Content teams, in-house and agency, must stop the proverbial tail wagging the dog, and embrace ‘content-first’ leadership

A common scenario for both content agencies and in-house newsrooms is for writers to be managed (and dictated to) by non-writers. “So what?” you ask.

The purpose of a writing team is to produce high-quality content that meets a sponsor’s communication needs within a particular timeframe and budget. Throw the creative process into the mix and you have an explosive concoction. And here’s why.

Few if any non-writers understand the creative process — we are, after all, selling a creative service. What sales people, accountants and project managers understand is how much and by when. Usually the former is pitched either incredibly high or unbelievably low (and based on no rationale whatsoever), with deadlines set to yesterday.

The creative process doesn’t work like this. In my experience, a significant number of projects get into trouble due to unreasonable deadlines and flippant pricing. Clients hate missed deadlines. Period. If a project is priced too low, it will soon run out of money; if it is priced too high, expectation levels (and client animosity) go through the roof.

Another challenge non-writers harbour is being able to assess whether their team has the relevant knowledge and experience to create the desired copy (something I address in another blog). Against the backdrop of aggressive sales targets, it can be tempting for executives to say to clients, “Of course we can do that”, when in truth they have no idea whether their team has the ability to deliver — or worse, they’re simply lying!

Non-writers frequently struggle to understand that writers are often in their creative element outside of standard working hours. Personally, I am at my best between 7am and 12 noon after at least three strong coffees. Others prefer to work well into the night. For example, an ex-colleague of mine peaks between 8pm and midnight, delivering a week’s worth of world-class copy within just four hours.

Non-writers also grapple with items like style guides, and elements such as tone and voice and choice of language.

A USP of ours at CP5 is that we are a content firm run and owned by writers. For sure, we rely on very competent accountants to provide guidance on all things financial, and we also appreciate the efforts of great sales people. But there is no way in hell that we will let non-writers run our business, or let non-content people buy shares in the company or take the lead with any of our clients.

That’s not to say that writers have all the skills necessary to manage a project from start to finish, including all matters relating to sales, finance and project management. Far from it. It’s because of this skills shortfall that we offer training to writers to help them manage projects, and equip them with the communication skills needed to engage with all stakeholders.

It’s time for content teams, in-house and agency, to stop the proverbial tail wagging the dog, and to embrace ‘content-first’ leadership, which on one hand is knowledgeable and understanding of the creative process, and on the other hand is sympathetic to sales, stakeholder management and deadline pressures. Companies that undertake these elements will thrive in today’s gig economy; those that don’t won’t be around for much longer.

Photo by George Becker from Pexels