Digital: you don't know how much you already know

Posted by Jenni Armstrong on 13 July 2013

What Emma Donne  learned in seven weeks on the in person version of Squared this year… (original post on the blog of agency DLKW Lowe)

“In early March I said goodbye to the agency for seven weeks and set off to begin Google’s Squared course, along with 37 other ‘Squares’ in their first few years in advertising. What exactly we would know how to do when we came out of the other side was unclear, but we knew we would be learning about ‘digital’.

My generation are regularly referred to as digital natives, and yet when digital was mentioned at work I found myself casting about for the nearest person with the word in their job title. I felt a mental wall come down when I heard terms like HTML, XML, CMS and API, as I assumed I didn’t have the tools to understand it.

So when I was first told about the Google Squared course, I pictured something not unlike the opening scenes of Avatar: weird and wonderful pieces of technology, incomprehensible vocabulary and lessons on how to code. By the end of the seven weeks, I imagined a transformation in my understanding would have taken place and I’d be spouting acronyms like a second language.

The experience couldn’t have been more different. While a transformation has taken place, it isn’t at all the one I was expecting.

Squared isn’t about providing absolute truths. Instead every individual is responsible for their own learning, and for using the tasks to help them form their own opinions about what works or what doesn’t in the digital world we live in.

I had something of an epiphany during an exercise where we were asked to write down each digital channel we use on individual post-its, and stick them to our faces. As I got to the point where I could no longer see out through the curtain of post-its over my eyes, I realised that digital wasn’t the slightly scary and impenetrable bubble I’d been treating it as.

It’s something I use every single day – it’s just the way I run my life, communicate with my friends, get from A to B, entertain myself. As one of our guest speakers said, “digital isn’t a medium, it’s a speed”. I started to think that perhaps I didn’t have to be an expert coder to understand how to reach people who are using digital just like I do.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that we don’t need specialists, we absolutely do. But just because our knowledge doesn’t equal theirs, that doesn’t mean we should shrink away from using it.

One quote I heard at Squared really stuck with me: Steve Vranakis, ECD of Google Creative Labs, told us “Add tech, and you’ll become storytellers with superpowers”. It drove home the fact that we can bring our ideas to life in ways that weren’t possible even five years ago. Rather than working to set formats, we can say “Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could do X. I have absolutely no idea how we’d do it yet, but…” There are fantastic companies out there looking for opportunities to push the boundaries of what’s currently possible with us, and our clients are looking to us for that kind of inspiration. We mustn’t let the acronyms and the perceived mystery surrounding digital scare us away from throwing ourselves head first into those opportunities.

My experiences at Squared taught me that, as ever, it comes back to having a big idea rather than thinking in channels. Otherwise, as another guest speaker told us, we can end up treating digital “like an all you can eat buffet”: looking for ways to do something with You Tube and Facebook and Vine and Pinterest before we’ve really considered how any of them will help us achieve our objective. If we establish the big idea upfront, find the right people to talk to about it and the best places to start that conversation, then the opportunities for digital will fall naturally from that.

So I haven’t come back from Squared with intricate knowledge of how Google Glasses work, and I still wouldn’t know what HTML code looked like if it came up and slapped me in the face. But I’ve realised that’s no excuse. Squared showed me that I know more about this thing called digital than I thought, and I have just as much responsibility as the Head of Digital to think about what opportunities there might be in every brief that comes my way. While it may not be the most tangible learning to bring back, realising it has made a huge difference. If we have more confidence in what we do already know, and we make more of an effort to build on it, then digital ceases to be something other, mystifying and slightly scary.”