On today’s Explicit Content Podcast I am talking to Luke Hurd who by day works as a Digital Immersion Director at Signal Theory & augmented reality filter creator artist with over 100k followers on In…Read More
Building a content studio as part of a new publication can be tricky. You want to model what works, but so few have done it and shared their stories.
Melanie Deziel sits down with Sam Rosen, SVP of Growth at The Atlantic, and Annie Granatstein, Head of WP BrandStudio, to discuss their objectives and key takeaways from building their teams. Jeff and Melanie fill in the conversation with their own insights from building brands and agencies and some of the pitfalls that can arise.
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Welcome to the Explicit Content podcast. Here are your hosts, Melanie Deziel and Jeff Julian.
Jeff Julian: Hi, welcome back to the Explicit Content Podcast. And this is the native advertising edition and I have Melanie with me.
Melanie Deziel: Hello.
Jeff Julian: Hey, how's it going?
Melanie Deziel: Pretty good. I'm ready.
Jeff Julian: Heard you had a big event this weekend?
Melanie Deziel: I did. I did. I finally got to celebrate my marriage with my family and friends here in Jersey. And the weather held out, so what more can you ask for?
Jeff Julian: Yeah. I saw the pictures and I'm like, wait, aren't we supposed to be recording in a couple days? Like I just assumed you're off on a honeymoon or something like that.
Melanie Deziel: You know, because I spend so much time on the road speaking, you know, we get to mini moon every now and then, so gets to come with me on a lot of my trips and we've gotten to see some cool parts of the world.
Jeff Julian: That's what's awesome about being a speaker and a content creator. I talked to a whole bunch of kids today, like middle school and high school kids about careers. It was unique 'cause I thought of folks like you, like this change in the world of, hey, if I went in to school to be a journalist, but now I'm doing something else, right? The way we used to think of our education and our expertise to work at it, it's changed significantly.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah. Absolutely. And I feel like it's actually gotten a little harder to explain what we do. Jobs, at least to me, feel a lot less cut and dry than they used to.
Jeff Julian: Absolutely. And I was like, I don't know what my title would be anymore. And that was one of the things that they said was, how would you describe your job? And it's like, I don't know. I do software development, I do marketing, I do video capture, I do audio capture. It's like I just create content.
Melanie Deziel: I do a whole bunch of different things. I just follow my bliss.
Jeff Julian: And that fits in to the kind of the topic of the day, is this idea of building a native advertising team and what are some the roles and skill sets that go into it. Because it isn't the traditional newsroom. Right?
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, I mean exactly, because over the last five or so years, so many publishers have realized that native advertising is a valid revenue stream and they're going to have to create dedicated teams to actually come up with these concepts, to execute on those programs that their sales team are now selling. But the problem is that it's hard to figure out where to get talent. There's no degree in native advertising, so they're having to pool talents from all these different worlds. From journalism, from advertising, marketing, and so you get sort of these mini newsrooms that are creating this awesome content in these really short timelines, but building that team and getting to that point is actually really complicated. You often don't know what the job title should be, like we were just saying. Or the job descriptions. Or how do you organize these teams? So, that's kind of what we're going to talk about today because it is a little bit messy and there's so many different ways to go about building these kinds of teams.
Jeff Julian: Like this weird world that we're in. I saw a video where a guy from the film industry said there are as many people graduating from film school this year as there are jobs in the entire film industry. And this just blows my mind that like all these kids are getting up on stage and they're walking through with their film degrees and if somebody wants to keep their job longer than a year, that's one opening that they don't have. And so there's so much more need for people to see things like content studios or even brand studios as a place where they can go with their film degree, with their journalism degree or their agency experience, and to produce this style of content.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, absolutely. I honestly feel like some of the best content marketers or native advertisers, content strategists, whatever job title we happen to fly under, I think some of the best ones come from those editorial fields because in those environments, you're not concerned about budget, you're not concerned about timelines, you're focused on creating the best work. And so learning how to create the best work within the confines of a budget or a timeline, or multiple stakeholders from a client, you know is a lot more teachable than trying to teach someone who may come from a marketing background, what makes good content. What's a compelling shot on film? What's a really great string of words that are gonna touch someone's heart when you write them in that order? That kind of stuff is a lot harder to teach I think.
Jeff Julian: Yeah. And we also have this, whenever you create an agency inside a realm of something else, so if we have a traditional newsroom and now we're thinking of this mini newsroom that's agency based that has sales of those sales, then create content. It's hard to understand how many folks you need, right? It's not, hey, the Kansas City Star has five photographers or whatever and now we're gonna cut a photographer 'cause we don't have the ... It's more like an agency. It has to be ... You need to be a cross functional content creator and have the ability to live in a lot more areas because we are selling this stuff now.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think one of the things that I've found is that no one really knows when they need one of these teams, where do I start? Like you were saying. How many people do I need? Especially if these guys who are making these decisions, which they're usually guys and they're usually in the advertising department and they've been tasked with building one of these teams. They're usually coming from a sales background. That's their day to day. Or a business background. That's their day to day. They don't necessarily know what goes in to making a short film or creating a multimedia piece of investigative content. Or, what it takes to develop an interactive infographic experience.
Melanie Deziel: So, it's a lot harder to judge and say, I need this many creators or this many technicians, or this many strategists. Because you know, if you have one ad category, like you said, someone leaves a job, you know you need to fill it with one more salesperson. But this is a little bit different when it's coming out of nowhere, you're starting from scratch and it's also, generally speaking, work that those people are unfamiliar with. The person who's tasked with creating an org chart or deciding how many people, and honestly, the HR department too.
Jeff Julian: Yeah, they've never dealt with this kind of thing. It's a whole new world. And it's the meshing of worlds that are starting to come together. I remember when the consulting firms and the marketing and advertising agencies ran in to each other, right? All of a sudden the advertising agencies were hiring software developers, and you're like, what? Like, why? Why don't they just work with the consulting firms? And it was this weird collision of two world because of the art direction or the creative aspects of it on who hired who. And we're just running in to that same problem again.
Melanie Deziel: I think so, yeah. I mean, I think maybe it would make sense for us to talk about some of those skills, you know, those skills that you should look for if you're in this position, because you are gonna need a team. You know, you can't just simply say, we're gonna create native advertising, it's gonna be a huge revenue stream for us, and hope that it happens. You do need to find some of those people and in many ways they do feel like unicorns, like they have these magical skill sets from all over the place.
Melanie Deziel: Here's Annie from Washington Post BrandStudio.
Annie: So, I both grew the studio out, starting a few years ago, so it was kind of a fledgling content studio at that point. A lot of my job over the past few years has been in literally building the studio, and the studio itself sort of handles everything in the life cycle of a custom content program, from coming up with the strategy for the program, actually creating the program, promoting the program, analyzing the performance of the program, and then using those insights to propose better programs.
Annie: So the team is divided in to three teams. The content team, the creative team, and the operations distribution team. Within those teams, they have different titles, right? So in the content team, that team has content directors, and then under the content directors there are strategists, editors, and writers. Then on the creative team there are visual designers, art directors, and then on the operations distribution team there are program managers, social media manager, performance manager.
Melanie Deziel: So it does sound like you've kind of pulled some titles from the sort of journalism world, you know we've got art directors and creative directors, and them some from more of like the agency type world, right?
Annie: Yeah. I mean, definitely the editor and even content writer titles feel much more newsroom-focused. I don't think newsrooms increasingly do have something like program managers, even. I don't know, you know, visual designer I think is not a newsroom title, actually. I think that comes from more of the agency world. So there's a bit of a blur between the two, and I don't even know if they have art, they think about it, they have a graphics team and an art team. So I think the fact that we've got kind of both of those functions in one team is less like the newsroom as well.
Melanie Deziel: More like an agency.
Jeff Julian: Yeah, and it can't be your bench time, right? It can't be, oh, somebody's not on a beat right now, so let's go ahead and move 'em over here. It is a precise set of skills. So, yeah, let's talk through some of those.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah. I mean, I think the first one is creativity. To me, that's the primary thing. Because in this current environment with native advertising, where brands are sending out a request for proposal, an RFP, to all these different publishers, the thing that's gonna win you business, that's gonna actually bring in revenue from your native ad team, is actually the quality of your ideas. So whether those people are film makers or photographers or developers or writers, they need to be able to come up with really unique perspective, really unique story ideas, and unique ways of telling those stories. I think that's probably the primary thing.
Sam Rosen: Hey, I'm Sam Rosen, and I used to head up Atlantic Re: think, which is our content studio and creative marketing. After naming Atlantic Re: think and building official content roles, we expanded pretty dramatically. And over time we started to realize that, as we grew, it made sense to specialize a little bit more. So some people were particularly excellent at coming up with creative ideas to sell to brands at the presale stage. Others were particularly excellent at managing clients and timelines and projects. Others were the writers and designers and storytellers. And then over time that also turned in to developers and, you know like I was saying, we expanded our research team to be able to add insights, both to the sales process before and as we were pitching ideas and then also how we were reporting back to clients on content performance.
Sam Rosen: So what started out as our kind of ragtag team of ruffians quickly grew in to a much more professionalized but still kind of creative and vibrant team, where people were able to focus more on their strengths. So you might have had someone who was terrific at coming up with ideas but maybe couldn't manage a program to save their lives. That's being a little bit harsh, but let's just say that they were much stronger at the creative part of the process than they were at the client management part of the process. So over time we started to look for different skill sets across those different roles. Specifically in terms of content, and those roles we were looking for people who had a pretty wide appetite for what they could be interested in. You know, the Atlantic is a general interest publication, we're not a vertical brand, and so just finding a finance reporter wouldn't have made sense for us, so we needed people whose tastes and interests really span the spectrum from technology and things like the cloud and cybersecurity, all the way to fashion and travel and different typically described as lifestyle categories.
Sam Rosen: And so for a lot of our early hires, you know we were looking for people and for writers and for storytellers who could get excited by almost anything that was at least remotely interesting, 'cause that meant that they were gonna put their passion in to it. And that they wouldn't feel like they were shortchanging themselves if they weren't specializing in one specific area.
Jeff Julian: The creative space that we all live in now was taken out of the hand of the art department and it was given to everybody else. And now it's getting to that emotion, the love, the empathy, the piece that's gonna move somebody to transformation. And it can't be, you know, hey, we did this one time, it's what's unique for me.
Melanie Deziel: Definitely, yeah. And I think it's pretty similar to what I would think is kind of the second skill, is really like an understanding of story, and story structure, and what works. Because you could be the most amazing photographer, but if you can't figure out, like you were just saying, how to make that elicit emotion, or how to have those photos tell a story, and not just be beautiful to look at, that's gonna be a challenge for finding a brand that's gonna want to work in that capacity.
Melanie Deziel: And same thing for every kind of creator you take on board, whether they're photographers, videographers, writers, whatever the case may be. They've got to understand how to tell brand stories in that way, so that understanding of what makes stories compelling, what makes people relate to them, what kind of elicits emotion in the audience, like you were just saying, I think is super key.
Jeff Julian: That reminds me of, have you seen the Spielberg documentary he did for HBO?
Melanie Deziel: I have not. It's on my list.
Jeff Julian: Yeah, during it he talks about that creative storytelling process, and the fact that everything got down to the wire. He was writing it as they were filming. And so he had Richard Dreyfuss there, like, he couldn't learn his lines because they hadn't been written yet. And so, but it was all about, like, we gotta go, we gotta film this, and that creative person tends to take a lot of time, and they try to build that story over a lot of time to really think through the nuances. And we don't have that ability. But we have to know how story is set up, and how to transition. Because if we don't, we'll leave out some key areas, and it just won't make sense in the end.
Annie: You know, quite a few people on the team that came from other publisher studios in the first instance, like that was their last job, but even those people come from varied backgrounds before they made the move to native. So if I look a little further back, there's people on the team that have come from creative agencies, there's people on the team who have come from content marketing agencies, from PR agencies, from newsrooms, and branding agencies, especially on the design team, there's a couple people who come from more of the branding side. Oh, we have somebody from book publishing. I myself have a film and entertainment background. So it's very diverse.
Sam Rosen: So Re: think was within the advertising organization, just to show how quickly all of this has changed and grown, back in 2013 there wasn't a content team, there was nothing called a studio. It was just a small ragtag group of jack of all trade Swiss Army knives who were basically doing everything. They were responding to RFPs, they were doing project management, they were overseeing freelancers, in some cases they would create content, and they were just the Atlantic marketing team. Very quickly, within a four to six month time frame, that transformed dramatically. We had our first person on content, we named it Atlantic Re: think-
Melanie Deziel: Which was a departure, right? Everyone at the time was something studio, right? You guys kind of were the first, I think, to really break that mold and have a title that sort of felt more creative in nature and wasn't just, we are a studio for such and such publisher.
Sam Rosen: Yeah. And so that was in December of 2013, we came up with the name, and formally rolled it out in January of 2014. Part of the reason not to call ourselves a studio was specifically to give ourselves a more kind of capacious remit to be able to say, this could go in any number of directions. It's not just a content studio. It's also a creative marketing group. Part of that was functional, in that it encompassed our research team that was working with sellers to respond to RFPs, part of that was also aspirational, to say that we wanted to build a creative team and not limit its purpose just to one specific function.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, absolutely. And that's a really good point. You know, I think you also need the ability to kind of rein that in and work on a tight deadline, because to your point, you can make the most beautiful thing but if it's not done on time, it's not going out the door, you know? So there is that balance too, that ability to really understand a short production timeline, to be working on probably multiple projects at the same time. So needing to figure out, where do you put that creative attention? And to what degree do you push it beyond what it, to what it possibly could be? And where do you find that ability to settle and find that this is the right way to do it? It may not be all that we can do, but it's all that we can do with what we have. And I think, to your point, sometimes creative is like, we can get a little precious about our work. We like what we create, you know, we're passionate, sensitive people sometimes, so you do gotta find someone who's gonna be able to do that too, to rein it in and complete the work on those deadlines too.
Jeff Julian: Yeah. In software we have this triangle that we use, and it's features, and money, and then time. And you can only take away from one. So if we've got to take the tight deadline away, either the features are going down or the amount of money it's gonna cost in resources is going up, right? This thing has to be in balance. And that's one of the things that tight deadlines gives us, is we have to pull from something, and when you throw more than one project, then you've got a project manager that you've-
Jeff Julian: ... so more than one project. Then you've got a project manager that you've never had on your team before now. You've got the interaction piece. You've usually got more human experience, use the design folks in there now, because you have to have somebody else keeping an eye on the aesthetic and the presentation to make sure it's consistent. You've never had to work with them before. It brings so much chaos to what was the norm.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, definitely. That interpersonal ability, too. It's kind of tied to the last thing, that ability to understand where the bounds of the creativity, maybe where those boundaries should be, and the sacrifices we have to make or the compromises we have to make, but also you have to understand that it's not just your baby. You have to work with these other people. You've got to be able to be a good partner, a good teammate, a good communicator, and also to take feedback. It's a really tough thing.
Melanie Deziel: People are going to tell you constantly this needs to be shorter, it needs to be longer, you need to do it in a different format. Halfway through the campaign that you're planning out, they're going to change their objective, and you've got to pivot on the fly. The sales guy comes in. It's like, "I've decided I'd like to change the creative." Right? There's definitely going to be a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and you need to be able to kind of handle that and understand that you're going to get feedback. You're going to have to pivot. There's going to be edits. To see that as a creative challenge, I think, is really the way to approach it.
Melanie Deziel: It can be frustrating. You could see that as this horrible working environment where you don't get to create your best work, or you could see it as it's my job as a creative to figure out how do I tell this story in just as a compelling way under these new rules, under these new confines, with these new limitations. I think some of the best content creators that I see are the ones who embrace that as a creative challenge instead of being sort of frustrated by it or seeing it as a stopping point.
Jeff Julian: Yeah. I sat through a presentation by one of the Pixar animators, and he talked about they have daily candor meetings where they bring whatever they worked on that day and they sit in a room and they play it, and everybody gives feedback, and nothing is held back. You're sat down right beforehand and told like, "Listen, kid, we're going to give you critical feedback every single day because we're going for the best, and what you're giving us is getting there, so just get behind the fact that every day it's going to get better." Yeah, you don't get hurt.
Jeff Julian: Your emotions don't get taken down when somebody says, "Hey, why don't you make that blue instead of read?" or, "Hey, you kind of messed up this area here. Why don't we do this?" Or, "I really like what you did on that last one. Can you do that again?" Because it is re-work, and it's manipulation of what you thought was once done. If you could just get your mind away from done when you're working in a team environment, it helps so much.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, absolutely. I think that ability to take that feedback is key to being a good part of the team, especially because I don't know if you noticed, we didn't actually say advertising industry knowledge or marketing savvy were some of those key skills that we just mentioned. You're going to be working with those people. You need to be an ally with those people.
Melanie Deziel: You need to have that conversation with the sales team about what the client's needs are. You need to be plugged in with the agency to understand those considerations about colors and branding and some of those things that may not be your first content language. Your ability to translate some of that feedback into work that you're still proud of I think is super key. Taking that feedback and turning it into something positive.
Jeff Julian: The skill sets of yesterday and the things that attracted people, the things that when the advertisement would come on TV and we would use sex that sells, or these colors, or this kind of drama, most of the time that stuff just isn't authentic, and your customers just look down at their phone. If you think about what it takes today to keep somebody's attention, you need that authenticity. You need that thing that's going to capture their eye and say, "Oh, I want to dig in more."
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, and I think that's why that creative perspective and these kind of creative ... These softer skills that we're talking about that are more about the art than the science I think are really, really important. We said that's how you differentiate. That's how you're going to get these brand deals, and you're going to be able to move forward with the ideas that you're putting out in the world.
Melanie Deziel: If you're not creating something that's different, if you're not proposing something that's unique, you're not going to get those deals to begin with, and you'll never get a chance to make that work come to life. You do have to be able to creatively push the limits there.
Melanie Deziel: I think, being candid, that that combination of skills that you're looking for, at least in my experience, from having been in a position to hire for some of these teams, it makes it really complicated for HR because we barely know what we're looking for, and then we're asking them to go out and find or vet these applications and help us find the best of the best when it's really hard to define what exactly it is we need.
Annie: I think the best resumes are the ones that have a mixture of newsroom and advertising backgrounds, because what we are doing is at the intersection of the two, so I will say that to HR, "If you see a resume that's got both, flag it," basically. But that doesn't mean that we only hire people who have both of those things. It's a little more nuanced than that, but I would say in the first instance, I would definitely flag resumes that have a mixture. You'd be surprised, there are quite a lot of people that have moved between newsrooms and agencies, that were both journalists and then copywriters or whatever. It isn't completely a unicorn thing.
Annie: But I do try to be open to backgrounds that aren't as straightforward, especially since I come from entertainment and film, for example. At some point, somebody was open to my background when I moved into content marketing, and it worked. I do try to remain open. I will give them fields. I will say I believe that entertainment, for example, is a good background for what we do. I think a lot of what we are doing is creating entertainment, and I know that somebody coming from entertainment will have a laser focus on the audience, because that's all you think about in the entertainment industry, which is a lot of what we need here.
Annie: There's certain backgrounds, very specific ones like that, that I'll tell HR to also look out for. I have for some reason had very good luck with people coming out of the book world, especially on the strategy side of things. I think if they had the right kind of jobs in book publishing, they were probably pitching book ideas, writing little pitches and treatments about books, which is similar to our work in the strategy side. Coming up with ideas and writing proposals.
Annie: There's very specific backgrounds we might be looking for in certain roles, like on the design team. And we've had good luck with people coming from branding agencies. I think that's because with each program, we are essentially creating a little brand visually. One that has its own look and feel, it's own font choices, style choices, color choices, so branding can be a really good background. I will tell HR specifically, "If you see someone that has branding agency background, flag it." That kind of thing.
Jeff Julian: Oh, yeah. Then, the type of work that's required like the flexibility of where you work and where you go. I mean, just imagine hiring for like Sunday morning show on CBS. Now that one of the guys retired, right? We need somebody to go out all over the United States and a whole team that can go around and capture and as an HR person, you'd be like, "Wait, what? We have ... How do we know they're working? What's their vacation time and what's not their vacation time?" All this stuff. It's like, well, it doesn't fit the bubble because HR is the most rigid department in the entire organization. Makes accounting look like the freeloaders, right?
Melanie Deziel: Right. But, I mean, I can understand. One of the things I've tried to do is understand that my perspective, my background, gives me a perspective that others don't have. Understanding where these HR folks are coming from, I think it's really important that you have a dialogue with them and say, "Look, I know that we're hiring for this role that technically sits within our marketing and our advertising department," or wherever it sits for your publication or your brand, "But this job, despite its title, is actually really a creative job. I want you to think almost like you're hiring for our newsroom. What are those skills that you look for when you're looking for a storyteller, a journalist, a producer, a filmmaker? I want you to think in that mindset."
Melanie Deziel: Don't get hung up on the fact that this happens to be categorized with a specific department code. Really think about the function of this job, because it's not their fault. If we don't tell them, if we don't have those open conversations about the fact that this is such a squishy, undefined job, or a job that breaks those traditional trappings of what that department does, then it's no wonder that they might be sending us candidates who fit a different kind of role and not what we're looking for.
Jeff Julian: Yep, and then location, right? If you're the Boston Globe, you would think you need somebody in Boston, but with a team like this, you can have a team based out of Nashville because it's telling stories from different places in studios and on location all over the place for grants that are all over the place, right? They're hiring you because of what you guys have done in the field of journalism. Not necessarily because you're located in the city.
Melanie Deziel: Right, yeah. I think there's probably some core functions that you'd probably want locally. You probably want your developers and your web designers and your designers sitting in the same place because they need to be able to see what each other are working on, and really have those those moments together.
Melanie Deziel: I do think that in-person brainstorms for these kinds of teams, at least in my experience, they tend to work a lot better. They're a lot smoother and you come out with better quality ideas when you're all in the same room around a whiteboard or a chalkboard or Post-its, however you work. But yeah, I mean, oftentimes the actual producers, the talent that's going out and writing the story or filming the video, they're often much more mobile.
Melanie Deziel: I think the other balance to find is some of those folks that you need core sitting in your location are often full-time. Whereas many of the folks who are out there doing the creating, sometimes they're on a freelance or per project basis because of where they are or because of their particular experience, and the need of that client for that specific campaign. It's definitely a little bit of a challenge when it comes to figuring out who that person should be and who's going to actually fill that job title.
Jeff Julian: Yeah. It may even be working with other agencies. Now, it's not an individual, right? It's a team you're working with, and the cost associated with that. All of these things just continue to add up to this weird, complex solution of business decisions you have to make that are far beyond where you started with, "Hey, let's do some contents, do work."
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, definitely. I think, it's funny, to your point earlier when you were talking about how do we identify our job titles, right? I think that problem is especially present when we're talking about native ads studios and content studios. That's one of the things that I get emails about from folks were like, "Hey, I want to get into this field. What kind of jobs should I look for?" Most of the time I'm like, "I am so sorry to disappoint you, but I do not have an answer for you because one publication, one content studios editor, is another content studio strategist, is another content studios producer."
Melanie Deziel: The terms that we use, because this is so new from a structural standpoint, they're really not ... We're not aligned on that yet, and that makes searching for a job, or again, searching for a team to fill those jobs kind of complicated.
Jeff Julian: Yeah. It's like, what does a marketing manager do? Which company? Sometimes that is the person who's the equivalent of the CMO. It's the only marketing person they have in the entire organization, and other times it's somebody who's fresh out of school, but they didn't want to call them a coordinator, you know what I mean? It could be anything to anyone, and that's why, I think, it's so much more important to stop thinking of Linkedin as a place where you share post and you put your resume and start to think of sites like Linkedin and your own personal portfolio as a place where this is how you, without words, express who you are.
Jeff Julian: The creative side, showing pieces of your content that you've done before, pulling up videos and photography and other things you've done to showcase everything about you in a visual experience versus just four sentences that make two years of your life look like you didn't do anything.
Melanie Deziel: Exactly. Yeah. I think the best example of this is, I remember when I graduated from grad school and I was looking to get ... I was looking for an editorial job. I wanted to be in a newsroom somewhere, and it was a really savvy recruiter who convinced me I might be interested in a job on the business team where the skills are very similar, right? They needed someone who could write and come up with content ideas and produce multimedia content.
Melanie Deziel: But I remember the biggest turnoff to me at that point is the job title was Native Ad Product Manager and I said, "That sounds like someone on the tech team, right? An ad product manager, that sounds like someone in OPS, right? Or someone on the product team." Really, what I was doing is what we would today call a content creator. I mean, my job was to create slideshows and write blogs and create infographic outlines that our designers could build.
Melanie Deziel: I was really a content strategist. I was a content producer, but we didn't have the language at that point. In the eyes of the business team that put this new native ad team together, they thought, "Well, these are the people who are going to create our native ads and that's a product, so these people will be product managers." It's just one of those funny things that I've always had to sort of in retrospect explain. I know that's what it says, but it's not what it sounds like.
Jeff Julian: Yeah. See, that's, I think, where software developers have got it right. I could build websites, mobile apps, backend systems, databases, or whatever it is. My title is software developer or junior software developer when I start, and then over time it becomes senior software developer, and then if I get really good it becomes software or senior software architect, right?
Melanie Deziel: Oh, architect.
Jeff Julian: I helped construct and build ... Yeah, exactly. We're still on ... We use engineers and we never touch an engine, and we use architects and we never actually build a building. But you're so used to have that be the title, it's more of you would see that as a number of years of experience and the amount of software that I've built before I put my resume in for that.
Jeff Julian: Then after that, I'm expecting to get grilled based off of these subsets of here are the technologies I need to know. I need to be smart and ... I love the idea of, "Let's start calling people content developers and senior content developers." And then, put like, "Hey, here's eight things you're going to have ... Eight tools you're going to have to use. Can you use those tools?" Because if you can, then we're going to expect you to demonstrate that to us.
Melanie Deziel: What we were just saying earlier, I think that kind of approach, more unified titles, would probably help with the HR and hiring process, too. Because again, if you say, "I'm looking for a native ad product manager," or, "I'm looking for a strategist." I mean, what does a strategist do? What skills does that person need? If you can't articulate that in a more tangible way with regards to the specific tasks or the systems, the tools, it is really hard to know who that person is.
Jeff Julian: I think that sounds like a fun project that someone like enterprise marketers should take on, to describe what the titles are and what the structure is, and some of the correlating titles with roles inside the marketing, and then the native advertising team.
Melanie Deziel: The different disguises we wear as job titles.
Jeff Julian: Yeah, exactly. I started, and the first one was a content evangelist. That's an interesting title. I love that. Of course, it came from a tech company, Linkedin. That works, but ...
Melanie Deziel: From a practical sense, I think most of these teams end up defaulting to either sort of agency titles, the kinds of things you'd see a project manager or client services, sales type titles, that are more managerial in nature, like a native ad product manager. But increasingly, a lot of them are actually using the language we see in titles in a newsroom.
Melanie Deziel: When I was at the New York Times, for example, we had an editorial director and we have editors and we had associate editors. That mirrored more like you were saying, like developers. It more closely mirrored the thing that you see in a newsroom where that hierarchy is more clear. I think, in our creative department, you had associate designers and designers and senior designers and creative directors. I think when you do mirror that editorial structure what you'd find in a newsroom, it's a little more clear what that hierarchy should be and who reports to who.
Jeff Julian: I love the unification of, "I could go from this company to this company and have a similar title and understand what I'm doing." It just makes this whole thing work smoother because that's what you're going for. You're going for the ability to hire as quickly as possible, we're giving you the ability to look as much information as you can about this person to make sure they're a good fit because hiring somebody costs so much money compared to waiting for somebody, for the real good candidate.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah. I think the other thing, those kinds of titles, the more editorial titles do, is I think it more closely reflects the actual work we do, because I do think in a native ad team, the work is ultimately an ad product, right? We were saying, it's ultimately being sold and bought, but you don't want it to feel like a commodity. You don't want the team creating it to feel like it's a commodity. You don't want your clients to feel like it's a commodity. It needs to feel creative and custom and special.
Melanie Deziel: I think if you give titles and hierarchy and structures that mirror that of a newsroom, you're giving that same level of putting the content quality above the bottom line. I think even if that is just a structural decision, I think it gives that impression both to the people on your team who are probably immigrants from that creative world and to the clients who are going to be interfacing with those people to understand, "I'm talking to a creative director. This is someone who is creative and who is going to have oversight over this project." It's easier to understand and respect people for the talents they bring to the table when it's more clearly articulated in that way.
Jeff Julian: Yeah, 'cause that's a real problem. Cross-
Melanie Deziel: ... in that way.
Jeff Julian: Yeah, because that's a real problem. Crossing the line of journalism and then advertising, and where the money's coming from. And then do you lose that integrity and are you playing house to call it a newsroom when we all know it's just an agency. Those kinds of things ...
Jeff Julian: If you feel like it's a newsroom because you do stand up for the journalistic integrity of the team, and you don't take on every single project because they want you to pretend to be journalistic in the native advertisement, I think you really can have that be the thing that stands you apart from everyone else.
Melanie Deziel: Jeff, I know you can't see me here and I know our listeners can't see me, but I'm smiling so wide, because that idea makes me so happy. The idea that we could have people feeling that way, that if we can bring some of that editorial conscience into the team, even with something as small as our titles, I think the quality of the work is so much higher, the willingness to stand up for what is right, what is ethical, what is truthful in our content even when it's sponsored. I think everyone wins. That's better for the readers, it's better for the brands, and it's better for the creators who want to make good work. So that just made me very happy. I hope people will all follow that recommendation.
Jeff Julian: You'll be the first to outline the academic paper on the structure of a native advertising team. And because you brought the tablets off the mountain everybody's just going to emulate what you say.
Melanie Deziel: That sounds like a plan. Sounds like I'm going to be busy later on.
Jeff Julian: Yeah. Sorry, you just got married but we gotta write a book now.
Melanie Deziel: Too late, sorry gotta go write.
Jeff Julian: Yep, exactly.
Jeff Julian: So what are some of the key takeaways that you'd want a team to look at when it comes to maybe ... Let's say they're at size right now, they've been doing this for a while. What are some of the things you wish people would stop doing or start doing more of?
Melanie Deziel: I think one of the suggestions I can make these teams run a lot easier, because there are a lot of things that can get in the way of creative work, whether it's sponsored or not. Some of those things are your time. You only have so much time to work on these things. You only have so much budget to work on these things. Whatever those other resources are. I think one of the easiest things you can do to make all of that run smoothly is to have really clear lines in the sand about who has ownership over decision-making on those things.
Melanie Deziel: One of the things I run into when I'm consulting with teams through StoryFuel, my company, or just on the teams I've been on in the past is there's a lot of decision-making by committee. Because these are big teams with a lot of moving parts. And we've got the sales team and the agency and the brand team and probably like two other agencies just for good measure. And it gets really hard to actually make a final call on things. So the easiest thing you can do is make it clear who is the decision-maker on specific topics.
Melanie Deziel: Just as an example, we're working on a piece that has written content and video and it's being developed. Who's going to make the final call on what that looks like? Is it the developer or the designer? Who's going to make the final call on the headline? Is it the designers who's laying it out, or the person who wrote it? So just having clear boundaries about who makes the final call on these things.
Melanie Deziel: You know, understanding of course that there are those feedback loops we talked about that the agencies and brands will weigh in. At least having an internal stakeholder who's empowered to make a decision on those things, it really makes it go so much smoother. And it helps, again, everyone just kind of respect the value that each other person brings to the table and recognize where they should and shouldn't be wasting their attention.
Jeff Julian: Absolutely. And the idea of collaborative coaching but at the same time review. The peer review process of somebody who's further along in your career path being somebody that could help you on those micro ... where you'd feel like the true decision-maker would be micro-managing you. Just getting up and working with somebody else to say, hey, what do you think of this, what do you think of that. When you are making something that is a dramatic decision, you can quickly get to that true voice of the team and get to that yes quicker because you guys are communicating more frequently.
Jeff Julian: And tools like Slack and Frame.io and even Dropbox and Word, all these inter-collaborative tools that live and make the document live breathe, make that process so much easier than it used to be.
Melanie Deziel: And I think the other thing is that honestly the work is better for it when you have those different perspectives, other people weighing in. I remember, I think we may have talked about it on the last episode, that piece I did for the New York Times for Orange is the New Black. It was about women in prison. This was a huge undertaking for me. I did 40 hours of interviews and then some, I was reviewing government data, all to write a 1,500-word piece. Now that's not long compared to some of the 20,000-word stories that come out of the Times newsroom, but for us that's a pretty substantial piece of content.
Melanie Deziel: And a lot went into it. For me, the ability to go to who was then my editorial director ... I understood the hierarchy. To go to him and to voice my concerns and say, do you feel I've attributed all of these stats properly? Do you feel I've given enough background to make this easy to understand. Getting his insights on, I think this story could be developed a little further, or I think this example is not as illustrative as you'd hoped it would be, is there maybe another person you could speak to.
Melanie Deziel: That kind of guidance is so, so helpful, because sometimes you get so in your work, you don't even see those opportunities for improvement. You don't even realize that you've left out an important detail or left a gap somewhere. Or that there's just an opportunity for growth. So having people on your team, even if they're from different perspectives ... Maybe it's not a fellow writer or a fellow producer, but someone from that other department.
Melanie Deziel: Because I also remember taking that same piece of content to our developer and he had a really awesome idea for how we could illustrate something in an interactive way that I hadn't thought of and that our designer hadn't thought of. So it's different people with different perspectives on the same thing, it's so much more valuable and you end up creating much, much better work. So that collaboration is just so key.
Jeff Julian: It reminds me of ... Have you been listening to Serial season three?
Melanie Deziel: Not at the moment.
Jeff Julian: So she's going through the city of Cleveland and every week it's something new about the justice system in Cleveland. And they do different cases or trials or people or judges. They'll follow like one person through the whole episode but it's taped over a year.
Jeff Julian: So if you think about what it would take to make sure you're telling that story as accurately as possible, that you're not messing with any of the details to prove your point or to bring your vision across. But just show it as it is. There's so much of that big story you're telling in 18 different episodes you gotta lay out and put on the line and have pieces of paper moving all over the place to say, oh yeah we forgot this, we need this, somebody needs to go get a recording of this trial. It would be such chaos to do well, like they are, but it would be so easy to fake it and just to bring your message along the line or to spin it in such a way that it's easy.
Jeff Julian: And that's why I think the news media, the daily television shows, it's so easy for them to constantly push bad content over because they're just spinning. But what you're talking about there is, and this is that brand journalism kind of heart is, that you can't put the spin on it. You have to be thorough and authentic and really drive to getting the truth out. And I love that. I love that, yeah, it's going to take time, it's going to cost more, it's going to be harder on everybody. But the content is going to be the best thing we can produce.
Melanie Deziel: You know and that's really the goal, right? That's how I've always felt about every team I've been on, about most of the projects that I've worked on. But it's not always the case. Sometimes we make work that isn't great, that isn't in-depth, that isn't properly sourced. And I think I've tried my best when I've been on a team where we had to create something like that or we ended up creating something like that, is remind them that sometimes that comes with the territory.
Melanie Deziel: Musicians make a song that flops, it doesn't top the charts. A filmmaker makes a film that bombs at the box office. Anything. A chef makes a meal that people don't care about. It happens to every professional, especially a creative professional where there's so much that's subjective to it. That it's important to have that understanding that while we can strive to create the best possible content, we can take all those editorial sensibilities over to our role in a brand environment, that ultimately when there's that many people working on a single project, there's a lot of variables and not every piece is going to be a Pulitzer. Not every piece is going to win an Emmy. And that's okay. We can't put that pressure on ourself to create only the most amazing best work ever in the world, or we might all go crazy.
Melanie Deziel: But we can certainly strive for it. And I think when you staff your team with editorial creatives who come from that world of wanting to create the best work, your clients ultimately are the benefactors of that mindset.
Jeff Julian: Perfectly. Perfectly discussed. I love this. So let's start to close up. Why don't we roll into your uncensored thought for this particular episode.
Melanie Deziel: All right, guys. It's about to get real. And I don't think this will come as a surprise to many. But one of the things that really bothers me, unfortunately, about the environment that we work in on these content studios, is actually the tension between the sales team and the creative team in these studios.
Melanie Deziel: In many cases the sales team is really concerned about the immediate impact on their bonus. They're wanting to seal the deal, to get that bonus, to cross the line and meet their numbers. And they're so focused on that, or the short-term relationship with their client that's going to make that happen, that they're willing to allow bad content to get made. Or to go against the advice of the creative team, or to push for something that they know isn't going to work.
Melanie Deziel: And I get it. That's how your role is incentivized. You've been conditioned to focus on the bottom line. And you've gotta to what you've gotta do to pay your bills and make ends meet. So I understand that. But the thing to remember is that, this work that we do together as a sales team, as a content studio, it's not a one-off. It's rarely just one and done. It's just like the sales relationship that you spent so long building. Content programs that succeed, they're ongoing. They're iterative. They're evolving.
Melanie Deziel: And so in order to succeed with native ads in the long term, you're going to need trust with your clients. And that means you need to be able to let the advice of the creative team break through some of those uncomfortable moments, and maybe recommend something that the client hasn't done before. Because, here's the deal, the creative team isn't after your bonus. We don't want to hurt that relationship with you, with the client. We know we have to work with you, we know we have to work with the client. So we're really all on the same team here.
Melanie Deziel: So when your creative team wants to make a recommendation, know that it's because they want to make good work. They want to make something that's going to resonate with the audience. Ultimately what your client wants, that's what they want too. And they just may not know the best way to do it. Your client may be struggling. They may think that they know what's going to work. But let the creative team be on your side. Let them guide your client toward making the thing that's going to best suit their needs.
Melanie Deziel: So put some trust in them. Allow them to have those tough conversations with the client about what is and is not serving their mission with regard to the content. Because if they're able to make recommendations that they stand behind, that creative team, they're going to be able to create better content for your clients. The clients are going to be happier. And they're going to keep coming back to you for future programs.
Melanie Deziel: So uncensored thought is put some love, give some love to your creative team, know that they're on your team, and act like a team.
Jeff Julian: Yeah. I completely agree. Sit down with them. Go to their morning meetings, right? Listen to what they're saying. When your a sales person, the inside creation is just three words or a sentence off of your lips to the client, oh, sure, we can do that. You know what I mean? And that could be the decision or just the accidental phrase that completely destroys the product, based off of what the client was requesting.
Jeff Julian: So yeah, know what it takes to go into the work and know that you have to have empathy for the internal team as well as you do the client when you're sales folk.
Melanie Deziel: I remember I had a vague version of this uncensored thought as a conversation at a networking event recently with someone who is in sales. I was just being candid and saying, being candid in my experience with the sales teams in a native ad context is sometimes just like you said, yes, we can do that. And then I can't deliver as a creative on the thing that your client wants anymore. That we can't achieve the mission anymore.
Melanie Deziel: And when I had that conversation about the fact that we're not after your bonus, we don't get incentivized that way. Generally speaking that's not how the team is structured. I don't want your commission. I want to help you. And she told me that she had never thought of it that way, and that sales is such a competitive environment that it's created a culture where they really try to do everything themselves to not bring in associates, to not bring in other people because that's a split-commission environment.
Melanie Deziel: And so that simple conversation ... She said I'm going to go back to my team and I'm going to sit down with the creative team and really try to bring them in. Because you're right, if I can get them in more often, I can sell more often, and everyone wins. So maybe that's a light bulb for a few of our sales listeners.
Jeff Julian: I hope so. I can't wait ... And I've been a salesperson, my very first job was intel sales rep for Kansas City when I was 17 years old. I've been involved in sales almost my entire career, even though I will never list that as something that I do. But yeah, when you bring people in and there's a commission tied to it, it's so ... It's like they constantly have the devil and the angel on their shoulder.
Jeff Julian: My favorite sales movie be Tommy Boy. Rather than have it being on mission to save Callahan, we've got to get these sales so that the factory doesn't die so that the town doesn't go under. I love that mission more than I love, hey, I can go out and buy this new car or I can get enough sales to go on the Cruise that we're doing, or something like that. I despise that.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, the collaborative environment is just better for everyone. And so I mean to me, no matter what shape your content team takes, no matter what titles you've given them, the key thing is that if you want it to operate well there has to be good communication, both within that content team and between your content team and the sales team or the HR team or whoever else. I think communication is really at the core of figuring out how successful and how productive that content studio's going to be ultimately.
Jeff Julian: Well this was another hit. I love this episode. And thank you for being so willing to share your wisdom that's come out over your decades of doing ... No, the time you've done this work. And it is such a new industry, I think we have to have these conversations.
Melanie Deziel: Yeah, and I really appreciate the chance to talk shop because in case you couldn't tell, these things are extremely important to me. So I love a chance to share that and hopefully help someone else in the process.
Jeff Julian: Awesome. Well, thanks everybody for listening. And tune back in. Next time we get together, we'll have another fun topic I think we're brainstorming about. It's going to be quite interesting as we see what the native environment of native advertising really is.