Technology & Disruption: 5 Rules of Engagement

Today, innovations in technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence are poised to disrupt a number industries – content marketing included. As unprecedented as it sounds, we’ve seen this many times before.

In 1985, Adobe launched Pagemaker (now known as InDesign), THE app that led to the disruption of advertising, marketing and publishing. Pundits forecasted the death of the designer and writer, as entrepreneurs and marketers began preparing their own ads, brochures and newsletters.

In fact, many of today’s creative directors, content strategists and senior designers all got their start in desktop publishing.

Here’s the thing: the smart agencies adapted.

They mastered the tools and produced designs, content, video and interactive properties that the untrained could never match. Instead of killing professions, this is one of many examples of new technologies fueling the marketing industry with the power to create what had never been imagined.

Now, most of our day-to-day tasks can be automated. Need a mobile site? Google can create it at the push of a button. Need a new display advertising campaign? Push a button in your AdWords account and eight new ads appear – right-sized, well-designed, and likely well-messaged.

What’s left for the humans to do? First, take your head out of the sand. Ignoring reality never helped anyone keep a job. Second, follow these rules when it comes to marketing automation:

While most of us might not think that marketing technology should rule our world, we can benefit from a few rules of engagement. Here are our top five:

  1. Stop resisting: Regularly explore what’s new and how it might contribute to your business and, more importantly, your clients’ marketing goals.
  2. Understand the technology: If a client mentions a popular marketing technology (Marketo, WordStream, HubSpot, Silverpop, etc.) you should know it and be able to speak to its relevance and effectiveness for that client. Otherwise, you’re not doing your job.
  3. Use the technology: Manage a campaign for yourself using new technology. If you specialize in direct marketing, use HubSpot and Marketo, if only to understand how they work. If you help your clients advertise, then you’d better offer a keen understanding of Google AdWords and the technologies that have sprung up around AdWords.
  4. Figure out how your role is changing: For example, AdWords and search have made a huge impact on media planning and advertising. But managing an AdWords campaign, getting the right clicks and keeping your quality score high (among many considerations) isn’t easy. Master this and doors will open.
  5. Understand what the technology is NOT doing: Technology is mostly fact-fed. It lacks the emotional intelligence and empathy humans have and consumers want in the content they consume. 

The human role will never disappear. Mastering new technology will ensure that agencies stay relevant with clients and comfortable with our new marketing partner: the machine.

Almost Missing My Flight Restored My Faith in Humanity

It’s 6:25 p.m. and the back of my neck is prickling with sweat. My flight leaves in 17 minutes. Not boarding, leaving. In the 30 minutes that have elapsed since being in line, I have moved approximately 12 feet closer to the TSA official checking IDs and boarding passes.

I start doing the math. If it takes me another 15 minutes to get to the scanners, I will have 60 seconds to get my luggage and sprint to the gate. Not possible. I start to think about all of the money I will have to pay for another flight, the inconvenience for my family picking me up and I realize that I cannot miss this plane. I will have to rely on the goodness of other people.

I spent most of my queue time talking myself out of this option. I don’t want to be that person. After all, I am the one who left work late, took a Lyft Line rather than a regular ride and knew that the TSA is short-staffed. I don’t deserve to get the expedited version of the bag check experience. Despite that, I start asking my fellow line-mates if I can pass.

flight_800“Excuse me, I’m nervous that I will miss my flight, may I go ahead of you?”
“Sorry, do you mind if cut in line to make my plane”
“My flight takes off in 16 minutes, could I…?”

Each time I brace myself for anger, frustration and annoyance; and each time, I am pleasantly surprised. Everyone lets me pass, including the one or two slightly peeved travelers. Not only that, many of them seem genuinely concerned for me. One guy loudly announces that I should ask the entire line at once, after which the remainder of the line moves over to let me through.

The humanitarian aid does not end there. Once I go through the screening booth and collect my belongings I decide that I do not have time to put my sneakers back on. As I round the first corner of the terminal, I slide several feet in my socks and I realize this was not a good idea. Naturally, I continue running shoe-less anyway.

I’m approaching the third turn on my route as I hear “Miss! Miss!” My driver’s license had fallen out of the overflowing pile of belongings I am clutching to my chest. A nice gentleman not only alerts me of the issue, he goes out of his way to pick it up and hand it to me. I try my best to quickly and genuinely thank him so I could continue around the corner. I make the turn, looking for gate 38 – the one all the way at the end. JetBlue attendants are holding the door to close the tunnel as I swiftly slip in, phone in hand.

So yeah, I’m grateful for humans.

Who wants some feedback?

shutterstock_227485012I began my career in advertising right out of school as a [very] green account executive. Like most recent grads, I started my career thinking that I knew way more than I actually did. While I had a graduate degree’s worth of book smarts, it turns out I had few of the real-life skills needed to be truly successful at my craft. Through the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with a number of very talented people, but working with junior staff always reminds me of where I started and those skills that I’ve honed over time. I often think about my first creative concept review…

The creative team had just presented a range of concepts in preparation for a client meeting that was a week away. Each of the senior account members provided their feedback and thoughts on the work. Meanwhile, I was sitting at the back of the room quietly, thinking I was only an audience to “the process” until my boss asked me, “Jonathon, what do you think?” I was caught off-guard and I responded in a mumbled way much as a child does when they try to explain why they’re secretly rummaging through the pantry before dinner.

I didn’t understand how my perspective would be valuable to the team and I certainly didn’t think that I could add anything to what the senior staff had already discussed. Further, I never expected the creative team to even consider my opinion. Fortunately, my trepidation was met with reassurance and encouragement from everyone in the room and I managed to stumble through a few half-coherent thoughts.

While I feel that agencies should foster an environment of constant feedback where everyone’s input is valued, on that day I realized that giving feedback is a learned skill. It is important for senior team members to help coach junior staff (and often clients) through the process to ensure appropriate and actionable feedback is given. Encourage participation, questions and challenges through supportive coaching.

As team members become more comfortable giving feedback and understand its value, the entire team is able to grow and achieve better results. As a learned skill, it is important for feedback givers to remember that comments and thoughts should be structured. To give the best feedback, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Know the objective of the feedback session – knowing the desired outcome of the meeting helps guide the type of feedback you should give. If you’re not told the objective at the beginning, then…

  2. Ask questions – knowing why a specific approach was taken will frame your feedback. If you don’t understand something, ask!

  3. Speak your mind – you are the only person with your unique perspective, so share it. Others should be empowered to challenge your position, but don’t hold back your opinion.

  4. Be honest but supportive – sugarcoating responses doesn’t help challenge people to be their best. That said, it doesn’t help anyone if you’re honesty is brutal (unless you just happen to be a jerk).

  5. Get beyond saying “I don’t like that” – be specific in your feedback, get to the “why” behind your opinion so the next round of changes are informed rather than arbitrary simply because “Jonathon just doesn’t like blue.”

Innovative and creative solutions to projects are the result of teams challenging each other, asking smart questions and giving useful feedback. I know that while there is always room to improve the variety of skills we call upon daily, I feel confident when giving feedback, and know that it is both needed and valued. This doesn’t change the fact that I might not like blue, but at least I can tell you why.

Blog posts don’t matter… do they?


In a recent conversation with the HB team, someone asked if the work we do to keep our blog up to date with relevant content, interesting perspectives and topical news was worth it. You see, it requires a great deal of time and investment to do it well and to do it consistently. And sometimes it’s a struggle to keep up with the pace of the rest of the world’s zeal to produce content. But it is so worth it.

As a member of the HB new business team, I talk to a lot of prospects. Among the things that come up in our conversations is how they found HB and what interested them about us. This is also true of prospective employees and new partners. Very often they mention our blog. For example, last week one of the first things a prospect in the energy and sustainability world brought up was Nicolas’ blog about Solar. In another recent meeting, a prospective employee brought up a post I wrote years ago about an unfortunate incident at the OCCC. And there’s the prospect who was about to make a decision on which agency to select, read Chuck’s post about Tom Brady and chose HB.

A blog is an opportunity to express a point of view, take your opinions for a stroll, vent or wax poetic about… anything. And yes, it’s worth it.

Jill Abramson Is Launching A Media Startup

image via The Boston Globe

image via The Boston Globe

Jill Abramson and David Carr kicked off WBUR’s new series Fast Forward at Boston University this week. While the pair rarely stayed on-topic, the night was full of candid moments, debate, and Abramson’s latest breaking news — she’s launching a media startup with Steve Brill.

Want to know what else you missed from Carr’s chat with Abramson? Check out our BuzzFeed story.

Hypnotized by the Black Keys

Beneath your feet the stands start rumbling. The stadium is hazily illuminated by hundreds of smart phone lights. Shouts are deafening and your throat is already hoarse, but you keep cheering for them to come back out.

And then it happens.

Lights burst back on as guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney walk across the stage. The crowd erupts even louder than when the pair began playing some of their most anticipated songs.

The backdrop rises to reveal the spinning hypnotic graphic of the band’s latest album, Turn Blue (Nonesuch). It’s hard to look away as Dan sings “Weight of Love,” the first song on the album.

The Black Keys’ entire performance Sunday night at the TD Garden was a mesmerizing, visual experience. At any given time the crowd witnessed up to 20 screens featuring different angles of Auerbach and Carney. Each shot was stylized with a psychedelic filter and synchronized with the crescendos and diminuendos of every song. Some screens would fade out as another would seemingly pop out of no where, giving an animated effect. As a visual communicator, I appreciate the marriage of visual and auditory performance. I did not expect it from the Black Keys despite their obvious appreciation of art (check out the album cover of Attack & Release).


The closing song of the evening, “Black Submarine” really drove home how incredible the pairing is. Just after Dan utters “a broken heart is blind,” the stage explodes again with a medley of lights in sync with his guitar solo. I could sense awe and appreciation flooding the crowd.

The stadium (fit for over 17,000 people) had an energy akin to an intimate show, made possible by adoring fans belting out lyrics in unison and the gratitude exuded by the musicians. Dan does not talk much on stage, and even admits that he is “certainly not your typical front-man material.” He paused a few times, only to thank the Boston audience. It’s inspiring, rare and refreshing to see artists who continue to push the envelope and remain humble after so much fame and success.


Long live long form

Long form content

With every cyclical web trend, there’s an equal and opposite re-trend. The latest: publishers, entertainers, and content creators diving full force into long-form content… and mobile and design have a lot to do with it.

Mobile, the heavyweight champion

We often hear people say, “no one would ever want to do that on mobile!” for a variety of reasons and assumptions.

News flash: a rapidly growing percentage of the population uses mobile for nearly their entire internet experience. At An Event Apart Boston, Karen McGrane shared that approximately 31 percent of Americans who use their mobile phones to go online only or mostly access the internet from their phones.

In other words, internet and mobile go hand-in-hand, and for these users, they expect a full web experience on their version of the internet – a mobile device.

Part of that full web experience moves away from the immediacy of mobile and the necessity for short bursts of information. Many mobile users rely on their device to read books, watch movies, and engage in other time-intensive activities. Long-form content can and will have a place on mobile. “There’s no such thing as ‘how to write for mobile,'” says McGrane. “There’s just good writing.”

Beautiful examples

When content developers and designers work together, beautiful long-form designs emerge. Much like a magazine feature, these long-form pieces of content utilize layout and visuals to enhance the story. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Trent Walton: The founder of Paravel, Trent’s blog posts utilize small illustrations and basic art direction to enhance his content. Even simple implementations of design can help with long-form posts.
  • The Dissolve: A new film web site from Pitchfork. President Chris Kaskie says “At the end of the day, our goal will be to redefine how people read long-form magazine publications on the Internet.” Keep an eye on this one!

HB and long-form content

In the coming months, we’ll launch a new section on, called “Features.” We’ll use our typical blog topics but give special attention to longer pieces of content that warrant a unique look. We’ll start with custom art and typography with sights set on immersive experiences including video. We’re in this for the long run.

Summer Reading

To say that I hail from a family of readers is an understatement. The only thing that my divorced parents have in common is their passion for reading. Breakfast with either of them involves a newspaper and maybe five words.

While I consider myself an avid reader, I struggle to make reading a daily ritual, except during the summer. As I did during elementary school — when it was required — I begin the summer by making a summer reading list. With Memorial Day behind us, summer has unofficially hit New England. So I hit the bookstore (yes, the actual store!) this week to get my stack started.

On my summer 2013 list:

Lean In. Sheryl Sandberg.
I held on tight for months, leaning away from the cloud of chatter and activity around Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial book. What convinced me to loosen my grip on the rail and let myself ride the wave? A respected acquaintance posted this on Facebook:

I keep buying the book and sending it to anyone who should read it… the male executive committee of our company, numerous business partners, friends, and family, I believe I am up to 75 books sent out to the world. This is such an important piece of work and one that all need to read and talk about. I no longer feel alone in my corporate experience, thanks to Sheryl!

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Stephen King.
As a PR pro, I devote much of my week to writing via content planning, editing or actual writing. Although I haven’t read any of his fiction (well, maybe once during a college summer…), I adored King’s smart, engaging contributions to Entertainment Weekly, whose column I still mourn. During my bookstore tour I discovered this gem. A combo plate, if you will, it offers practical tips as well as an inside glimpse of King’s writing experiences.

The Icarus Deception. Seth Godin.
Let me first admit that I had forgotten the specifics of the Icarus myth. In case you need a refresher: Wearing wings crafted by his father, Icarus did not heed Dad’s counsel to play it safe. Icarus flew too close to the sun and plunged to his death.

Godin reminds readers to get out of their comfort zone. While Icarus went down in flames, Godin reminds his audience that getting outside of your comfort zone can lead to success and creativity (not flames).

The Burgess Boys. Elizabeth Strout.
My summer pages will certainly include many fiction selections (most likely at the beach!). At the top of my list is this suggestion from my mother. Strout spins engaging stories with complex characters; her Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteredge was a past summer read.

Curious to learn more about the HB shelves? Check out our summer reading Pinterest board and follow #SummerReadingHB on Twitter.

I would love to hear about your summer reading list. Friend me on Goodreads or tweet me at @perrinmcc so we can exchange titles.

Focus is happiness – what I learned from Ikea


Ikea prides itself on “functional home furnishing products,” building a massive business and in-store experience in the United States since 1985. Some of its most successful products include storage systems that organize anything from office supplies to baby clothes into well-designed compartments, buckets, and racks.

But here’s the thing about well-conceived storage: you get the most ROI on your purchase when you need to organize and store many items. As useful as it may be, Ikea storage works at its highest capacity when its products are full or near-full.

Humans are different. We work best when there’s less storage, less clutter, and less stuff. Humans operate better when they focus.

Daddy issues

Since becoming a father less than a year ago, I’ve needed my share of Ikea storage to contain the explosion of toys that litter my living room. More significantly, I’ve certainly struggled with time management and focus.

Focus goes a long way in parenthood, too. Time spent with my daughter – when my responsibilities are solely to love and nurture her – results in her improved motor skills and increased smiles.

Similarly, when I spend time writing or designing at home, my best work is done when my wife is spending her quality time with our daughter. This allows me to concentrate on a single task for maximum output – even for a short period of time. No email, phone calls, or web surfing allowed. And, as delightful as it could be, no parenting interruptions.

Do what you love

Through my struggles with time management, I’ve learned that focus can be applied to big-picture thinking in addition to small, task-oriented activities. Rian van der Merwe, an expert in sociology and technology, explains the value of building a platform statement as a guiding proclamation. My first draft looks like this:

“I build digital experiences using art, design, and simplicity.”

If ever I’m off-track in my thinking or creating, I go back to my platform. It helps get rid of the clutter and doesn’t require any Swedish storage. The platform will change over the years, but the purpose won’t: to guide and focus my work beyond my current challenge, life situation, or job.

Rian sums it up best when he ditches old goals and moves on to new, focused ones:

“Just like we’ve moved on from the idea that the big office is a big deal, we have to let go of the idea that a big enough title is equal to a successful career. Much more important is that we figure out what it is that we want to spend our time and attention on — and then working at our craft to make that our platform.”

Encountering purpose

Now I’ve not only brought more focus into my life, but it’s slowly becoming a purpose – the reason for my life’s work. The platform helps push away the clutter and provide a clear path for success and happiness. From this, I learn to nurture not just my offspring, but my daily work. In Karen McGrane’s uniquely-titled post on A List Apart, she closes with a bit of advice in “Give a crap. Don’t give a f*ck:”

“Care deeply about your personal values and live them fully in this world. Don’t get caught up in worrying about other people’s checklists to tell you what good work means to you.”

In short, I concentrate on my values, goals, and work and what it means to me. I can see how this will result in better work, as well as increased success and happiness.

Just do it

So I’ve scheduled time, have a platform statement, and purpose for my work. How do I actually accomplish something? Now I arrive at commitment and concentration.

Christopher Penn, Vice President of Shift Communications, recently shared his thoughts in “How I get more stuff done:”

“Today, I manage almost exclusively by my calendar. I block off time for each task that needs doing, and during those times, I do those things and nothing else. Client work gets repeating windows as needed, and everything else gets time as needed. The secret is this: during those time periods, one and only one thing gets attention, nothing else.”

The big change here is in the workflow – Penn doesn’t allow his email to guide his day, but his calendar. During key time blocks, Penn’s attention and focus reside with one task which he is able to accomplish through commitment and concentration.

Chris Brogan, CEO & President of Human Business Works, shares a similar example to folks who need to get more done:

“Shutting out the craziness of other people’s lives for a while will empower my own choices. Knowing what matters to me and my day and also to those who I serve is a great first set of instructions to consider.”

The craziness that Brogan speaks of is that daily clutter – nonsensical and empty posts on social media, an unimportant clip on YouTube, or a pesky email clamoring for immediate help.

Get happy

Through understanding, planning, purpose, and commitment, we can all better focus and become more productive – and happier – human beings. By removing the junk from our lives, we don’t require all that Ikea storage – as beautiful as it is – to guide our purpose, values, and goals.

Clear your stuff, book some time, and crush your work. Your smile will thank you.

13 Ways to Adjust Your Content Marketing Dial

If you are like me, every year you set good intentions with regard to your health (you know the drill: eat right, exercise, and drink water). What happens? Life gets in way. But don’t give up. While the calendar might read March, it isn’t too late to make changes.


It’s 2013 and HB is blogging the 13th. We recommend using the 13th of each month as a trigger to assess, reset, and change direction if necessary. I can’t help with your health commitments, but there’s always time to adjust your content marketing dial. Share, debate, and add to these 13 ways to keep your content fresh.

  1. Be bold. I routinely hit my Sunday spin class, but struggle to try new moves. Explore creative and unconventional approaches this month. Take an action today that will motivate you to get outside your comfort zone.
  2. Use authentic stories. What shows success? A success story. Go beyond publishing a quote on your web site. Provide your customers an easy-to-engage outlet to profess and help share their love for your brand.
  3. Less about you. Successful thought leadership programs position you as an expert in an area that supports your key product or service. Rather than tout specific features and benefits, the cogs in your content marketing wheel must communicate that you are an industry leader that prospects and customers want to work with, stat.
  4. Color outside the lines. Between our professional and personal lives we all have an extensive network of contacts. Find a smart, useful way to pull more of your personal contacts into your business world.
  5. Invest in mobile. Period.
  6. Know your reach. Do you truly understand the catalysts that influence your customers’ purchasing decisions at every stage of the experience life cycle? Establish touch points from discovery through engagement to create mavens for your brand.
  7. Set metrics. I aim for eight glasses of water a day. Having a specific number in mind helps me envision the end. Keep a close eye on what works and what doesn’t and course correct with light speed.
  8. Know the answer to “why?” Be certain that your customers truly understand why your product or service is relevant to them, and tailor your messaging to fit each audience. Go deeper than the “it’ll protect your bottom line” pitch. How will a prospect’s decision to go with your solution change his/her life?
  9. Check out the competition. Seeing the cool things that others do at the gym gets me going. Don’t plan on mimicking the competition, but keep an eye on those ahead of you, and behind, to understand where you fall in the industry landscape. Studying the competition enables you to identify opportunity gaps that may work to your advantage.
  10. Be habit-forming. Research shows that new habits take two to three weeks to form. Give yourself the flexibility and time to build profitable habits.
  11. Get a buddy. In my weight-loss efforts I often seek group support via my network of friends and family. Consult a colleague or your team to provide an additional layer of clarity to your strategy.
  12. Build the muscle. One trip to the gym won’t give you big guns. It takes time to get it right. Make a commitment to working on your marketing muscle every day.
  13. Fill in the blank. This list is just a start. Tweet your #13 to me at @perrinmcc.