After a decade of working in brands, four years ago I joined Girl Effect, my first venture into international development.
Girl Effect, started by the Nike Foundation and now an independent organisation, was founded with the pioneering vision of bringing technical gender and development experts together with brand, creative and innovation specialists. This fusion of skills would spark new ways to solve one of the world’s most complex problems – gender inequality.
It soon became clear this wouldn't be a seamless merger. We came from different worlds, with different expertise and value systems. We spoke different languages. Initially, we didn't understand each other.
The brand world is bred to be obsessed with new things. Whole teams are dedicated to horizon scanning, to be the first to discover and use new technologies. Every day is a never-ending arms race to do the biggest, smallest, cheapest, most expensive and most spectacular things to get consumers to buy new products, or to love the brand a little bit more.
In my new role, my frenzied, catnip-like addiction to new technologies flummoxed some of my colleagues.
In development, a new idea can have a life changing impact on a person’s life – sometimes for the worse, which is why caution and sticking with existing techniques often reign supreme. If we can't be sure of the outcome, we don’t do it.
At first, our different communication styles made our lives more difficult. Development experts were left wondering who these optimistic technophiles were with their stylised keynotes. Meanwhile, the brand teams struggled to understand why they were reading another 300-paged report written in Times New Roman.
It was, at first, a painful fusion. But it made us all the better.
Once we understood each other’s worlds, we began to create better ideas. They were brought to life using the most efficient techniques and technologies but founded in forensic rigour, ensuring a powerful impact at a greater scale and speed than ever before.
The two disciplines learnt not only to appreciate each other, but to merge into a single culture, universally obsessed with both rigour and innovation. We have a new working philosophy that we call "Paranoid Optimism": we are paranoid in seeking out the risks, but we are equally optimistic in our creative abilities, allowing us to design new ideas that safely break new ground.
This fusion of two worlds has shown what a powerful contribution brand and innovation experts can make in catalysing progress towards solving some of the world’s most complex problems.
My biggest concern about transitioning into development was losing the opportunity to innovate and stay at the forefront of technology. I assumed I would regress to working with analogue approaches of clipboards, leaflets and speaking to people on landlines.
Yes, there are limitations. I spend a lot of my working day shouting "can you hear me?" to people in far away corners of the world. But generally, I’ve discovered the opposite is true.
In fact, apart from shouting at people over dodgy phone connections, my days now are strikingly similar to my days in the brand world.
Today for example there are no doubt countless meetings happening in agencies to brainstorm ways to harness the power of technologies such as AI and VR to increase consumer understanding or engagement. Here at Girl Effect, we are having similar conversations.
We are also looking at how AI can be used to analyse and translate our research data faster, creating a chat bot, and asking ourselves how Blockchain can help to increase transparency in our global operation.
The opportunity for innovation is endless. And more importantly, imperative.
So, if you’re reading this eager to help, you can make a difference. Put your hand up to work on the pro bono brief, or design a new agency framework that insists ideas that are good for business are always good for the world too.
Or take it even further. Last year at Cannes, Ban Ki Moon, the former head of the United Nations, called on the brand world to support the Sustainable Development Goals.
He, and we, would love to hear your ideas. But take it from my first-hand experience, a stylised keynote probably won’t cut it.