SenateSHJ trans Tasman comms success

First published in New Zealand Herald 24 February 2014

When New Zealand corporate communication firm Senate merged with Melbourne’s Scaffidi Hugh-Jones, a truly trans Tasman company was created.

Known as SenateSHJ, Wellington-based CEO Neil Green says a merger in 2007 was always part of the Australian strategy.

Despite differences in the way our two countries do business, Green strongly believes New Zealanders must not underestimate the skills they can bring.

“New Zealand companies have a lot to offer in Australia and sometimes we underestimate the learnings in our market,” he says. “We’ve gone through some really big economic changes, a lot of structural transformation and because in our small country things can be done faster, many of these activities and lessons apply equally in Australia.”

Right now for example, common issues include Australian asset sales and the transformation of the energy sector. Just two of the shared issues New Zealand has already been through.

However, there are areas Australia is a leader, such as government tenders that are much better run in Australia than in New Zealand.

While there’s a lot of work in getting on to a panel, Green believes once you’re part of it the process is run efficiently and effectively. In New Zealand public service RFPs can see anyone taking part with little focus on experience and all focus on cost.

When the New Zealand side of SenateSHJ was established, the Kiwi founders were seeing client decisions increasingly made at an Australasian rather than New Zealand level. In industries such as healthcare, decision-making was across the region. The big four banks all had Australian offices and Green says to win the work they wanted, a trans Tasman presence was always necessary.

They also saw a trend away from outsourcing the communication function in full. Rather companies and governments started to employ experienced in-house teams. In response, instead of hiring generalists SenateSHJ’s model was always to appoint specialists at the top of their game.

With that, came a need to offer compelling rewards beyond base salary. Senior partners in the business have the option to be shareholders, with equity and “skin in the game”.

Specialists in corporate affairs, crisis communication, change communication and social marketing, the company is known for its senior consultants working on high end strategy for blue chip brands on both sides of the Tasman.

“We didn’t want to come to Australia with one or two people and try to organically build a company,” says Green. “We saw that as being too risky, so we set up in Sydney with three senior people and the Melbourne merger meant we could support the Sydney office inside Australia as well as from New Zealand. It gave us immediate market presence, depth and the Melbourne trading history.”

“When people are known in the market and have great reputations, it’s the most vital thing. It allows you to start conversations and create opportunities for sales. Whereas if you’re just an international brand without the substance, there’s a ‘so what’ attitude.”

It wasn’t easy in the beginning for SenateSHJ and, according to Green, the first year in Australia was a slow one, with Australian companies taking a wait-and-see approach. Although the firm won projects, significant work came once companies felt theirs was a business with an Australian future.

“Be prepared for differences in business style within Australia,” adds Green.

“While Sydney is more international and based around ‘what can you do, how can you help me, what’s your experience’, Melbourne is more like Christchurch and relationships go way back to school days. In Melbourne if you don’t have people recognised in the market and haven’t been in it before, it’s a harder one to come into.”

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