In which every work project teaches you something

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)?”

Calvin Klein - Every Mother Counts

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”). 

the creative process

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).

Advertising elephant in the room

Here’s another thought:

There’s a psychological revolution going on too, allowing us to understand better than ever before why humans behave the way they behave, why they decide what they decide, why they think like they think.

The implications of the research done by psychologists and economists like Daniel Kahneman,Dan Ariely,Richard Thaler or Robert Cialdini are huge, especially on our industry whose right to exist and business model depend on understanding people and their motivations better than anybody else. And yet, only very few agencies and clients systematically turn “human understanding into a business advantage,” as Rory Sutherland put it.

And nobody  NOBODY!  has created the position of a Chief Behavior Officer who constantly scans the latest psychological research to improve marketing effectiveness.

What explains this lack of interest?

Could it be that advertising is still considered an art instead of a science?

The case for a Chief Behavior Officer - Dominik Imseng

Could it be that advertising has a lot of egos?

I agree with Dominik too, although I have qualms about the idea of Chief Anything Officer. It seems stupid to go through that cycle of “we need a leader!”, hire someone for that role specifically, then few years down the line wonder why we need one person when in fact what we need is a skill that should be inbuilt and come with all new employees!

But if that’s the only way to make change happen in places otherwise reluctant to it, oh, alright then. Fine.

Making progress in the world of MOOCs

Using MOOCs and working with people who are interested in creating them has led me to some really wonderful experiences and thoughts lately.

I wrote about Udacity before and covered their statistics course. It was an interesting way into the world of MOOCs at a time when I was working with some people interested in the area and also great fodder for conversation and way of furthering knowledge.

Now I’m on my 2nd and 3rd courses, one over at EdX and one over at FutureLearn and I know that if I don’t write things down and refine what I’ve already said, I’ll forget them. Having tried some very different platforms, areas of expertise and teaching methods there’s definitely more to say. Anyway, questions and other things always welcome via email (andreanastase on gmail).

Broadly speaking, comments and builds come in three big categories:

  1. Technology
  2. Content
  3. “Face to camera” or teacher experience
  4. (Bonus) subjective point of view on the whole thing

On technology:

Don’t reinvent the wheel. EdX is clearly a sophisticated platform with an intelligent back-end and pretty pleasant and simple, but not simplistic front-end but it fails miserably on forums and discussions.

How does it fail?
Every MOOC will have a massive number of registrations. This one I’m doing has about 30,000. This is pretty standard because it’s free to register, but only about 200-300 people finish. From experience and research, the completion rate varies wildly depending on what you’re studying, who is offering the course and your stated intentions before course start. 

If 30,000 people sign up and experience peak excitement on Day 1, the discussion area had better be good. It’s not.

  • It has a nice WYSIWYG editor and it borrows ‘feed’ type chronological display – social media standard but opposite of email threads, for instance. I really wonder how that’s working out for people, but then again I don’t know how old others are.
  • It borrows the “upvoting” mechanic but it completely misses the reporting or downvoting one. Reddit and YouTube have them, why kid people that there are only good posts out there?
  • A lot of people either can’t or won’t change their display name – Anon0121, hello. We want you to chip in to this discussion, but don’t really care who you are.
  • Instead of borrowing some tried and tested technology, it’s created a new one. There’s still work to be done. I’m not saying it’s the answer, but back in 2005-2006 there was phpBB, a pretty popular forum technology that must have powered a whole load of conversations. phpBB (for bulletin board) was to forums what wordpress is now to blogs. Easy to install and ubiquitous. It had good things in it, good practices to learn from and it handled shitloads of people really well (categories, user groups, good admin tools, etc.). This doesn’t. 

A very, very good point is that all the videos have transcripts that you can follow through on-screen. Another very good touch is that you can slow down videos to 0.5 speed. It’s amazing how many English speakers can’t follow the lecturer’s speaking voice – and this is a man with perfect diction – but it also allows anyone who is not a native speaker to pause, rewind, do it all in his or her own time.

Another downside is that you have no ‘live editing’ tools. You’re given passages to read and memorise but it’s up to you to paste them into word editors, highlight stuff, go back to things. A ‘clipping tool’ built in would be nice but it may also be extra work if people have their own annotation preferences. Surprisingly though, most seem to use ye olde notepad and pen.


It’s hard to fault the content without being subjective about why I chose the course and what is being studied. It’s a topic tangential to something I’ve done in the past (combination of politics, philosophy, etc.) but taught with a very different lens. It’s good difficult because that lens is different – not incorrect, just different.

What *is* missing is a bit more of a narrative around why this course, what the journey we’re going to go on will be about and so on but this is early days and I’m nitpicking.

On “face to camera” experience

The teachers are great (as I mentioned diction earlier), but they’re recorded in a small lecture theatre that’s almost set up as a talk show studio – whilst standing. It may be indicative of the ‘standard’ college lecture in the States, but to me it’s new and different (coming from big amphitheatre style lecture halls) and it feels like you could innovate with decor a bit more. Is it better to sit than to stand? To have the illusion of activity in the background or to impose an air of sobriety by paring it down? Don’t quite know.

Intertwined with the technology point, we’re not yet in the realm of a curricula customised to you, your needs, your deficiencies and the teacher addressing you individually but who knows. One day I might live to see that happen.

And the bonus bit…

I’m not quite sure what to say other than this is massively enjoyable. I think MOOCs are my equivalent of TV series but depending on motivations and patience levels people will interpret it differently. For instance, I mentioned a while back that research points to how boys and girls learn:

“Girls handle [elite schools] differently than boys. Girls tend to thrive in these environments, across the board, and the more elite the school, the better they do. Not necessarily so for boys.

Girls thrive [...] in the best schools and around the smartest peers possible; boys [thrive] in schools with the brightest teachers, not hypercompetitive environments. Being a small fish in a big pond is particularly bad for boys.”


Why are men so foolish? –