What’s a Showrunner, and Why Do Brands Need to Hire Them?
Before we define what a showrunner actually is, consider for a moment the effect that titles and terminology have on the way people approach their work. Imagine you’re at a party and someone asks what you do, and you say, “I’m a writer.” What images pop into the other person’s head?
Maybe you’re a plaid-clad hipster who clacks away at a keyboard in a cafe all day. You hit publish, and pop goes your digital fame thanks to whatever edgy new media site you write for.
Or maybe they picture you holed up in an office somewhere, with very many leather-bound books. It’s a room that smells of rich mahogany, as you, the slightly disheveled writer, plops down into a chair and ponders the next great novel or essay.
When you say, “I’m a writer,” what are the odds they imagine you working in marketing? Well, why shouldn’t they? Brands have been hiring writers (and editors) for decades. Oh but those are COPYwriters, right? In some cases, sure. But increasingly, people who write longform articles, essays, ebooks, printed books, and other yarns are brought into marketing departments at brands big and small. What do we call them?
Easy: content writers. They’re on the content marketing teams, so we put “content” in front of the “writer” — even though every writer writes content. Saying “content writer” is a bit like saying “food cook.” It prompts the question, “As opposed to what?”
And when we say “content writer,” I believe, we start to lower our gaze a little bit. We may not do so intentionally, but we sound like we’re trying to commodify ourselves. We write content. We’re copy jockeys. We churn out cheap containers, the Tupperware of the internet, stuffed across digital shelves.
Of course, we don’t want to sound like that any more than we want to do that. If we merely called ourselves “writers,” perhaps we’d gaze upward, at what could be better writing, better projects, better marketing.
Names are important. We should call writers “writers” and not detract from their importance or skill by slapping “content” ahead of it as a modifier.
Today, there’s another new wave of emerging talent beginning to flood the marketing world, and before we name them something deflating, let’s call them what they are, so that we can both set our sights higher than most content while hiring the most talented people in the process. So who are they?
They’re showrunners who work inside of marketing teams, yes, but showrunners nonetheless.
This new talent entering the marketing industry (or existing marketing talent switching over) already has a name, and it helps them elevate their gaze and do better work: Showrunners. You don’t make a podcast. You don’t market some video. You run a show.
Hey! Great intro, my guy. But, um … what the heck is a showrunner?
Glad you asked, subhead! For starters, let’s frame our thinking on what these individuals do. Think of a showrunner as the CEO of a show.
Okay, that’s not super helpful, considering CEOs come in many flavors. Some are very externally facing, some manage internal operations, some come from marketing and sales, others from product or engineering or finance. A “CEO” doesn’t describe what they do so much as why they exist.
In my three years spent working for NextView, a VC firm investing in seed-stage tech startups, I learned the difference between a founder and a CEO. A founder is someone who starts something. In the world of showrunning, the founder would be the head writer or the director. They have ideas, and they begin to execute on those ideas in a rather informal, experimental way. They rely on raw skills, and mostly, they do the work themselves. But a CEO? As the founder and CEO of software startup Tettra, Andy Cook, once told me, “A CEO has to get their dopamine hits not from the work they produce, but from the work others produce.”
The difference between a founder and a CEO is the same difference between a show’s producer or editor and its showrunner. If the vehicle is going to become an official business, or contribute to the success of an existing business, then someone has to claim responsibility for the innerworkings of that business — or the show that contributes to the success of an existing business. In other words, a founder shifts into CEO mode when things like budgets, hiring and team leadership, growth, and stakeholders become important — not just the creation of a good product with a few early adopters.
At NextView, I learned this idea that CEOs are really responsible for three things, if you boil down everything to their most foundational ideas: (1) set the vision, (2) align the team, (3) don’t run out of money.
Everything else can be categorized under those three things, including budgeting (category #3), hiring, promotions, and firing (#2), managing investors and customer or partner relationships (category #3), brand (#1), creativity and innovation (also #1), and the timely and measurable execution of the work (#2) towards a certain end (#1).
As a show’s CEO, a showrunner is responsible for setting the vision, aligning the team, and managing the financial health of a show.
Here’s a nice, neat definition if you want one:
A showrunner is the individual responsible for the creation, management, and success of an original series.
There are, of course, different flavors, just like with any CEO (or CMO, or VP, or Director of Marketing). Some act more like head writers than others. Some are adroit team builders and leaders, while others can effortlessly navigate the business needs and financial situation facing a show or its parent company. Regardless of their specific background or personal leanings, a showrunner is the “buck stops here” person.
I get it now, thanks. So … marketing?
Ah, right. You’re quite helpful, subhead friend. (Subheader? Subheaded? Subverted Cranium?)
We’re living through one of the most interesting times in … well, everything I think … but specifically, in how marketing works. There’s this underpinning, fundamental shift that most marketers are not talking about enough. The reaction to that shift is the very same movement that Marketing Showrunners exists to cover: more and more marketers making shows to build their brands and serve their audiences. Companies ranging from giants like Bank of America and DELL, fast-rising B2B platforms like Mailchimp, Drift, and HubSpot, consumer darlings like YETI Coolers and Death Wish Coffee, and startups and SMBs by the thousands are launching original shows in audio and video form. A few have even taken steps to go beyond one-off shows to create entire networks of originals, including the startup ProfitWell, the aforementioned Mailchimp, and one of our very own presenting sponsors, the video marketing platform Wistia.
Again, that’s the reaction to the shift, and MSR aims to catalyze and codify that movement: more marketers making more and better shows. But to understand the reaction of an industry, we first have to understand the movement of the tectonic plates underneath it all. Namely, marketing is no longer about grabbing attention. It’s about holding it. Today’s top marketing teams realize: Great marketing isn’t about who arrives. It’s about who stays.
The marketing funnel’s old foundations have been crumbling for awhile now. For instance, after 40 straight years of the two things matching each other, the cost of consumer attention has started increasing faster than inflation, increasing 7-9x per year, according to one report out of Harvard Business School.
Additionally, the things that consumers are willing to trust has been narrowing over the past few decades. According to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, consumers have shifted their willingness to trust towards increasingly focused things, from big institutions years ago to peer-to-peer connections online in more recent years to, today, “only that which is closest to them.” Frustratingly, the same report uncovered a record gap between how much a buyer is willing to trust a brand when they’re informed compared to uninformed. All this means that we still need to hold attention long enough to educate and entertain, yet we operate in an era where it’s never been harder to earn trust. Fan-freaking-tastic.
When it comes to acquisition marketing, that doesn’t get much better. According to one report studying 2,000 businesses from ProfitWell, customer acquisition costs are up 50-70% over the last five years, depending on the channel — and no new channels are presenting themselves, as big social networks, media companies, and tech giants continue to buy out their competition or squash them before we’ve ever heard of them.
Fittingly, inbound business closes at a rate of 8-10x that of outbound sales- or marketing-driven prospective buyers, while companies publishing content retain 5-10% more customers than those who do not. Customers on average consume 3-5 pieces of content before interacting directly with a brand. Couple that with product feature parity and increased competition for attention (everywhere) and buyers (within your industry niche), and we’re all left with one hard truth: brand and customer experience are the lone defensible differentiators left. It’s not about “awareness.” It’s about affinity.
Impossibly, this doesn’t need to trigger panic. There already exists a proven vehicle capable of holding attention despite endless amounts of distraction — one audiences adore. There’s a way for us to build audience, and also increase the lifetime value of that audience, and also decrease our customer acquisition costs thanks to word-of-mouth created by that audience.
You’re already well ahead of me here. I’m talking about shows.
Shows can’t magically solve all our problems. But damn if they aren’t magic.
“From that day on … if I was going somewhere … I. Was. (Show)running!”
Did you just quote Forrest Gump but modify it for a niche community inside all of marketing?
Damn. I think we just became best friends.
I also maybe need to go outside and make real friends.
Impending therapy bills aside, I am incredibly bullish on showrunning inside of marketing teams, obviously. Navigating all the stakeholders, the distribution channels, the teammates, the budgeting, the planning, production, measurement, and growth of a show? The creative strategy and audience development? The entirety of this job sounds like working on a marketing team. Best of all, whereas showrunners who work in TV try their best to stomach the advertising business model and its inevitable effects on the work, we don’t sell advertising. We don’t need a huge audience for our shows, whether podcast or video. We merely need the right audience, an audience of superfans so fiercely in love with our message and our content and our brands that they choose to stick around. Imagine how much easier the rest of our jobs get if an army of passionate fans feel they know us? That’s what happens when they invest hours of their lives in our shows.
Look, we’ve been hiring writers for years. The chief among the writers is the editor, the buck-stops-here person who sets the vision, aligns the team, and manages resources. Well, as we start to hire video and podcast producers, or we shift marketers to focus more on building audience for our shows, we need a chief among these producers and marketers. That’s the showrunner. They are the buck-stops-here person, and they can even collaborate with an editor to improve ideas across channels and mediums, while providing the other person or team with endless content for their work. The two are perfect partners in content crime*, each funneling insights from their stuff to inform new content for the other, each offering efficiencies for the channels the other uses to distribute their work.
*except maybe don’t commit actual crimes
I’m excited! Permission to quote Forrest Gump again?
Questions remain for marketing leaders, of course: Should we look for an established showrunner or senior producer externally to bring onto our teams? Can an existing member of a marketing department turn into a showrunner? What’s the job description, the salary, the skills, and the surrounding teammates needed? We’ll address these and more in future posts.
One thing is clear for now: This movement is already growing. We’re seeing more marketers making more shows. Our goal here at MSR is to ensure they make more and better shows, not just more. Part of that is to elevate our gaze, to call a spade a spade, a writer a writer, and a showrunner a showrunner.
This show-related stuff is happening, and to all my dear friends in marketing, I can only say this: Let’s get it right. The titles we give ourselves can help.
From this day on … if we’re going somewhere … We. Are. Showrunners.
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Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. 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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