Best of the Books I read #1: “Wat en Hoe van Contentstrategie” by John Verhoeven 


To be clear: this is not a traditional book review. My goal is to take the highlights of the (marketing) books I read, their most valuable lessons, and share them together with my thoughts.

Now, for the highlight. I like how Verhoeven doesn’t just go straight to tips & tricks and ways of crafting content, but rather gives you paradigms on how to think about content. He distinguishes 3 perspectives or approaches, that can live side by side and each has its own use in the overall content offering.

Perspective 1: your solution


This is often a first knee-jerk reaction: let’s tell people about our product and how great it is. It can also be a logical starting point for your must-have content. When done right, ‘solution’ content is especially valuable in your hub and hygiene content, with tutorials, FAQ’s, helping consumers make the right choices, troubleshooting, and general company and product transparency. Making the solution perspective your main approach can work for some companies that have particularly interesting stories of innovation or craftsmanship, like Tesla, GE, or even wineries and craft beers. The trick here is to resist the urge to only talk about yourself: Your aim should be to show how and why your solution to a problem is different from your competitor's.

The problem lies in the credibility: you’re the judge of your own work, the jury of your own award show. The workaround here is asking for trustworthy, external sources and resisting the urge to polish the less shiny results of their findings. When you hire a journalist to write a background story about you, it’s understandable you want to have a right to edit it — after all, you’re paying! But realize that a bit of criticism adds heaps of credibility, and a total lack of anything questioned leaves you with little more than long-form advertising copy written by a non-advertising copywriter.

Overall, this approach can lead to nice brand stories, and some conversion, but can be perceived as a little distant and emotionally detached. You’re only interested in yourself, making your audience feel like just that: an audience.

Perspective 2: the issue


What issues keep your audiences up at night? What are the issues surrounding your product or your sector? Do you have a clear and educated view on this? Can you offer a valid and valuable perspective? Here you can show you know what’s going on, and claim thought leadership. Tapping into the dynamics of society is also a great way to get free publicity and show some personality and confidence by taking a stance. Not everyone will agree with you, but I think brands may need some opponents to gain advocates.

A problem with raising issues without providing clear solutions is the danger of sounding opportunistic or self serving. You may imply to have the answers to all problems after all. One way to mitigate this risk is by teaming up with respectable, trustworthy partners like NGOs, or branche organizations. For example, Pure Leaf tea teaming up with the Rainforest Alliance, or Adidas with Parley for the Oceans.

This approach can build a lot of brand love. It’s best to stay close to your own company purpose and issues that aren’t at odds with your own interests. A financial institution like Delta Lloyd teaching struggling people to keep track of their finances is credible. So is an internet provider talking about cybersecurity or cyberbullying. BP talking about saving the polar caps? Not so much. BP talking about workplace safety, geological changes or breakthrough technologies in plastics? A lot more credible.

Perspective 3: The need


Which fundamental need is satisfied by your service or product? To which core value do you appeal? This approach is about claiming insight into major human themes like safety, connection, recognition, convenience, doing good. Showing you truly understand people and what drives or affects them is a great way to earn some brand love. After all, feeling seen, understood and appreciated is the best way to create a connection.

The hard part of this approach is preventing a discrepancy between lofty words and the practice of everyday business. Especially in heavily price competitive markets like FMCG it’s not an easy approach, but it is possible. Think of Amstel beer providing sports teams with a platform to connect and organize all of ftheir team affairs — they aren’t so much claiming sports as they are facilitating connection and togetherness. Or Nike’s return to its driving idea that “if you have a body, you’re an athlete”, which isn’t so much about becoming the best athlete out there, but rather an empowering way of seeing and appreciating your body with a sense of ownership and agency. Dove’s campaign aimed at building women’s self-esteem and recognition of innate value and strength is a schoolbook example.

Of course, marketers love working from a need — it’s where the true heart of marketing lies. By expanding the area of your direct service or product to the general need and voicing well-thought-out opinions about it, you get to have a chance to market leadership, if not in numbers, then at least in thought or visibility.

So, how does that help me?


These three perspectives are complementary and you can connect them to your content mix of hygiene, hub, hero. You should try to incorporate all three of them as they all have their own uses and shortcomings. Depending on the skills and stories present in your company, your target audiences, and the issues in the industry you’re in, you can see what balance fits you best.

If you’re struggling to find a larger issue or need to claim around your company, service or product, don’t get discouraged too easily: you may find that the larger area around your product or service can cut through to people’s basic needs. Say, if you manufacture matches, you can speak about safety, or about the science of fire. You can talk about child safety, or survival in the wilderness. About preservation of the woods the matches come from or play with the nostalgia brought about by the smell and act of lighting a match. You can talk about family or moments of togetherness.

What I appreciate most about this approach of using the different perspectives, is that it gives you permission — if you still needed it — to speak beyond your direct product, USP or marketing messaging. It emphasizes how companies and organizations don’t operate in a vacuum and are allowed to have an opinion — it’s even appreciated. As long as you choose the area where you want to stake your claim in line with your company’s mission or purpose. I think that in general brands are too cautious to be perceived political, or to take a stance. If you see brands as people with their own personalities, it’s easier to see how that works. We appreciate those with clear opinions and points of view even when we don’t agree, and may even distrust the quiet ones. Show us your true colors!

The rest of the book:


Positive: “Wat en Hoe van Contentstrategie” gives you 7 practical steps to set up a solid content strategy and clear tools to execute it. It moves far beyond simple tips & tricks.

Negative: Throughout there is an undercurrent of disdain for sales conversion and the chapter on metrics is little more than a brush-off, giving it a bit of an old school vibe.

About Best of the books I read


In this series, I take highlights of books, the most valuable insights, and share them together with my thoughts. The books will mainly be about marketing, creative strategy, and brand identity. Some will be books that are available in English, some only in Dutch — but my writing is in English. Imagine that, you may learn something across language barriers!




Best of the Books I read #2: “This is Marketing” by Seth Godin





Boy, is this good. A fun read packed with insights. This came out in 2018 and what strikes me is how timely it is. Identity seems to be the focal point of the present era: just think of identity politics, intricate group codes, wokeness, gender fluidity, and fierce backlash against all of that at the same time. So many lines drawn in the sand - and most of them circles, if you allow me to wax poetic. Godin doesn't address this head on, but the importance of group identity clearly shines through in what he considers the main sentiment driving successful marketing: "People like us do things like this."

Main takeaway:

The overal message seems to be that the new and improved marketer should truly be of service in order to make change happen. Or in Seth's words: "Good marketers don't use consumers to solve their company's problem; they use marketing to solve other people's problems." He takes it even further: "Marketing is the generous act of helping others become who they seek to become." Rather than being sales driven, or market driven, brands should aim to be change driven. What is the change your group is looking for?

Start with the question: Who can I help?

Biggest insights:

Everyone's story is true: learn to listen

Humans tell themselves stories. And even when you don't agree with them, to them they are true. So don't waste your time or theirs by trying to persuade them otherwise. You are better off finding the group that is interested in the change you seek to make to begin with. Even then, they are not you. We need to imagine the story that they need to hear. True marketing asks for humility and empathy to really listen as well as the audacity to live up to your story.

Find your smallest viable market

"Mass means undefined, non-descript and thus, boring. No love for you." Find your sweet spot, as specific as possible, and market to the group that relates to it. Satisfy their needs like no other, offer ways for them to connect around a story. Talk about the change you're seeking to make and how that relates to them. Create a shared narrative: "People like us do things like this". Give them a reason to share that story - the one that you are a part of. "The goal of focusing on the smallest viable audience is to find people who will understand you and will fall in love with where you hope to take them. Loving you is a way of expressing themselves. Becoming part of your movement is an expression of who they are." "What you say isn't nearly as important as what others say about you."

Creating tension

Tap into the network effect: by spreading the gospel, their own experience is improved in some way. Think of products like Slack or Facebook that depend on others to be part of it to work. Create a tension that offers them an improvement in status. Or simply tap into not wanting to be left behind, or feeling uninformed or impotent. "We want to get ahead. We want to be in sync. We want to do what people like us are doing."

What people really want.

In the end, there is a limited number of true drivers. Like being connected. Feeling safe, seen, known, appreciated, strong, independent, desirable, all of those wants and motivators. All of those things also cloud our rational judgment. We're driven by so many innate wants that to build your marketing around rational reasoning and product USP's is a mistake - a point also partially made by Kahneman. I am not driven by rational choices, and neither are you, nor your clients. What's more; don't assume that everyone is like you, knows what you know, or wants what you want. Rather, your brand story and the actions you take to serve your chosen tribe should be based on their shared wants and values: people like us do things like this.

Connect to their wants through your story, not just your product

Simply filling a hole in the market will only lead to rearview mirror based marketing behaviour, adapting your offering based on performance or spotted needs. You end up offering a (new) commodity that can be copied, bested or undercut in price by others. It has to be your story that sets you apart. A story does many great things for you, as we all know by now, but the interesting insight by Seth is that a story also requires audacity. In the short term, it's easy to sell average commodities to average consumers, where you simply adapt according to market needs - till someone better comes along. But living up to your own story holds you accountable. It forces you to own up to it, and show your true colours. It's an audacious and generous act, where you say "I see a better way to do things, come join me." It's also why brands can be a key driver in making the world a better place - as opposed to generic brand products, they can be held accountable.

Seth Godin's Marketing in 5 steps:

1) Invent a thing worth making, with a story worth telling, and a contribution worth talking about.

2) Design and build it in a way that a few people will particularly benefit from and care about.

3) Tell a story that matches the built-in narrative and dreams of that tiny group of people, the smallest viable market.

4) Spread the word.

5) Show up regularly and generously to organize and lead and build confidence in the change you seek to make. Earn permission to follow up and earn enrollment to teach.

To wrap it up, a great exercise

"What if you had to charge 10 times as much? It's not about putting in 10x as many hours, or delivering 10x the quantity. What is the essence of what you're offering? Which basic want do you address? And how could you do this better?"

Now, if that doesn't give you focus, you may want to rethink your reason to exist as a brand.

TLDR:

Marketing is the act of making change happen. Changing minds, changing demand, changing perception. You can do this by creating a change for the smallest viable market. Find a group with a shared belief, a shared need or interest and serve them to the very best of your ability. By finding out what it is they're looking for in the first place and creating a shared story around it that you live up to. Grow the tribe by creating tension and relief. By establishing cultural norms. By tapping into status roles. The best way to make things better, is to make better things. It's about being missed when you're gone.

The elegance of this book is that it all ties together. None of it is per se completely new, but it is a comprehensive marketing book for this time. Sure, Godin is a little preachy about using marketing to create a better world, but I think our industry has deserved some of that. Besides, most marketers and advertising creatives I know will probably subscribe to his point of view.



The best of the books I read #3:
The art of the Pitch by Peter Coughter




I love pitches. All that freedom to dig deep and do some unrestricted creating, with a big prize for the winner looming at the end. What’s not to love? Well, not winning because the other agency presented better. Not because of the work, or rates, but because of the way you offered up your brain child to your potentially new best friends. That’s where “The art of the pitch” comes in. This book by Coughter is full of undeniable truths, dos and don’ts that seem obvious but that I personally have happily ignored to my own detriment.


Main takeaway

It’s not about the creative work. The purpose of presenting is connecting, more specifically to establish a relationship of trust with your client. All else is secondary. People won’t remember the work, but they will remember how they felt about the work, and mostly how they felt about you. They need to trust you. A good presentation is a conversation on a subject both parties care enough about to have come prepared, so they know what they’re talking about and have a point of view.

“Alex Bogusky argues that he doesn’t sell the work, rather that he has a ‘conversation’ with the client, and together they decide that the work is right.”

How to build trust

You need to relate. So first, find out as much as you can about the people you’ll be presenting to. About who they are and what they care about, personally. Not to tell them what they want to hear, but to tell them what they need to hear, in a way that resonates with them. To tell them in a way that isn’t boring. Use a theme if necessary. Essentially, your presentation is an ad for you and your ads, tailored to a very specific target group — the one in the room. So target them and make them feel engaged and understood.

“Even when you are supposed to be talking about yourself, you should be talking about the client.”

Your worst move is to turn into a presenter robot. We present to connect, to build trust. That means you get to be you, but well prepared, with a point of view on the subject. Because you do need to care, and you need to come across like you have thoughts on the subject. Be thoughtful, in your own way. No need to be perfect, but care. Show your true colors and be an authentic, caring, trustworthy partner.

Because emotion sells. Getting the audience and the team in a shared emotion makes all the difference. Show you know the feelings driving their brand, or their problem or solution. Maybe they need a friend, or a coach, or to be reassured. Maybe you need to show you share the love for a subject related to the business. Facts and knowledge may impress, but emotions persuade. We connect by sharing the common human experience. Commit to the emotion, don’t be afraid to go to a place where you feel touched. You won’t be judged for being emotional, but will be judged on whether or not you care about the subject. So if you can do so in a sincere way, try to commit to creating a shared moment. By now we all know being open and sharing emotions may feel vulnerable, but comes across as confident and caring.

Confidence, Clarity, Conviction

Alright, we’re all set to connect. However, connecting when stressed is not easy.

Confidence:

On Powerpoint

If the presentation is about you connecting to the client, why divert their attention to a screen? Have the confidence to only use visual aides as support, not as a crutch, or even worse, as speaker notes. They can read perfectly well themselves, thank you very much. Use a minimal number of slides and feel free to use black slides when you can make a point just by speaking. The focus needs to be on what is happening between you and the people around the table. Not on the screen. There is a place for facts, explanations and multiple creative executions — it’s in the leave-behind. The visual deck should be there to underline what you’re saying and frame it. Not uphold it.

Some simple ways to look confident

- Make eye contact, with everyone in the room

-Move around the room with purpose. Have a remote control for your slides.

- Don’t use filler words like ‘so…’ or ‘probably’ or ‘hmmmm..’, or your local language equivalent. You know the filler words you use. Take all of those out and all of a sudden you will sound thoughtful. In command. Confident.

- Instead, use powerful language. Tell personal stories — if they are relevant.

- Mistakes make you human, and more relatable. So you may get lucky and make some. Run with them.

Clarity

Frame the work

Great work doesn’t sell itself. Don’t risk being misunderstood because they are in a different frame of mind. You can help them come along by selling the idea before the execution. Take them down a path of clear truths, or by excluding other options. Narrow it down till the only suitable idea is the one you are about to show. Articulate the idea first. Then show the work.

Provide white space to think

We all know why we need white space in design, so why don’t we have any in our presentations? Create white space through ruthless exclusion — if something is not helping us connect and communicate our big ideas, it’s out. Give the client some room to feel something about what you say. Create space to think. Invite them to think along by asking questions: "Think along here, how would you feel about…?" And don’t feel like you need to take all the time alotted to you. The best gift you can give most people is time. So if you were give 2 hours but are finished half an hour early, give them that time back. They’ll love you for it.

Conviction

Be you and have a point of view. Say where you are coming from, show you know who you are and why that is of importance to the client. Your pedigree and convictions may not gel with the client’s, but you still stand a better chance than by being ‘whoever the client wants you to be’. If they feel like you can shapeshift into whatever they ask for, you're not building trust.

The proces of organising the presentation

First, establish the goals. Gather the points you want to make. Put them on post its, move them around till it makes sense. Then write a logical presentation story. Summarize it and bring it down to 3–4 lines. These are your focal points. Everything that doesn’t support these points must go.

Then write a voice over for the presentation — which different presenters can make their own. Cast your presenters. Make them rehearse and learn the entire presentation. They need to know the thinking, ideas and work, not memorize them. Rehearse till it feels natural. Awkward, but necessary. It shows you care, and increases your chances to win dramatically.

Checklist: ACTION (acronyms come together in obvious names?)

Attention

Have every presentation and presenter start clean and strong with something that grabs their attention. Not with ‘So, … Rather with something personal and surprising that sets up or taps into the theme of the presentation.

Capsule

Once you’ve gathered what you want to present, make sure you can summarize it in 3 to 4 lines. Those are your main points, everything else that doesn’t sells these points should be eliminated.

Theme

Create a red thread for your presentation. Like magic, or home, or grow, or date, nostalgia, family, sports, movies, whatever fits both your audience and ideas. To me, this is one of the more questionable advices. It depends on whether your presentation is in danger of being boring.

Information

Do you have all the information? Great, create a leave-behind. Only use the information that is vital to make your point in your presentation. The presentation is there to sell you first, to gain trust. The work and supporting evidence is secondary, and should be comfortably perused in their own time.

Open to Listen

Make sure to be present in the room. Ask questions. Address uneasy vibes. Pay attention, so you can connect.

Next steps.

Agree on the next steps, the ones you’ve discussed internally beforehand.

Conclusion


For too long I have been of the school of thought that good work will prevail. Not so much anymore. Coughter is very convincing about how the human connection colours much of the outcome of the pitch. Also, this doesn’t just apply to pitches. It matters for existing clients as well. Show you care by preparing, relating and rehearsing. Make ads for your ads by targeting your clients in the presentation. It makes sense: you have put in so much effort to create the work, why risk rejection and deliver a sloppy pitch presentation?
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