Casting collaborative working in a new light
A view from Mel Exon

Casting collaborative working in a new light

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

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.

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

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.

Mel Exon is the group chief executive at Sunshine.
@melex