How the World’s Best Executives Encourage Better Creativity from Their Teams
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Last week, I conducted six phone calls with marketing leaders from around North America, across a diverse array of industries: martech, finance, agency, fashion, and media. Yet again, these simple 1:1 conversations proved to be the most important thing I did all week. After talking to this particular group, I noticed they all mentioned variations of the same problem: We’re copying without innovating.
- “I want to see a bigger, better idea for a show from my team. Straight Q&A shows aren’t enough anymore.”
- “My boss wants us in the Top 10 on Apple Podcasts because … reasons? We’re in B2B finance!”
- “We’re planning a new video series. It’s me in front of a whiteboard talking about a key concept.”
- “My CEO sent me Joe Rogan’s show and said, ‘Just do a show like that.'”
Across the board, we find ourselves stressed and struggling to convince others to move away from reactive ideas or copycat thinking towards something better. Maybe we already know what would be better, or maybe we just need better collaboration and more relevant audience insights to decide. Whatever the case, we often feel stuck at meh … or sometimes gah!
How can we push for something better, something we are convinced needs to happen … especially when what’s asked of us is subpar or wrong for our brands? We need a system to communicate hard truths.
Take the example where a CEO sends a CMO Joe Rogan’s podcast as an inspirational model and says, “Just do a show like that.”
Set aside your stance on Joe Rogan himself for a moment (I’m personally not a fan). Focus on the issues with any authority figure at a brand saying, “Just be like that famous show.” I identified three core issues with this approach:
ISSUE 1: WRONG MODEL
Incentives drive behavior. Media monetizes with ads, and so shows like Joe Rogan’s are incentivized to reach the masses. But our brands aren’t driven by ad sales. We’re marketers marketing products and/or services. It’s not enough to reach a ton of people. We have to reach the RIGHT people, and then achieve something monumental that Joe Rogan doesn’t need to think about at all: We have to turn consumption into action.
We can’t merely flip the download or view total over to our sales team so they can close deals, nor can we look at growing audience totals and say, “We did it!” A Top-10 show on Apple Podcasts or a featured or trending channel on YouTube are both nice wins to motivate a team perhaps, but they don’t make for an effective show run by marketers. No, in our jobs, we have to ask, “What’s next?”
They listened or watched. Cool. What’s next? They consumed more. Sweet. And then? And then subscribed. Even better. What’s next?
It doesn’t stop until they buy from us, and even then, we want something after that too: loyalty and referrals.
Anchoring to famous show ignores the fact that their behavior is driven by their business model.
Ours should be too.
ISSUE 2: WRONG CREATIVE EXECUTION
A show is comprised of three distinct parts: a show-level concept, an episode-level format, and on-air or on-camera talent.
“Science Vs,” “Family Feud,” and “Wheel of Fortune” are all show concepts. (They just so happen to be show names as well.) That second piece, the format, describes the episode’s flow or component parts, or as they call in in TV, the rundown. Lastly, the host and other contributing voices (or actors if you’re doing fictional work) are your talent.
Joe Rogan’s concept is Joe Rogan. Joe Rogan’s format is Joe Rogan talking to celebrities. Joe Rogan is the talent for his own show (which, by the way, was built up over decades being in media).
Now I ask you: Should our concept be The Host We Select? Should our format be interviews with celebrities? (Consider this answer carefully: EVERYONE you compete with interviews top experts. Everyone. Why would anyone get that interview from you? Joe Rogan arrived with a fan base to his podcast, and he built it bigger because he bet on an entire medium, podcasting, before it was known. Are we doing the same thing? Doubtful.)
Lastly, in terms of talent, are we or our executives really dedicating years of our life to mastering the craft of interviewing guests and engaging an audience as a performer? Personalities like Rogan did. They make it look natural, but that’s only because they spent years and years of it feeling rather unnatural.
ISSUE 3: WRONG FOCUS
Lastly, demanding we “just do a show like Joe Rogan” reveals the most fundamental misstep an executive can make when crafting an original series: focusing on the competition first, instead of the customer. (Do THEY want the Joe Rogan of X show? What exactly DO they want? Do we know?)
I hope you agree that these three things are issues. The real obstacle, however, isn’t recognizing the problem. It’s addressing it: sitting down with others to say to them, in plain language, that you disagree with their proposed direction, that we can do BETTER.
How many of us are having those conversations? If we are, do they turn into productive outcomes, or uncomfortable or even angry responses?
A PROCESS FOR TURNING HARD TRUTHS INTO PRODUCTIVE DISCUSSIONS
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Max Yoder, the CEO and cofounder of Lessonly, which sells training software used by brands like Birchbox and Zendesk. Max also wrote a great new book called Do Better Work. On the call, I relayed what I’d heard from my conversations with executives, that hard truths either go unspoken or result in combative discussions.
To paraphrase his assessment: This happens because we’ve never been taught how to handle conflict productively, to treat it like valuable data for the purposes of improvement instead of the beginnings of an argument. After years of struggling with this himself, Max said he arrived at a solution we can all use:
Using non-violent communication allows us to face conflict head-on, rather then stay silent or shrug and say, “Welp, guess I gotta let this thing play out so we have an example of what NOT to do.”
Instead, we should be able to work towards something better … together.
Non-violent communication can help us achieve that. It’s an order of operations for delivering the right information at the right time when we critique or push others or address hard truths. It runs like this…
1. THE OBSERVATION.
State something specific and concrete. It’s a fact. You saw it or see it. Others can too. It’s not subjective or disputable.
A couple examples applied to the practice of showrunning:
- “During our last chat about our podcast, we talked about Joe Rogan as a good model for our show.”
- “For the last three quarters, we’ve hit our goals for our video marketing on the final day of the quarter.”
2. THE FEELING.
Share how the observation makes you or your team feel. It should be conveyed in ways people can understand — plain language, short and sweet. Using the same examples as above, we might say this:
- (On copying Joe Rogan): “I’m feeling hesitant to use Joe Rogan as a model for our show.”
- (On hitting our goals for video marketing on the final day of the quarter for three straight quarters): “I’m feeling nervous that we keep hitting our goals so last-minute.”
3. THE NEED.
What do we require that we don’t currently have, which will address both the observation and feeling? This should be easily understandable, too: collaboration, opportunity, data, budget. For instance…
- “We need some audience insights to understand if Joe Rogan’s show is a good model for our specific target market and, if so, what specifically about that show we should copy.”
- “We need team-wide experimentation to find a more sustainable way to reach our goals every quarter.”
4. THE REQUEST.
What are you asking of the person or people in the room? What’s their role to play in all this? For instance…
- “I’d like your permission to (or I’d like you to) take some time to look through our data and set up some calls with subscribers to better understand what their needs are, before we decide on our show’s concept or inspirational comparisons.”
- “I need you to present the results of at least one experiment you’re running at our next team meeting, along with a list of other experiments currently running.”
That’s non-violent communication. If you attempt to talk with your teams like this, let me know how it goes. And I hope you do have that conversation with others, or even your boss. Without addressing frustrations or hesitations directly and honestly, we’re doomed to create Yet Another, instead of what we all want to build: The Only.
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Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. I’m a believer that exceptional work happens when you find and follow what makes you an exception. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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