CHARGE Interview

| CHARGE Energy Conference

Ryan O’Keeffe, Managing Director in BlackRock’s London office, describes himself on his Twitter profile as a “communications leader, digital brand-builder, keen sportsman and nature conservationist.” His role at BlackRock includes overseeing BlackRock’s communications activities in the EMEA region. We spoke to him about the responsibilities that come with a communications and branding job at a $7.5trillion investment fund. 

(4 min read)

CHARGE: Tell us about your career trajectory.

Ryan O’Keeffe: I’ve arrived in my position in a non-linear fashion. I started my career in investment banking in Johannesburg. I then moved into a communications advisory role, first in London and then in New York. I then went in-house at Enel in Rome, and from there back to London to join BlackRock. These roles have given me a lot of diversity of perspective, but certainly my passion is for building corporate brands, and mobilizing and influencing the direction of travel of a business and an industry. There are many ways to do that, and there are many different seats from which you can do that. I find this seat a particularly powerful one.

CHARGE: How does being a communications executive at the world’s biggest investment fund differ from a similar role at a large European utility, such as Enel?

RO: Enel was an extraordinary position, and BlackRock is another extraordinary position, but very different. BlackRock is the number one, two, or three shareholder in just about every listed company around the world. Its positive impact in the world is remarkable. For instance, I think something that is not well understood is the crisis that we face around retirement. We have an ageing population in many countries, and it is a huge challenge to ensure that everybody is able to retire into old age with dignity. BlackRock has a huge responsibility to its clients, as well as to society and to the companies in which we invest our clients’ capital.

CHARGE: In 2018, while at Enel, you were nominated by a group of your peers as Italy’s most influential corporate communications leader. Tell us about that. 

RO: One of the reasons the CEO of Enel hired me was because I was not Italian. There were 18 members of the executive committee, and only two of us, the head of the Iberia business, who was Spanish, and myself, were not Italian. The CEO recognised the value of that in terms of positioning the business on the international stage. Enel has a presence in 40 countries, delivering power to around half a billion people. But interestingly, if you went outside of Italy – back in 2014 when I joined as Group Director of Communications – not many people would have heard of Enel. And so I tried to impose a global perspective on the business and the corporate brand. With my experiences in London and New York, I was able to implement an approach to corporate positioning which served us well in internationalising the Enel brand.

CHARGE: How did you convince your colleagues about the importance of Enel becoming a brand?

RO: There was a bit of a job to be done, but working in my favour were the changes taking place in the energy sector. They were plain for all to see. Also, we had such a visionary leader in Enel’s CEO Francesco Starace. He has a long-term vision, an ability to see the future, and make it immediate for the business. One great example was the creation of the Enel X business line. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s the view was that there was no such thing as a global utility, because a utility was a fundamentally local thing. When we started getting into the world of services and building the Enel X brand, it began to become clear why a global energy brand was valuable for a business like Enel. The early success of Enel X is due in part to the global brand strength we had built around Enel, as an innovative energy business.

CHARGE: Within BlackRock, what is the general attitude towards the “soft science” of branding? 

RO: We use the same language. Over the last 18 months I’ve found that everybody here is very much aligned with my thinking on branding. The way that I talk about a brand is the articulation of who you are, what you do and how you do it. That’s what a brand is; it’s that expression of what you stand for – the values, the extent to which you are innovative, the extent to which you are sustainable. All of these things come through in a brand. BlackRock has built a phenomenal brand over the years, and it’s interesting to note how the corporate brand profile has taken on a whole new dimension – and a whole new set of challenges – as the BlackRock commercial brand has become ever more successful.

CHARGE: Many B2B companies justify their attitudes towards branding by saying “we are B2B, we don’t really need to brand, we know all our clients anyway”. What do you think of that?

RO: I think that it leaves a huge amount of value on the table to think about B2B, B2C and B2G brands. All brands must be B2H: business to human. Your stakeholders are all people. If your business model is B2G, you are selling to governments, but you must still attract talent, still engage regulators, still engage the media, and don’t forget that your clients, those government institutions, are made up of people. Communication and brand building has to be about engaging people. Furthermore, every business has to invest in and protect its social license to operate. Any good business, no matter if it sells to governments, other businesses or direct to consumers, delivers value to society in some way or another. In order to protect and promote the licence to operate of that business, the corporate brand must reflect, strongly and clearly, the social purpose of the business. That will only be possible with a brand that connects with people at a societal, human, level.