How Did I Get Here?: Leslie McGibbon, VP Global Comms, GSK Consumer Healthcare

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When Leslie McGibbon met me in the vast, buzzy reception that fronts the home of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) he thrust a bottle of Revive into my hands. “I was buying one for myself so I thought I’d get one for you too,” he explained. Revive is a type of Lucozade – one of the famous brands that come out of GSK’s Consumer Healthcare Division where McGibbon is VP of Global Comms. So this is a communicator who doesn’t just drink their equivalent of the Kool-Aid – he actually pushes it on his visitors. It was the first inkling that I was not meeting your run-of-the-mill Comms guy.

First off McGibbon has more fizz and zest than his company’s energy drinks; he talks fast and with pride and passion about the work he does and the team he has around him. Then there is the actual environment – brightly coloured meeting rooms plastered with the company’s “winning formula” and bus stop shelter size ads from around the world of their best-sellers from Aquafresh to Panadol.

We stopped at a wall of monitors where he demonstrated the Listening Lab: real-time bar charts and data about what people are saying about the company’s products around the world. His office is glass-walled with his own personal targets written up in red pen on the walls for everyone to read. The man is a transparent evangelist for the power of corporate communication.

“I have not spent a lot of time in my career having to prove the case for comms. I have always been in businesses and working with senior management that have absolutely got it. I don’t think it’s a good use of your time trying to prove that you need a seat at the table. I prefer to using the time doing good work.”

McGibbon joined GSK Consumer Healthcare in September 2011 where they have 16,000 employees and a $10bn turnover business. It’s the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) arm of the pharmaceutical giant with products that range from toothpaste to acne treatments, from Sensodyne to Ribena. Basically it’s all those GSK products you can buy over the counter.

“We have taken the best of GSK with all its scientific knowledge of the human body, its strong values as a company and married it to all this new stuff: branding, insight, PR, digital innovation at speed. We have been able to mash these up into a new thing – a fast moving consumer healthcare company – which with the backing of a company of GSK’s global scale is a pretty unusual opportunity.”

Gambling on a career in communications

McGibbon is a Scot and studied Marketing with an emphasis on Hotel and Catering at the University of Strathclyde. This led to a job at Scottish hotel chain Stakis in Corporate Affairs where he came under the mentorship of PR legend Alex Pagett. Stakis was bought by Hilton in 1999 and McGibbon found himself transported down south where he headed up the communications function of their Labrokes casino business. It was something of a baptism of fire as this was just the time when the government announced the deregulation of the casino industry in the UK.

“At a very young age I was involved in projects that were well beyond my usual reach.  It was a brilliant time. The Daily Mail was running a front page saying ‘Say No to Casinos’ just at the time that we were creating and hosting the largest poker event in the world. My day job would go between preparing briefs to go in front of select committees of MPs, to a Playboy photoshoot at lunchtime, then off to the Isle of Man to set up for a million pound poker game. My parents were wondering what the hell my job was.”

Being at the eye of the storm under intense interest from the media was a formative experience for McGibbon, but one that he clearly relished. The next job took him to InterContinental Hotels (owners of Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza and a host of other brands). A new CEO Andy Cosslett arrived from Cadbury with a big brand and communications agenda and McGibbon stayed for over five years in a global role operating in over 100 countries. He flirted with running his own agency with half a dozen clients but was pulled back into ICH to build and run their global corporate affairs team. So why the change from the travel, fun and glamour of the leisure industry – which was obviously such a passion for him?

“I remember being in China with my team and we had been through the cycle of interim report, final results, annual report, annual conferences in North America and Hong Kong etc. I had had the opportunity to build a really good team of people and I got them all together in China to celebrate a great year’s work. I remember I went out on the balcony and realised that although it wasn’t yet Groundhog Day for me it was going to be at some time in the not too distant future and I didn’t want to allow myself to get into that position of comfort. I saw a brilliant team who could take the business forward without me and knew that what I needed was a fresh challenge.”

And so when GSK phoned he could not resist the appeal of helping to turn their Consumer Healthcare business into ‘a $10bn FMCG start-up’ under the new President Emma Walmsley.

Creating the Winning Formula

What McGibbon and the team has done in less than two years is truly astounding. I had worked briefly on the early stages of communicating the new strategy for the Consumer Healthcare business before McGibbon arrived. My impression then was the communications was buried under mountains of PowerPoint decks with no tangible sense of what it meant for staff. Today that’s all changed:  the strategy has been interpreted into “The Winning Formula” and throughout GSK Consumer Healthcare it can be seen on the walls: clear, vibrant and meaningful. And more importantly the formula is backed up with personal plans that connect  individual activity to a shared strategy.

Where before I had found impenetrable consultant-speak the strategy is now expressed in clear English with words like ‘love’, ‘consumers’ and ‘shoppers’.

“A lot of the credit has to go to Philip Thomson who heads up Comms across the business and Emma Walmsley the President, who joined just a couple of months before me. They realised there was a big job to do in order to connect the whole organisation to the new agenda.”

“The strategy was brilliant but the articulation of it was no so great. So top of my agenda was to get it out there and engage 16,000 staff. We agreed that year one would be focussed on our internal audiences before we started to get the story out externally. We re-articulated the strategy into ‘The Winning Formula’ and today you can’t start a meeting without referring to it.

“But there is no point in just putting it up there on the wall. If I work on a production line the temptation is to think that it is someone else’s job – so we created “My Winning Formula” which helps everyone to write out their objectives in a format that aligns to this model.”

McGibbon is quite candid when he admits that the roll-out of the comms was done badly. They just did not have the time to polish and prepare flawless materials.

“I wanted to spend a couple of months creating a cool comms plan that would really bring everyone along. But because of the planning cycle if we did not get it out then we would have had to wait another 6 months. So we just sent it out to the business in an uncooked form. With hindsight it was the right thing to do as it forced the business to react to it fast and so by the time we got to the half year we had some good insight on what the business wanted to do with it. It was clear that this was not a pure comms thing, or an HR thing, it was something owned by the whole business. It was a good lesson for me: don’t let perfect get in the way of good.”

But they must have done something right to get the strategy into the bloodstream of the company so deeply and rapidly. McGibbon points to two key factors: audience and language:

“It’s a lesson in psychology as you look at all your audience groups: what time of the day is it that you are speaking to them? What is the temperature? Who is it that is going to speak to them and what tools do they have? What environment are they in? And I was adamant about using everyday language.  You have to turn things into pub speak. Speak to people as they speak to one another.Remove the jargon.”

“It has been a good experience and interesting how people have reacted to the internal story.  It has made giving the external story much easier.  In doing the internal work first we have brought much of the external story alive as well.”

Becoming Content producers

Under McGibbon the comms team has been overhauled. Existing GSK talent has now been mixed with new recruits from eBay, Disney and P&G. And new content creators are in place using a camera and a Mac to document and bring to life the business internally.

“I think more and more internally and externally we are involved in conversations where we need camera skills. Jennifer has been out recently making a documentary in South America. But she is also creating regular small bits of content – from how do we make Panadol through to Emma’s Results Video and filming management messages where senior executives can’t be there in person. I predict soon there will be a lot more people around GSK with cameras.”

GSK have just signed up to a corporate Yammer licence and McGibbon is keen to start benefitting from these social tools inside Consumer Healthcare.

“Big corporations don’t work as fast as the outside world and we need to catch up in our use of social inside the firewall. A lot of the conversations have been around the technical platforms and I don’t think that these are the right conversations to have. I want the conversations to be about the content. It’s all about creating delicious, shareable, beautiful content.”

“When I buy a car I don’t want to talk about the mechanics – about what is under the bonnet. I want to talk about the driving experience. I think that in comms we must get much better about focussing on driving the car – which is all about the content – and having given them the brief, leave the mechanics up to IT.”

Communications meets big data

McGibbon does not see his job as a discrete function that does comms on behalf of the company. What is striking in my conversation with him is how much he talks about brand and consumer issues that are not the traditional interests of corporate affairs. He is fascinated and enthuses about the messages that come out of the company’s contact centres where they have conversations with thousands of customers every day. This big data is being used to drive new product development and commercial plans such as a recent Lucozade campaign that started directly from consumer feedback. And his team are building five new consumer contact hubs around the world this year to ensure the voice of the consumer is a truly global one.

“One of our big opportunities is to bring the voice of the consumer inside the company. It’s part of the reason why I am here. The remit of communications here is pretty wide and we interface well with the brand and the R&D teams. It’s kind of cool with plenty more to do.”