Sharing the “high fives” and “oh shits” of running a content strategy agency

I’m on the plane home from Confab Central thinking about how much the conversation has evolved since the inaugural Confab back in 2011. My takeaway from the first Confab was that it was a super well-run event but largely preaching to the choir.

As the very first ever content strategy conference, it was necessary groundwork. But for those of us who were actively practicing content strategy (whether or not we called it that), were hungry to dig into details with other practitioners. We were ready to get our hands on real life results to help us convince clients to stop moving the dollars from our “content strategy” line items on proposals and redistributing the money into copy & design. (See: Taking Content Strategy out of the Proposal.) And most of all, we were ready to start seeing clients at these events—and seeing them as people who could contribute to the conversation vs. people who needed to be convinced or sold.

I’m happy to say that since the first Confab:

  • There are now people all over the country, from cities big and small, who hold the title Content Strategist.
  • (Most of them have super cute haircuts and big smiles.)
  • We now have clients parading success metrics on stage.
  • It’s clear that we are getting collectively smarter about content—at lighting speed.

So what do I hope for the coming years?

Something I think about all the time but don’t hear people talking about is the plight of the small agency owner.

I connected deeply with Kristina Halvorson’s article Good Intentions: How Not To Run a Business about the ups and downs her company has weathered over the past few years. She offered a level of transparency so many of us agency owners are terrified to reveal.

In his #ConfabMN closing keynote, Austin Kleon said, “Figure out a way to learn in public.”

An aha moment for me.

I don’t think we need another content strategist blogging about how to do a content audit. But the subject of running a content strategy company is a topic I get all fired up about. 

In the coming months, I’ll be writing more about our “high fives” and “oh shits” as one of the first content strategy agencies. In the interest of opening up the conversation with other small agency founders, freelancers, and future agency starters, I’ll share different paths we have taken, where we’ve failed, and where I’m taking the company now that my co-founder/partner Ian is working with the smart folks at Razorfish. (In case you missed that…)

I might even show you how I survived an IRS audit of our independent contractors.

Is there something you’d like to contribute? Is there something you’d like to know? Drop me a line: britta at

Till then,



Cut first, then color

I was talking to a startup today about which part of their website project to tackle first.

The client was emphasizing starting with the company’s product pages and ecommerce flow.

I was emphasizing starting with a quick content inventory and site map.

Fearing I was sounding too much like a process princess, I said, “It’s same reason you get your hair cut before you get it colored.”

A great analogy, especially if my client had been UniKitty (“half unicorn, half anime kitten, and nonstop dance party”).

Fortunately this particular male cut me some slack, laughed a little, and agreed.

We never use that word

Your organization probably has one.

You may even have notebooks full of them.

They are “the words we never use when we talk about our __________.”

(Product, service, company, employees, tool.)

I get it. I do.

You have good reason for never wanting to use those words.

But what if, just maybe, one of those words you never use is actually the perfect word?

Fresh. Concise. Immediate. Visual.

Maybe times have changed enough that the word doesn’t mean what it used to back when it landed in the Book of Forbidden.

Semantics do evolve.

Maybe that word needs to be released.

Take a look at it. Write it down. Put it in a comp. Look at it with fresh eyes.

Let it breathe. Try it out. See how if feels. Test it.

You never know.

Hey Paypal, WTF?

Is it just me, or is this ad from Paypal encouraging men to be slimy cheaters?

The worst part? I didn’t find it while digging around on some male-focused site like Esquire or College Humor. It’s right on the home page!

Marketing hint 101: If your “creative concept” runs the risk of pissing off at least half of your audience, is it that good of a concept?


Britta, aka Peggy Olson

Mentoring: This is What It’s All About

It’s the kind of letter you always hope to get–some evidence of making a positive impact on a young employee’s career.

In this case, he was fresh out of college and I hired him to be an editorial assistant for a regional magazine group. He was probably there less than a month when I was up against a deadline for our annual food issue–with no cover story. I took a chance and assigned it to him, and he nailed it. I’ve never seen a story about french fries tackled with such sophistication.

I received this thank you note last week after writing recommendation letters for his MFA applications.

It not only made my day week month, but it inspired me to reach out to some of the managers who made a big impact on my career.

Because when it comes to being an editor/manager/employer, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Why Brands Don’t Change

Too many companies fail to seek change until after a brand or product is declared broken. Then change is ushered through at a breakneck pace fed by panic and profits. And even after broken pieces are identified, the focus is often on plugging the dike rather than seeking opportunities to improve the entire process.

In other words, maintenance often trumps improvement. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The problem

The distance and prerogatives between “change” and “improvement” often creates organizational pressure. The greater the pressure, the more likely employees are to play it safe and the more predictable a brand story becomes.

“But we make site changes every day.”

Don’t confuse maintenance with change. True change is made with the intention of moving the bar forward.

What’s the root of the problem?

  • There is often no process for suggesting change.
  • There is often no process for initiating change.
  • Change sparks questions that organizations aren’t ready to answer.
  • Managing change challenges systems that are already in place (whether they are efficient or not).
  • If the mechanism for change isn’t in place and isn’t embraced, people will only push creative they know will get approved. Which means there’s not a lot of opportunity for brand evolution.
  • If employees are shot down (or considered “rocking the boat”) for trying to create spearhead change, they’ll go back to pushing papers.
  • Change is usually brought on due to a lack of sales, a problem with an existing product, a product launch or new management. In other words, when you’re up against the gun.

The Opportunity

Effective change management is a brand’s greatest asset—if you don’t have the mechanisms in place to effect change, your brand story goes stale.

Ready your brand for change. Prepare your organization to be more nimble. Create systems for gathering input. Map processes for initiating cross-departmental change. Empower your management to move quickly and efficiently.


Change saves money. Change gets people excited (once they get past the fear). Change broadens your audience. Change evolves your story. Change rocks.

Email Marketing at Its Best

This email arrived in my inbox at 5:02am. Just before  33 percent of the country was about to find out that school was canceled today and we would miss yet another day of work.

What I love about this is:

a) had this email designed, approved and ready to go

b) They included extra incentive: A huge promotional discount on a last-minute sitter

c) But to get the huge promotional discount, you have to upgrade to a premium membership

d) The email arrived at the exact right time. The moment of need.

What’s the moment of need for your customers?

Sure, you have your holiday promotions. But what unplanned event might your company prepare for, design for, create a promotion for, and have in the queue to send out right when your customers will need it the most?

By the way,’s Founder & CEO Sheila Marcelo has one of the best parenting blogs out there.

Not feeling so shiny and new? Tackle this list.

With all this talk of the new year and fresh starts, showing up to the office today made me feel squirrely. The leftovers of pre-holiday office bustle glare against the January sun, and it’s time to take action. Once I charge through this list, I’m going to buy myself a new notebook and focus on my vision for 2011. Ah, Zen.

1) Update all passwords. Dig up passwords to the sites I can never log in to (that means you, EZ Pass). Add everything to my beloved Keeper app. Add license plate numbers and other important account numbers while I’m at it.

2) Update projects sites and remove stale people. We have a ton of outdated people on Basecamp–clients who no longer work for their former company, vendors we no longer work with, etc. Time to clean house and make room for new partners.

3) Manage email filters and subscriptions. Late last year, we migrated to Gmail for Business. I love the filters–all my newsletters skip the inbox and go straight to the Biz Newsletters folder. But based on the 406 unread newsletters in that folder, I think a better use of my time/inbox space would be updating my Google Reader and unsubscribing from 99% of my newsletters.

4) Do a massive paper purge. Before I transfer all our 2010 paperwork to those tax document storage boxes my bookkeeper orders for me, I’m going to scan and shred as much as possible. You don’t realize how much paper you have until you move offices (like we did last year). Paper clutter is a huge mental weight for me, and I want to get rid of it. Ditto for all the project folders hogging valuable space in my filing cabinet. They are all digitized and backed up–I don’t need paper copies, too.

5) Ditch vendors or services that aren’t working. For us, that means our payroll company, who insists on sending us gigantic stacks of paperwork 2x a month and acts as if we owe them the world for sending us PDF statements. Among other annoyances big and small. Switching payroll is one of those pain in the ass tasks, at least mentally, but there’s no time like the new year to tackle it.

BONUS POINTS: Block out vacations for the year. I’m determined to spend 10 days in Salt Spring Island this summer. So I’m going to put it on the calendar and make it happen.
(Not familiar with Salt Spring? Check out “What It’s Like Living Here” from my dear friend Carrie Cogan.)


Dear Senders of Corporate Holiday Cards

If you are going to send a holiday card out to your customers that:

  • Has no personalization whatsoever
  • Is signed by a computer attempting to look like a real signature
  • Is signed by your entire staff with no personal message
  • Does not offer any value in terms of a gift, discount, useful information, an update about how your company is donating part of its profits to charity, or at least something to make me laugh
  • (A sentimental statement about the holidays does not count as adding value)

Then please reconsider sending a corporate holiday card in the first place.

It’s generic and makes us feel bad for the trees, which doesn’t make us feel good about you.


P.S. My holidays are about these guys, not my State Farm insurance agent.

How to Redesign Your Corporate Magazine in 5 Steps

To us, building a magazine is like building a house. Here’s how to go from vision to finished product in 5 (not necessarily easy) steps.

Step 1. Survey the landscape

The very first step in any redesign is discovery: collecting everything you can get your hands on about the existing magazine, the audience and your competitors.

This includes:

  • Competitive review: What are other magazines in your space doing well? What about magazines who aren’t direct competitors but who serve a similar audience?
  • Research: Gather all info your company has (from focus groups, surveys, interviews, reader feedback, your most tenured employees, etc.) and begin to put together the “redesign story.”
  • Audience: Define the audience and what they want from your magazine. What do they love about the existing magazine? What are its biggest limitations from their pov? Hopefully you have some solid data to work with. If not, you should be signing up for SurveyMonkey pronto. Remember to question everything: is your key audience really who your marketing director says it is?  Is it statistically possible that 90% of your 20,000 readers are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies? Hmm…
  • Gameplan: Define objectives, get everyone to agree on these objectives, and build a strategy to meet those objectives. Since we’re talking about corporate magazines here, be sure you’re clued in to any other big campaigns, upcoming redesigns, etc. that may be happening currently with your launch date.

Look, we know you’re in a rush, but this is one of the most important steps to launching a successful redesign. Anybody can make a pretty magazine. Doing it with strategy and intention requires research.

Step 2. Sketch out your blueprint
Create content departments + magazine architecture

Based on what you learn from Step 1, you can now begin to build content departments (i.e. recurring sections and columns…think of your favorite sections in the magazines you read regularly) and plot out the overall flow of the magazine. The goal is to be meaningful—and determining what will be meaningful to readers will come partly from your discovery, and partly from trial and error.

Tip: Plan to survey your audience after the redesign launches, and again after 2 or 3 issues depending on your frequency. Readers are notoriously resistant to change, which is why you want to survey them twice before you even think about redesigning your redesign. Remember all the backlash that happens any time Facebook launches a redesign? Most of those protesters probably can’t even remember what their beloved older Facebook site looked like.

Another tip: If you are under the gun to produce an issue before the redesign is complete, you can begin the editorial phase of your next issue once step 2 is completed. With all your new content departments in place and the space allotted for each piece of content, your editor can begin assigning stories. Hooray!

Step 3. Break out the colored pencils
Design concepting

Ideally, your designer will present three unique design directions. For a magazine, each design direction will typically include:

  • A cover treatment
  • Table of contents
  • A department or two
  • And possibly a sample feature spread

From here, the team selects one design direction (typically with some tweaks) and you are able to move to the next phase.

Tip: If you’re the kind of organization (you know who you are) who gets hung up on the microscopic details, by all means give your designer images and sample text from an earlier issue to work with. Or use all lorem ipsum. Because the last thing you need is a marketing manager or CEO getting hung up on the incorrect treatment of a product name when you are only supposed to be looking at design concepts.

Step 4. Hammers and nails—construction begins
Design fine-tuning and building interior pages

Once the selected design direction is fine-tuned to everyone and their second cousin’s happiness, you can begin building interior pages (with “dummy,” or stand-in, copy). These pages will act as a template for the production designer once you are working with “live” (real) copy and images.

Several style guide details are worked out in this important phase, such as how footers are handled, what the rules are for headline and subhed treatments, whether photo captions are italicized or bolded, how you are handling calls to action, etc. These are all the hundreds of little details that will make your magazine polished and professional. Most readers won’t notice these details—unless they are sloppy and inconsistent.

Step 5. Certificate of Occupancy: You are now ready to move in
Deliver print template and style guide

This is when the art director tidies up their design files and hands them off to a production designer (the person who will actually be producing each issue of the magazine). If your art director is a freelancer, you’ll want to make sure he/she reviews the files with your production designer and editor, and is available for questions as issues pop up during production.

You, the client, will want to expect some deviation from the templates, since story structures and lengths may change once you’re working with live, edited text. Also, you may not get the dream photography the art director envisioned on a particular column, and your production designer will need to adjust the layout according to reality.

All caveats aside, you are now ready to begin laying out a real issue. Take your team out for a beer.