Remaining visible and relevant

Global shipping consultancy Drewry has found itself at the centre of some of the biggest stories of our times – from Covid to the Ukrainian conflict. James Harley, Head of Marketing and Business Development, tells Neasa MacErlean how these narratives fit into the marketing mix.

How does a firm position itself when it finds itself mid-market between global consultancies, researchers and brokers at one extreme and a multitude of individual industry specialists at the other? How does it stand out in such a crowd, and where does it focus its fire? Harley says that the “two issues which keep me awake at night are visibility and reputation.”

These two external aspects of the firm’s Marketing & Business Development strategy have occupied much of the former naval officer’s eight years at Drewry. Internally, he has been closely involved in the evolution of the firm’s services – both in helping develop new ones and in constructing a “ladder of conversion” which brings clients to acquire them.

Established 52 years ago, Drewry used to chart a course in which M&BD was somewhat under-played – but its visibility was high with the clients it was then focusing on. When asked about today’s competitive landscape, Harley says: “In many ways one of our biggest competitors in the future is likely to be the web, and the growing availability of information generally.” The automation of booking processes for container shipping, for instance, can mean that potential clients take procurement decisions without realising what professional services are on offer.

Since he joined the firm, Harley has formalised many of the routine M&BD processes – often with a bespoke twist. The unified M&BD system that he helped set up in 2016 consolidated 50 databases, four websites and four marketing tools. The platform that the firm chose was “designed for publishing businesses, and given the sheer amount of information we publish, it seemed the right fit for us,” he says. The 105-person firm is, in many respects, a publishing house – now producing over 500 research updates a year and managing over 2,500 client subscriptions across all the main shipping sectors.

Creating this fully integrated platform “transformed” many aspects of CRM – especially in providing a single client view. This allowed M&BD to develop a series of “conversion events” (or “mousetraps”) to encourage prospects and clients to understand – and buy into – the firm’s services. Their level of brand engagement is also tracked in real time.

Free information is a crucial part of the process. “To get engagement and build trust you have to be prepared to give, give, give,” he says. “But what you give must be valuable, relevant, timely and highly topical.” So an industry stakeholder which starts by reading an opinion piece on the effect of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and researching prices on Drewry’s World Container Index or Port Throughput Index, might require more in-depth analysis through a research or freight cost benchmarking service before retaining the firm’s advisory teams. And some of the world’s biggest brand names (currently three out of the top ten global retailers, says Harley) have gone on to outsource key aspects of their ocean freight procurement activities to Drewry.

The firm has four business units– two in maritime research (general research across the main shipping sectors and independent investment research) and two in advisory (general maritime and supply chain). They are based in four cities: Delhi (where 60 per cent of the analysts are located), Singapore, Shanghai and London. Harley joined the Board in January this year, a sign that M&BD is “absolutely at the centre of the firm’s evolution”.

The global shipping sector pores over the kind of data that the firm produces, but as a knowledge company the real value, explains Harley, is the accompanying in-depth commentary and analysis. Demand is rising for Drewry’s experience and expertise. It does not publish its revenue stats but says turnover went up 40 per cent last year.

To help it continue to grow, Harley and his team of five will be encouraging the firm to increase its use of LinkedIn. This is the medium of choice in shipping, far outstripping Twitter. “How do we really engage with our followers in smarter and more meaningful ways?” says Harley, highlighting one of his priority areas for the coming year. He is now working on a plan to help those most active on LinkedIn become ‘social media champions’ to the firm and encourage others to get involved. “As part of the effort, we’ll provide guidance and put a structure in place to ensure consistency in both action and behaviour,” he says.

And he will continue to work with sector heads to develop new services and tweaks on existing ones. But the addition of new data sets, for instance, and the growing use of satellite tracking to underpin and enhance its traditional information sources are not just about increasing sales. Such innovations are also important “to remain visible and relevant”.

Shipping analysts have great stories to tell. The global economy has been affected by the way widespread supply chain disruption and equipment shortages impacted container box prices during the coronavirus crisis. To put this into context, on the day of this interview (early March) Drewry’s composite box price index was 79 per cent higher than this time last year. And the Ukrainian conflict has darkened the broader outlook. “The crisis will likely have far-reaching geopolitical and macroeconomic impacts– beyond shipping,” says Harley.

It may be temporarily off the industry’s priority list, but he points to another challenge which looms large on the horizon: “Decarbonisation of the shipping industry will be a seismic change and is something we need to prepare for today”. Drewry will, no doubt, continue to invest in new data sets and service packages to inform critical decisions as industry stakeholders make the transition. Using this ability to fascinate clients and prospects, the fee-earners have found a compelling narrative which provides a framework for the firm’s marketing strategies. For their part, says Harley, the marketing team will continue to focus on “being as resourceful as we can be” in support of these front-line professionals.