What Needs to Change in Content Marketing for Nike to Save Grantland

Last week, ESPN announced they were killing Grantland — the brainchild of the company’s recently departed Bill Simmons, who now works for HBO. Grantland was a multimedia masterpiece, and my all-time favorite site. It was one that boasted an unfair amount of talented writers and thinkers creating an even longer list of addicting columns, podcasts, videos, graphics, and quarterly print volumes. Perhaps its most important legacy was that it stood for the highest quality journalism that still felt like “the internet.” It was modern, fun, brilliant, unique … and relevant to right now, both in topic and delivery. As Richard Deitsch wrote for Sports Illustrated, "For those who love words and sports content beyond the bloviators of the day, Friday was a horrible day."


Now, there were two major reasons ESPN likely killed the site, and it certainly wasn’t due to the property’s feverishly loyal fans. First of all, Simmons was embroiled in a ton of internal politics during his tenure at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, and his recent departure left a bad taste in many of the executives’ mouths even before Grantland was killed off for good. 

Second, Grantland attracted unique visitors in the single-digit-millions per month — a drop in the giant, ad-revenue-filled bucket that is ESPN. And because they didn't innovate at all on the business model for Grantland, that stat mattered. Different site, different editorial, different goals ... same sponsorship model. Why not find new ways to integrate sponsors? Even better, why not figure out products or services to unpack for all those rabid readers?

This all begs the question: If not ESPN, who will save quality writing and creative integrity on the internet? 

Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute wonders: Why not Nike?

Read Joe’s post when you finish this one. I promise it’ll be worth it. But suffice to say, he sees huge value in a brand like Nike or Under Armour trying to buy Grantland. And if you know anything about content marketing, this all makes perfect sense at first blush. Nike’s business model isn’t suffering and isn’t dependent on whoring itself out for pageviews, after all.

Just one problem: If a brand acquired a top-tier publication, the editorial staff would immediately flee.

Any truly great media property with known, reputable writers would instantly lose that staff as soon as news broke that they'd been acquired by a brand. Even if that brand was as great as Nike.

I don't want this to be the case, mind you -- I want to believe Joe's vision could come true right now, because I know that implicit in what he's saying is that Grantland can remain Grantland, not "Grantland, Sponsored by Nike." Therein lies the problem: Great journalists have reason to believe that this is simply not possible.

Brands lack the historical track record of upholding and protecting editorial excellence, as well as the muscle memory of thinking about the audience first. Those things create the kind of prestige necessary to attract topflight creative talent.

And while exceptions exist (Starbucks, Red Bull, AmEx, Marriott), it's still far from the rule that a brand creates standalone media properties where journalists can thrive. Show me one brand who thinks audience-first, and I’ll show you a thousand writers who still won’t work there. There's a huge stigma that needs to be removed.

(Side note: Even those great exceptions I mentioned — the brands who DO think audience-first — are still not hiring individuals as personally visible or culturally significant as Grantland’s staff. Rembert Browne already left for New York Magazine as writer-at-large. Wesley Morris joined the New York Times as critic-at-large in culture, and several others joined Simmons for his as-yet unannounced media property a few weeks before ESPN's depressing decision. The Grantland staff can pick anywhere to work, they're that good. Why would they risk a brand swooping in and ruining the site and their careers? That's exactly the question they'd ask.)

Unfortunately, marketers tend to have blinders on about this fact facing all things content. The people matter more in this style marketing than anything -- and even considering it a "style of marketing" pits it against things like ads. Things that writers hear about and subsequently fight back gag reflexes. 

The idea of "Talent" with a capital T is a new one to marketers, but not to media. With ESPN, Grantland and, really, any top-tier media property, it’s the Talent that makes it so special. I was emotionally connected to (and, okay, obsessed with) Grantland because I looked forward to reading or hearing Simmons, Jalen Rose, Zach Lowe, Andy Greenwald, Rembert Browne, Wesley Morris, Jason Concepcion, and many more. It was their amazing work that made it great. Grantland and Simmons didn’t study the mechanics of the internet to capitalize on the tiny little lift they’d get in SEO juice if only they wrote X words longer or shorter. No — they found the best, most inspirational, most hilarious, most gifted writers they could find. And they gave them space to operate freely, as journalists. 

But Nike's and Under Armour’s and most brands' business models are thriving, unlike many publishers. And brands that sell products or services are not dependent on fishing for more pageviews -- often the metric that restricts a lot of quality, creative writers. So imagine for a second that there's a not-too-distant future where big brands can and do buy or build media properties that are genuinely amazing. Imagine Grantland is about to close its doors a few years from now, instead of a few days ago. Imagine that maybe — just maybe — Joe’s vision for the future does happen. What would need to happen now to make that work later? What would it take for a brand to acquire and run a publication as its readers know and love it -- rather than watch the entire staff flee and be left with a quickly dwindling subscriber list and a ghost ship website?

In my estimation, we need the following:

1. A first mover.

We need a big brand with a sterling reputation for creating awesome media void of sneak-selling and corporate-speak (a la Nike) to step up and buy a media outlet that’s known and beloved. Hell, we don’t even need the brand to actually make the purchase. We just need news to leak that Big Brand We All Know X made a serious offer to acquire Awesome Media Property Y. That would get the Twitterati and marketing thought leaders buzzing enough to start a more widespread discussion about this tactic. (More on that below, but for now, know that I firmly believe in this tactic. While I was at HubSpot, we acquired an agency-focused blog to supplement our widely read blogs for in-house marketers.)

This first mover, in addition to their historically awesome marketing chops, would also need to start working up the talent ladder right now. By the time a Grantland becomes available, they'd need to have gone through several phases of hiring top talent.

The first wave could be agency creatives or in-house talent, all of which would be unknown to a popular journalist. The brand could then hire a couple folks from reputable papers and/or digital media outlets. Bill Simmons may not know those individuals, for instance, but he'd definitely know the publications. Lastly, the first mover would have to hire at least one well-known individual among the media -- the first mover brand hiring the first mover journalist (for that particular brand, that is). That hire would need to be big enough to create some level of public splash, and they'd need to command the respect of a Grantland-esque writer. 

With that talent on board, this first mover brand would need to run a standalone media property for at least some time without any signs that the brand is diluting the editorial. THAT is the real difference between a product brand doing editorial and a media brand -- the media brand removes itself and its products to create for the audience.

In the end, if you smell at all like "marketing," either in hiring not-quite-pure-editorial staff or in your execution of the media property, you're never going to retain Grantland-level talent.  

2. A first mover’s PROMISE. 

This is the real key to avoid a potential talent flight and to actually run a media brand with integrity as a marketing organization.

The first mover, upon acquiring, needs to make a big, public stink about its editorial mission and willingness not to meddle in what's already working. Every media company has an editorial mission statement whether internal or external. The brand acquirer needs to put a stake in the ground and make it abundantly clear to its employees (all marketers and especially all incoming editorial staff) as well as to the media and business analysts that the purpose of this acquisition is [insert audience-first mission here]. And that won't be "to sell more product" or "to integrate our products into the media outlet in a seamless way." No -- it's about the problem it solves or desire it fulfills for the audience.

Additionally, into that language, they'd need to plainly and overtly state that their goals are to "maintain and preserve the editorial quality and integrity that the staff has developed." They need to acknowledge that it’s a unique move for a brand to acquire such a property -- one that, understandably, the staff and/or readers may have mixed feelings about -- and they need to let both groups know that nothing is changing when it comes to the reader experience.

Basically, they need to stop thinking like marketers and realize that most of the world truly hates all things marketing. So even if they have the best of intentions, the world would react in a negative way. They need to have empathy and acknowledge that feeling right away.

If anything, the first mover brand could even gain some positive sentiment by saying something like, “We want to enable even more creative freedom. Publishers often feel friction between editorial quality and pageviews, in addition to inserting ads into the experience in ways that feel forced. We will face none of those problems, as our model is not to sell ads. It is now paramount that we allow this staff of creatives to do what they do best, without our goals of selling product getting in the way, while providing the resources and independence they need to continue building something the world loves.”

3. A shift in focus among the marketing industry’s leaders.

Today, most of the blogs, case studies, books, and conferences in the marketing industry focus on excellent marketers who use content as a tactic to do their work well. Even some of the awards of best content marketing just show really creative TV spots that are anything but "content marketing."

But for brands to start acquiring and, more importantly, retaining staffs akin to Grantland's, we need our industry influencers to change or evolve the conversation. We need to start highlighting more of the great work done by the editorial and creative side of the house. There are already a few at the top doing this level work, and more will surface the more we look for it. Then, over time, more top talent will be attracted to our field, while those contemplating a move away from marketing might stay. On top of that, brands acquiring media properties wouldn't scare an editorial staff quite as much. These individuals would feel at least some kinship within the industry, as we could point to myriad examples of creatives having vibrant, successful careers.

Said another way: When a section of your marketing department aspires to create the next Grantland or Radiolab rather than become the next CMO, are we able to oblige them? Right now in the marketing industry, we barely even TALK about those people.

So, this is a call to my friends across the industry.

This is a call to Content Marketing Institute, Convince and Convert, MarketingProfs, Copyblogger, Social Media Examiner, and others. This is a call to anyone ever invited to keynote a marketing conference, to anyone listed on those “Top X Marketers to Follow” lists. (BTW, what a super not-obvious tactic to ask for more tweets...) 

This is a call to start lending more credibility to creative in content marketing.

Let's put the producers on equal footing with the strategists and distributors. Let's put amazing feats of creativity on par with amazing feats of lead-gen. We marvel at the big dogs like Kraft and AmEx and Red Bull already, but when we talk about any other organization not in that top 1% of brands, we suddenly remove creative from the discussion.

We say things like, “The key to great marketing is great content,” but then we spend all our time talking about what happens AFTER you create the stuff.

We watch as a subset of our industry tries to make dud missiles fly and, when it doesn’t work, they revisit the color paint they used or the spoilers they bolted onto the outside. But it's time to examine the actual circuitry. It's time we acknowledge that a more talented team make for better rockets.

We need to look at and study and celebrate and hire for the inside "stuff" behind our content, because the inside "stuff" of our audience is what we're after.

Grantland created emotional and intellectual reactions in spades. Brands need individuals with both the chops and the empathy for the audience to achieve that. But it MUST be clear to them that this is an industry that would welcome them. 

No More Acting like Creative Bottom-Feeders

Remember those ocean posters we had as kids that packed, like, WAY too many animals into the image? Imagine that poster is the creative world, and the kid looking at it works for Grantland.

Along the bottom, facing the sea floor, they'd see content marketers. There we are, picking at bits of nutrients and fallen scraps among the rocks. We sit there, faces pointed firmly downward, trying to squeeze a little bit more life out of what's really terrible sustenance. We seek things like ideal word counts for blog posts to rank on search, rather than ideal ways to tell the story. We hunt for tiny results above some already tiny click-through and conversion rates. We suck up small bites from others' dinners by curating content without adding original value. We are, on no uncertain terms, creative bottom feeders, through no faults of our own. We do marketing. That's what this has always been.

But if we'd just turn our heads and look up, we'd see all kinds of dolphins and whales and sharks doing awesome flips and spins and dives! There's a big, wide, creative ocean out there where you can do amazing things. What if we aspired to be THAT!

Truly great writers, editors, producers, hosts, designers, and creatives of all kinds are dolphins and whales and sharks. They're able to do really awesome flips and spins and dives. They're able to swim faster and do things most of us would deem unthinkable. And of all the fish in the sea, Grantland's were at the top of the food chain.

And all it would take would be a little marketing in the water to scatter them to bluer oceans.

Unless of course we can both become and convey something bigger and better.

So let’s acknowledge that we have a ways to go, then strive to get there.

Let’s not pretend that our industry is ready to accommodate a staff like Grantland's — one full of known writers that don’t ever want to be a CMO, hate the idea of marketing, and boast thousands if not millions of ravenous fans behind each of their names.

We’re not there yet. But imagine if both brands and publishers developed the right mentalities. I firmly believe we can get there. God, I hope we can get there. It might mean that a site like Grantland could exist. It might mean that others would aspire to build sites like Grantland. It might mean that high quality, high integrity editorial could win out over all the bloviating, cheap-trick, bottom-feeding stuff out there.

Man, to reach those open waters...

Posted on November 2, 2015 .