A valuable learning lesson

f-gradeFor the past 18 months, I’ve had the privilege of writing a weekly column for a global business publication.

While I typically tackle the gap between what organizations promise in their marketing messages and end users actually experience, I’ve also been asked to wax poetic about the government shutdown, Marissa Mayer’s high-profile gaffes at the helm of Yahoo! and other mainstream business stories.

Every now and then, I’ll be asked to make a few edits but, for the most part, my columns run as I’ve written them.

Recently, I decided to pitch my editor on a column about content creation and the rise of ‘the organization as publisher.’ I’ve been following this development, and periodically visiting such best-in-class examples of the phenomenon as IBM’s Smarter Planet web site and National Public Radio’s ‘This Day in 1963‘ Twitter series.

But, unlike the other areas I cover for the publication on this I am most assuredly NOT a subject matter expert. And, so I turned to my colleagues at Peppercomm who WERE thought leaders.

They suggested different angles, additional examples and even provided an introductory paragraph. But, as I labored away at the first draft, I realized I was out of my depth. The 800-word column I typically bang out in 30 minutes took an entire morning. And, when I’d finished, I was far from pleased. I forwarded the text to my internal experts. They provided quite a few suggestions but, since, I was already over my word limit, I only accepted only a few.

I sent the finished copy to my editor. When I saw her response, I felt like I’d traveled back in time to my freshman journalism class at Northeastern. She asked such basic questions as:

– Why is this newsworthy now? What’s the hook?
– Why should readers care?
– What’s the difference between blogs, podcasts and other old school website content tactics and the elements in your column?
– Is content creation applicable to both BtoB and BtoC companies?
– Surely not every organization should become a publisher. Which ones should?

The edited text reminded me of the photographs Matthew Brady had taken after the Battle of Gettysburg. It was bloody.

But, after recovering from my first serious flop with the publication, I began to smile. I’d learned a valuable lesson:

– You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.

I’d mistakenly assumed I could easily tackle a subject far outside my comfort zone. I was wrong. It was a great wake-up call and reminded me why my agency is making the organizational changes we are: it’s no longer good enough to be a generalist. The marketing communications world in which we live demands deep expertise. So, we’ve bought two firms that add a wealth of category expertise to our existing team.

Peppercomm no longer aspires to be all things to people. We’ll be sharply focused from this point forward. And, I’ll stick to writing about subjects and topics in which I can draw on a few decades of hands-on experience.

I’m a big advocate of spreading one’s wings, taking oneself out of one’s comfort zone and experiencing the new and unexpected. But, NOT when it comes to writing, or speaking, about a ‘foreign’ subject in front of a global audience. It only took one reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg to show me the light.

2 thoughts on “A valuable learning lesson

  1. That’s a great question, Frank. Happily, we’re now a fully integrated marketing communications firm that happens to be blessed with a mix of category experts and generalists alike. We make sure we cross-fertilize best practices in our ongoing management training programs.

  2. Steve, I agree with the need for deep expertise. You have to assume that any interested audience itself has a considerable level of expertise. So the question becomes, what have I to say that will be of further interest?

    On the other hand, as Peppercom seeks to instill such deep expertise across all elements of the team, how do you also instill enough generalist mentality/knowledge to ensure bigger thinking (and bigger long-term career horizons)?