Gaining new contracts can sometimes be problematic when you can’t speak about who your last client was, or what you did for them. Yet this is a situation I often find myself in. I’m not exactly meeting new clients down dark alleyways, but it can sometimes feel a little like that.
“Come alone, no cops… or other agencies.”
I am talking about the work that I do for (often) agencies who have made a name for themselves doing the kind of work I do for them. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?
TL;dr, I do creative work where creative agencies are the client, PR work for PR agencies and re-branding work for branding agencies. It may sound crazy, or even that the agencies in question may be struggling in some way. But it is simply a relationship that makes sense. The client is too close to the work. They can’t see the wood for the trees. They need someone with an outside perspective to come in, take a fresh look and sort it all out. Fast.
This relationship also bypasses office and organisational politics. Yes, someone has to make the decision to hire me (usually the CEO/founder/owner), but I have no interest in the power struggles that can happen when a company needs to change. No dog in the fight, other than what I perceive as the best way to solve a problem or boost performance.
I have helped branding agencies – who are excellent at helping big brands on design, storytelling and marketing – to look at themselves and what their brand is today. I have also re-booted communications agencies who are feeling a little tired or out of touch. I regularly come up with new ideas for creative agencies when they are stuck.
But these names don’t appear on portfolios, CVs or websites, as both they and I know the value of a relationship that works on trust, privacy and value. Yes it can be frustrating, or even look like I could be making half of this up. But the honest application of expertise that comes with working in the dark offers value that few can offer.
When it came to the pandemic lockdowns, there were few better equipped to cope than writers. With the majority of us being work from home natives who are happy in our own company, we took to the new world of work like a duck to water. We had all the hardware and software in place, along with the all important comfortable office chair and desk. We’d already purloined enough pens, pencils and notepads from in-house jobs, awaydays and meetings to keep us going for a decade-long lockdown.
Sure, we had our once-quiet days interrupted by endless Zoom meetings – like the rest of the working world – but we were also far more in demand than ever, as businesses realised the value of a ready-to-go workforce that was used to delivering without someone looking over their shoulder. They also realised that they could get a senior expert copywriter or consultant for two days per week instead of a junior member of staff on a salary. The results could be transformational.
Even Ocado deliveries could not stop us from making deadlines, as others struggled with their home becoming their office and the lure of the garden or park. We got busy. Very busy.
The one thing that I did learn about myself during this period is that face-to-face is best for me when having an initial or introductory meeting. While I can function perfectly well in online meetings, I make a better impression when I am in the room. Yes, I am an introvert who can be a ‘business extrovert’, but I have found that my benefits and knowledge are almost always best delivered as asides. I am a natural storyteller, which is a big part of my job as well as a big part of how I sell my offer. Marginalia is where the interest is.
Did I tell you about that time I sent Nigel Farage into hiding? The ********** ********? What about the time I met the Godfather (of panto)?
My skill set is somewhat unique [insert Liam Neeson gif], as it is (honestly this is not some kind of SEO-booster) storyteller, writer, author, journalist, copywriter, ghost writer, thought leadership writer, report writer and narrative creator, alongside consultant, ideas man, PR consultant, pranks creator, culture history expert, subcultural historian and cultural commentator. And that is before we get into all of my areas of interest. So many of those descriptors are buzzwords that I dislike, but they have become terms that describe what I do, from writing books to impersonating CEOs, or representing founders in meetings or in print.
My most recent virtual business card signs off ‘trouble caused or solved’. The last person I passed it on to got the story of me talking my way out of being arrested in Whitechapel. You’ll have to buy me a coffee to get the end of that one. Maybe I’ll throw in the tale of which keynote speaker’s lanyard I was wearing at BAFTA, and how that led to a working relationship that I still enjoy.
Whether you need me to create a report on your newly-found B Corporation status or simply come up with ideas for a PR campaign, I can sell you all the skills for this over a tea or a beer far better than I can through a screen. That is not because I am a great salesman, but because I think on my feet and adhere to the ‘two of these, one of those’ (ears/mouth) rules of conversation. I am like one of those agencies that promises you a boutique experience, but I do that part in front of your eyes. It’s fluid. It’s different every time.
This on-the-ball method also works spectacularly well in both pitch meetings and talks. I’m the one who gets the client or the audience to laugh in a room where there often isn’t any. And it is not about jokes. It is about reading a room, a mood and an audience. It is about a dialogue, not a monologue. Disarming your audience, whether that is one person or a crowd, means you can earn their trust, their attention and (possibly) their business.
If we do meet, then I am likely to finish my drink before you, because I am sipping, listening and digesting (your words and ideas, as well as that biscuit). Most of my CV and portfolio is in my head. Once I know what you need then I can spin you a good yarn that gets to that point.
So, if you want to chat over a beverage, or a talk over toast then let me know.
In the constant battle between cheap SEO-spoofing articles and quality, original copy, the term thought leadership has made its way to the top of the words-based marketing heap. But what precisely does thought leadership mean, if it is not simply another term for content marketing or search engine fodder?
Thought Leadership, if done properly, is a mix between what the English newspapers call ‘comment’ and their American counterparts call ‘op-ed’, with a spot of clever (and timely) marketing. As the press slashes journalists and budget, so the need for erudite and topical content from those outside of the media increases.
Quality over quantity
The words ‘topical’ and ‘erudite’ are doing some heavy lifting there, and for good reason. I have worked for 25 years as a professional journalist, author and editor. This means that I also receive a good number of emails from inexperienced marketers, offering their client’s opinion on anything from sandwiches to sandpaper.
These missives are often accompanied by the phraseology all journalists and editors dread. “I saw you wrote that thing about X, well here is a thing about Y that I think is relevant”. Believe me when I say that is never relevant. Nor is it very good. Thought leadership is not amateur hour content marketing. It has to provide value and it must draw on existing talent and philosophy within an organisation.
This is where a grasp of your client’s strengths and the news agenda, coupled with a bulging contacts book comes in handy. And this is why journalists and former-journalists are best-placed to deal with thought leadership. They know what a story looks like, how to jump on the news agenda and just where your client’s opinions will gain most traction. They also know when to be realistic and when to say no. After all, your client’s views on guinea pig outfits may be fascinating for Rodent Roundup, but not so good for the Financial Times.
Leading means influencing
The main value that many clients will see in thought leadership are the ‘column inches’, comparing print or online coverage with what they may have paid for an advert of the same size. But this doubly undersells the value of thought leadership. Firstly, an article in an influential title will always have at least four-times the value of even the very best ad of an equivalent scale. Secondly, the piece of thought leadership is not always simply aimed squarely at the readers. This is where the term starts to reveal its true meaning and value.
As someone who has written and ghost-written a good deal of thought leadership for clients, I can tell you that the copy and its sentiments are often aimed at a far smaller group than the readership of a magazine or newspaper. I have, for example, been commissioned to write pieces that are a sign to industry, but also ones that are a flag waved at a government department, or even an individual minister. These can be highly-effective and, when handled correctly, can lead to meetings, policy change or even an injection of funds.
This is where thought leadership really does its job of establishing the client as a voice to listen to and showing what that listening can achieve. It makes others want to come along for the ride as peers. That is far more powerful than advertorial or advertising can ever be for your client.
So, can I do thought leadership?
As always, the question of whether a tool such as thought leadership can work for you and your client depends on your abilities and their willingness. It can be a time-consuming, collaborative process. You need to capture the voice and the expertise that they offer, but you also need the confidence and contacts to place an article or other content in the places it needs to be seen. There is no use your client lending his time and thoughts to a blog or a journal just because you can get it placed there. You need to undertake considered targeting that realistic and rewards the time and money invested.
This brings me back to the earlier point about thought leadership not being a cheap content marketing fix. You can’t be a thought leader with poor spelling, little evidence of an argument and simplistic thinking. This, necessarily, makes it an often relatively costly process in financial terms. Although this cost still pales in comparison to an ad campaign or a marketing spend on a single issue. In short, your clients need to be asking how they can afford not to, rather than wondering if they can invest the money and time.
Dominic Cummings is one of the least trusted voices in the UK, or he certainly was this time last year, when he was sat in the Rose Garden at Number 10, explaining his unorthodox methodology for eye tests. But we can be sure of one thing that came from his mouth yesterday, and that was the fact that he is not a genius. He did, however, display some extensive knowledge of advanced pranksterism.
Cummings’ revelation about his lack of genius came when he spoke about the lack of quality at the top of the Government, including the Prime Minister. Cummings talked himself down, saying he had never achieved anything great. An attempt at false modesty, perhaps. An attempt to lay out a qualified mea culpa, certainly. But in an attempt to damn those around him, Cummings revealed a real truth about his limits.
There is little doubt about his abilities as a disruptive strategist, although there are many about his ability as a PR man. His leaking of stories in dribs and drabs over the last fortnight has not been handled spectacularly well. It also left little in terms of surprise or revelation for his big day in front of the committee (and, more importantly, the cameras). 5/10. He ended on a mumbled ‘no’ (about whether the PM was competent) rather than a mic drop.
Cummings did, however, do two things spectacularly well. The first was obvious, and that was to sew discord. Tossing that imaginary grenade, like a character from The Office. Pulling out the pin and letting chaos reign was seen as his style (hyped by himself) inside Number 10.
But Cummings doesn’t simply create an explosion, he offers up the contract for the clean-up. In this case, both Raab and Sunak were spared his ire and were instead praised for their efforts. Whether a collaboration or simple mind games, this was a really effective way to ensure disharmony inside the cabinet. This may be sheer nihilism, as Cummings claims that he doesn’t want another job inside a future administration. But it showed a clear strategy, rather than simple mud-slinging.
The other thing that Cummings did well can only be described in terms of ‘pranksterism’, specifically second staging pranksterism. In brief, this refers to opening up an organisation for questions to which you then respond or laying bear traps for your quarry to fall in to. A case in point is the endless referring back to the possibilities to sack Matt Hancock. This means that the PM looks weak and culpable if he does now sack him, weak and uncaring if he does not. It is a no-win situation.
Second staging is a powerful tactic when used well. But it requires great skill to execute efficiently. It is something that political campaign pranksters such as the Yes Men have used to great effect. In their version, they set up a fake corporate happening or, even better, impersonate a real company executive and let their victims believe that is the extent of the tomfoolery. It is embarrassing, unseemly and requires an immediate statement, often with an apology attached.
Of course, dressing up as the Executive Chief Vice Under President of Directorships at Widgets Corp and giving an off-kilter speech is not the pay off. The pay off comes when the company rushes to disown that presentation, as planned. But, just as they recover from being flattened by a falling piano, then a truck full of anvils lands upon them. Cummings was last seen backing such a truck up to the rear entrance of Number 10.
Cummings’ twist is that the victims don’t know which barbs come with a second stage attached. They may answer one accusation with a denial, only to be shown the smoking gun in the weekend’s papers. They may even offer a denial for something that was simply a throw away remark.
Of course, in this case the pay-off is not in the hands of Cummings himself. It requires Parliamentarians and the media to act upon his earlier work. They have to spot the clues, join the dots and pull at the threads. That demands time, care and effort. Will those charged with carrying out his aims take up the challenge? We can only watch and wait.
Search engine optimisation has long been hailed as a mysterious science clients and copywriters/SEO experts alike. Businesses want in on the secret of just how many words and/or keywords will magic them above that £5bn megacorp for their desired search term, copywriters and consultants want to promise that they can probably do that. And so it goes on.
It does not help that Google (for it is they we must all bow to here) keeps moving the goalposts, like a particularly jumpy groundsman/woman. Just as you come up with a formula that seems to work, Google changes their criteria. Once, keywords were king, they even toyed with author authority. The short answer is usually that paying helps. After all, that is the Google business model.
Still, we all like to have the belt and braces of both paid and organic search. So we sit up straight, pay attention and try to adapt. We shorten our sentences. We try to make sense. We don’t flood the copy with keywords. Green smiley faces welcome us in our Search Engine Optimisation software plug-ins. Phrase used twice. Thumbs up for 2021 content.
Until recently, the common knowledge among both business and copywriters was that blogs of around 400 words were the killer SEO must-have. Okay, so some say it was 350 words and some say it was 500 words. But we were all in the same ball park.
There was a lot of wishful thinking here. As business knew that 400 words was relatively inexpensive and writers knew they could say that two 400 word blogs represented a day of labour, when they may well be able to squeeze in three, or even four if they tried hard/didn’t try at all. The truth, was somewhat different. And now it seems it is totally different.
Next year it will be different in a different way. And so on.
The considered correct length of articles is now long. Very long. Your 400 word blogs do not cut it here. Better to stitch six together, as you need something above 2,000 words for an article to have super-authority. We want scholarly, but not too scholarly. This is SEO, not academia. Unless you are doing SEO for academia, in which case I wish you luck.
As ever, there are cautions, conditions and exceptions. But it does seem that most people get better results with longer blogs. This does not mean that you should abandon and burn your 400 word posts. Just that you should maybe mix them up with quality 2,500 word blogs that are essentially long reads. That is they are in-depth, offer new learning and could really be split up into three or more posts.
You want shares of snippets, chunks of your wisdom to be shamelessly stolen on social media and the odd line that ends up over an inspirational picture of a kitten on Facebook. If it inspires a TikTok dance video, then so much the better.
Of course, for any of this to happen, what you need is a decent writer, or even a roster of them. You also need to give them time to go away and write something that is worthy of being published in 2,500+ words. No one is going to read your screed and park themselves on your page if you just deliver them 2,500 words of drivel. More writing does not mean less quality. If that were true we would be back to the days of thousands of keywords in white text on a white background.
Most of all, you need to have a reason to publish an article in the first place. If it is neither informative, interesting or useful then you would be better off not bothering. Even SEO robots get bored you know.