Thinking outside the box

Back in my retail days, I was instructed to bring an object in to work that I felt represented me.  I found the perfect item. It was a clutch bag. A clutch bag that was made out of a book.

The grey hardback book cover represents my academic pursuits and the vibrant floral fabric lining the inside represents my creativity, enthusiasm and resourcefulness.  I know what you’re thinking; I took a good book, tore out its soul (i.e. the pages), and turned it into a flowery compartment of crap. The point is, when on a bookshelf with a number of other books, this book/bag would look like any other book. You would need to select it from the shelf and open it up before discovering that it’s unique inside.

When applying for jobs, one is ‘boxed’ based on one’s experience, or lack of. One sheet of paper is all you have to differentiate yourself on. Your resume serves as your book cover, situated amongst a row of other book covers, each hoping to be selected for an opportunity to immerse the reader in its contents.

When I started looking for work in advertising I had no agency experience and a seemingly irrelevant degree.  I chose my degree and took part in a range of extra-curricular activities on the basis that all the skills I developed would be ‘transferable’. Employers trawling through hundreds of CVs would no doubt glance at my resume, their gaze programmed to recognise only agency names and marketing degrees, neither of which I had.  If you read between the lines, I had experience in people, financial and project management, administration, relationship building  and client service across a multitude of roles BUT I hadn’t worked for an agency.  I was ‘boxed’.  Filed away as not having the relevant skills or expertise. The blinkers were on and the readers hadn’t allowed themselves to delve deeper and see the colourful lining of gazillions of other creative projects that I had initiated, developed and managed.

My ‘book cover’ wasn’t selling me at all.  I had to get creative and use the exact skills I wanted someone to hire me for to get the role in the first place. I ended up with tens of resumes tailoring my skills to the exact position I was applying for, and equally as many unique covering letters. It became a skill in itself – rather than let the interviewer ‘box’ me based on what they read on my CV I boxed myself.  If I was going to be put in one place, it might as well be the right one.

My opportunity came when I came in to contact with a rare group of individuals in the form of ‘The Family’. It sounds like a mafia, and while it shares some similarities in the form of fierce loyalty, long standing members and the fact that members are often united by food and drink, the essence of The Family is centred upon beautiful people, doing wonderful work and pursuing all their crazy dreams. I worked for one of The Family’s companies, a small team of happy people called Sunday Lunch.

Sunday Lunch gave me the opportunity to continue to develop skills I had acquired over years, and also to learn new ones.  After almost 5 years with Sunday Lunch I grew revenue for the business, while almost tripling my salary, I expanded our client and competency portfolio while diversifying my resume and in the fast-paced nature of a start-up, I consistently. faced new business challenges and was encouraged to learn new things.

I have learnt that this attitude doesn’t stop at employment.  It’s everywhere, particularly in ad land. Agencies are ‘boxed’ too. Depending on who you asked, Sunday Lunch was an ‘LAM agency’, ‘BTL agency’, ‘promotions agency’, ‘cause marketing agency’, ‘creative marketing agency’… What’s funny is that we weren’t always in the same box.  To some we were x and to others we were y, yet trying to explain that we can do x, y and z could be a challenge.

There are 2 lessons here.  First, we all need to tailor our credentials to suit the roles we are applying for or the work we want to win. It’s not enough to assume that someone else will see our potential.  If we don’t tell them bluntly, clients or employers will assume we don’t have the skills or expertise for another opportunity or brief they have.

Secondly, if we are on the other side of the table we need to take the time to look a bit closer at what’s right in front of us and ask some questions; because before we look elsewhere there might be the assortment of skills we are looking for whether it be in a prospective employee, a supplier, an agency etc.

Ironically, in a world of marketers, we are in the business of ‘thinking outside the box’ and while so many of us consider ourselves to think outside the square, many of us are guilty of doing exactly the opposite.

Originally published April 2014.

Photo by Erda Estremera via Unsplash