The Ri5 interview: Darren Harris, AIA Worldwide and Miranda Davies, Thales


To anybody who attends the many awards evenings that take place in the recruitment industry, the names Thales, QinetiQ and AIA Worldwide will be very familiar.

Over the years they've been regulars on the awards circuit, frequently appearing on shortlists and taking home the big prizes at the industry’s major ceremonies. As a partnership they have taken home an unprecedented total of 31 RAD Awards and CIPD Recruitment Marketing Awards over the years.

Theirs has been a lengthy working relationship resulting in consistent success. So how do they do it?

“The truth is, there is no trade secret”, says Darren Harris, AIA Worldwide head of strategy. In his view, the success is down to a long working relationship built on mutual trust.

“Clients always talk about wanting a partnership,” he says. “I think that’s what we’ve got with Thales and it genuinely works.

“I don’t think it’s rocket science,” adds Miranda Davies, Global University Relations Director at Thales. 

“It’s not forced – it’s a relationship that comes naturally,” she says. “Perhaps it’s because of the individuals concerned, or it could be that the way I like to work matches the ethos of AIA as an agency.”

The working relationship dates back to 2003, when Davies was responsible for graduate recruitment at QinetiQ. That year AIA proposed a high-risk campaign, based around the line ‘Stop studying science past – start making science history’. A guerrilla campaign of on-campus posters followed, which ruffled the feathers of some academics but instantly connected with students. It also thrust QinetiQ into the Times 100 list for the first time.

Since that early achievement, and following Davies’ move to Thales, she has encouraged the agency to push their creative boundaries, providing a platform of trust for the team to do their best work. As a result she and Harris have continued to work together on campaigns that have been successful in delivering candidates, as well as winning awards.

Harris clearly appreciates Davies’ passion for their work, and her level of involvement in the process.

“One of the reasons Miranda is a great client is that she allows us to do what we do best,” he says. “She respects the creative team and knows them all by name – it takes her an hour to walk around the office and say hello to everybody – and she doesn’t try to stifle or restrict them. That freedom for the creative guys makes a big difference.

“She does say no on occasion – and that’s fine – but we’ve got to the stage where we know what Miranda will like,” Harris adds. “We meet regularly and show cool stuff we’ve seen elsewhere, and we can gauge from Miranda’s reaction what she likes and dislikes straight away - that helps to develop campaigns and concepts.”

Davies says: “The important thing is that I feel a part of the team here and I also feel the guys here are a part of my team. I come here and feel a part of the AIA family, and vice versa.”

Davies is also adamant that a key factor is the longevity of the working relationship, dating back to her time at QinetiQ.

“My analogy is Premier League football clubs,” she says. “They’re very quick to change managers, but if you take the Alex Ferguson approach it’s the longevity of relationship that delivers results. There’s quite a high churn of personnel in this field, but in all our working time together I’ve been able to work directly with Darren.”

Harris agrees, but is also keen to highlight the role played by others in both teams. “While Miranda and I have that sustained relationship,” he says, “there are lots of important people on both sides who help to make things happen. For example, Gemma at Thales and Alex at AIA work really well together - their working relationship reminds me of the one Miranda and I have.

“Then there’s also our creative director Jamie Haskayne, who has done some amazing work for both QinetiQ and Thales over the years. His consistent creative input has helped a lot.”

Davies adds: “The longevity of our relationship also means the guys at AIA already know our business; they don’t have to constantly learn about what we do, because they already have that understanding that’s been built up over time.

“We’ve benefited hugely from that continuity. And it’s never become stale, because there are always new things and this industry is constantly changing.”

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about their working relationship without discussing awards, such is their regularity on shortlists at the industry’s big nights. And Davies admits to enjoying this part of their work.

“We won’t deny the fact that we like winning awards!” she says. “Thales isn’t particularly well known from a brand point of view, so when we win industry awards and the name is up there alongside hugely well-known brands, that’s fantastic for us.”

Harris agrees that while results come first, winning an award is a valuable bit of recognition. He says: “For me, that’s why I enjoy working at AIA and why I’ve stayed here for 15 years – we’ve always done great work and an award is validation for that. There’s that personal drive to win, so you know you’ve done a good job, and it’s also good publicity for the agency.”

Davies adds: “And if you look at our track record, there’s only been one year of our work together in which we haven’t won an award. It’s not hit-and-miss, it’s pretty consistent.”

And reiterating her sentiment that she feels a part of the AIA team, she says: “When I’m at awards ceremonies I’m up on my feet even when AIA win with other clients. I’m proud of them for the work they’re achieving for other clients. That, again, comes from me feeling a part of the family.”

“But,” she adds, “it’s not just about the awards; it’s about delivering great candidates. I need these campaigns to deliver candidates to fill my vacancies. And they do.”

Given their achievements to date, it would be easy for both organisations to rest on their laurels, but their plans for the future suggest there’s plenty of work to be done.

As well as recruiting for Thales, AIA has started to help the company reach out to a much younger audience, as it attempts to boost the tech talent pipeline.

“We’re currently working on an educational outreach scheme for primary and secondary schools,” says Davies. “Not to promote Thales as an employer but to stimulate interest in STEM subjects. It’s a fabulous campaign – built around awareness rather than recruitment.”

Harris joins in, clearly excited by the new work and the creative opportunities it affords. “When you’re talking to a younger audience you can be a bit quirkier,” he says, “so we’ve had some fun with it. There haven’t been the same brand restrictions that we’re used to; it’s all about getting them excited in STEM for the long-term good of the industry.”

Another future step is to go global with Thales’ Project Arduino – a campus-based competition that encourages teams of students to build projects related to the company’s business areas using an Arduino microcontroller board. After a successful UK launch it was taken to the US, where it significantly outperformed previous Google on-campus activity at UCLA. Now, they want to take it to other markets.

Davies concludes: “Also, I’m always challenging these guys to tell us not just about the ‘what now’, but also about the ‘what next’, so we’re always looking forward. Some of those future ideas are more feasible than others, but I always want to be looking at what comes next.”

Harris agrees this future focus is key. “As an agency we’re digitally minded and want to be ahead of the curve, and it’s great to have a client like Miranda who encourages us to do that.”

Thursday, 3 September 2015

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The Ri5 interview: Darren Harris, AIA Worldwide and Miranda Davies, Thales