Feb 12, 2019

The event’s origin and purpose according to Julia Phelps, EVP of Communications, Culture and Marketing at Viacom.

In the Soundbites series, Viacom employees describe a project or experience that has influenced how they approach their work.

The idea that it was time to reinvent the traditional town hall format came to Julia Phelps while she was on maternity leave, watching one via livestream.

She realized that many of Viacom’s global employees were experiencing the company in a similarly detached way—with no ability to truly interact or engage. To change that, she and her team developed Spark—a multi-day conference and brainstorm for Viacom’s international division in 2016.

“We wanted to create an event that had universal themes and takeaways, but at the same time was executed locally, so people really got to participate in understanding our strategy and our vision, and what their role was,” says Phelps, Viacom’s EVP of Communications, Culture, and Marketing.

It’s a challenge and ambition that likely sounds familiar to executives at global companies of all sizes. According to McKinsey, multinational organizations tend to be less effective at establishing a shared vision and engaging employees compared to their locally-focused counterparts. For Viacom, which has been in the midst of a business turnaround that started with the elevation of Bob Bakish to CEO two years ago, creating a reinvigorated company culture to match its strategic pivot has been a consistent endeavor. Thus the idea to create another Spark event on a larger, company-wide scale.

Starting Tuesday, Spark—which Phelps calls a “multi-market, next-generation town hall”— will expand across 40 markets and 24 countries for all of the company's 11,000+ employees, with six global core videos and hundreds of speaker events, workshops, panels, and interactive experiences happening on a local level.

Here, Phelps shares how the event went from idea to execution and what she hopes it will accomplish.

On getting the initial green light to launch Spark at International:

When we pitched the idea to Bob, who is a big fan of pilot-to-scale, his feedback was, “it's too big. Start with one market and then refine it.” We made the case pretty hard that if we were going to put in all this work on the core themes, the videotapes, and formulating what we wanted everyone to get out at Spark, that it actually was worth doing a global pilot. We thought we'd get credit, even if it didn't fully work out, for trying something new and trying something different. [Bob] let us run with it. It was nerve-racking and hard and a ton of work, but the team pulled it off.

With this version, we’re watching our teams around the world take this on and develop it and make it theirs. It’s an important step for us in continuing to transform our culture in a way that really has people participating and shaping it.

Julia Phelps, EVP Communications, Culture and Marketing at Viacom. Julia Phelps, EVP Communications, Culture and Marketing at Viacom.

"“This company is so creative, innovative, fun, and it was really important that we try to bring it to life.”"

What excites her about this year’s Spark:

We have such a mix of events. We have panels that allow employees to really understand our businesses, which mostly comes to life through our division presidents and their teams and talent, but it's mixed with external speakers. We have Spike Lee, we have Elaine Welteroth, we have Jerry Saltz—and that's just New York.

What I personally get really excited about are two things: one, the workshops, which we found the first time we did this were the most popular. People from different functions, teams, and divisions can come together to solve problems that they wouldn't get to solve on a regular day at the office. Secondly, the sessions that are being developed in our other markets around the world outside of New York. In Hungary, you can try out to be the voice of Cartman.

On a personal level, we have just rolled out so much new stuff with [Viacom’s new] mission, vision, and values—I’m excited to see that come to life and allow myself to get more deeply ingrained in what it means to be brave, honest, and empathetic every day at work.

On the primary purpose of Spark:

One of my goals is having people outside a given market see the amazing work happening around the world, as a big part of further integrating our company into one Viacom. I want people to realize the sheer scale and scope of the incredible work that’s done around this company and the talent and the leadership and the employees we have. Most people don’t get to see that every day.

This company is so creative, innovative, fun, and it was really important that we try to bring it to life in a way that reminds people of what makes Viacom unique.

Why working on Spark is a career highlight:

It's a culmination of a lot of things that we've been working on. We've been trying to communicate our vision, strategy, mission, and values for two years now in varying forms. We’ve also been working on the integration of the company and continuing to break down silos to make sure people know what's happening in different parts of the business and really feel invested in it. Spark, I believe, is hopefully going to bring that to life.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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