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Digital marketing and children’s literature: Chris’ offbeat career

With a background in computer science, marketing and children’s literature (and many more exciting causes to boot, such as environmentalism and mental health!), Chris is the perfect representation of what Offbeat Careers stands for: brave, multifaceted careers that refuse to stick to one label and deliver on courage, value and surprise. Skills over labels, servicing others in creative ways. I’m excited to publish the insights, fun childhood stories, vulnerabilities and dreams he’s kindly shared with us.

Welcome to Offbeat Career‘s interview series, where I bring in professionals with multifaceted, unusual careers. They’ve worn multiple hats, lived multiple lives…and do so unapologetically!

Dear Chris, welcome to Offbeat Careers! You founded Little Fish Digital, a marketing agency to help small and medium businesses to grow online. You help these businesses build a better online presence, optimize interactivity, and ultimately to sell more! I noticed you keep your services affordable and explain in your profile: “If you are wondering why I do this, it is because I want to be a part of the growth stage of small and medium businesses, working hand in hand with them to scale and thrive.” An interesting thought came to my mind; could this also be what inspires you to write children’s literature? After all, it’s also an affordable way to become a part of someone’s path, and stories can be a powerful way to hold children’s hands as they grow! What are some common traits that unite your different fields of work?

Definitely, there is a similarity between helping small businesses and looking to guide children through emotions. With small businesses, they don’t have the big budgets for expensive marketing campaigns but still need the support. I try to be as low cost as possible, so they can get access to skills the larger companies can usually afford in excess. The aim is to try and make it an even playing field, or at least reduce the competitive gap slightly.

The same I think applies to helping children. Anxiety and depression are commonplace throughout Western society and they have been linked with modern stresses such as overwork and relationship issues. I’m currently going through therapy, and my therapist Doug Ramsay has helped me understand that I had difficulty identifying my emotions when I felt them.

It was around that point I started to join the dots that as a child, I never really discussed emotions – not being able to understand them, suppressing them. This wasn’t helpful for two reasons. Firstly, I could not communicate what I needed and secondly, I thought that suppressing emotions was a suitable coping mechanism.

I feel that there are many aspects of our culture that puts profits before people’s feelings. Most often in the workplace, it’s not deemed professional to be overly emotional in any way. As a result, I think this is normalised throughout society and children can’t learn from emotions that adults try not to show! Through suppression and not being transparent about how we feel when taking on too many tasks, we can experience a slow yet exhausting burnout or instead an explosion of anger, or fear, or a similar, overwhelming emotion.

And this is why I made the book, to try and provide an engaging resource for children, to show them that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our emotions. I also hope it teaches kindness and empathy when other children are experiencing difficult emotions so they can open up to each other. I would agree that helping people with what resources I have is something that is shared between both areas of work. I’ve always been a bit of a people pleaser – sometimes this has worked to my advantage, other times not so much! So helping people and seeing a positive reaction is a great motivator of mine.

Why children’s literature and not any other kind? How did you get started writing, and what does it offer you that digital marketing or computer science can’t?

That’s a great question! I did actually start on a book for adults before the children’s book and am still working on this on the side. I’ve written over 90,000 words so far although they may mostly be gibberish. This is more of a passion project of mine to fuel my inner geek as it’s a medieval fantasy setting with some magical things going on (not the most original idea!). However I am using it as a way to analyse things that happen in the real world drawing on parallels to climate change, corruption and over-consumption. Although I don’t use it as an emotional resource, I am trying to narrate how the character’s feel in situations, which tends to contrast with what they show on the outside.

I think with the children’s book, because I’m no psychology expert, it was also a way of helping me understand emotions more. Simple words and brightly coloured creatures work well for me even as a 34 year old! I had help from my sister’s friend who works in social care, as well as others online, who compiled great feedback for the book so I could simplify it further for the audience.

I’m terrible at self-organisation and I don’t usually have a plan when it comes to many things. I had the initial idea of the book during lockdown and I knew it would have emotions and creatures in it. But I didn’t know what emotions and what the creatures look like. With most things I tend to do, I just went for it and hoped the end product was readable!

Drawing offers the freedom to be creative and use skills which I don’t tend to utilise in my role as a marketer. As a child, I always loved drawing, mostly sketching pictures of Sonic the Hedgehog! I also won a local competition to draft a picture for a local brewery’s campaign (anyone from Adnam’s if you’re reading!?) who had partnered with the police on an anti-burglary campaign. I was invited with my dad at the age of 9 to the Houses of Parliament as a result, met the Home Secretary and had a sip of chocolate beer at the bar (it didn’t taste very nice).

With digital marketing, I’m constrained to the objectives that I agree upon with the client. Although I have had a lot more creative freedom since becoming a freelancer and I’m not subjected to the subjective views of internal teams, it can’t offer me what drawing does.

You’ve recently written a mindfulness and mental health book for children (ages 4-8) called That’s Okay. In this book, you help children understand their emotions and the impact they have. You shared your very own story with mental health ups and downs over the years, especially in your mid-twenties, which I can completely relate to. Thank you, first of all, not only for sharing your personal perspective, but also for taking the time to create a piece of literature with such an important mission. Can you tell us more about that and how you’d ideally want this book to be used by adults to help children around us?

We’re all learning that keeping a ‘stiff upper lip‘ may not be great for our mental health. There is so much information out there now on how being open about our emotions can help us relieve the burdens of stress, overwhelm and overwork.

From growing up in a culture where we don’t really discuss emotions and have to put them to one side in a classroom and then later on in an office, I feel like there is a responsibility by leaders, whether that’s a manager at work, parent or teacher, to show to their staff or children to now try and encourage conversations about feelings that may have been stigmatised. For example, feeling sad and crying has been perceived as a sign of weakness. People can feel uncomfortable if someone cries in front of them. And this discomfort is not always hidden well, and the person who is upset can easily feel isolated as a result.

Also, I think adults can be quite harsh to others without thinking of the emotional impact. Even when I’m running online adverts for clients, some of the abuse the brand gets in the comments section affects me in some way. I think on social media, things are getting out of hand and because people are not face-to-face with someone they fire comments off which can be pretty horrible.

When we are young, we are like a sponge, and a lot of this experience transfers into adulthood.  We need adults to show to children from a young age that emotions are not shameful to have, and also make sure that the same applies to other adults so they are normalised and not suppressed.

My uncle gave me some good feedback on creating a colouring book version, which is what I’ve done now. I’ve also added in blank spaces so children can write how certain emotions make them feel as I think our experiences can be unique in some ways – being angry might cause a headache for someone but not necessarily everyone. I think this gives adults a way to help understand how their children are feeling.

Apart from promoting stories of people who work with different fields and engage in multifaceted roles, Offbeat Careers wants to promote a variety of working models, formats and combos. You’ve worked both as a full-time employee and as a freelancer. What differences surprised you? Any advice for those who are thinking of potentially having a freelance business, just like you?

As an employee I think the immediate benefit is a sense of job security (in most cases!) which can provide comfort. You also get the chance to build strong friendships and you get access to mentors without actually having to seek them out in the form of managers and colleagues.    

When I became a freelancer, it surprised me how isolated I felt quite quickly. Conversations with clients will always involve work and there’s a transactional element to it too. Colleague relationships are different, where there is a sense of camaraderie. This is something I started to miss pretty much straight away and I did have to adjust to this, looking for other ways to ensure strong social relationships.

This, and one other aspect, were the only downsides for me – the other being accountability. As an employee, accountability only goes so far. As a freelancer, you have to be accountable for all of your actions. In the first few months, this was quite stressful. This was another adjustment I had to make, but it was worth it.

There was something that I found quite interesting with the accountability aspect. I felt like I was more respected by clients thanks to the knowledge they knew I was running my own business. This gave me confidence in my abilities and also helped when I did take accountability for things, I wasn’t treated like I had done something wrong. This is something I have experienced so much in the workplace, some managers in some situations  can’t talk about problems using facts, they just tend to scold based on their opinion of the situation and you have to just swallow it, or be viewed as overly emotional if you respond like-for-like!

There are the much talked about benefits of freelancing that I have started noticing – there’s no cap on your earnings, you can pretty much choose when you work on projects making your schedule more flexible and you learn so much more about all areas of business. But for me it was the reduction of internal politics and removal of subjective management styles which really benefited my wellbeing.

My advice for anyone going freelance:

1. Make sure you have enough experience under your belt as an employee in the sector you want to freelance in. I think employment serves as a great stepping stone to freelancing. With experience, it makes things a lot easier as a freelancer – you can get projects done faster and to higher degrees of quality and you can hold your own in client meetings with confidence in your abilities.

2. Connect with other freelancers. This helped me with the isolation aspect. There is so much business out there especially in the marketing world that you shouldn’t view other freelancers as competitors. Not only can you share struggles like you can with a colleague, you can also work with them to offer more services to your clients.

3. Recommendations are the best way to get more business. If you have a supportive employer and have discussed your plans to go freelance, maybe they can recommend you to their network. It’s good to get work lined up before you make the leap (I didn’t do this because of circumstances! And it was quite scary, but I made sure I produce high quality work for my clients so they recommend me to other businesses).

I noticed you tend to share, repost and comment on a lot of content that relates to climate change, animal protection and the environment. What role does this topic play in your life, and are there other interests, hobbies, passions and/or causes that capture your attention and inform your work?

Growing up, I think I was unaware of the breadth and depth of the climate crisis, happily indulging in over-consumption of food and clothes. Over time, my viewpoint has changed quite drastically and I feel, like many others, this is the biggest threat to all species across our planet.

Despite my lack of awareness, I’ve always been quite sensitive (there’s a book that helped me understand this called The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron) and this includes things around me if someone is upset or offended by something. This sensitivity started to stretch to looking at my own actions and how this impacts on populations, animal and human, around the world.

As a result, I started to make changes in my life to reduce my carbon-footprint. I’m vegetarian and I try to eat vegan alternatives as much as I can. I can’t remember the last time I bought new clothes, choosing to let my wardrobe go the distance! I drive a small 1L petrol car for longer distances that I don’t wash as I think there are better uses of water and I cycle shorter distances.

I don’t agree with forcing people to change their buying habits, I think it’s more about discussion and awareness. When you impose something on others, you tend to get a lot of resistance. This is why I share articles on LinkedIn to give people the choice to read them or not. We need more changes as a society to tackle the climate crisis, and we need them to be put in place at a faster rate. It’s vital that people buy into this off their own back, to realise the importance of it all.

In a way, I hope the book helps with this – I think if people are more empathetic, compassionate and kinder, then they will prioritise the environment over fast fashion, luxurious food and hulking SUVs. Through empathy I think you can become more aware of the impact of certain actions on others and more likely to adjust those actions as a result.

I have other passions and hobbies, but they don’t intertwine into my work as much as drawing, creativity and my views on the environment and politics. However, they do provide a supportive role as they are good for my well being, predominantly indoor bouldering and my love for a wide range of music. 

Let’s talk about career values. You’ve had some different experiences and even decided to start a path on your own terms. How do you define success and happiness in your own career? What makes you go “I’m satisfied with how things are going”?

I think the question of success is a great one and is something I’ve been pondering over for some time now. Predominantly, should success be defined in the traditional sense of getting the biggest pay cheque you can and climbing the career ladder? Or should success be defined as whilst being as kind to others and our environment as possible?

As I get older, I lean more and more towards the latter. As long as I’m not causing people distress and am making as ethical choices as possible, whilst earning enough for myself, I feel content with how things are going.

I also take great satisfaction if I overcome a complex challenge that I haven’t come across before. One recent example of this was setting up a conversion goal to identify a particular piece of data when it’s triggered on a website. I love learning new things and I was very pleased to get that work.

Whenever I interview such multifaceted professionals who combine different skills (in your case, creativity, communication, business acumen, digital marketing, etc), I always like to focus on the competitive advantages you have in the market. So often, we hear that a linear path is where it’s at – you have to study one topic, pursue that topic, and die working on that topic. How do you feel about all of this, and what kind of professional does your unique path make you?

I think for generations before, the linear path was probably the way forward. You could stay in the same company for most of your lifetime. Things are very different now, employees don’t tend to stick around in the same job for many years, no matter if that’s their choice or their employers!

With this in mind, even for focused specialties, there are different techniques and practices you need to learn at a new workplace and other staff will have different areas of expertise that you may have to compensate for or rely on more. This means I think it’s difficult to stay linear even within a speciality. Also, with the development of technology you have to learn how to use new systems frequently.

I also don’t believe that we are just good at one thing. We all have a multitude of skills we can learn as long as we enjoy learning and utilising those skills to help others and our own development.

I don’t have a long term plan and I’ve always been unsure about what my calling is! I just learn skills and use them to guide me down a path, in quite a reactive way!

You’ve worked in the digital marketing world for quite some time now, so I’m curious to ask: where do you think this industry is going? What do you predict businesses should be able to do to stay on top of their game? And now a tricky second question…what about children’s literature? What would you like to see happen there in the future?

With digital marketing, the big grey area is data and what businesses are doing to protect consumers and platform users. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other platforms all were relatively inexpensive to run adverts on. Now we’ve seen things like GDPR and the iOS update which have made it more expensive and more challenging to reach target audiences for products and services.

I think we’re going to see more data crackdowns in the future which will provide more challenges to digital marketers. Businesses need to work together instead of against each other in direct competition to come up with new and innovative ways to get the message to the consumer.

Because I’m so new to the children’s literature space it’s difficult to know where it is heading. Personally, I want to integrate augmented reality into my books so when the parent or teacher scans an image with their phone camera, the child can see the character in 3D on the screen. Lots of people are getting hooked on social media, so I think technology should be used to help tempt them back to traditional books as this can help bridge the gap.

Chris, I love closing these conversations by inviting guests to dream big. Let’s say money and time wouldn’t be an issue for you, and you wouldn’t have to abdicate from the things you have right now. What kind of hobbies, side gigs or interests would you like to explore in the future?

I would like to try and buy or build a micro house with a few solar panels on a patch of land, lots of trees, to see how sustainable I can live – something that doesn’t take a lot of maintenance though – just let it grow wild so animals can enjoy it!

Going back to my inner geek, I also want to try my hand at some sort of game development or design. I was working on a board game recently but this is taking a back seat. I always wanted to make a video game when I was younger and have made some attempts over the years but have found it quite a challenge time and knowledge wise, but this is something I would definitely re-explore if I had more time.

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