I’m quite close to finishing a rather long project I’ve been involved with. It’s largely to do with women’s health, but closely linked to conversations about fertility and protecting girls and women from cancer.
The learning curve has been massive; I’ve been thinking about all the things I learnt in the space of three weeks by reading client material, conversations and digging around on the internet: the conversations girls and mums should be having, how single dads feel about approaching these issues, how ‘coming out’ or virginity stories are fraught with emotions (and ‘First Time‘ by Kate Monro is a great book by the way), the health policies my generation narrowly missed out on and medical advances in health and vaccines that weren’t around when I was 12-13.
Most importantly — it’s crazy how ignorant women are when it comes to their own health, especially the super important stuff, not the quinoa, acai berries and diets - and how we rarely ask of ourselves, “what can I do to help myself as a woman of 18 (or 25 or 32 or whatever)?”
It’s moments like these I’m happy projects like these come through the door; they take me into a world of insane granularity and detail that I’d never achieve if left to my own devices. I think of it as a privilege not to be taken lightly.
In my mind now, there are three types of projects you can learn things from (if you keep a sufficiently open mind):
First, the project or client whose industry or area of expertise you are very familiar with. You’re hired because you know it so well, but the downside might be that you lose the ability of seeing things objectively, the previous “outsider” perspective, naive to the tacit knowledge going around – sometimes the thing that could make the world of a difference. The worst thing you can do is assume you know everything and/or dismiss other people’s thoughts and be impatient with them. On one hand, it takes effort to remove yourself when you’re not adding anything new and on the other hand it takes effort to squeeze something new when you don’t think you can (or as they say, “a professional is the person who does the work even when he/she doesn’t feel like it”).
Secondly, there are projects where you’re familiar with the nature of the problem but not much so with the area they operate in. There’s a period of intense learning about a new market, business model, product or service etc. and drawing parallels with what you already know. They’re often the best projects because you can bring in knowledge that is ‘new news’ to the client and can result in pretty amazing stuff – those “I never thought to look at it in that way” moments. I have yet to find one that disproves the rule of thumb: you will have a gut feeling in the first week, and a person (or group) very close to the heart of the problem will provide the big ‘aha’ moment. I often wonder if Honda was like that.
Thirdly, there are projects where you’re out of your depth in terms of both subject area and challenge at hand, but the people trust you because you’ve delivered brilliantly for others in the past. The adjustment time takes a lot, and often others maybe have already had a go at cracking the problem, usually unsuccessfully. It’s interesting but also painful to learn about to the point where your brain hurts with so much information. I’ve had this happen with some work on tyres and luxury services I’ll probably never have first hand experience of, but the best teacher is what I call the “despair” moment. The “I have tried everything, from leaving my desk to indian head massages and/or acid”. You end up so frustrated, you’ll talk to just about anyone about the problem – and unless they’re weird about having their brains picked for free by someone who is in advertising, the most unconnected people are the ones helping you frame the question in a different way.
It’s something I’ve wanted to convey since the last two APG events but haven’t been able to – names will not be named, but so many other people my age thought that they’d explored so many avenues when they only got so far. It’s a shame not to stretch yourself a bit more, so here’s hoping this is useful to someone in that respect (as for me, it’s a kind of mental bookmark for the future).