Dear Marketing Leaders: Content Creators Are Not Your Line Cooks

Too many companies treat content producers like a glorified ticket system.These creative individuals rarely inform the strategic decisions at the brand and instead field requests (read: demands) from bosses or peers to build innovative, creative projects (read: the same old crap with a new, even more tone-deaf spin than before!) over and over and over and over.

This is doing all three parties involved in content marketing a disservice: the team’s morale and individual growth suffer, the audience receives a worse experience, and the business never maximizes their results.

But before we go any further, allow me to pour you a full-bodied glass of perspective — err, I mean, chianti.

SRV, or Serene Republic of Venice, is a sprawling, modern Italian restaurant in Boston’s South End.

After its first year in business, it was selected as the 2016 Best Italian Restaurant in Boston. The food, in addition to being divine, is inspired by the northern half of Italy. In place of the familiar red sauce and mozzarella is seafood and smaller bites calledcicchetti — tapas-like snacks found at the counters of bars across Venice.

The co-executive chef, Mike Lombardi, is an old high school buddy of mine, and he recently shared an eye-opening approach to his team that every CMO, VP of marketing, director of marketing — anyone managing content creators — needs to hear. Namely,he’s training his line cooks to leave SRV.

A word about line cooks.

From Mike, I learned that even small restaurants are very similar to big brands: They’re very hierarchical, slow to adopt new technologies, process-driven (or -ridden, depending on how well they operate), and rarely break from convention to be more creative than their peers. And line cooks tend to bear the brunt of all that thinking and infrastructure, as the lowest on the totem pole.

Line cooks have a mundane, repetitive job. They assemble your meals, working off the tickets submitted by the wait staff. This repetition and “just get it done already” peer relationship causes all kinds of problems in line cooks, from lack of fulfillment to stagnation of career growth to behavior problems in and out of the kitchen.

Then there’s the treatment of the ingredients. Line cooks don’t typically care about them, and they certainly don’t care about making what they do “great” as much as “done.” In most restaurants, other cooks prepare all the ingredients, and line cooks arrive shortly before service to “just get it done already.”

Lastly, line cooks get paid like crap. It’s a commodity job, so market pay tends to be consistent, somewhere around $13 an hour in Boston. This means any unhappy individual will look for the easiest, lowest stress job, since why work harder for the same pay?

So if SRV is to succeed, Chef Mike needs extreme empathy for the suckiness of being a walking ticket system. He also needs to be aware that a high-stress job at the 2016 Best Italian Restaurant in Boston must offer something aside from market-rate pay and an industry award the line cooks couldn’t care less about.

To Chef Mike, that means grooming individuals to have better careers and find more happiness (and pay) over time and, yes, leave when an opportunity opens up elsewhere.

In doing this, Mike knows that he’ll create a domino effect and that every domino that falls helps build a bigger and better business:

  1. Involving line cooks earlier means they learn more and contribute more
  2. learning more and contributing more means they feel more fulfillment and joy
  3. more fulfillment and joy means they’re intrinsically motivated to do the work
  4. when a human is intrinsically motivated to do a task, they seek it out more and seek to make it better
  5. when a task is sought out more often and gets better, the delivered product is better
  6. delivering a better product to customers means Mike can retain loyal customers and bring in even more eager patrons.
  7. not only does this develop the restaurant’s reputation with consumers, it creates a virtuous cycle of talented, hardworking cooks wanting to work for Mike, which gives SRV a competitive advantage to hire top individuals at (or even below) market rate, which thus continues this domino effect back at #1.

Mike doesn’t want a bunch of okay line cooks responding to tickets day after day because Mike doesn’t want an okay restaurant. Mike wants a big, thriving restaurant … and that means constantly involving his cooks in more parts of the business and, eventually, a wall-of-fame of successful chefs who all started as his line cooks.

Co-executive chefs of SRV -- Kevin O’Donnell (L) and Mike Lombardi. Photo via Matt West, Boston Herald.

Co-executive chefs of SRV -- Kevin O’Donnell (L) and Mike Lombardi. Photo via Matt West, Boston Herald.

Deb Aoki is not a line cook,

although as a member of several content teams in her day, I can see why you might assume that. As a writer, a comic book illustrator, and a general content strategist, she’s often the last in line to field whatever the boss and team decided before her. And despite her best efforts, she never could push back on those terrible, tone-deaf ideas.

“It’s great that you have that input,” they’d tell her, “but that’s been decided.”

But her story is not unlike those line cooks at SRV that Chef Mike knows will rocket to new heights. Like them, Deb is now involved in those very strategy and idea meetings that, just a couple years ago, she was practically banned from attending.

So what changed? Did she have a boss like Chef Mike? Did she lead some huge internal change at the company?

Nope. Instead, Deb started using her creative superpowers in a unique way at work, and suddenly, she had a voice. Suddenly, others like her did too. Suddenly, Deb Aoki believed she was destined to be more than a content line cook and ascend to the role of chef — the most powerful person in the room.

And she did all this without a title bump and without uttering a single word out loud.

This is her story…

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Unthinkable shares stories of people who break from conventional thinking to follow their creative intuition. Our community is a group of craft-driven creators in business who would make what we make for its own sake … but ALSO want to see results from it. We are bothered by suck, reject shortcut culture, and honor the creative craft.

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That’s me! I’m Jay Acunzo, the creator, host, producer, and writer of the show, together with a small team of awesome folks who make the show truly special. I’m a former Google digital media strategist, head of content at Breaktime Media and HubSpot, and current VP of platform and content at NextView, a seed-stage VC firm. I travel the world delivering keynotes and workshops about creativity in business (speaker page), and above all else, I love making things to help other makers.

Posted on October 13, 2016 .