Inside in-house: Adobe's APAC communications director on research and 'content velocity'

Julie Cleeland Nicholls explains why the brand's comms strategy is centred on crafting and sharing stories and how its customers play a key role in achieving this goal.

Julie Cleeland Nicholls
Julie Cleeland Nicholls

With more than 90 percent of the world’s creative professionals using Adobe Photoshop and over 50 billion PDFs opened in Adobe products alone in 2015, there’s little doubt that Adobe is one of the most prolific computer software firms in the world today.

The company, founded in 1982, is not just content with providing creative, marketing and document tools however; it is focused on changing the world through digital experiences.

Its PR strategy is central to achieving this aim, with communications seen as a highly strategic and critical element of the marketing mix. As Adobe does not run major above-the-line activations in Asia-Pacific, communications is its largest brand investment area.

"We’re constantly looking for ways to bring Adobe to the next level," says Julie Cleeland Nicholls, director of communications, Asia-Pacific at the brand.

"Everyone in my team is an all-rounder. Our portfolio is vast, given that we’re responsible for end-to-end communications. We’re presented with new challenges every day; our scope of work is a sustained content strategy covering media and analyst relations, social media management and executive and internal communications."

Nicholls works with five comms managers, each of whom is responsible for integrated PR campaigns in their respective region — Australia and New Zealand, Southeast Asia, Korea, India and Greater China.

Her team also includes a regional executive and employee comms manager and two social media strategists, all working alongside colleagues in marketing and sales to evolve and promote Adobe’s brand.

Crafting stories

According to Nicholls, a love for storytelling is at the heart of everything her team does and creates, including visuals and multi-media elements.

Adobe’s PR strategy comprises major inflection points that act as ‘go big’ beacons throughout the year, alongside an ‘always-on’ thought leadership campaign, with several big events taking place in the region.

One of these is the annual Adobe Symposium, taking place this year in July in Sydney and Singapore and at the end of April in Mumbai. The event offers a platform for marketing experts and digital leaders to interact and share the latest insights about digital marketing innovation.

Given that it’s the largest digital marketing conference in the region, Nicholls’ expectations for this year’s events are high.

"I’m pretty excited about it – Adobe will be hosting experts and leaders from around the world and featuring the digital experiences of major regional brands," she explains.

"There’s a multitude of stories to tell around these events and through which we hope to inspire digital transformation, by showing how other companies have transitioned successfully. We also want to provide fresh insight into themes and issues that are important to marketers, by leveraging our executives’ expertise."

Another major initiative Nicholls is spearheading is based around research. Adobe produces highly localised research that aims to hold a mirror up to reflect and highlight what is happening in the region.

"We have released regular studies such as the Digital Dashboard, and Adobe Digital Index," says Nicholls. "We’ll soon be launching our latest Creatives Pulse survey, looking into the beliefs, challenges and aspirations of creative professionals.

"Our goal is to better understand creatives across Asia Pacific, such as their sources of inspiration, their main motivators at work and which top skills are in demand."

Agency relationships

The core Adobe communications team is supported by several external agencies and Nicholls feels strongly about having a ‘best-of-breed’ agency model within the nine countries in the region where it has agency relationships.

She says her team has put in considerable effort over the years to forge a transparent and inclusive client-agency relationship that is based on trust and mutual respect, with many agencies and account teams working with Adobe for at least four or more years.

It’s a track record Nicholls is proud of. Across Asia-Pacific, the brand works with agencies including Edelman Australia, Text 100 Singapore, PC&A in Thailand, Newell PR in Hong Kong and The Practice in India.

"No agency is 100 percent consistent in its performance across all disciplines," maintains Nicholls. "The best-of-breed agency model allows us to choose and work with the best agency either by region or by project, to focus on delivering what it does best.

"A great agency is one that’s able to think smart and strategically as well as challenging us to innovate and shaking things up."

And aside from solid foundational skills such as outstanding media relationships and rigorous reporting, Nicholls also values agencies that "write well".

"Many still write in a rigid corporate style that is fast becoming irrelevant in today’s digital world, in which dialogue is direct and conversational," she maintains.

Keeping pace

While Nicholls acknowledges that Asia-Pacific is a region with tremendous potential and vast opportunities when it comes to digital transformation, not everyone is moving forward at the same pace.

"Countries such as Australia, Singapore and India are further ahead and more evolved and confident of their digital capabilities, while there are others behind the curve," she says. "One challenge is finding the right balance in scaling amid diversity and change."

The explosion of data can be overwhelming, particularly for companies trying to act on it. Managing what Nicholls terms ‘content velocity’ – getting the right experience, to the right person, at the right time – is another challenge, but she says she is fortunate to be ‘customer zero’ for Adobe’s technology, both for its Creative Cloud and Marketing Cloud services.

"Like other marketers and communicators, we push ourselves to master the technology so that we’re able to leverage it fully," she explains. "We’re all pioneers in the field of marketing technology so it’s an exciting time — albeit in uncharted territory." 

Customer control

Nicholls’ main focus is also firmly trained on telling Adobe’s stories effectively and building a coherent story around the brand, by speaking directly to customers and communities.

"Although journalists and the media are still important, how we communicate with them has also evolved along with changes in the media landscape and audience expectations," she explains. "Strategies today need to be more complex, more disintermediated and more fragmented, yet highly impactful and most of all scalable."

Highlighting the voice of the customer is also important for the brand. On the creative side of Adobe’s business, Nicholls believes that nobody tells a story with as much passion and authenticity as creative people, such as the artists who use Adobe products every day within the Creative Cloud.

It’s a similar story on the Marketing Cloud side of the business, where Nicholls says no one is better placed to share the challenges of moving through a digital transformation than fellow marketers and business leaders.

"A major strategy is providing the right platforms and then standing back to let customers tell their stories," adds Nicholls. "Two skills are key: story-telling and flexibility and innovation. I need everyone to be able to tell a compelling, genuinely interesting story."

When it comes to flexibility and innovation, Nicholls wants her team to challenge the status quo and try new things. Failure is fine, she says, "as long as we learn from it — and have back-up plans in place".

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