Walking around: Notes from the field

The pavements are slippery here in Helsinki but – novelty – I am walking on them rather than letting them slide by my taxi window. I’ve needed to get outside on this trip because the venue I am working in is so near my hotel that it would be preposterous to jump in a taxi, and because I’ve had to hunt down a power cable for my laptop, which has required a trip to several shops across the city.

Those who know me well say, after I’ve been on a work trip, ‘I suppose you don’t have time to see the city’. No, quite right. I almost never do. It’s an ongoing joke.

I went to Austin and Charlotte, where I saw only freeways and spent all my time in buildings by said roads. I went to Mumbai and the only time I ventured outside of hotel and office compounds (my hotel had car and luggage security screening to permit entry into the grounds) was on the final day, to try to visit a nearby store. Emerging into the heat, dust, squalor and begging was a shock to the system and I was ashamed of how impervious I had been to the outside reality of the city up to this point.

And yet in our line of work, to experience only the inside of hotels, viewing facilities, offices and taxis really is not right. We need to understand people in order to develop solutions the better to meet their needs, or brands and communications that engage more compellingly. We cannot understand them fully by sitting behind a focus group mirror, ignorant of the surrounding culture, which shapes attitudes, needs, hopes and hears. We need contextual insight.

This is not a new point whatsoever. Ethnographic research, which we deploy frequently at Truth, recognises the benefits of engaging with people in their own environment, of observing how they live. On the other hand, focus groups and their workshops have their merits and cannot be replaced.

But the mindset we adopt on work trips can be altered. I know I am not the only one who lurches from Mercedes taxi to fancy hotel to viewing facility. I struggle to see work trips as an occasion to toil away in any other form than my customary one – hunched over my laptop (in these instances usually in my hotel room) or talking with people about just how to run that next focus group. And all this often involves working across two time-zones, because business continues as usual back in the office.

The supposed clever solution is to stay a little longer in market than needed, for example flying back on the Sunday rather than the Saturday. But as someone with a busy work schedule, at the end of a trip I do just want to get home (that place I might not always see quite enough of even when based at the office). And deadlines can mean that it’s a luxury to stay in market rather than get back to start analysis and so on, or return in order to continue with meetings on other projects.

So what is the solution? For me, firstly it’s critical to continue to recognise the importance of understanding the culture I am visiting, and to remember that just sitting behind a two-way mirror is not an immersive but an arms’ length (literally and metaphorically) experience. And it’s a question of finding those little opportunities to get out there, however I can.

Making sure I stay in a hotel sufficiently near wherever I am working that I have to walk rather than take a taxi, or staying in a hotel in an area with lots going on. Taking time to talk to people; those we’re working with locally, hotel, restaurant and shop staff, taxi drivers (a few taxi journeys are inevitable!). Going out for something to eat rather than taking the easy option of the hotel restaurant or, worse, room service. Buying local magazines and newspapers. Being bolder and setting one cultural activity ‘goal’ (for example, visiting that brilliant modern art museum directly opposite my hotel in São Paulo, which I didn’t manage to set a foot near).

Thinking beyond this, I am going to challenge my colleagues – and myself – to come back from each fieldwork trip abroad with one cultural (rather than project-specific) insight to share with the company.

Now, what did I learn in Helsinki other than the fact that the climate has an obvious bearing on consumers’ needs?