Movement Makers: Why and How Are So Many Top Performing Marketers Becoming Showrunners?
Defining a showrunner is tricky since, as in the case of a product manager or content marketer, the real answer to the question “what is a showrunner” is usually “it depends.” In the traditional sense, a showrunner is the individual on a television show with the creative and management control and responsibility. They do things like determine and/or work within the budget, liaise between the studio and the writers’ room, hire and fire, and in some cases, develop characters and storylines.
Shonda Rhimes sums it up best when she says, “A showrunner’s job is to keep the show running.”
In the broadest possible sense, showrunners own the success of their shows — and today, they’re more valuable than ever in marketing. Whatever “success” requires in every specific scenario, a showrunner may tackle.
However, that’s merely a description of what they do — the activities a marketer might hastily slap on a résumé or LinkedIn bio when trying to own the podcasts and/or video shows at a company. “Worked Here. Did this. Did that. Reported to them.”
But to understand showrunners and, more importantly, to truly master the role, we as marketers need to push beyond what showrunners do to look at what great showrunners have.
Great showrunners have a vision and a process.
Brilliant showrunners are equal parts creative mastermind and deft organizer of people, parts, and pieces. They inspire and execute, make and manage, think big and start small. They beautifully marry all that is required in the phrase “content marketing” — the content part, and the marketing part, together.
Said another way? Showrunners are friggin’ unicorns.
Why Today’s Top Marketers Look Like Showrunners
Today’s best marketing teams embrace a new mandate for the job entirely. In eras past, perhaps the job of a marketer (rightly or wrongly) was to “grab” attention. Today, while it might be necessary for marketers to entice prospective customers to glance their way, it’s so laughably far from sufficient as to be almost useless as an end goal. As our partners at Wistia like to say, “The number of impressions do not equal the number of people impressed.”
No, the job of a modern marketer isn’t to grab attention. The job is to hold it. Really, once we stop viewing other humans as “leads” and “subscribers” and “sales,” we can describe our new marketing mandate in the clearest language yet:
Great marketing isn’t about who arrives. It’s about who stays.
As marketers, we are all in the business of getting a small number of fans to react in big ways — not as a metric of final success, but as a sign we’re onto something important. This is the classic idea of Kevin Kelly’s “thousand true fans” or Seth Godin’s “smallest possible audience.” The solution in a world where nobody pays attention is to stop trying to make them. Instead, pay more attention to those who already know and like you. Serving them more deeply, and ensuring they spend more time with you, leads to the creation of a productive audience that takes more actions on your behalf — because they’re really taking those actions on their own behalf.
When we pay more attention to the customer than to the industry echo-chamber, the customer pays more attention to us. In a beautiful way, we can escape the endlessly spinning wheel of trends, hacks, and cheats promising a quick injection of attention, and we can get back to the real work: holding it. We can serve those who choose to stay, and offer others the chance to do so … because that’s what great marketing really is.
When those fans spend significant time with us, they become productive members of our audience and bring us new audience — not by tweeting “check out this brand” because they want to win a discount, but by leaving our ecosystem changed for the better. Like a bee carrying pollen from flower to flower, our brand’s core, passionate fans chose us, spent some time with us, and now they’re going about their day slightly changed, having picked up certain things that might actually fade to the background in their minds but, inevitably, come out in the way they interact with others.
In that world, brand affinity is the goal, not brand awareness. Shows don’t sit in any one stage of the funnel. They straighten the entire damn thing.
Want something more marketing-y? Fine. When people invest serious time to stay with us, the lifetime value of that audience to our brands goes up, while our costs of customer acquisition goes down thanks to word-of-mouth spurred by those passionate people.
LTV going up and CAC going down feels like a fantasy world. Shows are a wonderful vehicle to make that fantasy reality. And the unicorns who greet us as we wander into this magical place? Yep: showrunners. They’re marketers who have mastered the nuances of the showrunner’s job: saying something that matters, making a difference, and shifting the culture. It just so happens that a series of content does this better than standalone “pieces” ever could.
(Note: for examples of marketers making shows — for a list of unicorns — explore our master list of branded podcasts, video series, and show networks here.)
The Marketing Showrunner’s Mandate
If all of marketing’s mandate is to shift from grabbing attention to holding it in the name of earning trust and love, then a showrunner working within a marketing team has a specific and vital part to play in that.
The marketing showrunner’s mandate is to create their audience’s favorite show.
Why “favorite”? We aren’t working for NBC or Netflix. We don’t have the IP of Disney or Marvel or Star Wars or Pixar (so, “Disney”). We don’t have endless resources either.
That doesn’t change the reality we face.
Ultimately, marketing today is about creating an experience others choose. Anything that feels like coercion, trickery, and bruteforce is outed as hollow or avoided outright. In a world of infinite choice, we only choose something we can consider our favorite — for that purpose, that moment, that topic, that medium, that feeling.
This is why a clear vision matters to showrunners.
Showrunners use their vision to create their audience’s favorite show, a journey the audience wants and chooses to embark on with another individual or group and return to each step of the way. Showrunners know their roles aren’t to pummel people with more “stuff,” but rather shift how people understand, see, and feel. They’re in the business of creating an experience others would willingly choose for minutes or hours on end. The result is a group of fans who believe what our teams also believe — united in how this world or this niche should be, with our organizations helping shape that, rally for that, and provide a platform others can stand on to evangelize the same ideas.
A showrunner’s clear vision helps craft the show’s big idea from their grander idea of a world that doesn’t yet exist.
Along with a clear vision, however, a showrunner also shepherds a smart process.
Creating a show can be daunting, especially when the word “campaign” is so common among marketers. With a series, however, one moment matters not. Instead, the success of the series hinges on the compounding benefits of consistently creating resonant work. You get better, the idea gets better, and the audience relationship gets better, and it all requires time.
Part of the challenge a showrunner faces is simply showing up, upholding the promise. However, we also need to consider the paradox of exceeding expectations: The moment we do so, we’ve changed our audience’s expectations. If we don’t keep trying, learning, and changing, even the biggest fan can grow disinterested, as an initial moment innovation or insight stagnates over time. All this to say, a showrunner has to run a smart process to do two daunting things at once: create a project that consistently publishes AND consistently reinvents itself.
Again: Showrunners. They’re friggin’ unicorns.
How to Be a Unicorn (Or at Least a Marketing Showrunner)
In brief, we need to combine our clear vision and our smart process. The result is our point of view.
Having a point of view allows us to find and share our voice and the voices of those who believe what we believe. Our point of view allows us to make a difference in the lives of others. And yes, a point of view helps with that initial tipping point from vaguely interested audience to passionately engaged fans — fans who stick and stay.
In the entertainment industry, showrunners’ points of view are well known. It’s an individual’s “thing,” their unfair advantages, their creative wrinkle which, when applied to a show, makes it uniquely their show. Both the creative and the operation behind the scenes benefit from that point of view.
Consider Dan Harmon, creator of shows like Community and Rick and Morty. Harmon is famous for his “story circle” framework, which he derived from the more common hero’s journey approach to storytelling, which itself was derived from the work of Joseph Campbell. By using the story circle — and, in classic Harmon fashion, breaking it and reversing its order and generally messing with its pieces — the world can tell that a show is Harmon’s, and not someone else’s.
That’s Dan Harmon’s thing. Yes, he has incredible talent around him and with him, but he also has an identity that’s uniquely his own and a strong point of view on how to do the work.
In marketing parlance, he’s found his voice, and he shares it — with gusto — through his projects. For a given show, he brings together a team capable of doing the same. Through differing beliefs in how to execute day to day, but a shared vision of what could be (a vision that Harmown owns), his writers rooms have created several shows that many fans certainly call their favorites.
When marketers attempt to remove this messy human element, when we try to be glorified avatars of a PDF of brand guidelines, or we avoid friendly disagreements or constructive feedback, we end up creating commodities — easy for competitors to copy, and equally easy for audiences to overlook. (This is why so many B2B brands create identical shows to their peers: Unstructured interviews with the most successful people they can reach.)
Like Dan Harmon, another showrunner combines his vision and process to create a distinct point of view: Michael Schur. Schur is the man behind series like Parks and Recreation and The Good Place. He’s also lent his creative talents to The Office (US), Master of None, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
Schur’s hallmark is to create a sort of live action version of The Simpsons: a vast array of recurring minor characters who give life to a single location for the story, with a cast of central characters at the core. Parks is the best example of this yet: Pawnee, Indiana’s parks and recreation department form the core characters, but the same bit parts played by the same actors recurred throughout the series run to fill out the setting of the show — government officials, police officers, concerned and sometimes crazed citizens, teachers, restaurant owners, and more.
A full-feeling central location with a big-hearted core cast. That’s a Michael Schur show.
Both Harmon and Schur marry vision and process to create a distinct point of view. It can’t be one or the other. As Simon Sinek says, “Vision without execution is delusion.” Likewise, process without vision is a factory printing cheap commodities.
To create someone’s favorite show, a showrunner must have both a creative vision and a smart process. Marrying the two creates their point of view. A point of view is what brings some people all the way into your corner, while repelling the wrong people. It’s a “HELL YES!” from the audience you most want to serve, that small but passionate group, and a “NOPE!” from those for whom your show and your brand aren’t built.
Remove the point of view, and the best response possible is a shrug.
Calling All Aspiring Unicorns (Or at Least Aspiring Showrunners)
We’ve noticed a trend at MSR. A truly successful showrunner has a personal passion for the work, which in turn yields better results. They can’t decouple their own desire to have a voice and make a difference with their company’s needs to create brand affinity, sell product, and start a movement. The marketer is integral. The people part matters. It’s not a hollow means to an end — a “tactic” to generate a result. It’s damn near a calling, with the marketer’s passion for serving the audience and creating a great experience inextricably tied to the job — and the results.
This does something magical for the show, which in turn does something magical for the brand: In an era defined by shallow content, a showrunner creates an experience that allows for depth. Sure, audiences experience a depth of understanding with the show’s material, but more crucially, they experience a depth of relationship with the marketer and the brand. Again, creating someone’s favorite show to be their favorite brand requires that others invest a lot of time with us, but for others to invest a lot of time with us, they first have to see the show as a good investment of that time. Like a CMO doling out budget, our audience requires a return.
Look, I have no qualms with someone interpreting the words “favorite show” as an excuse to create their niche’s version of the Kardashians or a Buzzfeed quiz. But we’ve learned an important lesson in building MSR: There are marketers out there, both junior and senior, who want to lead by making better things. They want to say something that matters, to serve, and to shift the culture in a positive direction — the culture of their companies, the culture of their industries, and the culture of the society in which they work and live. Ironically, by making the end goal “serve the audience” rather than “generate results,” we tend to see better results. All this to say, MSR seeks to serve marketers who serve others. These are people for whom content built for the lowest common denominator simply isn’t an option. They refuse to settle.
So, when we say, “We want you to create their favorite show so you can be their favorite brand,” we share a mutual understanding with people like you of what that means. We aren’t talking about empty calories or doing marketing “to” others. What we’re talking about is a kind of service.
We’re talking about making something that makes a difference — something that leaves your audience changed for the better. And in that world, yes, it’s easier to build our businesses.
Great showrunners develop a clear vision. They run a smart process.
They imagine something better and know how to make it happen.
Their ability to combine both things helps bring their point of view into the world, and that point of view then rallies others to the cause: teammates, customers, and newcomers to the brand’s movement who are longing for someone to say what they’re thinking, to embark on a journey around something they long to explore.
The future of marketing is always in question. The present is not. In a world full of hollow content, we can choose to focus on resonance. Great marketing today isn’t about who arrives. It’s about who stays. At a time when most chase bigger yet passive numbers, going deeper is what actually counts.
In the end, this won’t be a movement embraced by all, nor a job suited for most. But for the choice few – maybe for you – we can now say:
We know what this is (showrunning).
We know what we are (showrunners).
And now, we can busy ourselves with the hard but meaningful work: finding and sharing our voice, making a difference, and shifting the culture for the better.
Go be their favorite.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. 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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