At its simplest, an organisation’s Annual Report has three main goals: 1) detailing its financial performance and operational activities for that year; 2) Meeting regulatory requirements, and 3) Communicating with all key stakeholders, investors and potential investors on performance. So far so simple, but what does it take to create an annual report that is consistently considered best in class?
Zahra has worked with the ESB to produce its annual report for the past 11 years, and in each of those years, the report has struck Gold at the Chartered Accountants Leinster Society Published Accounts Awards. In fact this year it struck triple gold for winning awards for Best Annual Report in the ‘Statutory Large Unquoted Entity’ category, Best CSR/Sustainability Report (Non-Listed) and the top prize – Overall Winner of the Published Accounts Awards.
So exactly what does it take to create an award-winning annual report? Managing Director of Zahra, Gina Miltiadou caught up with William Young, Senior Finance Manager (and team lead on the Annual Report for the past four years) to find out.
Q. Firstly congratulations on your phenomenal win. Not to jinx this, but eleven years in a row is no easy task! What do you think is the single most important key to the report’s success each year?
A. “For me planning is the most important part of creating an award-winning annual report. This includes having a vision for your report, reviewing and challenging content to ensure it remains fresh, relevant and in line with best practice, working out what is going to set your report apart from others, getting feedback on what works well and keeping that, and developing a project plan with key dates and responsibilities, that you stick to!”
Q. What role does communication play?
A. “Communication of the project plan to all key contributors is very important and this communication needs to be constant throughout the process. The old adage of ‘less is more’ is an important consideration too, so it is important to encourage all contributors to be succinct. As you are trying to make contributions from different people and areas appear as if they were written by one person, early engagement with them is key. As our Annual Report has to ultimately be approved by our main shareholder i.e. The Government, constant communication with them on our timelines and progress is also really important, and thankfully we have a really good relationship with them”
Q. Do you have any tips from a design perspective?
A. “Interaction with your design agency (in this case Zahra) needs to happen at the onset of the process, to ensure 1) clarity of the theme and 2) to ensure that the theme of the report runs through both the written word and the imagery. And it is really important that we give Zahra an overview of what we want to achieve and what ESB has done during the year. Zahra really takes the time to understand where the business is at – both in terms of the wins and challenges in the last year – and then they start with a completely blank canvas. It always amazes us that they manage to come back to us each year with completely original and fresh ideas. It is important to try to push yourself to try and do something different to differentiate your reports from others, and Zahra have been really strong in this regard.”
Q. Do you have any practical advice in terms of the process?
A. “Yes, I’d have three main tips: 1) In terms of writing the report, given the tight timelines, the imagery and some of the written content (such as governance, strategy, risk and sustainability sections should be finalised earlier in the process than the numbers, so as to allow sufficient time for review and to ensure no errors. In fact, producing the report in sections prevents the whole team (on our side and at Zahra) from becoming overwhelmed. 2) Keeping a detailed backup to support all facts is key and aids quality review. 3) Also be realistic about the volume of changes that will be required. This is a highly detailed document where 100% accuracy is paramount – so make sure you allow for this in the timelines.”
Q. The judges of the awards this year had high praise for the ESB Annual Report. What stood out for them?
A. “They really liked the Q&A format, the At the Glance section, KPIs and our review of risks (including heat maps) and graphics that they felt all worked together to assist the reader. They commented that the report was ‘up there with listed companies – going above and beyond what was required in terms of reporting’ which we were pretty pleased about.”
Q. So what happens now? Eleven wins in a row is tough to beat!
A. “Winning is great of course, but it isn’t everything. What’s more important is that we continue to publish an annual report that supports our strategic objectives and satisfies the needs of all of our stakeholders in a way that is best in class. And if we win another award for that, then that’s okay too!”