EP 63: Why Exploration Matters for Your Employees, with Erica Shieh

Jan 16, 2020

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EP 63: Why Exploration Matters for Your Employees, with Erica Shieh

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Erica Shieh of Movement Strategy talk about the importance of cultural exploration and travel for agency employees. The multitude of benefits to your team, your agency, and your clients may surprise you!

Feedback always welcome! Questions for Kelly and/or guests? Want to suggest a guest or show topic? Cool. Just email

Episode 63 Links

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 EP 63: Why Exploration Matters for Your Employees

Duration: 13:52


Kelly:So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. Pardon my voice, I’m just getting over laryngitis after the holiday season. But last year, I actually work with this agency called Movement Strategy. They’ve got offices and a bunch of places across the US. We worked on some positioning things together a little bit of SEOs, some conversion rate optimization, and as part of that work together, they initiated this employee contributed blog.

And one of their first post was by Senior Manager of Data + Insights, Erica Shieh who is actually my guest today. Her post was called How Traveling the World Made Me A Better Researcher. And honestly, I was kind of really blown away by the post. I’ll put that in the show notes today but I thought we could have a really great discussion about why exploration matters for agency employees. So Erica, welcome to the show. I’m super excited to have you on today and just thrilled to have this conversation. I think it’s one that I haven’t heard before so I’m really excited to jump into it with you.

Erica:Thanks for having me Kelly. I’m so excited to talk about it. I could talk about travel all day.

Kelly:So you actually started off this post by identifying a critical issue for strategists and creatives alike, which is that they’re sort of like this idea that there’s an unconscious bias and like a cultural blindness that we have and kind of unintentionally creep into our work because at the end of the day like we’re just making assumptions. So how does that impact the work that we deliver to our clients is really the question.

Erica:Yeah, I think sometimes we don’t even realize it. Because a lot of my teammates and a lot of advertising agency, a lot of us are from similar areas. We have similar backgrounds. Most of us have lived in big cities and when we get together and put together a creative brief or a strategy, I think we’re sometimes not aware of the fact that we kind of live in a bubble and how it is an agency life, like the timelines are really short and sometimes we don’t have a budget to do proper research.

And so, we kind of sift together what we know from our own personal experiences and hope that that’s enough to put together a really broad reaching insightful campaign. And sometimes it works and sometimes we hit the mark or we miss the mark just because we don’t fully understand a subculture or a group of people. And unfortunately that’s kind of pervasive in the industry right now. One thing that’s really helpful to deter that is just doing research and talking to people and experiencing things and getting a larger perspective from travel or research.

Kelly:Yeah, and the reason why I think this is such an important conversation is because I think you hit the nail on the head that this is very pervasive in agency world because of all of the reasons why, you just mentioned. And so, if part of our charge is to deliver good work and effective work on behalf of our clients yet we’re lacking perspective, we’re lacking empathy. We’re sort of using our own assumptions and our own experiences, which could be really limiting or limited.

That obviously has to impact the work and not make it as effective as possible. So yeah that’s the reason why sometimes we do miss the mark and then the client questions our value and then there’s client attrition and so really it cascades down into a lot of different things. And again this conversation is not one that I’ve heard before so I want to know a little bit more about the journey, the physical journey, the travel journey, that you went on. You bought a one way ticket to Asia and actually you were sort of on sabbatical for about seven months and I want to hear more about that.

Erica:Yes, so I had worked in advertising for probably six years and it’s the story of burnout, working long hours and I kind of was looking for a reset moment and part of my job is to do consumer insights and to study human behavior and to study psychology and discover truths about people and I realize that I don’t really know my own personal truths. I had never really felt connected to my Asian heritage growing up. Essentially my sister announced that she was gonna have her engagement party in Taiwan. And then I had a friend who had a wedding in India and I thought oh my god, like this is the perfect moment for me to just go to Asia, take some long time off. In my head, I was thinking around like six months and take the opportunity to just explore other countries and be in different cultures that I’d never really known before.

So I started off in China, which was crazy and I did the typical touristy things, did Great Wall of China, and went around, Terracotta Army. Went to the meeting place called [5:47]. But I think one of my intentions with traveling was to travel slowly and to think slowly and have it be less about me but more about observing what’s around me. And you have all the stereotypes about Chinese people. Growing up in America you’re told certain things and then you realize when you get there that it’s not everything that you were taught necessarily and being able to travel slowly and not really know where you’re going and just figuring out it along the way and just being spontaneous and letting people that you meet tell you where to go.

It was invaluable and I had the best time. I think I met a lot of people in China that kind of reframed how I felt about the Chinese government and just having that insider perspective, I never could have gotten that if I hadn’t been there. So China was crazy and then I went to Nepal where I did a lot of hiking there. It was a very spiritual experience because a lot of folks are religious and they believe that the mountains are sacred and time spent there is very simple and slow. And I think along the way, being able to observe people and meet other travelers that perhaps were from German or Sweden like they have different perspectives as well. So just meeting strangers, meeting other expats, meeting other travelers, it was really, really awesome and just getting to talk to people and learning about what are my own biases, what did I not realize that I held on to. And just kind of being exposed to their thoughts and perspectives, is really awesome.

Kelly:Yeah. As an employee obviously you’re with movement strategy but like as an employee, what advice would you give to the owners or leaders of other agencies that might be considering the pros and cons of sort of allowing employees to take these extended periods of time for travel  and vacation and exploration and things like that.

Erica: Yeah I’d say it’s so, so incredible in making employees not only feel like they’re growing personally but also professionally. I honestly went into my trip thinking this was a personal journey of mine. But I came out of it realizing that I grew so much as a researcher and someone who became more empathetic and more aware of my own biases and as a strategist, being aware of those things helps a lot in crafting our briefs. I would tell agency leaders that while you do miss this person for a couple of months, they will come back as more confident, bold, empathetic, open-minded, and really I would say, audacious. I think any time that people are exposed to different cultures you come back so humbled and so empowered. And like people are the best versions of themselves when they travel and then when you come back, you’re not only reset from a mental perspective but you have all these experiences that make you a better strategist or creative.

Kelly:Yeah, I couldn’t agree with that more just from my personal travel experiences and all the upcoming travel I have planned because of that. I do want to read the last paragraph of your post because I think first of all there’s just so much sort of poetry and beauty in it. But also because I think it’s really good for these agency leaders to understand why they should really encourage this exploration in their employees. So if you don’t mind I’d love to read this last paragraph. It’s a little long but I think it’s important.

You said, “I’ve taken what I learned during my travels and have since re-entered the agency world with a new perspective on research and strategy. I take the time to recognize my own implicit biases and ask questions that don’t make assumptions. I actively listen to consumers with an open-heart and without judgment. I am more compassionate towards societies and cultures that I’m not familiar with and I share this mindset with my fellow teammates reminding them of our audiences complexities and nuances. I left America to connect with myself and I came back not only more in tune with myself but even better as a researcher.”

That to me, that was like, amazing. That was honestly, that was the paragraph that made me even want to record the show with you. Because I thought it was really moving, it was really inspiring and I think again it’s a conversation that we need to have because we do get so sort of tunnel vision. Agency life is hard. Agency life is just what we talked about a little while ago. It’s fast paced. Sometimes there isn’t budget for all the things that we need to really get done but who are we doing the disservice to at the end of the day. So I do want to thank you for your writing that and for encapsulating it in such a way that I think it’s really compelling.

Erica: Thanks. Yeah, I think again like it was an opportunity to slow down and be patient and be open-minded and be present. Those are all things and experiences that will go a long way especially in the agency world.

Kelly: Yeah, so as we wrap up, is there anything else that you would love to leave the audience with? A take away or just something that you think that they should consider?

Erica: That’s a great question. I think that, I envision this future in which maybe once every six years, it became normal to take a sabbatical for six months like the 6/6 rule, like 6 years and then you learn in 6 months. If that could be implemented as normal and standard across not only agency world, but in the professional life, I could see a world in which employees are so much more productive, happy, inquisitive, curious, brave and I think Americans especially can benefit so much from that because we don’t travel much. I feel like we’re afraid to travel sometimes. And so if we made it a norm to say hey you’re with us for six years where every six years you do this, I think it would be really incredible.

Kelly:Yeah, that’s awesome and if you put a petition together or something, like I would sign that in a heartbeat. I love it. I love it. Well, Erica, thank you so much again for joining me today on Thrive and I wish you the best in your future travels.

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