14 Feb BUILDING CANNINGS FROM THE GROUND UP
It all comes down to teamwork.
Nearly a quarter of a century after taking the riskiest step of his professional life and co-founding the strategic communications business that carries his name, Graham Canning still believes that teamwork is the secret to success.
“The one thing that has always stood out about Cannings is the people,” says Canning, in an interview to mark the 24th anniversary of the establishment of the firm.
“From the start, we were really, really careful about the people we hired because I wanted to develop a team culture that even today, I don’t think many of our competitors have.
“I think that’s a real plus and part of the success of the firm. It’s one of those things that you need to get right to be successful, but some places get it incredibly wrong.”
After working for decades in journalism, including a stint as an editor at The Australian Financial Review, as well as in-house corporate communications, Canning decided to make the bold move and open a strategic communications consultancy firm in 1998.
He was joined at the time by Ross Thornton, as a co-founder, who would later set up his own consultancy firm, Third Person, and Martin Debelle as an equity partner. A former ABC journalist, Debelle later went on to establish communications firm Citadel.
Canning had noticed there was a gap in the market for a firm that was able to cover investor relations, transaction support, crisis management, public affairs and corporate leadership positioning – all under one roof.
“It just wasn’t done in Australia at that time,” he says. “We were first out of the block by doing this sort of work and soon we were getting to be well known in the market, particularly by investment bankers and corporates.”
With the word out, it wasn’t long before Cannings, which is now part of global communications group WPP plc, attracted its first client: the NRMA.
At the time, the insurance organisation was gearing up for a demutualisation to become a listed company, Insurance Australia Group Limited (IAG), and Cannings was called in to provide stakeholder communications guidance and support.
“There was much public debate over whether NRMA should have been privatised and so there was a lot of anarchy, particularly at the board level,” Canning says.
“It was really a time of turmoil. And a substantial amount of work for Cannings.”
With NRMA signed on, the focus turned to growing the brand, signing up other blue-chip clients such as Telstra and Westpac Bank.
Over the years, Canning and the team were involved in some of the biggest and most controversial transactions in Australian corporate history.
He recalls the firm advising Australia’s largest independent oil and gas company, Woodside Petroleum Ltd, in the early 2000s when it faced a hostile takeover bid by oil company Royal Dutch Shell. Following a major public affairs campaign by Cannings, the then Treasurer, Peter Costello, rejected the bid on national interest grounds.
Other high-profile transactions included working with shipping company Burns Philps during its $2 billion takeover of Australia’s biggest food group, Goodman Fielder, in 2003, and later the takeover of St George Bank by Westpac, in 2008.
During his tenure, Canning helped clients navigate one of the most challenging economic periods since the Great Depression – the global financial crisis in 2008.
“Our clients were very aware of their corporate reputation, and it was very important that people understood these companies weren’t vulnerable and that they would get through this,” he says.
“We helped get that message across through various programs and strategies to keep their reputation intact and, as a result, people saw that they were totally solid.”
The former CEO thinks some of the lessons from that time are applicable to the current COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns.
“When you are faced with something that’s totally out of your control, the main thing is to not panic, to keep your head down and look after your clients throughout that period,” Canning said.
“One thing we learnt during the GFC was to increase communications with the client a little bit more because they’re going through the same thing as you. Give them extra special attention and make sure they know your focus is on them.”
Canning stepped down as chief executive of the firm in 2009 after more than a decade at the helm, but he stayed on as Chairman for several more years and still checks in on the Cannings crew from time to time.
“We always thought we were pretty good at what we did,” he says.
“But there were others out there doing good work, too. At the end of the day, it is our culture that is our strength. Culture is everything in an organisation. It’s the whole heartbeat.”