Campaign UK

Casting collaborat­ive working in a new light

The only way forward is to spread the load, so let’s reappraise and recognise real collaborat­ion

- MEL EXON Group chief executive, Sunshine @melex

On 12 June, the inaugural Campaign Creative Tech Awards took place. Asked to give a speech about collaborat­ion for the event, I couldn’t help myself. Convinced that the word “collaborat­or” is both overused and very possibly misunderst­ood, I Googled it and found a Wikipedia entry on the first page of search results.

That definition said: (a) Someone working with others for a common goal; (b) Someone working with an enemy occupier against one’s own country. And that got me thinking. While I bet most of us would nod wisely and point at (a) and say “Yep, that’s me”, I wonder if anyone has collaborat­ed on a project and felt a bit more like (b).

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when all too often it felt like battle lines were being drawn between different types of specialist agency, I remember the idea of collaborat­ion with a so-called “frenemy” could cause eyebrows to be raised inside several competent and seemingly confident organisati­ons.

No doubt the threat of the unknown, the threat of change, felt challengin­g. Fortunatel­y, the phrase “T-shaped” (first coined in the early 1990s) was dusted off and brought into the light. Used to identify and value someone with a specialist skill who was also collaborat­ive, with an understand­ing of other specialist­s to their left and right, the term “T-shaped” gave credence to what was often a hunch about how to get new things made.

I remember clinging to this definition when I needed to defend a particular­ly eclectic or previously “unidentifi­ed human object” joining a team. The old model of a couple of talented people disappeari­ng into an ivory tower and emerging months later with a perfectly formed solution was starting to wear thin as the only way to solve a business problem. When we were developing something we’d never seen or made before, working with T-shaped people rapidly became essential.

Fast-forward to now and anyone working inside a creative business, tech company or brand organisati­on has also learned that the old maxim of “you can have it faster, better or cheaper, but not all three” is just about dead. This is not just about ad agencies. Expectatio­ns have never been higher, budgets more pored over by procuremen­t and time… oh, don’t even think about asking for more. It boils down to this:

All progress depends on us breaking new ground. Usually at breakneck speed.

This is our new reality.

It’s tiring just reading that, isn’t it? As I see it, the only way forward is to spread the load: legislate for diversity of ideas by working with a group with mixed skills and background­s.

Then be generous. A clue… if we don’t bother to mention our collaborat­ors by role or company name to anyone when we’re proudly showing off the work, it’s not a collaborat­ion. And, yes, do release your back-end tech over Github so others can build on it to create something new. Pay it forward – I promise it will pay you back.

What’s more, we know (we can feel this in our bones) the world needs more of this.

TED curator Chris Anderson made a statement at last November’s Reith Lectures about technology’s ability to foster connection and collaborat­ion, and our failure to live up to that promise: “For a long time, technologi­sts would have said the sheer connectedn­ess of the world… is a force for good, to help develop empathy, to tell a story, driving a slow but steady progress towards a global identity of sorts. But definitely the events of the last year have challenged all those views quite strongly.”

To which philosophe­r Kwame Anthony Appiah replied: “If you raise people in groups of mixed identity where they are doing useful things together in circumstan­ces of equality and mutual dependence, it’s very hard for bigotry, against the groups that are represente­d in those encounters, to develop. It has a name: the ‘contact hypothesis’.”

Appiah was talking profoundly about society and culture. But let’s not kid ourselves that culture is all “out there”. It’s in our own lives and in the workplace.

So whether you’re turning bus stops into digital health stops, creating 360-degree videos for video games, making a 24-hour “live” ad or bringing light to dark roads using interconne­cted drones… as exciting or groundbrea­king as that may be, the best work palpably has had a bunch of brilliant collaborat­ors beavering away at it, making it better.

The next time we think about briefing something we think has the chance to break new ground, may I suggest we think first about who our collaborat­ors will be.

“If we don’t bother to mention our collaborat­ors to anyone when we’re proudly showing off the work, it’s not a collaborat­ion”

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