How I Got Myself Axed From A Content Writing Dream Gig
By Chris Gillespie, Co-Founder of Find A Way Media
Paint Me A Blue Sky
On a crisp November morning, I ducked into a Manhattan Starbucks and was handed the virtual keys to a company’s entire content marketing operation. “Create whatever you want,” the slender CEO of a big data startup, who did not know me, said. “Write anything. You have my trust.” He gestured with open arms to indicate a blue sky. Then he boarded a plane and was gone.
I was elated. As a rather junior content marketing consultant, I had been waiting years for this opportunity. Yet four months later, it would end abruptly. The startup would call to say that they were pausing my contract – just for a little while – but I knew. It was goodbye.
During those months, I was trampled by every conceivable content marketing mistake. All, sadly of my own making.
1. No chain of command
Days before our talk, the CEO had fired his head of marketing and her whole team. That’s a red flag if I’ve ever seen one, but in my bliss, I saw only opportunity. When I showed up at the office, the CEO gave me his cell number, a thumbs-up, and vanished.
So, alone, I reported to the VP of Sales Development and Marketing. He liked to chew marker ends and was affable. So was the director of design, at first. He was the more sober of the two and clearly exhausted. His first words were, “We need you badly.”
If you’re wondering about my job title at this point, so was I. I put some planning meetings on the calendar, started my audit, and submitted a list of tentative article pitches to both the director and the vice president. Both graciously insisted they knew nothing about writing. Nothing at all. But both proceeded to second-guess my every sentence, and their feedback conflicted. Eager to please, I said I’d do what I could.
Over the next month, my every pitch was squeezed through a meat grinder of petty doubts. “I’m no writer,” they’d say before launching into a detailed critique. One of them thought the writing should be bolder. The other, more formal. I asked to see data from past articles (they did have a blog) or to get a copy of the persona research they kept referencing, but received nothing. They grew frustrated with me for not ‘getting it’ and I with them, for not letting me do my job.
2. Content narcissism
I imagined our first content planning session would run into overtime, but it was short. The goal was to whiteboard a backlog of offbeat topics to juice up the blog’s meager readership. But the team only wanted to cover topics that involved data. And specifically, their data, which is what they sold. All else was off limits.
“This is all great, but we just need to close some deals. Why couldn’t you just write about the world’s best data?” they implored. Afterward, I interviewed a bunch of my former colleagues at other startups who are precisely the sort of people this company hoped to sell to. Not one was interested in hearing about “the world’s best data.” Their jobs are more complex and personal than that. They think about generating leads, booking meetings, and penetrating accounts. When they bemoan the time they waste on outreach, they don’t say, “Damn the data!” They point the finger internally and say, “Damn sales!” or “Damn marketing!”
I brought these notes to the next meeting but got shouted down. Nobody had time for research. Nobody wanted to hear about distinctions between top of funnel and bottom of funnel. They just wanted data pieces that’d close some quick deals. Why didn’t I get it?
With the benefit of hindsight, we should have listened to my former colleagues. We should have written for our buyers’ needs and molded the data message to fit. But, still on unsure footing, I agreed to write an entire series on the world’s best data.
3. No process
The fact that I had to negotiate with a designer and the head of sales development about what to write was bad. But that I folded and didn’t fight for my editorial rights was perhaps worse. The conflict came to a head over WordPress.
I told the team that the best workflow would be for them to approve a first draft of each article. I’d then edit it and load it into WordPress, which, for anyone who doesn’t know, is painstaking. After that, they’d give one final approval. They both agreed to the process. But when my first article made it through and into WordPress, they went dark and wouldn’t respond.
I texted the CEO. This was one roadblock too many. I wanted help. He agreed to talk on Friday. Then, asked to reschedule. That was the last I ever heard from him.
When I finally got ahold of the vice president, he replied, “Yeah, your article is just … off.” It was clear from their questions, they hadn’t actually read it until now. The director said it was actually helpful to see it live in WordPress before deciding if they liked it. Couldn’t I post things first, then they’d suggest edits?
The workflow resembled their every plan. They’d suddenly decide they needed an e-book, webinar script, or website copy and that it was an emergency. When they eventually responded, they’d criticize it to pieces. Their indecision around the website was the worst.
“It’s awful. It’s totally awful,” they said of the headline left over from the previous marketer. We’d whiteboard ideas, refine them, and then they’d rewrite my slogans into gibberish.
We started with “The world’s leading AI-powered data solution.” I replaced it with “Win deals faster with more precise data.” But after much quibbling over the meaning of the word “precise,” they piled on so much buzzword garnish it became unrecognizable:
“Marketing and sales intelligence software powered by automated data science and the world’s most reliable business data.”
The brain graphic affair was particularly telling. For the home page, they dreamed up a wireframe graphic of a brain in a box, twinkling with lights. You could move it with your mouse. I asked why that existed and they said it represented machine intelligence. The vice president pinched his chin and said, “Maybe it shouldn’t be a box. Like, think outside the box, you know?” The design director had a fit. They had invested way too much of their budget and the artist’s time already, he blustered. I kept quiet.
4. Strangling content with the ROI noose
By the third month, we formed a truce in agreeing that we desperately needed the CEO’s input. As the voice of the company, surely, ideas should cascade down from him. To me, this was much better than the three of us haggling over pitches. But the CEO proved impossible to track down.
Week after week, the vice president would email me that the CEO had just walked by his office and he was going to corner him in a conference room. But I suppose the CEO would slip out through an air duct because I’d never hear back.
Exhausted, I was now writing about the world’s best data to a stagnant audience of 50 visitors who I suspected of being the company’s own sales reps – the only individuals I’d ever seen share our posts. The queue was groaning with semi-finished articles the vice president now felt were “sorta off.” The few posts that had gone live had met some fanfare – I’d interviewed customers, and everyone felt good about sharing that. But it was our argument over CTAs that probably did me in.
The vice president demanded that the call-to-action buttons on the blog say “Get a demo now,” and they appear all over the posts. I argued that because we had no readership, there was nobody to click them, and there’d be a lot more value to nurturing prospects and training them to trust us and return. The CTA should ask them to subscribe, I said.
The vice president accused me of not wanting to drive leads. Exasperated, I went on a rant about how I was set up to fail. We changed topics and the conversation ended. Two days later, the call came.
The vice president was truthfully apologetic. They just needed to see an ROI and they weren’t seeing one. Didn’t I understand? I did. Probably, they weren’t ready for a content creator. Probably they needed to fill their demand gen role. Right? Yes, I agreed. We put the contract on pause and I never heard back.
What I’ve learned
I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about what went wrong. All of these mistakes were due to my inability to educate the client and stand my ground. My advice to myself and anyone in a similar predicament is this:
Don’t negotiate with unbelievable characters. If someone doesn’t have experience in the area they’re advising on, their words deserve little weight. Trust your judgement, and ask customers. Good writing should please your customers, not your team.
If people don’t know, don’t let them be a bottle neck. Sometimes it’s faster and cheaper to test new content than to debate it. Had we put more content out there and tested it, we’d have gotten further.
Demand a chain of command. If you don’t know who your boss is, it’s difficult to act with authority. Insist on a title.
Build a scaffold to your North Star metric. Driving deals is great. But you can’t monetize an audience that doesn’t exist. You need sub-KPIs, like repeat visits and sign-ups, that build toward leads and deals.
Educate your clients on the constraints you operate under. If someone wants an e-book and it’s an emergency, let them know that means pausing your other work. Are they prepared for the tradeoff?
Get everyone to agree to an order of operations. Workflows exist to make things simpler for the many, even if it isn’t ideal for all.
This gig wasn’t my biggest mistake and it won’t be my last. I got axed, and it’s my fault. But the next time someone paints me a blue sky I’m going to insist on a plan that’s more substantive than puffy white clouds.