Roundtable: How Marcomms Leaders Are Rethinking Culture In The AI Era

PRovoke Media8th July 2024

PRovoke Media partnered with Weber Shandwick to explore how communicators can navigate the significant change management challenges posed by the AI era.

As countless research studies and considerable coverage have made clear, the rise of generative AI poses significant implications for corporate communicators. But these challenges are often framed in terms of ‘saviour vs doomsday’ debates or, rather more prosaically, relegated to a discussion of tools and tactics. 

And while generative AI’s ramifications will be widespread, both in terms of the communications craft and public trust — we cannot lose sight of the change management challenge that is playing out across workplaces and culture. 

To examine these issues in further detail, PRovoke Media partnered with Weber Shandwick in Cannes to convene a Roundtable of marketing and communications leaders. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 


  • Chris Perry, chairman, futures, Weber Shandwick

  • Gail Heimann, CEO, Weber Shandwick

  • Joanna Stringer, global lead: brand topic, BCG

  • Ruth Mathieson, global head of strategic marketing, Bayer CropScience

  • Paul Holmes, founder, PRovoke Media

  • Arun Sudhaman, editor-in-chief, PRovoke Media (moderator)

Impact & implications

“I can’t think of a bigger, more critical shift”

Our participants began by exploring the implications that GenAI poses for their roles and responsibilities, with a specific focus on the questions that marketing and communications leaders should be asking. Refreshingly, the conversation steered clear of the ‘tools and tribulations’ mindset that often colours these discussions, instead zeroing in on the implications for leaders and corporate cultures. 

Gail Heimann (GH): My role in the organization is to drive change. I can’t think of a bigger, more critical shift than this one and my role is to lead that. Stepping back, I think part of what our organization does and where we live is culture. The algorithms are shaping culture every single day — everything we see, everything that gets recommended. So, because of that, I kind of issued an encomium, for lack of a better word, to our thousands of colleagues. And that being that our role is to occupy culture and speak machine so that we can’t forget that culture and this world of emerging technology, AI specifically, are deeply intertwined. To understand culture more deeply, to deliver in culture, in some cases to help shape culture, the technology is there to help us get there.

For our colleagues — how do we upskill, how do we think about where they should go? That notion of speaking machine, it gets to things like prompt engineering. But for everybody who works with us and for us, the idea of coaxing the best out of the machines, training those people, is critically important for us. So…complicated world. I think we have to move every single one of our colleagues to be in this space in a significant way. Speaking machine is the first step in being able to deliver the possibility and potential of AI to our clients and to our firm.

Chris Perry (CP): Most people when they think of generative AI, they think of tools. Can you use ChatGPT or not was the predominant discussion. [But] this is a big change management issue. It’s not a technical issue. So, we did a few things. One, articulate our intent. There’s just no way around the fact that AI and generative AI were going to change conversations with clients. We had to convey to all of our staff that this is an inflection point if you will, and we have to step up so our people knew what the story was — because generative AI also has self-preservation elements to it.

The second piece then is how do we equip people to activate what leading in GenAI means? We created a pilot team, roughly 70 people around the world, all roles. We created what we called a sandbox, a safe space for our people to essentially start to play with AI. And we crafted it in a way where all the data was contained within our service, it wasn’t going on to training models. It gave our people confidence that they could experiment without screwing up, which a lot of people are still worried about today. What became really important with that pilot was people did stuff with the machines that we never could have planned. It essentially became a Weber GPT designed for the kind of conversations that we have with clients. Now, that sandbox has roughly 20 different apps in it. The apps include things like summarization, it includes things like red teaming, it includes content creation. And to Gail’s point on speaking machine, it gives people an entry point where the software actually guides you on ways that you can explore strategy, creativity, risk, basic client knowledge.

That capability is now rolled out to all of our employees, and we’re doing meetings with clients in it — because our clients have the same challenges that we had where they have IT issues, compliance issues. Out of that, all kinds of innovation is coming that couldn’t come top down. You have to create an environment for people to do what Gail led with. It took roughly six to eight months for us to go from, “Hey, let’s equip people,” to “Holy cow, this changes how we think and how we work.”

Ruth Mathieson (RM): We’ve done something extremely similar where we created a sandbox where we’ve allowed people to come in and experiment within a safe environment. Because we did notice that a lot of the more entrepreneurial younger people in the business were going out externally to talk to agencies about building separate AI tools for us. And obviously we need to use proprietary data that we have, and a lot of our competitiveness obviously comes from the proprietary data that we have. We’ve now created the sandbox, which has created a specific Bayer GPT within our business as well. What’s been great about that is very, very quickly that has then got to the point where we’ve been able to develop some really good GenAI solutions coming from that and a lot of ideas.

Ultimately we are predominantly an innovation R&D business that then passes over a huge amount of agronomic advice to growers. So the data points that we have are hundreds, millions, thousands of data points. So being able to utilize the power of AI is something that’s going to shift and to change our business completely as we’re moving into the future. Because we’re a global business and we’re responsible for food security, we’re one of the biggest agricultural producers of seeds and crop protection products in the world. And one of our big messages is, “Health for all, Hunger for none.” How we can use the power of AI to get more food out to people is really, really important.

Jo Stringer (JS): I think I’m going to approach the story from three angles. Firstly, similar to yourselves, how have we thought about adopting it within BCG with our own workforce? Secondly, what are we advising our clients and what’s this changing in terms of the strategic advice we’re giving our clients in terms of the way that they need to be adopting this? And then thirdly, we also have BCGX, which is a very significant part of our business now. We have something called Dexter, which we’ve developed, which looks to use generative AI to enhance the way that we write and produce the classic consulting deck, which sadly is still very much the currency of our language. We’ve also put a lot of effort into our internal search function. So we have something called Navi, which now takes everything that BCG has in terms of proprietary IP and enables us to search it and consolidate it into intelligent conclusions, obviously instantly. Those are two of the use cases that I think are most dominant in our workflows.

In the tools and the interfaces that we develop, we have quite a strong point of view that that voice needs to be machine, it needs to sound and feel robotic because it should not be misinterpreted to be human. And to get that important delineation between where you’re driving culture and where you are supporting all of us still as humans and where it is a robotic acceleration. But I heard something yesterday from, he said, “AI tools are the co-stars to the movie of your life.” And I thought this was a really lovely expression in terms of just the way that we are now.

So, that is an approach that we’re taking to our clients. Where we really see the biggest challenge for our clients is not in having a pilot that demonstrates results and effectiveness, but in integrating into workflows and scaling it. How do you get that human connection? And then I suppose the last angle is how are we building it? Echoing the principles of the discussion — think culture, speak machine — is a policy that we really see the importance of the focus not being on the AI, but on what it enables in the people in the organization.

From theory to practice

“It has changed the nature of creative ideas”

Understanding the AI use cases where our participants see progress helps to shine a spotlight on how organizations in our sector are managing the cultural and workplace shifts. And while it is probably too early to define anything as specific as best practice, our Roundtable participants did point to several areas where their investment has been particularly fruitful.

CP: Whenever there’s any new technology, the first use case is to use the tech to do what we already do. So a lot of the initial conversations around generative AI were, “Oh great, I can write a press release in ChatGPT.” And then you can’t. But that’s the first place that people go. The second place is to augment what we already do, make it a little better. I think that’s where a lot of the conversation, particularly around creative is right now. The third front is then native to the experience, to what the technology brings. The first obvious place was seeing a completely new issue with a clear eye, which is disinformation. How can you see narrative issues before they become material events? And that’s where our Blackbird relationship came in.

I think the industry has to be way more focused on using generative AI for thinking and planning and scenario building. That’s a big part of how our teams and our clients use the sandbox together, to be better at how we think and how we plan and how we improvise. You can develop personas in the sandbox. Imagine anytime you put a story out into the world, there’s going to be a for and against. And then there are different factions that will embrace or overreact to what’s put out. Once you have the personas, then you can basically create communications, messages, campaigns. I don’t mean to say that we can get it down to an individual level, but the persona development with the data that we have can create pretty vivid depictions of an individual or a cohort that is far beyond made up personas that we still see in lots and lots of decks. You can run simulations on how different cohorts are going to react to certain stories before you even present something to a client. It has changed the nature of our planning, it has changed the nature of creative ideas. It’s a total game changer.

RM: I think this is an area where I’m trying to balance the customer experience versus the more common, “Where would we be spending our money?” And I’d like our AI to help us do that a bit more. We use what we call technical marketing, they will transfer a lot of this agronomic advice through to growers. There are so many data points that a grower needs, from weather to soil type to the type of crop protection, when they should be harvesting. In the past, they would’ve gone to a market development person to ask a question and then that person would’ve gone back and researched and researched for weeks. That meant that the potential for that individual to grow on time has slipped.

Now, what we’ve been doing with our pilots is using our GenAI tool to utilize all of those data points we’ve been feeding our LLM so that growers can ask a question and get, in a very natural language, the answer back at speed. When you’re thinking about it from a food security perspective, it’s making a big difference. I sat in India a month ago in front of growers and I said to them, “What’s the biggest challenge that you’re facing?” And they said, “The biggest challenge we’re facing is around climate and we’re seeing the amount of pests and the amount of changes to our growing environment change, and we need to understand up-to-date information and Bayer needs to play a role to be able to do that.”

It’s giving us that ability to be able to reach a lot more people faster and quicker and for them to get these answers to their questions in a way that they understand because they’re not all going to be really tech-savvy.

JS: In the area of work that I personally focus a lot on, which is the brand and marketing value chain, I would say what not just AI but data and AI have together enabled us to do is take what was the concept of precision marketing and expand it in both directions. So we now talk very much about precision branding, which is where you can be much more effective in how you build, land and anchor a brand, how you allocate your spend in the upper funnel to drive awareness. It used to be that brands were built with these mass campaigns, and that brand was something that was ethereal and almost existential in the marketing toolkits. And marketing was where you converted through the funnel.

Now we see you can be much more accurate with really how you build and craft and curate brands. That is not only driving an efficiency and effectiveness kind of angle, but it’s also driving a proximity in the relationship that brands can have with their consumers. Be that through subcultures, be that through specific audience groups. Then in the other direction through to personalization, that’s really where it then kicks into customer experience. The biggest barrier in delivering against that is absolutely talent and absolutely an organization’s ability to run that at scale. There’s many use cases within marketing, but I think that’s one of the ones that we see being most transformative. And certainly a lot of our clients are really investing in trying to figure out how they wrap their heads around that.

Transformation & talent

“Being an empathetic leader is becoming more important”

If, as the panellists pointed out, generative AI is helping them completely rethink traditional practice — this has obvious implications for the talent that companies and agencies employ and train. Stringer described it as the “biggest barrier” in her efforts to develop a “precision branding” model, reflecting the challenges inherent in moving into a new era for marketers and communicators. What exactly is required to help leaders manage this shift, amid a considerable amount of trepidation and even fear?

GH: I think it’s a case of upskilling people. That notion of prompt engineering can be simple, it can get infinitely more complicated. But to bring them in, to empower them, to coax the right things out of the right machines at the right time, and to enhance people’s intellectual curiosity around all those things and move them there. I don’t believe it’s about replacing people, but I do believe that there will be shifts in our world. We’re in a business where we have clients — the people who work on our clients are going to have to add value to the equation in a meaningful way. And there will be AI and there will be tools there that will do certain things that take us into new directions and help us transform. The people who surround all of that are going to have to add value over and above to keep pushing that equation. I believe anyone who’s attracted to our kind of business has that intellectual curiosity and has the skillsets. Our job is to help them get there.

CP: We’re talking with clients almost every day, all over the world because everyone’s talking about this issue. The biggest barrier that people have is just getting familiar with the tools. Once people get familiar with the tools, get oriented to how they can use them, the fear drops and the entrepreneurial creative vibe starts to take hold. If there’s one key point to leave in the discussion, it’s that this is an unbelievable time for people who are good thinkers and good writers. These are not technical machines. Natural language is what drives value from generative AI. If you develop a style of inquiry, a style of communication, a discerning view of what comes out, we’ll be way better and we will need more people, not less people. If we alter our perspective on what comms and marketing and communications and market education can bring, it’s just unbelievable, but you can’t see it unless you’re in it. It comes back to that orientation. We do a lot of workshopping to just get people over that initial hump so then we can have more strategic and creative discussions around problem solving using communications.

RM: For Bayer, this is a big business that’s been operating for a hundred years and we have a lot of people in our business that don’t move around, especially within CropScience. You have challenges of how flexible are we to change our original model of going out to the growers and building those relationships face-to-face. How tech-savvy are a lot of our people in the business? So we need to bring new thinking into the business, I believe, as a start. And we do have a very focused team that are obviously building a lot of our internal tools and systems, especially around AI.

Bayer is going through a huge transformation at the minute where our fundamentals are about putting the customer at the center of everything that we’re doing. We are bringing everything back to those key business questions that the customers are asking. Therefore, we want to be able to give our sales teams a lot more of this natural language for them to be able to answer questions that customers have. That’s where we see GenAI making everything much more relevant, pragmatic and not as scary. We are doing a lot of upskilling because we cannot lose that talent and that legacy that we’ve had within the business.

JS: BCG is an extraordinary business model for this kind of thing. In the strategy consulting world, if you are not insanely curious and insanely determined to be on the cutting edge of this stuff, you’re probably not working at BCG. Our business is kind of chock-full of the people who want to be the early adopters of this stuff. They’re not scared, they’re energized and inspired and hungry for what this can do for our clients.

In preparing for [another] panel, we’ve had a really interesting discussion on the relative importance of being an expert in AI and the technological capability we need for being a human leader. Now, of course you’d expect people to be able to do both and it’ll be necessary that people do do both. But, if you have to choose, which is becoming more important — they would argue that being an empathetic leader is becoming more important because the speaking machine will just become a hygiene factor. As a CMO, it’s almost more important that leaders are able to connect at a human level and more important that they’re able to be charismatic leaders of groups of people because people are scared.

GH: We have to double down on our humanness in order to compensate.

Arun Sudhaman [AS]: I think that’s sometimes forgotten in a rush towards new technologies. There’s sometimes a view that the technology itself will somehow make us more human.

GH: Will the next generation not be a hybrid of that humanness and the technology inhabiting piece?

CP: This is a significant change management transition. We’ve seen with a lot of clients that they think generative AI strategy is buying Microsoft Copilot, giving people access to it and “We’re good.” If it’s about change, then you have to understand where people are and how they’re going to move using whatever technical capabilities are there. If you’re tech first, you’re not understanding what’s going on here. This is about being able to solve different problems using new technologies with imagination, with leadership, with inspiration and all those things. I can’t see how it’s an either-or though, because if you’re so far removed from the capabilities and actually what’s driving the business, then you have a credibility issue.

It requires not just a single person, but a team of people that actually complement each other to make the type of leadership transitions that are going to have to take place in any organization.

Concerns & opportunities

“It’s really important we retain that magic”

An enthralling discussion closed with our participants defining the biggest concerns and opportunities that they see from the rise of AI. Unsurprisingly, they reflected many of the themes raised in the conversation, from culture to capability, to talent and transformation.

GH: I think the concern I would have in my role is speed. We have a vast organization and we have an extraordinary group of clients. Moving as quickly as possible to understand and deliver is part of it. Machines will be reading everything. What does that do to the rest of our business? Everything we make has to be machine-readable. There’s both opportunity, responsibility, however you want to talk about it, for us to kind of rethink the guts of our business in the world where everything is machine-readable. Everything we do is going to fundamentally change, and we have to be way ahead on that. It’s about the challenge and a responsibility for organizations like ours and everyone in the comms and marketing world.

CP: 2025 is going to be the year that the internet flips into something that’s very, very different. A lot of what’s been built over the last 25 years, whether it’s websites, social media pages, Google searches, it’s going to look very different and it’s going to come a lot quicker than I think people realize. For any consultancy, you have an opportunity to build the future now, but it gets to what we’ve been talking about around the table. People have to see it, they have to be inspired to do it. From a client leadership standpoint, they’re going to have to take some leaps and make some bets. And again, it’s a bit of a back-to-the-future moment where we saw the same thing in 1999, saw the same thing in 2004, and we’re going to see it in 2025. It’s going to be a massive shift — it’ll be turbulent and it’ll be opportunistic if you have the right perspective.

RM: My biggest concern is that people are going to see Bayer potentially creating too much bias towards our business and that the advice that we’re giving them isn’t agnostic, which is what we really want to do. We want to be a service provider that is really using all of the open source data that’s out there, plus our own proprietary data. But that bias could flex. And my concern would be, how do we make sure that people understand that information isn’t just about buying or selling more and more products — we’re really trying to provide a service. That’s a big concern for me. The opportunity is that AI will allow us to move our innovation faster. It will allow us to therefore understand how to scale a lot of our products to different areas across the world. So, ultimately, we are reaching people who really need nutritious food as quickly as possible.

JS: I have a concern on behalf of my clients, which I just call the magic of marketing. I feel like so much of marketing as a function, being so proud to grow up in this discipline, has been about magic. It’s really important we retain that. The biggest opportunity, conversely, is…I often say a lot of my career has been about trying to help marketing take its rightful place in the C-suite as the growth engine of businesses. The biggest opportunity is that we now have a chance more than ever before to do that.

The communications profession has never been more important to a company’s purpose, culture and strategy. Become a member of APACD and help advance our profession across the Asia-Pacific region.