How to cut comms costs and not sacrifice quality

A new guy on the job was told to cut the budget. He did so while simultaneously developing new ways for his company to communicate. Here’s what he learned.

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Looking to impress your bigwigs by trimming costs and outsourcing jobs to Lithuania?

No? Well, then by all means skip the presentation by Christian J. Porter-Schultz, a communications vice president at the international engineering firm COWI.

But if your company is battling lower-cost foreign rivals and the bean counters are leaning on you to cut your budget, listen up for some hard lessons. Porter-Schultz didn’t just “realign” and promote “engagement” and “strategy,” but he also dealt with harsh realities such as passing out pink slips.

COWI is an engineering company building bridges, tunnels, and motorways worldwide. It has 6,000 employees and is involved in about 17,000 projects in 124 countries.

Based in the expensive, high-salary land of Denmark, COWI is up against lower-cost rivals from India, Canada, and even the United States, Porter-Schultz says.

Cut 50 percent

Porter-Schultz got a taste of just what that means when he arrived on the job one September morning. He delivered a quick speech to his staff, saying he would take his time and find out people’s skills before making any changes around Christmas. “I’m going to need every one of you,” he told them.

At noon, the CEO invited him in and said, “You’ve got till Thursday to completely revitalize your office and make budget savings of about 50 percent.”


Porter-Schultz highlights one area of staff savings. COWI had 19 graphic designers in Denmark. Some of them were not necessarily Rembrandts of design, but people who had taken PowerPoint courses years ago. Most of their time was spent making ads, but the company wanted a highly professional, unifying theme to its marketing presence.

COWI had moved the bulk of its IT work to Lithuania and India, so it now looked at ways to design more cost-effectively. Sure enough, Lithuania offered a wealth of highly skilled graphic designers.

Porter-Schultz reduced graphic design staff from a full-time equivalent of 19 in Denmark to just nine in much cheaper Lithuania. The per-hour cost of their work fell from €120 to €20.

Writers, brace yourselves. COWI is looking at similar savings elsewhere.

Porter-Schultz asked, “Why do I need 20 journalists around the world at a premium cost … if they’re only writing press releases, if they’re only writing articles for our Internet, for our customer magazines?”

His work wasn’t limited to budget-trimming, but also included a new emphasis on storytelling. He found that a company full of engineers tended to overburden its communications with detail that might not speak to its customers around the world.

2.3 tons of paint

While it was active in places like Egypt, Iraq, and Libya, “we never talked about that,” he says. “We only talked about that bridge that went from Denmark to Sweden. It had 37,000 screws. Isn’t that amazing? And we used 2.3 tons of paint.”

So COWI took a deeper look at why and how it communicates.

“It’s not a quick decision [for a customer] to spend 5 billion euros to buy a bridge,” he said. “It’s not something you get convinced to buy over Twitter.”

So it is attempting to tell its broader story even as it weeds out needless engineering details.

He cites an example from the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. It states, “A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.”

How to state that more economically? Describe the pomelo as “a supersized grapefruit,” says Porter-Schultz.

He also suggests the power of analogies. It’s hard to get worked up about an organization’s statement that “only one in five said they had a clear line of sight between their tasks and their team’s and organizational goals.”

Now try it with a football analogy (we Yanks know that the game is called “soccer,” but never mind): “Only two of the 11 players on the football field would know what position they play and what they’re supposed to do. That’s a lot scarier than the one-in-five.”

Changing the culture

In the end, Porter-Schultz sought to inspire a change of culture at COWI. The company had been trying to do too much—and do everything itself. Now it faces a new communications challenge: bringing along staff in the other regions.

Internally, COWI also needs to find ways to persuade bosses to adapt to new media and organizational storytelling.

“It’s actually our own fault,” Porter-Schultz says. “We’ve been so good at preaching press releases over the past 10-15 years that that’s our existence. Now we’re saying, ‘Well, it doesn’t actually work.’ … We need to use social media, we need to story-tell in a different way, we need to be the media ourselves. We need to be the change that we want to see.”


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