Independent Comms Strategist and Researcher & Vice-Chair, Amnesty International UK
"For gender equality, a traditional solution would be more teachers teaching about gender equality, or it might be getting more businesses to employ women. But if you want to change how people think and feel about the role of women in society, fast and at scale, then you can really only do that with communication."
By Zara Ahmed,
14th January 2018
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Using research to inform communications-based solutions to social challenges, such as gender equality.
Independent Comms Strategist and Researcher
Vice-Chair of Amnesty International UK's board of directors
How would you describe your current role and what does it involve?
I'm currently freelance and setting up my own research & comms strategy business. Right now it's at the basics in terms of thinking about what my skills are, what do I think is useful about them. Then it’s thinking about what can I do with that skillset to help other people and how do I want to market that.
The reason I've done that is because once I left uni, I worked in full-time employment for 10 years. Work took over every bit of my life. Whether it was in planning the weekends or my free time, everything was governed by my job. It left me feeling unsatisfied because the balance wasn't very good.
Now I can decide what hours to work and what hours I want to keep for myself and for the things that I care about, such as my friends and family.
What I've focused on is research, using social science approaches, to solve problems. That can include online polling, interviewing, or focus groups. It can also be down to much more observational research techniques. I use that to understand problems in society and the impact it has on people's lives on behalf of clients. This might be a developmental agency that's thinking about how to encourage gender equality, or how to tackle a sexual health problem. I will look at what habits people have, what behaviours they exhibit, what attitudes they have, and then think about what the opportunities are to change any problems.
Typically, I have used products or services in order to serve a solution. I've focused on communication. This could be through advertising, or storytelling, to help people think differently about a particular issue.
I couldn't have set up my own business like this straight out of uni, as I needed to build up a network and show on my CV that I have worked with brands, so that people see that I know what I'm doing. I did all of that and worked really hard. Now I can sell it and say, “Look - I know what I'm doing, so come and invest in me”.
There are different ways into doing what I do, such as market research or social research. You have to understand culture and people in order to see what motivates people, so that you can then think about how to position a product that people will want.
Now that there's so much data available online, the industry has changed a lot. So you'll work a lot more with data scientists and with technology than five or ten years ago when I first started out.
Can you tell us about some of the roles that you worked in previously?
I've had a weird start - there isn't a clear narrative in terms of the roles that I've had.
Straight out of uni, I joined Deloitte, doing management-consulting-type work. I did that because I worked with them during my gap year and had done placements with them.
I spent uni doing a lot of campaigning for Amnesty International, so I wasn't that focused on thinking about what I wanted to do for a job, other than doing something that would give me skills. I was quite open minded.
I applied and was really fortunate that I got in to Deloitte, but I hated it and left within 9 months. I was working in their consulting operations practice. It was a useful role in terms of understanding how those big corporates work and the core skills that you need, like how to behave in a team and how to use Excel. But aside from that, it didn't really do a lot for me.
After that I went to YouGov, doing opinion polling and political research. I got the job really last minute. I saw that a friend was advertising his own job on Facebook. I was really desperate to leave Deloitte, so I went in for an interview and was basically offered it in the spot.
So I left my job immediately and started at YouGov a week later. This meant that I didn't really understand fully what I had signed myself up to, but I enjoyed learning on my feet.
It was a role in the strategy team for the organisation, working on the business side of things and making sure that the company was sustainable. It was also about keeping ahead of the trends in the market, in terms of how data and research is used. I was doing a lot of project management, but also sitting in teams and learning how budgets are used and seeing the pressures that managers in an organisation are under to make a business work. I wanted to get in to the research side and was working on a data analytics tool, so one of these software programs that absorbs data and turns it into something new.
My job was to find businesses that would need it and sell it to them. You have to understand what motivates people to buy something and use this to market an item in a particular way. It was interesting and good for learning about how to position an argument.
By that point, I was keen to do more in the charity sector in the UK or overseas. I was quite entrepreneurial and had research skills. I had also gained skills in the charity sector through my voluntary experience with Amnesty UK (as a former student activist and supporting their governance functions ). But knew I needed to refine my research skills further.
I spent a few years working at Freshminds Research as a research manager in their ‘public and third sector practice’ and was gradually promoted to leading research projects across a range of research methodologies. It was a great training ground for me working with lots of different clients but I was still keen to make the move more solidly into charity work.
Through LinkedIn, I was put up for an interview with M&C Saatchi, who were starting a brand new division focusing on social challenges and working with aid agencies. They needed research skills to inform their communications but also someone who could be entrepreneurial with project and budget management. They needed people who could achieve things quickly and run research in a way that could be profitable.
So I worked in their team and started doing research projects internationally. I was basically a researcher in a communications agency. It was a good experience to learn about making sure that a business can earn money to pay the bills, continue to grow whilst also doing good quality work.
The development sector was getting more interested in communications as a solution, rather than giving products or services. For gender equality, a traditional solution would be more teachers teaching about gender equality, or it might be getting more businesses to employ women. But if you want to change how people think and feel about the role of women in society, fast and at scale, then you can really only do that with communication. So we would try and help the development sector to use communications as a long term solution.
Those were the roles that I did up until now. I didn't really have a plan - I was just feeling my way.
In what ways has volunteering for Amnesty International, an organisation that you care about, enhanced your skill set?
There was so much that I learned at uni which made me so much more employable.
Campaigning for them at uni meant that I had to come up with an idea for a campaign on campus, without any money, that people could then get behind. You'd have to market it and build something that would be successful. Now that's something that you'd do in a business all the time, but you'll usually have money and a team to support you. Instead, I was learning to do it without any money and totally in my spare time.
Often you find something that doesn't work, so then you bin that and try something else. If you motivate yourself, you can get really great stuff out of it. Motivating a team to deliver a campaign in campus is another thing. That's really tough. When you've got experience working with people that you might not get on with, that's a great thing, because that will definitely happen at work. Ways of managing that, getting around it and believing that you can was also really helpful.
When I became involved in a governance role as a board member, I just learned so much. One thing was the complexity of decision making and just how hard decisions can be when you're in a senior role. Sometimes there are decisions you have to make where none of the outcomes are good. Being the person that has to make those decisions is incredibly emotionally and intellectually difficult, especially when it concerns something that means so much to you. So I've learnt a lot of empathy for decision makers in a way that has helped me a lot in my day job.
Sometimes there's a temptation to hate your bosses because they've got all the power and they can make decisions that you don't agree with. You just think, "Well, they're idiots", but you might not understand enough because you're in a more junior position within that team, with a different view on the problems. Being in that kind of senior role quite early on in my career has helped me empathise a lot with decision makers and leaders, because I can see that there's a lot of information that they might have that isn't available to everyone.
I've also learnt about emotional intelligence. Working with an organisation like Amnesty teaches you a lot about humbleness, and how there are problems in society that are so much bigger than your own. I've learnt a lot about burn-out too and about needing time to yourself to rest and enjoy.
As someone who has worked her way through graduate positions and then set up her own business, what tips would you pass on to someone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Don't worry too much about your job as being your defining feature. You don't always need to be doing everything through your job, like focusing on getting to the most senior role.
Don't focus on you job as ticking all of your personal boxes - there's lots of other things outside of work that can give you that satisfaction. So I would look to voluntary roles that enable you to get a balance.
Another thing is to keep your networks and your options open. It sounds awful but don't cut yourself off to only certain types of people or certain ways of thinking. When you think that the people you're surrounded by are the best people and that they know everything, you lose opportunities. Keep your mind open to other perspectives, even if you really disagree with them.