True change requires a long hard look in the mirror

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Anjali Ramachandran is a Director at Storythings, an audience strategy and content production company that works with clients like ADP, Exoerian, Pearson, Gates Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Tate, Museum of London, and PBS. She also co-founded Ada’s List, a global network for women in STEM, and writes the Other Valleys newsletter about creative and technology news in emerging markets.

Biggest fuck up?

I would like to say it was monumental – and at the time, it felt like it – but maybe it wasn’t as monumental as some others have been!

My biggest fuck-up was when in the first week of my new job as Head of Innovation at a media agency, I was invited to present to a massive global client. The meeting was offsite, so I wasn’t familiar with the space, but that wasn’t the kicker. It was that my laptop hard drive was full (which I sort of knew, but didn’t think it would blow up in my face in this manner), I hadn’t saved the presentation I’d been working on till just a couple of hours earlier, and the whole thing just hung.

My presentation was not saved to the cloud, so I couldn’t send it to anyone else. I was asked to shut down and restart, but I knew that wouldn’t solve the problem as I hadn’t backed up my presentation. I was literally shitting it.

I could feel sweat dampening my shirt – and I am one of those people who doesn’t normally sweat unless I’m in a high-humidity closed room, but this was winter in London and not summer in India.

I was new to the company, new to pretty much every single person in the room, and I’m sure they were thinking I was a completely inexperienced junior, not someone fairly senior – and wondering why the media agency had let such a newbie present to global C-suite clients. I felt AWFUL.

It was a pretty simple thing that I should have got my heard around way earlier. I learnt NEVER to trust technology, and since then have pretty much only worked in the cloud. Worst case, I can always log in on someone else’s laptop and still have access to my stuff.

As for what happened – luckily, by some quirk of fate, my laptop suddenly kicked into gear after about 20 minutes of me trying various troubleshooting things, feeling the pressure, glares, and discomfort. And I had no fall-out from it internally.


One – the RFP process!

I know for legal and procurement reasons, it has to be done, but it bloody sucks. It’s opaque, requires more of the agency completing it than the company issuing it (of course), and requires a lot of unpaid labour in the hope of payback if you win – and that is such a small chance, depending on the size of the RFP and the number of agencies responding.

I have friends who run small agencies who have point-blank said they are never going to respond to an RFP again as a policy (and they are super talented, so it’s the industry’s loss) – and I am almost there myself. Most RFPs never get a response at all, so it feels like a vapour trail.

BBH were onto something back in the day. Good clients do respond and keep requirements to not much more than a creds deck, so that feels OK. The worst are bureaucratic/multilateral/government organisations that sometimes have some of the most fulfilling projects to work on but rubbish processes. You truly understand why so many of them struggle to land anything creative or attract creative people when you see their ridiculous processes.

There are ways to make things simple in government, too. The UK’s Government Digital Service did it, albeit temporarily. It’s mostly a lack of will that causes systems to stay the same. So if you’re a client reading this, PLEASE use your power to try and make pitches better for everyone.

Two – people who pay lip service to diversity, equity, and inclusion without thinking about intersectionality, anti-racism, anti-casteism, or decolonisation.

Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon, but true change is hard and requires a long hard look in the mirror.

First, look inside: Have you calculated a gender pay gap or ethnic pay gap? If so, what are you doing to close it? Recruiting fairly at the bottom of the funnel is great, but what are you doing to keep women at the top – to make it easier for them to return after parental leave? What provisions are you making for carers? How are you helping your employees become financially savvy? How do you enable people to report situations they are uncomfortable in, and how do you act on that information? I’ve seen multiple DEI consultancies come into existence in the last 5-6 years, and they do important work, but if the companies hiring them are not fit for purpose, then all the advisors or consultants they bring in will only impact them so much.

Useful advice

This is from one of my earliest bosses: What is the worst thing that can happen if you make a mistake? You’ll lose your job. So what? You’ll get another one. So, try that new project or activity, put that new initiative in place, and give that person a chance. Chances are it will go well, and in the event it doesn’t, and you’re with a company that doesn’t appreciate you trying, you were probably not right there anyway. 


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