Making sense out of madness – how this marketer is making it look easy
After a truly bizarre start to working life and learning resilience by throwing herself into complicated digital projects, Tracy Brown found her calling in ‘making things that work’. Michelle Keomany learns just how complicated that can be.
This article originally appeared in The Simplicity Issue, our August/September 2018 issue of Marketing magazine.
As the executive customer experience director at AKQA in Melbourne, Tracy Brown’s role is to prepare organisations for the future. AKQA is a complex agency that delivers simplicity for its clients. Unlike a standard digital agency, its functions also include marketing automation, artificial intelligence and research and development.
The campaigns it runs are martech or data led, and creative and design are interlinked. Brown explains that her role as executive customer experience director is focused on organisational design, helping clients to work out how to structure their own teams.
So far, she has completely redefined experiences for healthcare, finance and tertiary education. “The end game is to deliver experiences, and those experiences are really complicated. So, we will design what we think the future experience is, but the hard work is figuring out how to get there. We have to help them understand how to support technology, but they also need to change their teams and their capabilities to be able to deliver on it.”
Throughout her career, she has amassed invaluable experience, literally working across all functions in the digital sphere – designer, front-end developer, copywriter, UX (user experience) designer, Flash game developer and campaign creative. This has given her incredible insights into organisational structure and managing projects and people.
Brown speaks with sharpness, consideration and dry wit. She is originally from Cape Town, South Africa and it’s amusing to learn that her career started in 1996 as a result of dropping out of an extremely niche postgraduate degree in directing surrealist theatre. She laughs, “My poor parents, they funded it as well… Crazy!
“The way it works in Cape Town is you had to study a diploma of higher education along with your postgrad,” she explains. “So, they give you these practical courses, but that means it’s just so overwhelming. You’re doing academic stuff and you’re having to learn how to be a teacher at the same time.” She realised how ridiculous it was and dropped out after four months, but then didn’t know what to do next.
“I did the most random jobs, one of them was directing a barbershop quartet. It was a freelance job that the university provided because they felt sorry for me as I had left my degree. And I just thought, ‘what the hell am I doing?’
“Part of my degree was fine art and I always struggled about whether I should do art or theatre… I went back to design and art and I saw that there was what was DTP in those days, desktop publishing – a course on how to do Photoshop, Freehand and Quark. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good skill’, so I learned how to do that.”
After a period working in print and garment design (which she knew nothing about), Brown moved to London in 1998 where she did even more random jobs before realising that to make her design skills more relevant, and to actually get better jobs, she had to learn how to code.
It’s this natural drive to make things relevant and effective that comes through in everything she does (despite deviations into niches like surrealist theatre). “I wanted to make a thing that worked so the satisfaction of being able to design something, code something and watch it function was the best thing ever. And from there it has just refined.”
Brown started to hit her stride, finding work purely because very few people could design and code at the same time – and that’s essential what web design was.
She explains her experiences of being in the middle of the dotcom boom. “It was like a playground, because the people who got involved with digital in those days were entrepreneurs, innovators, people who had multiple skills… I had to think about what businesses needed from an early stage. During that whole dotcom boom you had to work, you had to hustle, you had to explain the value of digital.”
Brown started as a web designer and developer at start-up and new media agency Advocacy Online, working her way up to the role of creative director. Advocacy Online created an award-winning online piece of software called e-Activist that allowed charities to create letter writing campaigns, targeting politicians and other local decision-makers.
The client list was vast, with more than 60 charities and pharmaceutical companies across the UK and Canada, including WWF, Oxfam and Schering-Plough. But she realised this wasn’t the right path for her. “I wasn’t interested in making something appealing.
“I was more interested in making something work.” She went on to work for herself, contracting as a UI (user interface) and Flash animator for agencies and brands such as OgilvyOne, The Telegraph online and Agency Republic.
Not putting barriers around what she does and doesn’t do has worked in Brown’s favour. “I ended up being able to do a lot of the work that other designers weren’t able to do because I had come from that background… I think I was at Ogilvy at the time and I just started to naturally do user experience (UX) without even knowing I was doing it.
“Drawing up flows, understanding research, running research sessions, creating wireframes, marking them up for devs. Someone said, ‘Oh you’re a UX-er’ and I said, ‘Oh, what do you mean?’ And then they explained what it was and I said ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m doing! I’m a UX-er!’”
She explains that UX is essentially design strategy; it’s the beginnings of strategy for designers, and it became all she was interested in. “I lost interest in visual design, I just moved entirely into UX and kept jumping into really ambitious projects.
“I got great experience working on the American Express account, building really complicated experiences like online banking and then I decided to take a job at the National Lottery.” At that time, the National Lottery had the biggest ecommerce platform in the southern hemisphere, making £100 million a week.
“It was just crazy amounts with really complicated systems and a lot of legislation around lotteries… And I took a contract role to build and design their system. And that was amazing because I was working with really technically oriented people who didn’t understand design nor were interested in it and working with old school designers and trying to connected the dots between them and old school technologists. And it was the best experience.”
It’s these somewhat organic opportunities that Brown embraces that enrich her ability to guide her teams and clients through incredibly complicated waters. She can’t speak more strongly about the importance of not only ‘giving it a crack’ but understanding that with these experiences comes hard work.
“That’s why I always say to everyone, you have to just jump into really complicated things. You have to, every time – if you want to progress in your career, take risks: do the hardest thing. But know that if you take that risk on-board you have to work like a bastard, you have to work really fast and keep your eyes open.
“And that’s the point. You never really know, you just have to give it a crack. And so many people don’t want to do that. A lot of people don’t progress because they either expect things to come to them, or they just wait for the perfect experience or job and that’s not the way that it works. I think with even the most perfect job you’re only going to know it once you’re in the job itself.”
After going to back to UX consulting for agencies and as an experience strategist at DigitasLBi’s Digital Innovation Group, she moved to Melbourne to co-lead the experience design team at AKQA (then known as DT), eventually becoming the experience strategy director. She talks about knowing she had to leave London. “The whole thing is a constant assault on your energy levels – I got to a point where I just wanted something different, I felt like I was in a bit of a rut. My lifestyle was just working and going home and recovering.”
She laughs, “The irony is that I haven’t changed my lifestyle at all.” Brown is very self-aware that she’s the type of person who is always on and a hard worker by nature, but what she also knows is that she can’t expect that from others.
So, with all these incredibly complicated processes to dissect and rethink, how does Brown and her current role work with marketing within AKQA? “I give a holistic picture of where its marketing sits within the customer experience. I’ll do discovery research.
“For example, instead of asking people about their interactions with the bank, I’ll ask people what they think about money and the role that money plays in their lives.” Her process starts with not just the bigger picture, but the biggest one.
“I’ll look at a whole bunch of things that are super high level and then I funnel that down to a journey or a blueprint or something that gives a holistic picture of everything that happens within a customer’s life and then I funnel that down further into touch points and channels, and I give marketers, or people who are looking at comms and acquisition in particular, a massive canvas to work from so they can actually start to see where the opportunities lie, as opposed to making these really siloed assumptions.” She breaks it down, explaining that CX is essentially saying, ‘here’s a holistic picture, here’s the canvas, here are all the opportunities’.
What does simplicity mean to someone whose job it is to tackle something complicated? “To me, simplicity is when it’s inherently clear what its function is – something that’s so clear that you don’t even need to think about how it works. That is complicated for professionals because, ultimately, we’re always thinking about our process and we don’t think about the end customers much. I start everything from designing the perfect experience and I think about all the complexity, all the implications for technology, for the organisation, all the organisational work I do.”
Brown says that one of the most important qualities she has to have is empathy. In a way that goes much further than understanding what customers want. “I mean understanding how to break down roadmaps of work that are going to suit technologists and designers.
“Because CX is so incredibly holistic what we’re doing is coming up with a strategy that is across the entire customer experience remit. You’ve got to really deliver or at least explain to organisations how they’re going to execute on it.
“If you don’t have experience as a tech and as a designer, a copywriter and everything it’s very difficult for you to help teams deliver on that work, it’s almost impossible.”
Throughout her incredibly enriching career, Brown says that one of the most important lessons she’s learned is resilience. “Whenever someone asks me about resilience I say that it’s a sense memory that you can recover from failure, that’s all it actually is. When you try loads of different things and some of those fail because that’s just life, you start to realise that in almost any situation you’ll be fine and you’ll figure out how to solve it.”
Brow is an incredible advocate for constantly trying things in all facets of life. “When you’ve done that over and over again it means that you just are able to try new things and constantly spread yourself through different experiences because you’ll know that you’ll figure it out.
“You kind of just know on an unconscious level that you’ll be fine, because you’ve done it so many times before. So that’s why I think, not only for CX, but also for just being a better professional you have to keep trying things.”
Tracy’s top five tips for young women in digital and tech
- Always jump at new opportunities by asking yourself ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ The answer is usually ‘nothing I can’t survive’.
- Don’t mistake resilience for having no feelings. Resilience is just a survival instinct you develop when you have recovered from difficult situations a few times and know you can do it again.
- Remember to pay it forward. There is always a younger woman who can benefit from your belief in her.
- Follow Cindy Gallop and Professor Michelle Ryan. You need both rebels and academics to help you see all the possibilities.
- Don’t listen to advice that tells you women need to change how they communicate to be successful in business. It’s time to change how business works so it allows for more diverse communication styles.
Michelle Keomany is an Australian based in Paris. She is a content strategist at Publicis.Sapient France and (full disclosure) previously worked with Tracy Brown at AKQA Melbourne.
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