The media needs more weirdos

Amy Kean is a self-confessed weirdo. The former Head of Innovation for Publicis and now CEO and Creative Director of Good Shout, a company helping people communicate better, thinks the media business could do with more people like her.

Amy worked in media and advertising for 20 years at some of the world’s biggest agencies and with some of the biggest brands. She says she’s had a lot of fun with it, but now thinks the media world has lost its identity.

For her the problem is that everyone just wants to fit in. In a small, tight knit professional community, people want each other’s approval, forcing genuine creativity to take a backseat.

“It’s painful to watch. It’s cringeworthy,” she says, “We are run by formulas and the tried-and-tested. People talk about bravery in our industry, but I haven’t seen any in the last five years.”

She worries that there has been an influx of ‘really average people’ entering the field, bringing two distinct problems with them: fear of failure and insecurity.

Fear of failure is easy to understand in any business context, but I’m surprised that Amy sees insecurity in an industry as seemingly extroverted as the media. “When you’re average, you’re also incredibly insecure. There’s nothing more dangerous,” she says.

Amy explains that people that are average develop a ‘bravado’ to survive in social situations and points to the excessive use of jargon as an example. “From one month to the next, we’re either talking about immersive virtual worlds, or Metaverse strategies… it’s all just jargon, meaningless jargon.”

This isn’t just an opinion. Amy cites research that has looked at the links between the use of jargon and insecurity and that shows that the more jargon you use, the more insecure you are.

Listen here to Amy Kean talk to Media Voices about why media needs more weirdos, or search ‘Media Voices’ on your podcast app of choice.

Whatever is glowing

Amy describes herself as a moth, really annoying, but always attracted to ‘whatever is glowing in the world’. 

Her work right now centres on improving the communications skills of people who are not the archetypal overconfident, hypermasculine professionals the business world typically celebrates. But she has also written and starred in her own play about life coaches who she says she ‘despises’ and ‘The Little Girl who gave Zero fucks’ written at the tail end of a breakdown after three years living and working in Singapore.

“It was the most shallow and stressful time of my life,” she says, ”I wrote the book as a form of self help.”

In the past, she has been called weird to her face… odd, peculiar, strange. “I used to hate being called weird,” she admits, “It used to make me cry. And then a few years ago, I decided to own it.”

She started to study weirdness and came to believe that if we all allow ourselves to be the weird that we naturally are, we will be more creative, and also happier. “I don’t want to be cheesy, but I feel like I’m living proof of that. I decided to own the fact that I’m a bit fucking strange and I’m really happy now.”

Weird benefits

Personal happiness is one thing, but are there business benefits in having a weirder workforce?

Amy references a professor at Harvard called Shelley Carson, who studies weirdness and says weird people have something called Low Latent Inhibitions. This means that they have no filter, seeing the world with totally open eyes and minds. In her research, Carson found that people with low latent inhibitions are seven times more likely to be creative.

“We walk through life, worrying about what people are going to think and worrying if people are going to nod when we speak. Weird people don’t have that and it enables them to be original, to come up with ideas that are truly different without fear of judgment. I think that’s so fucking powerful.”

Not every businesses needs more ‘weird’. Some simply need people to be productive and fear can actually increase productivity. “There was a really brilliant research study conducted about fear at work,” she recalls. “What they found was that fear makes us 25% less creative, but it also makes us significantly more productive. Some companies will function very, very well, by not having personalities in their workforce.”

However, for companies that want to differentiate themselves, there are benefits in encouraging people to be themselves. She runs a half-day ‘Good Weird’ course designed to let people summon their weird self for half a day and she says many of the people that come on the course don’t know what their opinions are.

“They don’t know what they stand for because these things have never been celebrated within the organisations they work at. So I think investing in your people and giving them a little bit of space to work out who they are, and how who they are can benefit your business creatively.”

Amy says the starting point is to look at your own workforce.

“Let them be a bit weirder. And then let them attract other people who are also the same kind of weird. Use social media to attract brilliant people. Give everyone FOMO. Show how fucking ridiculous and brilliant your culture is.”

She says she had an email recently asking, ‘Can I join your gang?’. “What they meant was, ‘Can I work with you?’, but they knew that was a good way to talk to me. I like to think that people absolutely get who we are. Our sense of humor, and the fact that everyone that works for me is so ridiculously different. And so it means that anybody is welcome. Everybody’s welcome.”

Getting weird

So how do we get more weird into the media?

“First of all, I think we need to celebrate difference more,” says Amy. “We need to celebrate the eccentric, weird, occasionally incorrect, but ‘at least they’re trying’ people. We need to invest in learning and personal development.”

The strapline for Good Shout is, ‘We are all experiments’ and Amy says you have to give your people space to grow and find themselves. “Otherwise, you’ll just have this homogenous lump of people working in your organisation who just want to fit in and survive.”

Amy is very clear, that isn’t about the old cliche of celebrating failure. “I think that phrase is ridiculous. Only a few of us are afforded the luxury of being able to fail. So much failure is talked about from a place of survivorship bias. A lot of people fail and their lives are ruined.”

She says that instead of grandiose statements, businesses just need to be okay with people making mistakes, allowing them to be open about what’s gone wrong and about what they’ve learned. She talks about one business that has a weekly meeting where people speak about a mistake they made.

“They’re really honest about how they fucked up. And then other people say, ‘Oh, maybe you could have done this’. It’s lovely. In reality, everyone makes mistakes all of the time at work, we just don’t talk about it. We lie about it. But if you can have that culture of openness, my God it’s a game changer”

Listen to the full interview with Amy Kean here, or search ‘Media Voices’ wherever you find podcasts.

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