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Why sponging off others is the best thing you can do this year

Lately I started to feel like I was starting to sound pretty smart. I'd bandy around phrases like "snackable content" and "metaphors to drive behaviour" and clients would get starry-eyed - and together we'd come up with interesting solutions that actually were pieces of snackable content and metaphors to drive behaviour.
And then I had a startling realisation.

None of the smartness had originated from me! It had all been sponged off people around me, clever people who had shared their knowledge and as a result, unwittingly made me better at my job.

Convention (and my mother), had led me to believe that the most important knowledge would be found in a classroom, and degrees would make me a better, more substantial force in the workplace. However, the more I spend time working in a digital agency the more I feel that none of what I'm learning could ever be taught in a classroom.

I also used to feel frustrated being office bound, until I heard Adam Morgan of Eat Big Fish speak about "the beauty of constraints". It's then that it struck me too how lucky I am to be cooped up all day with so many knowledgeable people.

So no more 'googling' short courses and long degrees - instead I'm going out to aggressively siphon smartness from the people I come into contact with.

There are two ways to sponge that I have thus far discovered to be useful:


Passive sponging by way of listening to people's conversations, gives you some incredible insights about their behavioural drivers and motivations. You understand why they're returning the handbag they recently purchased and how, when faced with the choice between buying something for themselves or something for their children, they will always choose their children.

More than that though, if you listen to conversations between two people talking about their work, invariably you get some incredible bits of information, things you'd never think about asking or even realised would be useful. (Granted, people sometimes comment on your strange staring, but it's worth it for the sponging.)

Making conversation

While passive sponging is useful, active sponging is more engaging. In the past few months I have engineered my way into conversations with user experience designers, anthropologists, social media strategists and those weird tech elves who make magic in the quiet side of the office. What I've gleaned from these conversations is invaluable.

Like the slightly scary confrontation with a co-worker who looked at a piece of work and yelled, "Use metaphors! People do not connect to literal terms. Things like future, financial and aspirational are not going to mean anything to people!" That in and of itself is a nugget of wisdom, but when probed I uncovered a myriad of other nuggets around behavioural triggers and the evolution of ephemeral social media.

Another time I watched a user experience designer assemble a sandwich with intense focus, seeing as for him the deliciousness of each bite was at stake. After drawing him into a conversation, he revealed that he loves traffic because he looks at people next to him trying to figure out their hopes, dreams and motivations - because that makes him better at his job.

There's also the analytics guy who, when asked, took one look at a strategy and could tell me exactly how the target market would (or wouldn't) respond and why. I also learned the legal implications of each interaction proposed (because apparently he's really into digital law too) - and, incidentally, where the best place was to listen to a specific sub genre of rock music that weekend.

Sponging in this sense means that you actually amass an arsenal of useful information that can be used in conversations with clients, and people in general, and creates the impression that you are part of a collective culture of knowledge.

And occasionally, eureka moments happen when you manage to connect two unrelated nuggets to come up with something else that's really good.

Being a sponge also means that you are often on the same page as your coworkers, so you understand the reasoning behind their choices and can come up with holistic cohesive solutions together.

Which is why I intend to continue my hybrid education for the next ¾'s of 2014, freeloading off my colleagues, absorbing as much as possible so that I become a little more of everything they are - and a much smarter version of myself.

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NATIVE VML is a strategically and creatively-led agency whose ideas are born digital, but often extend beyond the digital canvas. With a staff compliment of over 170 people across both Johannesburg and Cape Town, NATIVE VML is one of Africa's largest digital agencies. NATIVE VML offers a full-range of integrated digital marketing services, from strategy and creative ideation to production and media. The agency's positioning is simple - "to produce purpose-driven work that lives in people's live." They pride themselves on being able to marry client's objectives with the insights necessary to create work that is meaningful to them and their customers.


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NATIVE VML is a digitally-led full-service marketing agency that strives to forge deep relationships between its clients and their customers.