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Doug Kessler On Pushing Yourself to Dangerous & More Exciting Places

Doug Kessler On Pushing Yourself to Dangerous & More Exciting Places Blog Feature

June 10th, 2014 min read

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As part of our BlogAbout Interview Series, we're speaking with authors, speakers, and TED Presenters on all things content. Get your content ideas with the BlogAbout tool.

Altruism is a word not often associated with the work of marketers and advertisers. 

Nope. More often than not, it's an industry where practitioners are likened to sleazy used-car salesmen, relying on trickery and bullshit in order to sell you things you don't need. 

Both are wildly innaccurate, however perception is often more powerful than reality. So powerful, in fact, that it even affects those who do it for a living. 

Just ask Doug Kessler, co-founder and creative director of Velocity, a UK-based B2B marketing agency.

His SlideShare, Searching for Meaning in B2B Marketing, has amassed close to 50,000 views since January.

"I wrote it over a year ago and thought that it was too personal," said Kessler. "It’s about me and I knew it ought to resonate with other people like me, but this was the first piece that was really that personal – so I sat on it for a while."

I recently caught up with Kessler to discuss the art of creating marketing that means something not only to the audience, but marketing that also means something to yourself.

Q: Your SlideShare connected with many entrepreneurs in a way that not much content does. Why do you think that is? What inspired that? 

Empathy is the most important thing in content marketing. Somebody asked me recently, “what's the one skill or talent you’d give to a content marketer?” I really think it would be empathy above all else.

Once you’ve got that, it’s kind of your touchstone for every decision that you have. I'm lucky when we're doing our content marketing about content marketing because I am the audience, so empathy couldn’t be easier.

It was a very personal piece and it really was kind of about opening a vein a little bit and admitting that I’ve had this issue all of my career, and I’m guessing others have to.

I wrote it over a year ago and thought that it was too personal. It’s about me and I knew it ought to resonate with other people like me, but this was the first piece that was really that personal so I sat on it for a while.

Then in watching some other brands that I admire, including HubSpot, I realized that these guys are good at exposing beliefs, what drives them, and why they do what they do.

You know, I’m a big believer in that Simon Sinek TED talk about that too. So I thought, “oh, what the hell” and I put it out there. I’m really glad I did because I was nervous about this one. I thought it might not resonate. People might think it was too much of a personal thing, but I got some great feedback on it. I felt so good about it and a lot of people reached out and said, “yeah! me too!”, so that really made me glad I published it. 

Q: In the SlideShare you said that you felt like you weren’t doing anything altruistic, and you weren’t making the world a better place. However, don't you think that drawing empathy through that presentation indeed did make the industry a better place for others like you?  

I didn’t think of it that way until you said that. Now that you say it, it makes me feel really good about it.

It’s important that we let ourselves love what we do and feel that it’s as good as anything else. We're not second class citizens because we’re not doing something super glamorous or super meaningful by the world’s terms, so I’m glad that you said that.

Q: Glamorous is something that we hear a lot from the industry and from clients. We also hear the world “sexy” a lot. You know, the people that think their industry isn’t “sexy” or it’s not “glamorous”, usually they are in the B2B space. They think that if their product or service isn’t glamorous, their content can’t be. Do you think it can be?

I absolutely do.

It doesn't have to be glamorous to be important, worth the effort, or interesting. There’s so many things other than glamour.

I started out in consumer marketing with Ogilvy on Madison Avenue with some really glitzy accounts, and some kind of B2B accounts that nobody really wanted to get stuck on. I found that I really resonated with those. I loved the rational challenge of it all.

Glamour is overrated. Glamour is skin deep. It’s wonderful if you can bring it all, and have that too, but there’s plenty of things other than glamour.

If someone says my product market isn't interesting, important, or necessary, it’s like well, get your ass into a market that is. How could you do your job everyday if you really, really, really think that?

Q: You’re in the B2B industry, however your SlideShare was extremely engaging. Do you think that in essence, that sort of proves that theory wrong?

If you can't find it in your heart, that's a mismatch for you. It doesn’t mean that something wasn’t meaningful, it was just a mismatch for you as a person.

If you simply can't get your heart into it, your first duty is to find a place where you can put your heart into it.

I do believe that you can put your heart into anything, and great things happen when you do.

It’s funny because my dad was more of a curmudgeonly guy who sort of looked down on his work for much of his career. Not all of it, he found some really cool stuff later, but much of it.

And then my mom was more like whatever you put in front of me I’m just going to dive into. She made a lot of unglamorous professions really fulfilling, exciting, and fun for her.

I remember as a kid thinking that even if I was fooling myself, I'd rather be that way than someone who drags themselves to work everyday.

So I do think the theory is wrong. There is no market anywhere that’s not worthy of passion, but there may be a mismatch where you as a marketer simply can’t find it.

Normally I would think there's something inside of you that's blocking it as opposed to inherent in the industry.

Q: How do you decide which platform to publish on? For instance, do you think that your SlideShare would have had the same resonance had it just been a regular blog post? 

That’s a really good question. That SlideShare actually did start as a blog post. I started that as a Word document and thought that it was going to be a blog, but I wasn’t quite sure where it would go.

There's something about the shape and trajectory of the material that tells you what it wants to be. I know it sounds mysterious, but it really does feel like that's how it works.

Once you get good at a medium and know what it's good and bad at, then you start sniffing out a story or a piece of material that's made just for that.

I have just fallen in love with SlideShare which is why I’ve done quite a few in a row. But now I’m to the point where I need to do some other things.

We’ve done lots of video for clients, but we haven’t done any for ourselves, so I want to play in other things. There’s something about the material that tells you. If you cram it into the wrong thing it won't resonate quite as well.

Q: Having guys like Dharmesh Shah certainly doesn’t hurt either, right?

That was just great.

One of the guys emailed me and told me that Dharmesh shared the SlideShare and I thought that it was just great to get on the radar of these great people.

Content has been kind of a passport to some really cool people, so that’s another thing about putting your heart on the page that makes it worth it. People respond. You came forward because of it, and I think that’s a great thing.

It levels the playing field where a small player can hit something big.

Q: What does your writing process look like? Is it messy? Are there any common rituals or practices that get you inspired? Are you listening to music? What does your writing process usually look like?

I write best in the morning or very late at night. There are other times in the day where my brain is a bit duller where I can crank it out but I know it’s not going to be as sharp.

You know that game Angry Birds where you pull back the bird and then let it go? There's this trajectory planning that’s involved and I always think of writing in terms of that. I like to go full speed. I like to get a first draft down no matter what it is. I’ll just type and worry about sharpening later. I like to have something that I really want to say, and then just go for it.

Sometimes I find in the course of doing that there’s a pivot point in the piece where I think, “oh shit, that’s not what I really think.” And then I have to make the decision of whether to start over or just follow the pivot and see what happens.

But usually, I kind of know where I’m going with it. It’s all about that trajectory, that Angry Birds feeling of aiming at a particular altitude and pulling back the bird and just going and seeing what comes out.

Q: Which writers, bloggers, or authors that inspire your work?

There are a lot, however a lot of the ones that really inspire me are not in the marketing world.

I have favorite novelists that turn me on. They make me want to get better at the craft.

Obviously there are some fantastic people within marketing. I think Ann Handley is great, and I think Brian Clark is great. There are a couple of people at Copyblogger like Sonia Simone, and they’re fantastic.

These are people that you just start reading and you’re not going to stop until they’re done.

Barry Feldman is great too. He’s a mate on the West Coast, and he’s a really great guy.  

I like the confident writers where you know you’re in good hands and they’re going to take you somewhere great.

I read The New Yorker religiously because it’s impossible to find bad writing in The New Yorker. It’s always so crisp, whether it’s the stories or the journalism, there’s always great stuff, and it makes you really want to be as articulate as you can possibly be.

Great writers say exactly what they want to say, and that’s what turns me on.

Q: I’m always looking for new things to read, and I’m sure the audience is too. What are you getting into right now? Any recommendations?

I really enjoy David Foster Wallace. His masterpiece is called Infinite Jest and it’s such an amazing book. It’s just a giant masterpiece, and I think the whole world lost something big when he took his life.

George Saunders is another New Yorker writer too. He just put out a book for short stories. It’s wonderful. It’s full of great things. He’s hilarious but he’s also super insightful. So he’s been turning me on lately.

I’ve got a core of about 10 authors who I will always read. I’ll read anything new that they’ve put out and I’ll also circle back.

Q: For you personally, what do you find most challenging about content marketing?

I’m getting a little bit stale on tactics and finding a fresh medium. A fresh way to tell a story that is screen-based. As much as I love paper and books, I think we’re finally leaving Gutenberg behind.

There was a great piece called Snow Fall in The New York Times. It was a wonderful, rich, screen experience. It’s got video, animation, photography, and lots of text. It’s really got all sorts of media packed into it to tell a wonderful story about an avalanche.

It was a new kind of storytelling, and I’m always looking for that.

Some we struggle with. I’ve never really mastered infographics as much as we have had some great ones, I have not figured out a way to crack infographics and get really good at it.

That to me is the hard part. Finding, exploring, and mastering new media.

Q: How does the muse usually strike you in your writing process? Do you believe in that “ah-ha” moment?

I do believe in the “ah-ha” moment but I don’t believe it's the only place to start. I think if people just wait for it, they’ll have fewer of them.

Sometimes “ah-ha” moments happen while writing, so I’ll often write what I think and that’s when they’ll happen.

I get weird ones of all shapes and sizes. Last night I woke up with this bizarre headline in my head. It was something like “26 Trapped in MOFU Crisis” or something. It was about people being trapped in the middle of the funnel.

It came out really silly and dumb and I’m sure it will fade away, but that was a case of that “ah-ha” moment.

Sometimes what's nice about blogging is that you can grab those and run with them and just see what happens.

Q: In your SlideShare you said that you don’t really enjoy work unless it’s “challenging, difficult, and a bit scary." What meets that criteria for you?

Being outside the comfort zone. If I know it’s something that I can slam dunk, there is some pleasure in that, but for me one of the things that gives meaning to my work is to struggle with something. That feeling like I’m coming through the struggle? I love that feeling. In fact, I need it.

The Search for Meaning is one example of that where delving into part of my personal life wasn’t in my comfort zone. It’s one thing to write it for yourself, but it’s another thing to share it.

It was like, I know I can tell the story in a SlideShare, but how would I tell it in another medium?

Q: Would you say that having that type of uncertainty and that struggle is your greatest fears as a writer and blogger?

It's almost the opposite. The greatest fear is not having that. The fear is mediocrity. Just knocking it out or doing it in your sleep instead of writing.

It's really easy to keep cranking it out, so my fear is that falling back into the hack thing. Not pushing myself to the dangerous or more exciting places.

Q: Do you think content saturation is a legitimate concern right now?

Yes. But I think it is over hyped. I think we’ve reached saturation about posts about content saturation.

You are competing, and we’re all competing with much more than ever before. It is a legitimate concern. But I don't think the sky is falling.

How can that be bad? It just can’t be.

It may not confirm advantage, but it will always confirm benefits. Confirming advantage means that the other people aren't doing it, and the only way you can confirm advantage is to be great at it.

I think that because the market is rushing to it so headlong, whenever anyone makes noise that maybe the party is over it sets off a bit of a panic.

I don't think the party is over. I think it’s roll up your sleeves time. The easy pickings might be gone, but hard work will be rewarded.

Q: How do you advise brands on overcoming that?

The bad thing is a great post could still be on page two of Google, which is non-existent because page one is full of great posts. So it’s important to find clear water. I think one of the answers to content saturation is niches.

You’re not really competing with the Lego movie, you’re competing with the content in the niche you decide to write in.  

If you take our niche of B2B content marketing, there are countless spins and stories in that, and as time goes on, new ones have to emerge. So saturation assumes that the world stands still.

No market stands still. There’s constantly new things to be examining and thinking about, and I think that’s one way to fight it.

You can't just examine the rational issues behind a topic, but trying to get to the heart of it, and trying to get to the emotion. That’s a whole new world that I think B2B marketers are just scratching the surface of.

I think people who have a mediocre attempt, who just drift towards the mean are going to struggle.

The people who go for it will find plenty.

Check out the Velocity Blog for more great content from Doug and his agency. 

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