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Why Your Brilliant Content Strategy Doesn’t Stand A Chance

2016 March 30
by Greg Satell

One of the biggest cop-outs in corporate life is to say, “we had a great a great strategy, but just couldn’t execute it.” Hogwash. Any strategy that doesn’t take the ability to execute is a lousy strategy to begin with. Strategy is not a game of chess, but depends on operational capacity.

The problem is particularly pervasive when it comes to content. For all of the talk about “brands becoming publishers,” most marketers are simply tacking on publishing functions to their existing operations without implementing any new processes or practices. That is a grave mistake.

As I previously wrote in Harvard Business Review, marketers need to think more like publishers, but they also need to act more like publishers if they are ever going to to hold an audience’s attention rather than merely broadcast messages. If you can’t create a compelling experience, it doesn’t really matter what your content strategy is, it will fail.

Where Content Strategy Went Wrong

Back in the heyday of advertising, when giants like Leo Burnett, Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy still reigned, the industry was driven by creative ideas. At the time, there were relatively few media outlets and the general idea was to reach large masses of consumers. The most important decision marketers had to make was what ad they were going to put on TV.

Yet in the ensuing decades, both markets and audiences fragmented and strategy came to be seen as prime creator of value. Before you knew it, everybody became a strategist. First media strategists, then digital strategists, search engine strategists, social strategists and on and on. Why be a Creative Director, when you could be “creative strategist?”

So it was natural that when digital technology made brand publishing possible, we quickly saw the rise of “content strategists,” very few of whom had ever published or produced anything. Mostly, they were former planners and copywriters who started from a target audience and worked back to craft a message. In effect, they were taking ad strategies and applying them to content.

Yet for publishers, the editorial mission reigns supreme. That’s what creates meaning for the audience. Editors like Anna Wintour of Vogue and David Remnick of The New Yorker didn’t get to the top of their profession by targeting readers, but by attracting them. It is their commitment to an editorial mission that inspires others to join them on their journey.

Now imagine if Vogue put out surveys to determine which fashions its readers want to see or The New Yorker polled its readers to decide what issues they want discussed. Would they still be considered original, authoritative and path blazing? Would they be able to maintain a consistent voice and point of view? Or continue to attract top talent?

Not likely on all counts. Great publishers seek to serve their audience well, but are not defined by it.

Don’t Target Your Audience, Discover It

Marketing strategies are essentially backward looking. They start with market research to define a specific target market. From there, a plan is created to achieve a specific set of marketing objectives related to predetermined business goals. So an brand publishing initiative often starts with a tactic, like an infographic; or a target, like soccer moms.

Publishing works the other way around. It is, at its core, about creation. Vibrant publishers are constantly putting forth new ideas, new ways to express them and new ways to deliver them to their audience. These are less like strategic initiatives and more like hunches. Yet they also serve a strategic purpose, they allow you to discover your audience.

A nice thing about publishing is that your worst work goes unnoticed. You’re not paying millions of dollars to squeeze your work in between an ad break, so you’re free to experiment. As long as you don’t do anything incredibly stupid, you don’t really have to be unimaginably brilliant. You can keep trying new things until you hit upon something new and interesting.

When that happens, your audience will let you know immediately. In the process, you discover something about them and, often, about your editorial mission as well. The ongoing conversation with the audience is one of the most important—as well as the most rewarding—things about publishing.

Committing to Operational Excellence

Content is a new idea for marketers, but publishers and producers have been doing it for a very long time. Over the years, they have developed best practices that have evolved and survived the test of time. Magazines have flat plans, radio stations run on clocks. TV shows have clearly defined story structures, character arcs and so on.

Many people assume that producing stories that are powerful and engaging is the result of some intangible quality. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a reason that Time Inc. has dominated almost every category it competes in decade after decade, just as there is a reason that Cosmopolitan is a market leader in over a hundred countries.

That reason is operational excellence. Content is not a campaign with a defined beginning and end. You have to be able to set and meet your audience’s expectations consistently over a long period of time. That’s what breeds trust. Trust, in turn, creates the bond that leads to a loyal audience.

Dick Stolley, one of our greatest American editors likes to say that every great publishing product has two things: consistency and surprise—and you can’t have one without the other. Surprise usually takes care of itself. The hard work lies in creating a consistent product. You need to implement best operational practices and continually improve them over time.

Ideas Aren’t Born Great, They Become Great

At the core of every traditional marketing strategy is the “big idea.” That’s why marketers spend countless hours in brainstorming sessions, looking for that one killer concept that can drive a campaign. The ‘big idea” essentially serves as an organizing principle.

Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, espouses a different view. He insists that “early on, all of our movies suck.” In Creativity Inc., he writes that his company’s initial ideas are “ugly babies” that are “awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete.” Originality is fragile,” he continues. “Our job is to protect our babies from being judged too quickly.  Our job is to protect the new.”

Think about that for a minute. The manager of what is possibly the world’s most successful creative enterprise not only doesn’t expect to start with a great idea, he doesn’t even expect to start out with a good idea.  Instead, he puts his faith in the process that Pixar has built, confident that ugly babies, when nurtured, can become beautiful swans. Not all of them of course, but enough to win 15 Academy Awards and billions at the box office.

And I think that gets to the heart of the matter. Great publishing is not about ideas, but about creating a process in which ideas can be honed and flourish. If you can do that, strategy really doesn’t matter. And if you can’t, it won’t matter either.

– Greg


A previous version of this article was first published on Harvard Business Review.



13 Responses leave one →
  1. Robert Neuschul permalink
    March 30, 2016

    Ahem: this really should not need saying:

    “Why You’re Brilliant Content Strategy Doesn’t Stand A Chance”

    It definitely will NOT stand a chance if you don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re”.

  2. March 30, 2016

    Point taken. Well argued.

    Corrected now. Thanks for pointing it out.

    – Greg

  3. Alan Boyd permalink
    March 30, 2016

    Great article Greg…well said…never mind what ‘teach’ has pointed out!

    Hopefully it will serve as a wake-up call to those who read it and digest it.

    And to an industry that is clearly wasting a lot of time and money on ‘strategic’ verbal and visual diarrhea, and calling it marketing.

    Perhaps we will see more publishing houses offering marketing services as a side, because it’s clearly not working the other way around!

  4. March 30, 2016

    Thanks Alan. You make an interesting point about publishing houses offering marketing services. The truth is that there have been many initiatives in this direction. The problem is that for all the talk of “publishers dying,” they still have much better margins than marketing services agencies. So, for the most part, they don’t find the area attractive.

    – Greg

  5. Mohammed Yousri permalink
    March 31, 2016

    Hi Greg,

    I’ve been following your blog on and off for a while and while your ideas always inform, agitate and strike a nerve with me I’ve felt a little shy about connecting. This time though I must tell you that your lucid and perspicacious perspectives are helping me find my own voice and vision in my career. I studied literature and have been trying to instill a writer’s process into my planning role at the agency I work for in Cairo, Egypt.

    One of the things I always advise creatives to do is take time to nurture their ideas before setting them into the world. Reading your quote about Ed Catmull makes me want to pick up Creativity Inc. asap.

    I’ve been invited to speak at a local Creativity symposium and would like your permission to quote and reference your blog and ideas in my talk. I hope you will allow me the opportunity to share with you since of my own thoughts on the state of content and strategic planning in today’s world, well at least from an Egypt and MENA market perspective.

    Thank you.

  6. March 31, 2016

    You should pick up Creativity Inc. It’s a great book!. The last chapter on Steve Jobs is worth the entire purchase price.

    Of course. Feel free to use anything you see on the site. I’d be flattered:-)

    – Greg

  7. April 2, 2016

    Great, I love this article – I provide articles for the nonprofit world to help them learn to communicate better. I use other peoples articles often. This article is fabulous. I am asking for permission to reprint this and link to this page or any other page you would like as a main article on our site We have a good number of eyes considering we are unique to Texas. Please let me know. If so, it would be great to have a bio of you attached at the bottom and a photo 300×300 pixel. Thanks, Jackie

  8. April 2, 2016

    Sure, Jacqueline. Feel free to repost or reprint. You can find a picture on my bio page.

    – Greg

  9. April 2, 2016

    Thank you! I will send you a link once I post.

  10. jackie permalink
    April 3, 2016

    Hi Greg,

    I put the story up on our homepage at! It will go out in our newsletter tomorrow, and most likely stay up an entire week.

    Best, Jackie

  11. April 4, 2016

    Thanks Jackie!

  12. rob campbell permalink
    April 6, 2016

    Your very coherent argument goes beyond just content. Strategists get off that high horse!



  13. April 6, 2016

    Thanks Rob. That’s very nice of you to say.

    – Greg

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