worked with a lot of large global firms that do very big complex things and we can hold our own in conversations with CIOs, product managers and other executives.

Something was off in the beginning. The biggest thing for us was they kept changing what their AUM, assets under management, were. We were just trying to just understand to get a better sense of sort of how they were getting that figure. At this point, our alarm bells weren’t going off, it was more of just we were anticipating what the media would ask about the structure of the fund, the investment strategy, their mandate, what they’re looking to do, how they did it, all these basic things that any firm and fund can articulate. They kept changing their story and it just felt off and it was a dilemma.

We were a young business, every penny counts, here’s one of our first clients and we had a bad feeling about it. We had conversations internally about do we resign it? Do we have a transparent conversation with them? Maybe we’re just not understanding the situation. Do we ignore it and just keep collecting a check and use that money to hire and grow? We went through all of the different scenarios, but it was pretty clear early on that the only solution was to just resign the business. That’s what we did, clean separation, we didn’t call them out, we didn’t make a scene. Maybe there’s a chance we were wrong, but we were confident we weren’t, and we just didn’t feel comfortable being associated with them and  taking their money.

Being a young business, if that was a black eye for us early on, that would have been tough. It just didn’t feel right. So, we just made the decision less than two months in. Shortly thereafter the firm sort of disbanded and we never heard from them again. I’m very happy we made that call when we did it, but it was very much a dilemma in the first 90 days of our business.

How did you balance the conflicting duties? You want to do well by your client, you want to grow the business. How did you work through that to come to a solution that the best choice was to part ways.

It wasn’t an overnight decision, and to be honest, it wasn’t as if in our first meeting we got a red flag and we thought that there was an issue or a fraud or something taking place. It snowballed a little bit. I remember having a conversation with my partner just asking him and saying, listen, I don’t really understand. I’m trying to come up with a pitch and find a good way to articulate what they do and gosh, I took a ton of notes, but I just can’t figure it out, can you help me here?

His response was, oh my God, I couldn’t figure it out either.

Even then it wasn’t an ethical decision, it was more of just okay we need to crack this code because in order to be effective communication partners to this company, in order to tell the story, we have to need to know what it is.

It wasn’t red flag right away, but it was concerning that we couldn’t figure it out. In trying to go back to them to work through this, things started to just feel wrong. I’ve been in plenty of meetings where very smart financial people are talking and I can’t understand them, but I at least can recap it and relay it to somebody. This was something where they weren’t making sense, they were contradicting themselves, numbers were changing, they seemed nervous. It was one of the very few times that all of a sudden, I just thought, oh my God, there’s a problem here, there’s something wrong here, and I just can’t figure out what it is, but I could tell that it doesn’t feel right.

At that point, once we figured out that we think their story might be a problem, it was a fairly quick decision. We went through the options. We thought about it and sticking with them and getting the money. It was pretty obvious what the benefits were there, but we just had a bad feeling in the pit of the stomach. It just didn’t feel right. I will say that the decision itself to resign was almost immediate. It just took us a while to open our eyes enough to go, oh wow, there’s massive concerns here. These were questions that we ask any financial firm, I mean, it’s landing page type data. I mean it’s information that they should have.

Beyond your own experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think you have to approach it on a vertical-by-vertical basis, because it depends on who your audiences are. Unlike in 2008, when the financial crisis was caused, or at least exacerbated in large part by Wall Street, I think the financial services sector, even though brands have gone through quite a lot of crises over the last few years, I would say that there’s a fair amount of good will and trust built up.

For our clients, it’s different than for others, but I would say in general, organizations, non-profits, retail investors, or just consumers are over consumed by content and they’re exhausted and probably a little bit skeptical, given some of the things that are facing everybody right now. I don’t think that that was as much of an issue 10 years ago.

In speaking with reporters, they have more to do than ever before with fewer resources. Exhaustion is a key word. For PR practitioners and professionals, you need to be mindful of the mindset of the folks that you’re reaching out to. If they are just mentally drained because a year and a half of COVID and a million and a half other things, that’s an issue. They might be looking for the product you’re selling or interested in the story you’re looking to tell, but gosh, they might have some other priorities on their plate.

So, how do you get over that and break through the clutter because there’s just so much bad content out there. People are consumed by news, there are so many ways that it’s hitting them. We must be really thoughtful in terms of how we do it. You don’t want to hit them over the head. You don’t want to reach out and have too many touch points, you can scare folks away by being a little bit too aggressive early on, so I think it’s a delicate balance.

When you’re talking about fighting that content exhaustion, there’s a definite challenge because Google wants to understand what’s the fresh content driving the content for links. Also, you’re an integrated communication firm, so you’re working to produce content. How do you balance what is the right and what is this pure SEO bait and to stay away from it?

We’ve been through the wringer enough; we know what good content is. We can’t always predict it, but we can understand the authenticity behind it, and the intentionality, which I think is key. There was a couple of years where you can sort of game the SEO the system. We’re working and speaking with clients, and our BS radars is always on. And if something is sort of setting it off, we’ll tell the client and sometimes they’ll push back, sometimes they won’t. They pay us for our outside perspective so even if they say, “Hey, listen, we appreciate the thought, but let’s keep pushing forward here,” at least we did sort of our part.

Fortunately, we work with some great brands that understand this as well. Particularly the bigger firms, with the marketing data and analytics they have, they see that the bad content, content that they’re just doing for the wrong reasons is not performing, it’s not driving the leads that they’re looking for, and it’s not hitting the metrics that they’re doing. There might’ve been a time where that was acceptable and there might’ve been a time where consumers weren’t just so jaded by this all because it wasn’t hitting them 24 hours a day. But I think the smart brands know if they put something out there consistently, that’s just not what customers are looking for, they’re going to react and it’s not going to be a positive thing.

The emergence of data we that use that to guide us is one of the best developments over the last 10-15 years. When I first started, it was all about volume. How many articles did you get, how many hits did you get, how does that compare to last year? And that was it.

Now we have so much more insight in terms of what we’re doing and what it’s driving that there are times we will come up with an idea we think is brilliant, and guess what, it just fell flat. Maybe it doesn’t mean that it’s completely dead in the water, maybe it was the distribution, it was the timing, it was the packaging. But if over consistent basis, if the campaign is just not working, we’ll stop it right away, examine it to understand what’s not working, the common threads, and learn from that so that the next iteration is just better. I think for brands that want to sort of get away with certain things they can’t, because they’re going to get punished, and the smart brands have long known that.

How do you avoid some of the ethical pitfalls when it comes to data use? Because there’s so much out there that people want to have, but it’s not always right to use all the information you can get.

We work alongside our clients’ marketing departments. They will manage and facilitate a lot of those aspects and a lot of those issues, which are of course, very concerning. I think for us, when we’re interacting with the media, when we’re interacting with our clients, we just need to make sure that whatever type of data we’re consuming or whatever type of theme we’re trying to push out there, we’re completely consistent and transparent across the board in terms of what we’re looking to do with it. We conduct a lot of studies on behalf of our clients, and we take that data very seriously. We make sure that everything is anonymous and make sure that nothing can be attributed back and make sure the integrity of the data is strong. Every now and then we’ll conduct a survey and the data is just not sort of checking off and we’ll put that to the side and maybe we’ll start over.

I would say in today’s environment, trust is key. Consumers are very, very good at knowing when something feels right and when something feels wrong. They have very short fuses. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but coming back to one of my earlier points about everybody just being exhausted, the news cycle forever has just been so draining. And there’s so much enhanced insights and conversations around user privacy and data privacy that companies are rightfully so scared about sort of crossing the line or doing things that they shouldn’t be. It’s not to say that problems don’t happen, but regulations are coming in many aspects, oversight is coming.

One thing that people might find ironic is they may tend to associate financial services with renegades, we’re a big risk taker.

Some of the biggest and best firms out there are some of the most cautious at the same time. They’re hedging their risk, they’re monitoring every single piece of data possible for their exposure. When there’s a couple of big firm or fund blowups… they can really reverberate across the industry. We’re talking about billions of dollars, in some case trillions. There’s a lot of risk there that firms, and again, the established ones, or even the ones that are up and coming and emerging, but are doing so with a strong, ethical, moral compass, they’re going to do things the right way, because if they don’t, they’re going to get called out and it’s just a bad business. Finance is a very risk averse industry. They’re all about managing risk, and just not taking bold blind bets and betting the house.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

One of the first lessons I learned from one of my early mentors, was that I should assume everything I do and everything I say will be reported on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. And if that has anything that I would read that would make me cringe, it’s probably a good idea not to do it in the first place. That is a long-winded way of saying, just assume you’re going to get caught.

We’re not making our decisions on a daily basis with that much of a sort of jaded mindset, but I think having some checks and balances along the way, and just recognizing that our business, we’re growing double digits every year, we’ve got so much great momentum, that can all come to an end in a heartbeat. And a lot of that is out of our control, but a lot of it is also within it. We can only control what we can manage and we can see. And a lot of that comes back to just making ethical, honest decisions. s.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

Don’t ignore red flags, trust your gut. If you see a problem, it doesn’t mean there is one there, it’s just means you need to explore it. Hope is not a strategy, problems won’t typically go away on their own. And if over the aggregate, you continue to just be a little bit concerned, guess what, you probably should be. Don’t ignore those red flags, trust your gut, have conversations with your team. And if you need to make a painful, difficult decision, but it’s the right one, you need to do it because over the long run that will pay it forward.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.

 

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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com

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