OPINION26 September 2023

How to build a sense of belonging

Opinion Sustainability Wellbeing Youth

Louise McLaren sets out the case for engaging with industry bodies and taking opportunities to connect with peers outside your workplace.

Connections abstract image

A few months ago, I was sitting at an awards ceremony and one of the people at my dinner table was a new joiner to the insights sector. They asked me what advice I’d give to a someone just starting out.  

I’m not used to being asked that question – it triggered an immediate sense of impostor syndrome and reminded me, slightly uncomfortably, that I’ve somehow moved from being an energetic junior pushing to run projects ahead of my experience to someone that should know what they’re doing.

What I said in response to the question came easily, though – it was ‘get involved in our sector’. It was no doubt informed by the enjoyment of being at an industry event, but there’s much more to it. We then talked about the interests of my dinner companion, and I found myself recommending MRS &More and the Young Person’s Sustainability Collective.

For years, I felt myself to be sitting on the fringes. I’d never gone through a classic big agency research training programme, and always worked in consultancies that didn’t position themselves firmly in the research world, but (in different ways, at different points) with a foot in insight and a foot in consultancy.

The height of Covid-19 was a lonely experience. Superficially, I kept busy and connected to family and colleagues (I had less time for friends) but the strain of managing a busy workload plus home-schooling and living on a building site was exhausting and isolating. 

Something started to shift when a friend, knowing my passion about addressing climate change, connected me into a group that was being set up to stimulate dialogue in our industry about our collective responsibility and potential influence on this topic. This became the Insight Climate Collective.

It was, and remains, a joy to collaborate with friends across different agencies. Agencies that in theory are competitors, and sometimes definitely are (I once learned we lost a pitch when a friend in another agency mentioned in passing that they’d won it).

Being part of setting up the Insight Climate Collective has fuelled something in me and led to lots of different types of interaction and involvement in our sector, whether it’s judging awards, writing articles, or being part of an MRS workstream on talent and wellbeing.

Slowly, and this is a function of my years on the clock, I’ve built up friends across agencies and indeed client-side businesses. I sometimes meet up with these friends or have video calls to catch up, share challenges and experiences.

For sure, there are practical benefits in the sort of soft networking that this involves – it can translate into useful connections, such as being introduced to a great talent recruiter or panel partner.

But the emotional benefits are much richer and more intangible. I’ve realised that having these connections outside of my company somehow enhance my job satisfaction within my role. Feeling a stronger sense of belonging in the sector cascades down.

I’ve made friends that inspire and support me with peer-to-peer mentoring – whether it’s sharing insights into how the market is; patterns in relationships with clients and in pitching; and sometimes empathising over the things you battle with in your agency silo and wonder if others are experiencing too.

There’s also informal mentoring opportunities that present themselves from talking with experienced friends who’ve gone through it all before.

Then there’s huge satisfaction in collaborating with peers across agencies to tackle shared challenges and opportunities to make things better for everyone in the sector. There are many issues that are best addressed through generous knowledge-sharing and a spirit of open-minded partnership. 

This is indeed part of a new model of doing business, where companies recognise that collaboration on an industry level is essential to moving faster to solve problems that matter to everyone, such as the climate emergency.

If the opportunity presents itself to get involved in any groups that our industry offers, I’d urge those coming up behind me to throw themselves in. If you can’t find a group that reflects the agenda and needs you have, perhaps there’s something to be created.

Louise McLaren is managing director at Lovebrands