Transforming Hackney

A Council administration that was spiralling into ever decreasing circles of failure 

Adam is our Client Services Director at Dawson Walker Communications - He helps organisations to take control of their employer brand.

Here are his thoughts on Hackney’s transformation.

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During my career I’ve had the opportunity and pleasure of working with a number of organisations who have undergone a radical transformation. The word in my opinion is overused and actually over the 30+ years that I’ve been helping organisations take control of their employer brand it only really applies to two. 

There are lots of case studies about “digital transformation” that describe some really interesting journeys for some amazing brands. But here I’m talking about something deeper – I’m interested in the heart and soul of organisations. Can an organisation have a heart and soul I hear you ask? My answer is “yes” of course it can – forget the products, the buildings, the website, the data and the water coolers – organisations are actually made up of people. Individuals organised, or sometimes disorganised, doing stuff. It doesn’t matter what they’re making, selling and delivering– the point here is it’s all about people. 

The place name Hackney or Hackenaye or Hacquenye or Hakney in London dates back to the 13th century. It’s an area that has an amazing heritage and boasts a rich diversity of cultures. Its boundaries are close to the heart of the city and yet it has always had a distinct separation.

In the past it has competed with Tower Hamlets and Newham to attract the dubious distinction of being one of the most deprived areas in Europe and unfortunately also attracted high crime rates. With only one underground station (Old Street) the area struggled to attract commerce and investment and for some of the time back then, the administrative Council for the area was in special measures failing financially and failing the 200,000+ people who lived there.

Like the Metropolitan Police it was described as “institutionally racist” and was only ever in the news for the wrong reasons.  

Fast forward 20+ years and what a difference. Lots of factors have of course made an impact, not least it was one of the 4 host boroughs for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. But I’d argue the changes, the transformation, started happening during its most turbulent years. Those were the years when I spent many of my working days at the Town Hall on Mare Street or in in one of the nearby offices. Back then I used to drive to client meetings and ironically, one day, attracted the expensive attention of a Parking Attendant whilst taking a brief from the Head of Parking Enforcement (but that’s another story)!  

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We had invented a new employer brand for the Council that I am proud to say was also adopted corporately – “Transforming Hackney”. The approach was simple: attract new people to join, but make them aware of the past (warts and all) – setting them the challenge of making it better for the future. It worked – they attracted some amazing people – zealots for change (or Transformers) – who had a common purpose. They joined as part of a quest and in my view under the leadership of Tony Elliston (the boy who made the east-end good) set the wheels in motion.  

Transforming Hackney instigated change. Those talented zealots have mostly, if not all, since moved on (I’m still in touch with a few). But I would argue they truly disrupted a failing Council. They made some brave decisions and tested pioneering ideas. They were often criticised at the time and somethings went horribly wrong. But they ignited change in a Council administration that was spiralling into ever decreasing circles of failure. It was a time of empowerment – that enabled the Council officers and workers to make a difference – and at last they understood it was their responsibility to do so. 

One of my lasting memories at Hackney was taking a brief from the CEO (a true maverick) – who very generously offered me a cigarette despite the offices being a “no smoking” environment. It remains the only formal business meeting where I’ve enjoyed not only a cuppa (freshly ground) but also a Marlboro (full strength). Not quite a scene from Madmen – but a nice segue into the second transformation that features Philip Morris International and their vision for a smoke-free future. More on that in my next piece. 

(The Hackney employer brand also attracted award-winning accolades by the RADs, Personnel Today, Community Care and PPMA). 

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