How would you describe what you do to a 7-year-old?
My job is to try and make people care about big, important problems.
No, I mean they’re seven. Can’t delve into too much detail; they might lose interest.
What motivated you to join Makmende, and how has your journey been so far?
How do we tell a compelling story that grabs people’s attention, even if they only see it once?
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Transitioning from advertising, where clients throw around a million pounds or euros to sell their products, presented a new challenge. This job is much both much harder and easier. Unlike selling burgers or cars, we don’t have to invent reasons why the thing we’re talking about is important.
Most people understand intuitively why climate change or girls’ education matter, but the challenge lies in reaching them, especially when organizations often operate on tight budgets. Communications can be expensive, and our clients are often too busy in their programmes to focus on them. So that’s why we’re here.
I’ve had to relearn and rethink my approach. You have to be smarter and strategic about it. I think that’s especially true when you don’t have much money. How do we tell a compelling story that grabs people’s attention, even if they only see it once? It’s been a real learning curve. It’s an interesting job because people will care about what you have to say; it’s just hard to reach them. You need to figure out how to do that — it’s a different problem.
You were saying that communication is expensive. Not a lot of people know that reaching 300 people can cost €300!
And even then, they might just look at your post for a split second before scrolling past. So how do you craft messaging that captures attention? How do you ensure people won’t just scroll past and then they’ll actually engage with it? Often, it’s about figuring out the right time and place to present your message so that they’ll be as open-minded as possible. This means that your communications might not look like communications at all; it might be an event where you invite people, have speakers, host a conversation. That’s all part of effective communication.
What project do you consider to be your best work in Makmende so far? Tell us something about it and why you choose it.
I would say the work for HiiL [the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law] The question we got was so big and so open and required so much background work in investigating the different aspects of it. This involved understanding the nature of the problem, engaging in the global conversation surrounding justice issues, finding out what kind of institutions you’re trying to reach, and determining how HiiL could be relevant to them. In the process of understanding the problem on the ground, we gathered a lot of information. Despite the complexity, we successfully transformed it into something clear and simple—a challenging feat. And I didn’t do it alone. Much of it involved working closely with the client, iterating on ideas, incorporating their suggestions, and collaborating on the refinement process. The same collaborative approach extended to our colleagues here at Makmende. What we ultimately achieved was something that was not just clear and straightforward but, also, in our view, compelling. So I’m proud of that.
People took their time to try new things during lockdown. But now that we’re back into our usual business, what did you have in your lockdown ‘graveyard’ aka hobbies you stopped doing? Did it help you go towards your personal goals?
Creating a nice environment and having that space became crucial for my well-being.
I think the one thing I really got into during COVID was cleaning! It became a sort of coping mechanism for me, a way to manage the anxiety that came with the situation. Being confined to just one room for two years heightened my awareness of the need to keep it clean and tidy. Creating a nice environment and having that space became crucial for my well-being.
Nice. That is such a nice habit to build.
Yeah, I really enjoy it. It has become a meditative thing for me. When I need to shut off, it also allows my mind to undergo a bit of cleaning. Maybe it’s because the work we engage in is often open-ended. You start a project, and it keeps evolving, taking new directions as you refine it.
It’s a continuous process. So, I don’t often get that satisfaction of a task has been completed, whereas doing the dishes just like “great, the dishes are all done”. I guess I get a little dopamine hit from that, and now I’m hooked.
Any tips or things you would like to say to younger people (or your younger self) who want to do what you do?
I would encourage him to be a bit braver and make decisions earlier in his career. I spent many years in advertising long after realizing that I didn’t like it, and I wasn’t finding fulfillment or inspiration from it. I clung to it for the sake of financial security, and I understand the difficulty in making a decision to let go of that. However, looking back, I wish I had moved into something more meaningful sooner. It would have saved me a significant amount of time. That’s the advice I would give to my younger self.
But what about the general younger people who want to do what you do? Helping people understand the work that they’re doing?
Earlier in my career, I was obsessed with getting the right answer.
I soon realized that there isn’t one. Instead, it’s about using the available evidence and arriving at your best conclusion. But you have to do the work—talk to people, ask for help, ask for other people’s opinions and then, as long as you can confidently say,
How will you know what the right thing is before you’ve tried it?
“I believe I’ve understood the problem, and based on my research, this seems to be the solution that aligns with our goals,” just go for it. That’s enough. There’s no right answer. Don’t kill yourself in trying to find the perfect strategy or tagline or whatever.
Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword. I think a bit of perfectionism is good; it motivates you to push beyond what might be considered ‘good enough.’ We’ve all worked with people who definitely aren’t perfectionists, stopping short of reaching the full potential of their work. That’s where the motivation to excel might be good. However, instead of obsessing over trying to guess what the perfect things should be before you’ve even attempted it, it’s often more effective to dive in, see how it goes, and refine based on real-world feedback. Because how will you know what the right thing is before you’ve tried it? It might not be the most concise advice, but I think that’s a good principle to bear in mind.
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Got a strategy question you want help with, or just fancy a chat? Get in touch with Niall at email@example.com.