Oral Histories

Kelly McGinnis

Interview Segments on Topic: Marketing/Advertising/Branding

Kelly McGinnis Biography

Kelly McGinnis is the senior vice president and chief communications officer for Levi Strauss & Co. She shapes the company’s corporate affairs strategy and managing stakeholder relations.

Previously, McGinnis served as the vice president of global communications at Dell, Inc. Before Dell, she was the general manager of Fleishman-Hilliard’s San Francisco office and led corporate communications for drugstore.com.


INTERVIEWER: Wow. Okay. What are the challenges and the opportunities that you face when you manage Dell’s reputation on a global scale?

MCGINNIS: I hear the emphasis on global, but let me give you a little context on where Dell is today. So, Dell has an incredibly strong heritage. We are defined by something very specific related to our business model, the direct model, the innovations that Michael brought to the supply chain and create really democratizing access to PCs. That’s our history, that’s not today. And industry caught up to us after many years of a lot of growth, and today we are an end-to-end IT solutions provider. We believe very strongly that it matters, that device that’s in your hand. But the connection to the data center, and being able to carry that all the way through is what’s going to define us for the future. There are a lot of aspects of what Dell is today that aren’t known, so we’re still building our credibility and the enterprise. We have more than 40,000 services employees who are really ‘on the ground consultants’, who are helping to build IT infrastructures on behalf of our clients and really creating that understanding—building our credibility and creating awareness for where the company is changing and transforming is the challenge that we face. For us, that started internally, as I think anyone would say it has to, we had a few fits in the start I will say, so we’ve been on this trajectory, where the company has been very clear about what the growth strategy is and where we think it’s going to take us in the future, for about 3 years. In parallel, with defining that growth strategy, we did a really hard internal look at our brand. We said, what does that brand mean and how can we use that and leverage it to carry us through this transformation that we’re trying to go through as a business? There were some surprises along the way. First and foremost, we thought that because we were in the consumer business, and we’re growing and are very big in the enterprise business, we were different things to IT decision makers than we were to consumers. We really quickly learned that IT decision makers are sending their kids to college. They’re reading the Sunday paper and they think of Dell in one way. They think about us in terms of practicality, access, really being able to rely on technology to help them achieve what their goals are. It’s not about the technology, it’s what they’re trying to achieve. And that was a big aha moment for the company and to really say, well we can align behind that. We’re one of the few technology companies that’s still run by our founder. Michael came back several years ago and from the very beginning he said, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the potential that we can unleash on behalf of our customers. Whether it’s individuals or organizations. When we looked at that in a fresh light, it was more true than ever for us, and has continued to be what really drives us, in terms of purpose, for helping organizations, and companies, and individuals achieve what they want to do with technology. And so for us, in terms of a challenge, first and foremost it’s getting an engagement with a workforce that started out you know, been there before. We’ve seen a lot of different changes. Getting that level of engagement, we’re really proud of the work we did. We saw the hardest groups were our managers. I guess we should have known, but when you see it in the stark numbers, that your managers are 20% off of everybody else in believing the company’s best days are ahead, it’s a really strong wakeup call. Three years later, we’re up to best in class, but when we saw those numbers early on, it was frightening. Since then, we’ve worked very, very hard to continue to define the company and to show the proof points of how everything we do each day—both for our employees, for our external stakeholders and for influencers—ladders up to what the company is going to be in the future as an end solutions provider. So, you know, 8-10 acquisitions every year for the last few years, trying to diversify the portfolio, really strong presence in the data center today, and continuing to push and define that and build that credibility.

INTERVIEWER: Okay, well having said all that, what about the global…is it difficult? Are there challenges to—keeping in mind everything that you’ve just talked about and all those experiences but, getting that…maintaining your reputation in that global…

MCGINNIS: Yeah, I think the global aspects of our business have actually been a huge opportunity for us, so a lot of the growth in our industry is happening in a merging market. It also means that we don’t have as much of the legacy that we’re changing. I talked a lot about what we’re doing in communications, is using the reputation to lay the groundwork for the transformation, operational transformation that’s happening at the company. In many markets, we are starting from a place with much less definition of what the company is about, and so we’re able to leapfrog to the place that is very real for us. So when I look at strength, we’re one of the number one brands in India in our space. The strength and the benefit of the doubt that we get as a brand in China. Those are reflections of the fact that we don’t have to redefine what expectations are, but the people are open to their experience with the brand today. I think the other piece is that Dell has embraced social media from the very beginning, and really been open to the transparency that it pushed forward. So there are lots of war stories to share of how we got there. We were one of the first companies to launch what we called IdeaStorm, which was really crowdsourcing, an invitation for our customers and other folks to say what they would like to see in our products. What are their experiences with the brand, and what would their suggestions be? Today, the backlit keyboards that you get in a notebook are a result of some of those things. There are lots of examples that we have of how embracing what’s available with that transparency, on a global basis, has made a big difference for us.

INTERVIEWER: Talking again about the counseling role, what’s the status of it in the corporate world today? Do you think it’s growing in importance or diminishing? Was there a difference in that role, the counseling role, between when you managed the agency teams versus when you became the Vice President of Global Communications for Dell? What are the differences that you saw?

MCGINNIS: I think for us, we’re at a stage in the company’s development where the need for strategic counsel on communications and reputation issues are more important than ever. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been important in the past, but for us to successfully navigate both a brand and reputation transformation, to become defined as something different than we are so widely known, we’re relied on in a way, and there’s an extra level of expectation that is incredibly important to the company today. What that translates to in terms of expectations for us, is to really understand the business, to be very, very close to the data in terms of our sentiments—and to be able to share that, to translate that into what our choices are at different junctures in terms of key issues. So what is the appropriate role for our key executives? How many messages can we effectively deliver in the market to actually build the credibility? How quickly do we migrate through the evolution of our story and doing that in really close partnership with the IR team, with the HR team, and really have an alliance around the folks who are helping to manage all of the stakeholders.

INTERVIEWER: I’m going to ask something about you personally.


INTERVIEWER: What’s the biggest challenge that you face during your career?

MCGINNIS: In my job today, the biggest challenge that I face or the one that’s evolving and on the horizon is, demonstrating a tighter relationship between communications as an effective marketing tool and being able to show that in very measurable results. I think we’re well beyond the place where people understand how important reputation is, and how we’re actively managing the reputation and reinforcing the overall corporate intent, and where we’re going from a growth strategy. I think the next level is…we’re in a place now where the tunnel doesn’t matter—I said that in a conference today or it just isn’t relevant. People are much more distributed in how they make choices of where they turn to for information. Communications has such a valuable contribution in that ecosystem, but being able to demonstrate that and have the skills to be able to demonstrate that in terms of an immediate ROI and explain how we play within that ecosystem. That’s a hard question to answer and I know a lot of people are trying to answer it and certainly in an organization like ours, that’s heavily data driven, it’s top of mind. We’re getting there, but it’s one of those areas that for me personally is super challenging. Like you know it’s the right answer, can I tell you exactly how I’m going to get there? Not yet, for sure.