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Going digital: alumni professional networking event

By news editor, on 29 March 2012

Ian Bartlett, Head of UCL Publications & Marketing Services, reports on the recent alumni professional networking event.

What is the secret for a successful career in the world of digital media? What degree should you take? How do you stay on top in this fast-moving environment?

These questions and many more were addressed by the discussion panel of UCL alumni as they spoke and during the following Q & A sessions, the event being chaired by Professor Claire Warwick (@clhw1) from the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

From a personal angle, I wanted to learn more about the paths taken by panel members to reach the positions that they now hold.

From the perspective of my role as UCL’s Head of Publications and Marketing Services (PAMS), I wanted to know:
1) Were the UCL degrees taken by each of the panel members integral to their success?
2) Where did panel members see digital media heading next?
3) How does an organisation cope with the fast-changing developments in digital marketing?

The one true path?
The career paths taken by each panel member were as varied as the jobs that they do now and the degrees they took at UCL.
• Poppy Dinsey (UCL SSEES 2008) – Blogger and Digital Entrepreneur
• Paul Wright (UCL Geography 1987) – Chief Digital Officer at OMD
• Peter Cowley (UCL Electrical Engineering 1989) – Founder and CEO of Spirit Digital Media
• Sarah Drinkwater (UCL English 2003) – Community Manager for Google Places

The clear theme that came across from all panellists was that there is no single, clear path to follow. However, as you might expect, flexibility and hard work are key; the dynamism demonstrated by the panellists – their ability to initiate, go with the flow, adapt and move on – was striking.

Poppy Dinsey had begun work on her blog while studying at UCL. This reflected her interest in fashion, but she had consistently posted at least once per day and built up a regular following.

In response to a later question, Poppy identified this approach as being a key element of developing a successful blog; regular and reliable posts, meeting expectations are far more likely to lead to success than a flurry of posts followed by nothing for several days.

Following graduation from UCL, Paul Wright initially worked in a bank, but took a varied path involving the likes of (an early days) Sky, various Dotcom startups (e.g. sports.com) and corporate organisations.

While at UCL, Peter Cowley worked as a cycle courier and ran the UCL Engineering bar. The experience gained was an excellent grounding for moving forward into the entrepreneurial world of digital communications.

His future career involved moving between large corporate organisations and small start-ups, gaining experience as he progressed.

Sarah Drinkwater left UCL with an English degree and went to work at Penguin. She freelanced for The Guardian (The Guide) and moved between various newspapers and women’s magazines as a blogger and a copywriter before moving to Google as Community Manager.

Degrees and success
In terms of the relevance of their UCL degree to the career paths that they have followed, it was clear that the experience of studying for a degree – the personal development, the challenges, the self-motivation – are at least as important, if not more so, than the subject studied.

The business elements of Poppy’s Economics and Business with East European Studies degree were of clear relevance; the East European studies elements perhaps less so.

However, the degree was extremely helpful in its broader sense; the content was complex, the work was hard, providing good training for the future.

Paul Wright’s Geography and Economics degree provided an excellent background in data and behavioural analysis. Many of his fellow graduates went on to jobs in marketing.

Peter Cowley took the view that experience gained when working, while studying at UCL, was of considerable value, while Sarah’s degree in English is clearly related to her earlier roles as a writer, blogger and copywriter but less so to her current role at Google.

Again, Sarah considered her experience as a student to be a major contribution to her development; studying with people who were not shrinking violets in a city that does not allow you to be a shrinking violet was a considerable aid to her personal development.

What next?
Questions from audience members were focused around new developments and how, when the world is changing so quickly, individuals and companies are best advised to keep up.

Mobile devices were identified by panel members as having a major impact on development at present and the use of data analysis was noted as the key to understanding what consumers want and how they behave. Attribution modelling is the key to further realising the benefits of targeted digital marketing. The question as to whether data analysis stifles creativity was addressed with the view expressed that a balance has to be struck but that data analysis, used correctly, goes hand in hand with creativity to inform development.

With regard to keeping abreast of developments and identifying the ‘next big thing’, this was recognised as difficult, but the key was to spread risk by developing a portfolio of knowledge and interests as it is unclear what will take off next.

Trialling products and developments to see if they are any good is also key to staying ahead, which goes hand in hand with allowing time to play and learn.

For me, this was one of the key points to come out of the discussion: you have to enjoy what you are doing. Using your free time to install, play with, learn and understand new developments must be a part of your life; it needs to be your hobby as well as your work. Poppy began blogging for fun at UCL but was committed to regular posts that required input at times when others might prefer to be in bed.

In summary
This was an entertaining and informative evening. I found the answers to my questions and much more.

From my professional perspective, I am pleased that the panel members were of the view that their degrees had been a help to their careers, whether directly or indirectly. Much of what UCL aims to achieve in its education is about the wider benefits of studying in London at a globally important university – we are London’s Global University after all – so I feel confident that the messages we promote while marketing UCL and its degrees are a true reflection of what goes on here.

The speed at which the digital world operates was brought home to me while writing this blog entry; checking Twitter, I notice that our Chair for the evening, @clhw1, tweeted much of what I have said live on the night…

Watch a video of the event below:

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