The benefits of experience in business

It is often said that experience is the best teacher. Some even go as far as saying there’s no substitute for it. I tend to agree; no amount of theory can replace experience. In my view, theory only gets you through the door; experience is what separates the youth from the adults.

The question I often ask myself is: how do you value experience? Is all experience good or is there futile and fruitless experience? What constitutes good experience?

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Getting the full benefit

There are times where I feel as if I’m not getting the full benefit of the experience of people I hire. On paper, their experience looks amazing but somehow it doesn’t translate to quick insights and handy case studies. Who do you blame when experience doesn’t result in lessons learnt — the student or the experience?

My view is all experience is valuable. It is up to the individual to absorb the experience and reflect upon lessons learnt. The next step after that is to apply these where appropriate.

What I’ve found exceptionally useful over the years is to construct mini case studies using my prior experience. The structure of this case study is as follows: what was the task or challenge at hand? What did we do to resolve the challenge? What impact did we make and, lastly, what lessons did I learn from that experience?

Find appropriate opportunities

The trick is to find appropriate opportunities in which to bring this experience to bear without infringing upon confidentiality or giving away people’s strategies. No client worth his or her salt is impressed by marketers or advertising professionals who go around peddling confidential information. It’s just wrong.

I think it’s important to distinguish between poor experience and rich experience. People with poor experience are people who squander great experience by not being present in their roles or not fully immersing themselves in the work that they do. Years go by on the job without these individuals growing their knowledge base. This is also called shallow experience.

People who have rich experience, though, are people who throw themselves fully into their jobs and seize every learning opportunity that comes their way. These are people who see their jobs as a privilege, as opposed to a burden or merely a means to earning a living. They tend to be good at problem-solving.

Advertising is about problem-solving

People who have poor experience never say anything in client meetings and, when they do, they are hardly coherent or they only focus upon administrative instead of substantive matters. Advertising is about problem-solving. Every problem that we tackle has been experienced by another brand previously, so all the experience in the room helps. Every insight, every anecdote, every lesson matters. Even if it’s an example of what not to do or how not to approach a problem, it’s still useful.

Nothing annoys clients more than agency mortals who sit in meetings with mouths full of teeth. Taking minutes is not a good excuse for not contributing in a meeting. Rather use a tape recorder to do so and engage fully with clients.

Rich experience comes in two forms. It is either wide or deep.

Wide vs deep

On the one hand, wide experience refers to someone who has worked for a short period of time across many industries and product categories. They are hardly experts in those categories but they know enough to have a meaningful conversation about the success drivers and barriers of that category. They are able to bring insights from their prior experience which often comes in handy when solving problems.

Deep experience, on the other hand, refers to someone who has spent a considerable amount of time working in one industry or product category. They have limited experience of other categories but they can safely be referred to as experts in their categories.

Experts may be good but they also come with issues, two in particular. First, most tend to be ignorant of the world outside their immediate environment, which prevents them from coming up with fresh perspectives and new ways of tackling problems. Secondly, they are seldom able to transfer their knowledge from one category to another. To be relevant, they need to find a way to turn their experience into generic insights that have universal application.

Get the balance right

I often hear clients ask for experts to work on their accounts. Yes, experts come with heaps of category-related experience but do they come with fresh ideas and new ways of solving problems? Not always. I think it’s good to balance deep, narrow expertise with broad, wide multi-category experience.

If you have deep experience, the onus is on you to widen it. Agency staff has to evolve with the times and find new ways. Solutions that worked a few years might not work today. We owe it to our clients to give them the best possible chance of success.


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