“We tend to attract clients that are ‘comfortable in the uncomfortable” | Interview with Jane McDaid - THINKHOUSE
Under Jane McDaid’s leadership, THINKHOUSE has become one of the world’s leading independent agencies with youth, creativity and innovation at the centre of it’s DNA. With offices in Dublin and London, THINKHOUSE helps global brands connect with youth audiences around the world and has hugely influenced the Irish and UK agency landscape with its eco-conscious activism - Jane was the first agency leader in Ireland to sign up the international marketing industry pledge to tackle the Climate Crisis - and a fast evolving, innovative, creative, social-centric and cultural approach to communications strategies.
Ahead of her talk at the Design Leaders Conference, THINKHOUSE founder and Head of Creative Innovation, Jane McDaid, talks to Kernan Andrews about the importance of Youth, fighting for culture, the Climate Crisis, why it is always good to re-think and upskill and taking a ThinkMonth off to think!
“YOUNG PEOPLE are the change makers, they are the leaders. They are the most influential cohort that exists.” If there is one idea at the heart of everything THINKHOUSE founder Jane McDaid believes, it is this.
She even goes a step further: “Young people should rule the world.” That assertion will be among the various ideas she will explore when addressing the Design Leaders Conference, led by Design Skillnet, in The Light House Cinema, Dublin, on January 26 2023.
At the conference, Jane will discuss her ideas on youth, innovation, upskilling and business culture under the title, ‘Books I’ve Never Written’.
Having been approached by a publisher some years ago to write a book – and having still not decided whether or not to write one – Jane will instead share a career’s-worth of learning directly with us, themed around the concept of the titles of books she would like to write, such as Why People With Big Egos Need To Have Kids; Why Nobody Should
Work Before 10am; Why Listening To Young People Is Important; Company Culture; Change – and Why It Is Uncomfortable; and 50 Ways To Scale Your Agency.
“I’ll wrap up with ‘The CEO of Yourself’ and the thought that you are your own agent,” she says. “I’ll try to make the talk useful and humourful for an audience of people who want to personally grow and develop, maybe start their own business, become better leaders, and use their skill to drive change.”
‘Young people are changing the world’
“For me, design is, as Bruce Mau said, “not about the world of design, it’s about the design of the world” and I’m really interested in the design of the world,” she says, “how we can influence that in a fun, positive and inspiring way. That is the ultimate overlap.”
Irish businesswoman Jane McDaid is the founder and Head of Creative Innovation at youth marketing agency THINKHOUSE and of its research body, The Youth Lab. For her, any business not paying attention to youth - both the current young generation and those following close behind them - is a business harming its own growth and development strategies. Why?
“Young people are changing the world and will continue to change the world,” she says. “As a young person you can typically see other ways, newer ways and more efficient ways of doing business - that’s just inherently in who they are.”
“Young people are influencing our world at scale. Look at climate and Greta Thunberg. We see it in politics, technology - the biggest social media platforms were established, for the most part, by young entrepreneurs who were still in college - business, activism. They have found their voice through digital and social media. They understand themselves that they can make or break a brand. They understand their own power.”
“I witness that first-hand in the businesses that listen attentively to the voice of the next generation, so they can structure their business and decisions in a way that is respectful of the next generation.”
‘Brands were not speaking to me’
Jane’s passionate belief in the value and importance of how young people see the world originates from when she was starting out in her own career.
“I was a young person working in marketing and advertising and I felt like the brands were not speaking to me,” she says. “I was really involved in club culture, drama, film - the edge of culture - and I was personally interested in youth culture and immersed in it, and I found myself in a marketing world that wasn’t.”
In her late 20s, Jane established THINKHOUSE and over the past 20 years it has grown to become one of the world's leading independent agencies - covering creative insight and design, PR and advocacy, copywriting, film and photography, strategy and digital services - with a special focus on youth culture and the ethos to only work with “progressive brands that care about people and the planet”.
She admits being “remarkably naïve” in those early days but a strong work ethos and self-belief drove her to succeed.
“I didn’t go to university. I worked four/five different jobs but I was really creative and decided to use all my weaknesses as my strength,” she says. “Youth was seen as a disadvantage, but I thought, ‘I’ll flip that and make it my advantage.’ I didn’t have the contacts or connections. I wasn’t brought up in a world where I had all these people I could ring and make things happen. So, I used what I had - youth and creativity - and what I think is the problem in the industry - that the brands were not speaking to me - and went about trying to fix that.”
These experiences, to this day, inform the advice she still gives to those starting out. “There is a line I love,” she says, “and I think I lived this: ‘Lean into every moment and expect magic to happen’. There is great value in that optimism.
“I love the saying that ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’,” says Jane “It’s a powerful driver of change. Our activism takes on all forms: Equality, Diversity, Inclusion, Fighting for Culture, youth culture, young people’s rights and sustainable action.’
These are the values which led to the establishment of THINKHOUSE and has seen the agency work with Create Don’t Contaminate, Darkness Into Light, Jameson, 52INSIGHTS and Purpose Disruptors. THINKHOUSE also drew acclaim for its role in Clubbing Is Culture, where it “projected ‘clubbing is culture’ onto the carcasses of clubs that are no longer around in Dublin, to raise awareness of the lack of safe venues for young people to party in.”
When it comes to working with a client, a determining factor is that client’s commitment to change and progressive causes.
“They have to have that cultural alignment,” says Jane. “They have to drive positive change and positive change within the organisation itself - that is the deciding factor - but also an ability to drive change from a creative perspective, to innovate how and where they show up, so we tend to attract clients that are ‘comfortable in the uncomfortable’, clients that are driving change, whether it is in sustainability, innovation, getting ready for the next generation, being open minded.”
The Youth Lab
Youth is THINKHOUSE’s “core competency” and Jane feels “a responsibility to share the concerns of young people through our thought leadership and work”.
Making brands, businesses and organisations aware of the views, concerns and culture of youth lay behind the establishment of ThinkHouse’s The Youth Lab.
“The Youth Lab demystifies youth culture through reports, research, and analysis of different cultural shifts within youth culture locally and globally,” says Jane. “More recently, Youth Lab has been a partner for C-suite leaders - CEOs, managing directors, marketing directors - to help them direct their organisation in a different way, based on being future focussed, by listening to and understanding youth audiences.”
Out of those reports, comes a consultative model that provides data and evidence to encourage businesses to innovate their culture or re-examine the structure of their business, brand, products, or marketing.
“One of the things we do with the Youth Lab is reverse mentoring with organisations that want to listen to young people, that might be young people within their organisation or from their customer base or beyond.” says Jane. “The organisations that listen to young people are the organisations that will have the most benefit from the potential impact of young people.”
The Youth Lab “serves as the basis for everything we do in THINKHOUSE,” says Jane. “It works as a silo consultancy piece, it also powers our thinking and makes sure we are on the edge of culture and that we understand where its cutting edge is, and our brands understand how close they want to go there.”
Take a month off to think
Jane has also come to attention for her idea of ‘ThinkMonth’, where an employee takes a month off to rest, reflect, reinvigorate and reimagine their careers.
“ThinkMonth asks, ‘Do you really want to work here? Is this the right place for you’,” she says. “It gives people an opportunity to reflect on their job, their career and their life, family, health and wellbeing - refocus on the things that really matter. From my experience, when they come back, they either decide to leave, or decide to really commit and level up - which is the whole point of it. Those who come back have really decided about their role in your company because we’ve afforded them the opportunity to have that time to reflect.”
ThinkMonth has been a part of THINKHOUSE culture for a number of years, but could such a model be adopted by other businesses? While employees would welcome it, it is hard to see it being embraced by employers.
Jane's argument to convince them of the value of ThinkMonth is “that most people are thinking about leaving their job after five years anyway, or they are getting complacent and to that threshold of ‘I’ll ride it out and be cosy in my job’,” she says.
The idea of ThinkMonth, has also caused Jane to reflect more widely on how the business world is structured negatively in relation to employees.
“We don’t get long periods of time to reflect on life,” she says. “The world that is served up to us isn’t organised like that. There is a relentlessness and exhaustion and a needless level of tiredness in the whole industry that we, as employers and leaders, have to take seriously.
“We have to look at working from home; looking at having personal growth time, which could involve meditating for an hour a week; and things like ThinkMonth as well. There is a responsibility to make sure our employees are as well as they can be.”
The challenge of AI
Marketing is already a highly competitive industry but the continual and rapid advances in technology are a challenge to keep up with for many practitioners. Furthermore, recent developments in AI, such as Midjourney and DALL E-2 - programmes which create images from textual description.
Jane assesses the risks and opportunities in the development of such tools.
“The power of AI is divisive,” she admits. “I sit on the board of NCAD so I’m cognizant of the value of creativity. I’m also an advocate for technology and innovation and I think where it can ethically add value to making something better, faster, stronger, then it’s a disruption worth considering.
“The ethical line from a creative perspective is really important. The likes of Midjourney - pulling art from millions of bits of art from artists that are alive and dead, and creating art, or whatever you want to call it - within a couple of seconds of being rendered through my phone, there is an ethical question to be asked there.
“Personally, I’m really interested in AI, the power of technology and the combination of that with brilliant, creative minds.” but I’ll keep asking the questions as I go and conclude what is the right thing to do.”
Never too late to learn
These views complement another of Jane’s core beliefs - that upskilling and learning is a lifelong journey.
“I’m obsessed with a learning and growth mindset,” she says. “Everybody is responsible for their own growth and development and we have invested an enormous amount of time and money in upskilling our team at THINKHOUSE because I don’t think you can be the best at anything unless you are constantly learning.”
THINKHOUSE runs a programme called Fit To Win, with 8 to 10 hours a week available for employees to learn through different online programmes. “We measure the learning as everybody has targets to hit in terms of how much time they invest in bettering themselves,” she says.
“We are pro-youth in terms of, if you’re really good and young, you have an ability to progress but it’s not at the expense of smart people who are very experienced,” Jane adds. “In THINKHOUSE the most senior people are the oldest people here, so experience makes you better but youth makes you brilliant as well, as it brings the optimism and inherently natural digital mindset, activist mindset, and idealism of youth to the team, so it’s about everybody upskilling all of the time. The marriage of youth and experience and sharing culture is really important.”
Facing up to Climate Change
The greatest challenge of all is Climate Change, an issue that, to many observers, the fossil fuel industry is hostile to or in denial of. However, other industries have come to the realisation that they can no longer be complacent on the issue and that meaningful action is essential - for the future of the planet and the future of industry itself.
As Scientific American, in an interview with Michael Mann, climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, noted, the “initial war of disinformation against climate science is now essentially over. The scientific evidence has become impossible to dispute in light of the dramatic increases in extreme weather events, megafires and polar melting”.
It is a shift Jane has noted as well. “With all the climate acts and legislation coming down the line, the days of the short term lens are over,” she says. “I work with brands across all sectors, it is firmly in their programme of deliverables. I see a strong and progressive culture where brands and organisations understand the expectations consumers have of them; the oncoming legislation they have to prepare for and work within - that’s just due diligence at this point. So, I think it’s shifted from being something that’s optional to something that businesses have to do and lead in.
“That said, there is a growing polarisation in culture and business. There are the cares and the care nots. There is a sense of that potentially emerging as a ‘That’s not how we operate, we’re in the world of fast fashion, it doesn’t really matter, but I don’t see that enduring too much longer.
“There have been some surprising announcements from some prevalent global tech leaders, who you would expect to be promoting this other end of how to do business but they are coming out and aligning with and betting on the transition.
Jane is well positioned to speak on this issue. “Sustainability is probably the biggest area we focus on as it is such an integral part of our clients journey,” she says. “It’s so important for us to be vocal about it.”
She walks the walk on the issue as well. In 2019, she became the first agency leader in Ireland to sign up to the international marketing industry’s pledge to tackle the Climate Crisis. Ultimately, action, not hope, she says, is what is needed on this most pressing global issue.
“Once you start seeing action, then you have hope,” she says. “Anybody sitting there being hopeful is not helping the cause. In fact you are adding to the further demise of the climate. Hope is not helpful. Action is what everybody wants and once we see more action, hope is a byproduct of that.”
The Design Leaders Conference takes place on Thursday January 26 in the Light House Cinema, Smithfield, Dublin. For more information see www.designleadersconference.com.
Book your ticket for the conference.
‘Be part of the future. Be part of the conversation’