I’ve spent twenty years of my career so far in and around the communications and digital world.
After university, I joined the graduate scheme at MORI (now Ipsos-MORI), and learned the ropes of quantitative and qualitative market research. They were exciting times at the tail end of the dotcom boom, and I got to work on customer surveys and statistical analysis for logistics firms, run usability testing sessions for airlines and government departments, build online surveys for banks and travel across the UK running focus groups on e-government services like interactive TV and web portals. It was a brilliant first job: I became a confident presenter of data and ideas, learned the agency model of costing proposals and handling clients, and the thrill of winning new business.
I moved into commissioning research at the Central Office of Information, a very unusual bit of the civil service, full of ex-agency people acting as intermediaries between government clients and the marketing world. I learned about writing briefs, how big advertising campaigns are planned, bought and evaluated, and worked on issues including smoking cessation, consumer rights and Directgov, the precursor to GOV.UK.
After a while, I moved within the organisation into strategic communications planning. Like a mini management consultancy, our job was to help scope, shape and deliver quite open-ended objectives, like incorporating health and wellbeing into the Investors in People management standards, or identifying good practice in running outreach campaigns to ethnic minorities.
Up to that point in my career, digital had been a hobby and a professional sideline. I was a self-taught coder, working in roles where digital ideas were a bonus. At work, I left behind a trail of interesting Heath Robinson-style creations including a client feedback survey system and an advertising campaign analytics tool. Good times.
I wanted to make digital more central to my career, and made a leap from the safety of the civil service, to join a Soho digital agency, Reading Room. It was a deep, often stressful, sometimes exciting experience. I project managed new website builds, wrote proposals, costings and joined pitches. There was a certain amount of chaos, some spiky personalities, but a sense of fun and family at work I’d never felt before. I learned to cope with living in the dangerous space between clients, designers and developers.
Then a great job came up, working in a brand new government Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. My brief was to be innovative with digital communication, at the dawn of social media platforms, blogging and online communities. It was a lot of fun. We built and commissioned interactive consultation platforms, helped ministers engage in social media, and worked with colleagues in comms and policy teams to apply digital and social media to their work.
I blogged lots and made many Twitter friends, often working late in the evenings, sometimes with my baby son asleep on my chest. I was invited to give conference talks and spent time building supportive networks in and around the public sector. I met lots of great people, got involved with (and organised) several grass-roots unconference events, including UKGovcamp which is still going strong.
Then, as things do, work life got less fun and creative. The organisation went through a merger, bosses changed, the Labour government came to an end. I felt it was time to move on.
A few days after the coalition government came to power, I found myself freelance without much of a plan and just one small project to get me started. The supportive network of Twitter friends and government digital people came to my rescue, bringing me into their organisations to help them with small websites, training or strategy projects.
Little by little, the business – Helpful Technology – grew and after two years of working with associates and doing about £200k/yr turnover, I hired my first employee – Luke – and we moved to a proper office off Trafalgar Square. We took on bigger projects, I started a separate product business, Social Simulator, simulating social media in crisis scenarios, and started working with more international clients. Our team grew to about 15 at the peak, on a turnover of £1.2m. We set up a US business with my colleague Chris based in New York City.
I travelled all over the world running crisis simulation exercises mainly for private sector clients. I sat in on oil spill response drills with the world’s biggest energy firms, saw how management consultancies and PR firms help banks rehearse their response to cyberattacks, and took part in live-play counterterrorism exercises with government agencies. It was a window into how large organisations work, how they think about reputation and social media risk, and how business culture varies around the world.
After about 10 years or so of running a very interesting but maybe too diverse business, I felt like the company and I needed a clearer focus. We sold our portfolio of website hosting and support work, and transferred some of our team, over to a friendly competitor, dxw. Then COVID-19 appeared, business was rocky for a while, until the heroic efforts of the team helped stabilise things. It was time for me to move on, and happily we found a way to make a management buy-out work. I left the business in just a few months, having handed things over to the experienced team. I’m still a small shareholder in the business.
Now, I’m taking a break for a while before deciding on what I could do next. I’ve moved house and we’re planning a big renovation in 2022. My youngest son will start secondary school next year. This feels like an opportunity I’ve not had before to slow down a bit, discover what I’ve missed through busyness over the years, and enjoy a mix of different things. I’m also enjoying learning new practical skills (hello woodworking), and trying to push myself in new directions outside my normal comfort zone.
After all, why not?