Change is the only constant

January 5, 2021

Switching a degree in engineering for a career in communications, Stephen Waddington has made a living out of embracing change. It was technological change that led him to set up his first company in the middle of the dot-com boom of the 1990s, and it was the changing media landscape that saw him take over as president of the CIPR in 2014. Now, changes brought about due to the coronavirus pandemic have roused the Preston-born PR practitioner to set up his own professional advisory firm – Wadds Inc. Richard Dawson speaks to Stephen to find out more about his life in media and communications and why he’s feeling optimistic about what 2021 has in store.

The ‘change is inevitable, growth is optional’ mantra is one that has epitomised the field of business mentoring and leadership coaching for some years now.

What stops people and businesses from reaching their potential is an unwillingness to embrace change, or so the saying goes.

They see change coming down the track and run in the opposite direction. It’s a classic fight or flight response.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has left us with nowhere to run to – change is here whether we like it or not.

For this and other reasons, marketing, media and public relations professional Stephen Waddington believes 2021 will be a year full of opportunities for people and businesses.

He would know, having made a career out of embracing change – the professional advisor’s manifesto even starts with the words “change is the only constant”.

It’s easy to see why Stephen thinks in this way. He has spent two decades working in media and communications at a time when that industry has seen more change than perhaps any other.

Ever since the forward march of the personal computer in the early 1990s, the media landscape has been transformed by technology.

Stephen graduated into this context in 1994, but not with the degree you might expect.

Hailing from Preston, in Lancashire, the former president of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) was the first generation of his family to go to university and as such felt a strong responsibility to get a professional qualification.

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, he studied engineering at Salford University and planned for a future as an electronic engineer.

A year on placement at the Dartford- Thurrock River Crossing quickly made him reconsider his plans, though.

“It was a big infrastructure project, but it was hard graft and really long shifts,” he explains.

“It genuinely put me off engineering for life.”

Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself to adapt his technical engineering skills into writing news and features for Electronics – the official magazine of the now defunct retailer Maplin.

It was an exciting time to be writing about electronics, with so much innovation happening as a result of the growing capabilities of digital technologies.

One of the most important developments was something all of us now spend multiple hours per day using – the internet.

From 1995 to 2001, the massive growth in the adoption of the World Wide Web created enormous opportunities for businesses.

The dot-com boom, as it is now known, is actually what encouraged Stephen to set up his first PR agency – Rainier.

He says: “I saw an opportunity in 1998/1999 because everyone seemed to be starting a dot-com business. There was a tonne of energy around it.

“I set up Rainier PR with a mate of mine working for firms that were building out
the plumbing of the internet with new applications and software.

“We built up incredibly quickly and then we had the crash, but we came back from that and it was a great business.”

In the five years leading up to March 2000, technology companies with the ‘.com’ suffix in their name became a huge source of speculative investment.

So much so that the Nasdaq Composite stock market index on which many of these businesses were listed rose by 400 per cent in value.

It was an unsustainable pace of growth that created an asset price bubble,
which burst at the beginning of the new millennium.

Many of these companies had price to earnings ratios of 200, meaning that their stock market valuations were 200 times higher than their annual revenues.

When the investor capital dried up, scores of dot-com businesses fell into liquidation.

Hard as it may be to believe today, Amazon was one of the firms that nearly went under, losing a large portion of its market capitalisation.

For Stephen’s fledging PR business, the crash was something of a setback.

But the young entrepreneur embraced the changes he was seeing and understood that the internet was going to be part of the architecture of the future.

“You could still see the trajectory and the growth of the internet,” he affirms.

“It was clear where the direction of travel was going.”

Rainier was sold to a business called Loewy in 2004 and Stephen went on to work for the successor company that was formed from its merger with two other agencies – Speed.

The rationale behind Speed was to look at how businesses could benefit from building their own media channels on the internet.

The Economist and Associated Press were some of the company’s early anchor clients.

“We followed the technology at Rainier, whereas at Speed, we followed the changes in media,” Stephen explains.

The changes were vast indeed.

From around 2005 onwards, more widespread access to the internet led to a proliferation of alternative media outlets, all operating in a digital capacity and challenging the hegemony of print media for the first time.

This fragmentation of the media landscape saw newspapers and magazines begin to lose out on advertising spend to the likes of Google and other emerging online platforms.

Stephen authored a book about this phenomenon called Brand Anarchy, describing how, suddenly, anyone with access to a computer could essentially become a media company.

It would be the first of many for the future visiting professor of Newcastle University.

The anarchy has only accelerated in the years since Stephen’s first book. Now, all anyone needs to become a media company is a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account.

Naturally, this has revolutionised PR as it has publishing and all other parts of the media and communications industry.

What has guided Stephen through is his open-mindedness, something which he believed was in short supply at the CIPR in the early 2010s.

He explains: “Like many organisations, the CIPR was thinking about what was going on in the media industry at the time.

“I was really critical of it for being slow and for not getting its head around the changes that were happening.

“They were talking about online blogs being vanity media and that the whole thing would disappear whereas I realised there was something more fundamental going on.

“I got into a very public debate.”

Following a robust discussion about the future of PR in a fragmented media landscape, Stephen decided to put his money where his mouth was and run for the CIPR presidency in 2013.

He won the contest and became president in 2014, using his one-year tenure to help modernise the professional body and make it fit for the future.

“There are moments in time where organisations need that sort of approach,” he says.

In 2015, Stephen became the chief engagement officer at global communications consultancy Ketchum, having been with the company since 2012.

Here, he was tasked with building the company’s digital and social media teams throughout Europe, the Middle East, Russia and China.

Travelling internationally for work for the first time, Stephen was exposed to how media organisations operate in different countries, particularly in China and Russia where state-sponsored outlets play an important role.

In China, there’s also widespread censorship of the media industry, particularly on the internet where the anarchy we experience in the West has been somewhat reined in.

“You’re sat in your hotel room in Beijing watching CNN and suddenly it goes black,” he recalls. “Then there’s loads of websites you can’t access.

“From a Western mindset, government intervention in the media is very difficult to get your head around.

“At the same time, the pace of innovation in China is incredible.”

These international insights have served Stephen well in his latest venture – Wadds Inc., which already has clients in the US and beyond.

Set up in June last year as the pandemic was raging on, Wadds Inc. is a professional advisory firm offering management level experience to companies who might want to bring in a senior person but may not be able to afford the salary.

It’s another example of Stephen taking advantage of the opportunities he believes are always around the corner.

He says: “At every stage of my career, I’ve benefitted from the boom in innovation and technology just riding one wave after another.”

Looking ahead to what the post- COVID-19 future might hold, Stephen’s advice to other entrepreneurs is simple.

“It’s been an incredible time but one of the things I’ve taken from it is, if you’re brave, you’ll be rewarded,” he says.

“If you put energy out there into a market and do something positive, you’ll get it back in spades and spades.”

The one-time engineer also sees 2021 as a reset moment – a time to try something different and make bold decisions about the future.

He explains: “When you get a reset moment like this, it’s a great time to build a business at the bottom of the market and then benefit from the recovery.

“We’re in a bit of a challenge at the moment, but just think about the way we’ve experienced ten years of innovation in ten months.

“The pandemic has changed how we think about workspaces, personal health, retail and education – there’s four massive business opportunities right there.”

It’s an injection of optimism fit for a new year and a new world that will need it in abundance.

Stephen Waddington
www.wadds.co.uk
@wadds

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