It’s 20:30 at night, yet my stomach feels like having breakfast. After a 17 hour plane journey, which started in Amsterdam and paused in Singapore, I finally arrive at Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar, Indonesia. The 30 degree heat wave greets me like Rocky Balboa would greet Apollo Creed on the first. I quickly realise that I’ve perhaps packed one pair of jeans too many. I’ve been to Indonesia once before, on holiday, but this time is different. I have a promising work week ahead, one with ambitious prospects.

I set out to connect with Akvo’s South East Asia and Pacific regional hub colleagues and align global and regional marketing efforts, experiment with a new way of telling stories visually, and test drive a new monitoring tool to evaluate the impact of our work.

Above: an inspiring quote inside the patio of the Akvo South East Asia and Pacific office. (By Alvaro de Salvo)
Below: pictures together with the Akvo SEAP team and the folks of RGB Collective. (By Alvaro de Salvo)

A very solid future behind our backs
There are innumerable challenges in running global marketing and communications in a tiny multinational like Akvo. We are spread over six regional offices across five continents, and we work in more than 70 countries with over 200 partners. Assuming that successful regional marketing in Bali, Burkina Faso, or Colombia is a matter of applying what we do in the Netherlands is simply a recipe for disaster. We’ve got to start by understanding the differences and similarities in each region and developing a unique approach that aligns with our global approach.

It’s been over 20 months since we created the new marketing and communications department here at Akvo. We operate in a rapidly changing market, and in order for us to remain relevant is important that we continuously connect with the audiences we work with and fine tune our promise(s) to the world. By this I mean systematically put efforts in recreating ourselves so we can run a marketing strategy that evolves with the pace of reality.

Together with the Marcomms team, we’ve been working nonstop to revitalise the core aspects of our story and brand, to bring clarity to our partners on the ways we can help them, and to give focus to our teams on how to engage with our audiences. I wrote about this transformation in June this year.  

However, the reality is that you can’t run global marketing and communications from behind a computer screen. Akvo’s story is intrinsically linked to the story of our partners’ work. If we fall short in understanding their – usually challenging – objectives, needs and values, we‘ll also fall short in the way we tell our own story.

As Steve Blank would say, you need to get out of the building and connect with regional talent, get a feel of what’s going on where the work happens, and ask the important questions. What skills do we already have in the hubs? Which audiences are we trying to reach in each region? How does the brand translate regionally? How do we facilitate storytelling from the field? What resources do we have?

The Marcomms team has a strong role to play in driving the global narrative and creating the patterns for others to build upon, but we are a transversal team – we support and also need the support of the entire organisation to get things right. And that’s a balance I’m interested in finding.

Above: Meeting with our partner Kopernik and conducting an AQOA interview.

However, the reality is that you can’t run global marketing and communications from behind a computer screen. Akvo’s story is intrinsically linked to the story of our partners’ work. If we fall short in understanding their - usually… Click To TweetConnecting with the Akvo South East Asia and Pacific Hub and aligning our efforts
While I’ve been present at most hub manager meetings at Akvo, this was the first time I actually visited a hub. It was a great opportunity to connect with colleagues, co-create the future and address any needs, wants or concerns. We had some strategic sessions with the team to facilitate discussions on where the hub should focus first. This was an excellent opportunity to learn about their challenges and also align on marketing and communications. We had a really fruitful moment of clarity defining the skills, the capacity and the goals for the hub and how we could support each other in telling strong stories. At Akvo, we rolled out OKRs within the marketing team and the Akvo Flow team in 2017. Other teams joined at the beginning of 2018 and started openly sharing their priorities and focus points. As we prepare for 2019, we are exploring the possibility of rolling them out globally. While OKRs prove to be a great way of bringing cohesion and focus to the team at global and regional level it’s meeting between people that spark enthusiasm and co-create ambition on what to do next.

Above: Meeting with our partner Smartseeds

Experimenting with new visual storytelling
The Akvo partner heroes project began in March 2013 and continued until November 2017. The aim of the project was to create a series of photographs and stories that highlight and celebrate teams of people around the world who are working to reduce poverty and improve living standards – and working with Akvo to get there more effectively and efficiently. These are the Akvo partner heroes. In February 2018, together with Stefan, the Akvo SEAP regional manager at the time, we were discussing the challenges of creating authentic and genuine visual windows into our partners worlds. In our conversation we both agreed on the common struggle to capture the realities that partners face implementing projects and capturing their inspiring work.Within time, we continued to develop and evolve a concept together on how we could better do this and we were lucky enough to later engage Stefan in his new role as a photographer and videographer at RGB Collective. During our collaboration in the region, we set to document the work of three partners in situ: Kopernik, Smartseeds and World Wildlife Fund. While there, I managed to learn how important photography and video are and yet how difficult it is to capture things in genuine ways. As the videos and photo stories are still in post production, we cannot wait to share these with the world and want to share this backstage video I made, as a teaser of what’s to come.

Above: Backstage film of a week at Akvo SEAP (By Alvaro de Salvo)

Test driving our new monitoring tool
This year, a group of colleagues at Akvo, specialised in Monitoring and Evaluation, have been working on how to monitor the outcomes that, according to Akvo’s Theory of Change (ToC), will happen as a result of the work we do. This is important because monitoring our intended outcomes will show us whether we are moving towards the impact we want to contribute to. They have developed a tool to monitor these outcomes – the Annual Qualitative Outcome Assessment or AQOA. It consists of a question guide, meant to be followed during a group conversation with partners to generate reflection on where they are in terms of those outcomes. I took three surveys with me, and used them to have conversations with the same three partners I met with while shooting the videos and pictures. Amongst the many benefits, their answers will allow us to become a learning organisation, become even more data driven, and improve our partnerships and what we can offer.

Above: Meeting with our partner World Wildlife Fund (By Alvaro de Salvo)

What’s coming in 2019?
Looking back at this trip, I can only now fully appreciate the amount of good work we produced in such a short period of time. The experience has given me a different perspective on the work we do with our partners, shaped my vision of the region and the challenges my colleagues in the region face, and aligned us on some key OKRs for marketing and communications. The things we’ve discussed, the ambitious goals we set together, and all the materials we’ve created will surely serve multiple purposes and will be used in many other ways, like the website, brochure, campaigns and others, over the coming years.

During 2019, the Marcomms team will strive to elevate the impact of a global marketing with increased regional co-creation with the hubs. We’ll also actively look for ways in which we can meet face to face and improve the regional storytelling, learn from each other and overcome challenges that we all face as marketers and as communicators we all are. The key, I believe, is getting out of the building and working together to co-create a future that works for us all and keeps relevancy as its north.

Alvaro de Salvo is Head of Global Marketing and Communications at Akvo, based in Amsterdam. You can follow him on Twitter @aj_desalvo