Digital (or technology) is not for me. Full stop!

Jane Peacock, Chief Digital Fear Slayer

 March 2016

This was me not too long ago, and in conversations with business leaders, it appears I am not the only one. This has prompted me to share my story. Be warned; it may mention stuff like soft skills, superpowers and taking on a monster!

The story first came up when I was invited to facilitate a workshop for 140 students to help them to understand the importance of 21st-century skills.

And this is where superpowers enter the story. I see these skills or ‘soft skills’ as superpowers. They are the skills that we undervalue in ourselves, but others deem valuable as they are game-changers. Superman’s powers only became valuable when he arrived on earth — the earth activated them. Much like these soft skills when they are present in a space where they were previously lacking — they become highly valuable as a catalyst for change. They possess a power all their own.

And perhaps we owe the digital age and the rate of technological change in the 4th industrial age for this change in value? As soft skills were always there just not as highly valued. And perhaps this is a hint to the non-digital amongst us that these skills are in fact what is required and not ITC skills when it comes to digital. For the sake of this story, please consider digital as the space where people experience technology. Digital is the human experience and not the technology.

Workshop with St Edmonds College

Feb, 2019 

So this is my story about my journey from visual artist to digital evangelist & technologist. From ‘I am not digital’ to ‘digital is the great equaliser’. I hope this serves as an inspiration to get you to look at digital differently. To see a place for it in your life, your teams and your businesses. To inspire you to join the conversation around how digital holds the key to solving some of the worlds most significant problems.

Need more inspiration?

“Digital is the great equaliser” Oak Felder

I grew up loving art and making stuff. The feeling of presenting someone with something (a drawing, a piece of jewellery, a garment) that would shift the way they felt about themselves and perhaps make them strut a little.

And my tools?

Fabric, glue, scissors, paper, clay and my hands.

It didn’t include words as I had learnt early on to associate shame with anything to do with written communication. Perhaps that was due to me being a sensitive and creative soul, but I had been shamed too many times to mention for my bad grammar and lack of great spelling. I struggled with words and made mistakes easily, so I moved away from writing and towards the creative arts. Technology has been a game changer in many ways for me and Grammarly is just one!

You will also note the absence of technology. Tech didn’t enter my life in a really fun way until much much later on.

Super powers in 1990

Graphics by Partners in Digital

I can recall my first experience of using technology and doing some strange coding ‘thing’ on an ancient computer that used floppy discs that never worked. It left me feeling frustrated and uninspired. I would go so far as to say, I hated technology and saw it as the enemy of all things human. It caused me endless frustration, and so I moved away from technology and towards art.

So when it came time to go to uni, it seemed natural to choose visual arts. To learn the art of creating things that people love. The only problem was that it wasn’t about that at all. It was more about becoming a visual artist who would offer some critical commentary on the world. To enable us to make a political statement and for a young person, I felt I didn’t qualify.

I just wanted to make beautiful stuff that impacts positively on people. So I left in frustration, moving on to enrol in international business. From visual arts to international business — such a strange about-face right?

Not for me. I simply went back to what I loved. To try and dig into what I really wanted to do. I had loved Asian Studies at school, so maybe that would be a good option?

So International business led to studying Korean. Why Korean? I connected with the lecturer and loved the passion he shared about his country. A country I had no sense or understanding about at all. The fact that he was also really funny helped. And so it was natural for me to sign up. To learn more about a country I knew nothing about.

Korea is where the first big shift happened for me and where I really started to build on my superpowers.

I landed in a country I knew very little about. I wanted to belong, and so I planned to speak Korean better than anyone else. I needed to be able to connect on a real level. Speaking just a little was a barrier to that. Being able to say “Hello, my name is Jane” and “Can I have a glass of beer” (the first two obligatory phrases in any language) didn’t enable me to learn anything deeper about the people I was speaking to.

So I spent a year immersing myself obsessively whist studying at university in Seoul.

As I learnt more, I realised that language enabled me to step behind the velvet curtain. To really connect with a people I genuinely felt at home with. Koreans have a saying which translates to ‘my heart entered’. And that it did. I felt at home and being an ‘alien’ in another country gave me the ultimate freedom to learn and grow. To no longer be hemmed in by some perceived lack.

So to enable myself to stay in this country I now called home, I parked myself at Austrade and wouldn’t leave. I had no job and was surfing from one couch to the next before Air BNB was an option, trading my language lessons in return for accommodation.

It was a very lonely time for me and my only connection to home was via expensive phone calls or written letters. For someone who didn’t feel comfortable at all with the written word that meant a call home once a month. I even went so far as to purchase a polaroid camera to enable to me to share images of my experience. But that too was very expensive.

I can still remember my excitement when hotmail was launched. It was my first introduction to technology as a connector and started my love affair with technology. It blew my mind and I recall explaining email to a friend as ‘like a fax, only immediate and guaranteed to arrive and you non longer need polaroids as you can send pictures!’. It was free and simple to use and enabled me to feel less lonely — I just needed everyone else to jump on board.

After 6 months, Austrade connected me to a job opportunity — and if I am truly honest, it was a way to get me out of their office. But for me, it was where the next major shift happened as it provided a gateway to a job that would change my career trajectory.

I was offered a job at an ad agency long before I knew that people really see advertising as the ‘cool’ job to have. It was a partnership between 3 big names — Hyundai, Saatchi Saatchi and Bates. The director needed a cultural translator — someone who could be the connector to a people he didn’t understand. I knew and understood the people as my language skills enabled me to make a true and deep connection. This was fundamental to our business of advertising and so I became his lifeline.

Advertising is the perfect blend of strategy and creativity and its all about enabling a connection. When advertising and marketing are done well, that is what it aims to achieve. Remove the word digital and consider its role as enabling a greater connection based on value and that is the job of brand. Digital is just a way to make that connection deeper and more real because we can now know our customers better than ever before. Rather than observing from a distance, sitting outside the house so to speak, we are in the same room and having real conversations and in real time.

I worked my way up to account director and spent three years in new business development for the agency. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was a golden opportunity. As a fluent Korean speaking young women, I was often invited to sit at the table of some important meetings. The partner of Saatchi Saatchi New York came to visit the agency, and I was at the table with every discussion they had. A fly on the wall. I was learning from the best in the business.

Oh and I was also invited to play tennis against (and won) the national softball team. I may have also been invited to dinner with the Minister of Finance and offered a role on a famous sit-com at the time. But those are experiences are not part of this story. For another time perhaps.

Returning home, I landed a job in Sydney working for Australia’s best ad agency at the time and this is where my monster enters the story.

I was a square peg in a round hole. I had lived within a role that enabled me to spread my wings and learn for over 3 years in Seoul from the greatest minds in advertising around the world. I had been in a position to contribute to big conversations and to drive the strategy of some great global brands at a very young age.

In Australia, as a 25-year-old, I was expected to sit and keep quiet. To do the admin and not speak up. To leave the important conversations to the people behind the glass wall. I was impatient and I wanted to have am impact. To really contribute to the greater purpose and I couldn’t see how admin was going to enable that.

And my boss at the time was firmly planted behind the glass wall and he wanted it kept that way. He was known to make someone cry every week at our marketing WIP (work in progress) meetings. In fact, he made a sport of it. He was larger than life and had a loud booming voice. The result? Many people shook in fear when he entered the room. He often used the label Aspergers as an excuse for this behaviour “I am quirky and take a creative approach and some people just don’t like it”, he would say.

The fact I had had a huge amount of independence and my boss being who he was, led to a lose-lose for both the agency and myself. It all came to a head within a year of landing this role that my colleagues had all expressed envy over. One expressed she had ‘dreamed of the role at {agency X} since she was in school’.

I was working on a global brand, and I knew from my time in Seoul that the brand positioning in Australia was wrong. The American context didn’t work in Australia — American cowboy didn’t translate to irreverence. It translated to naff and perhaps a little embarrassing for the target market of early 20 somethings.

So I posed this question to the young account director on the client side by offering an alternative. I simple asked ‘what if’ we considered the cultural nuances of Australia and shifted the brand positioning to …..’. I shared my vision for the brand positioning, scribbled on paper one night over a beer.

He took the scribbled piece of paper to his boss. It turned out that the client was also not happy with the positioning and had been looking for clarity on what that issue was. Within days I was asked by the client to present my ideas to the CEO in person.

This was very bad indeed and in hindsight a really stupid career move on my part. I had let my impatience get the better of me … and if I am honest, I still do. Sharing your ideas with the client was absolutely against the rules of the game — I had stepped well outside my box. Those ideas were strictly meant to come from the senior people at the agency and not some silly little junior.

Well, news came back to the group account director at the agency — my boss. With his loud and booming voice, he called me into his office. The floor went silent as my colleagues counted down the seconds until I came out of the office crying — this was a common occurrence at the time. He loomed large over me as I sat in my chair in front of his desk. His big and bulky frame made me feel physically sick. He gave me two very clear options — present my ideas to the client as requested by the CEO or quit immediately. He preferred the later but couldn’t force me to quit.

I took the option to present my ideas to the client and the advertising agency — 50 people in total. Now consider I was on the lowest rung possible on either client or agency side. It was unprecedented for a client to make such a request and I felt the weight of the responsibility. I was incredibly nervous as I had never presented to such an audience before. And the message from the agency team was very clear — I was on my own. I was ostracised and enemy number 1!

I presented my ideas and was made a fool of publicly and shamed as I stuttered and stammered through the presentation. It was a complete and utter mess. I crashed and burned. I felt naked on stage, and the agency offered no support. I had stepped well out of line, and they were very keen to make an example of me to save face.

After the presentation, I was presented with very little option but to find a new career as the advertising industry in Australia was and is a very small place. Very, very small!

And this is where digital steps into my life.

To find a new career, I went back to the drawing board. I recalled a presentation the previous month by a futurist who had come to the agency to talk about the growing role of digital. It was the late 90s, and the internet was starting to have an impact. The futurist presented this wave of change that was going to hit the marketing and advertising industry. It was going to create transparency and accountability and so a lot of senior executives swam for the beach.

I saw something different — freedom from control. All the senior execs were gone and there were very few of us left failing in the water. But rather than feeling fear, I saw my opportunity to learn without constraints. To start again and perhaps to join the interesting conversations once more.

And so I started volunteering for digital projects in order to start learning how to paddle with the wave. Now, that was in the late 90s, and so it was back when digital was new to businesses, and thus they were pretty risk-averse. They needed to understand what presented a complex and challenging shift for business. And so I reached back into my advertising tool kit and pitched it from the perspective of ‘whats in it for me’ (WIIFM).

And so my ability to communicate with influence was activated. I needed to show the ability of digital to solve big problems both personally and for the broader business. Digital created a place for me to be the connector, the enabler, the translator and the value creator — all in one role.

And as I shared this with the 140 students in the room – I could see all of my superpowers coming together — even the ones that had been a cause for friction in my life. I asked them to consider, what if they (and you) could collect these abilities over time to create a really unique offering that only you can provide. What if that is actually what the future of work looks like?

Even now as a digital strategist, surrounded by a hugely competitive market, I know that only I have this unique collection of skills. This enables me to collaborate freely with other digital specialists. I bring my unique superpower to the table and that table has resulted in some pretty amazing conversations with global thought in the emerging technology space.

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