The Content Talent Crunch

I have these two friends, let's call them Brendan and Amanda, because those are their actual names. 

These two friends are very, VERY good content marketers. They’ve built audiences at the top of the funnel. They’ve converted audiences down the funnel. They’re great at managing content teams. They’re prolific content creators and leaders. They can generate MQLs, SQLs, RTs, and other KPIs with one hand and drink an IPA with the other. LOL OMG.

They are, on no uncertain terms, the proverbial “rockstars” we all hear about.

And almost every month, I annoy the crap out of them.

Let me explain: The startups in which NextView invests are all currently falling over themselves to hire the very best content marketing talent. And, outside our portfolio, the friends I've made in the industry, whether the tech startup world or general marketing, are joining this talent arms race and complaining about how hard it is to participate. Almost all of them desperately want what I call a unicorn hire — someone who can execute and lead, strategize and create. Someone like Brendan. Someone like Amanda. And so I send those two job after job, intro after intro.

But their best move isn't to take any of these jobs, no matter how much I don't want to admit that. The best move for those unicorn marketers is to wait it out for a corresponding unicorn job — that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — or perhaps leave their current posts to start consulting, given the scarce, in-demand resource they offer in abundance: themselves.

Yep. We’re experiencing a massive talent crunch for great content marketers. And it’s time we did something about it.

Where's All The Talent?

All across the industry, you're seeing companies struggle to hire for content marketing. NextView has invested in 50+ startups in its 5-year history, and because these companies know that I work (and play) among content marketers, this need for talent is what I hear about most. I get multiple emails every week with requests to share good candidates or make intros. NextView also runs a program called the Talent Exchange to surface candidates to our startups. The second-most requested intro through this program, just behind software engineers? You guessed it: content.

This need has only increased and this problem has only worsened. Over the last year, the language used by hiring managers has evolved, at least among NextView companies. It's changed from a search for content marketers to a more overt request for content creators. “We're hiring a writer” is now more common in my inbox than "we're hiring a content marketer." That one seemingly small tweak hints at a much larger reality: Companies aren't finding enough creative, producer-type talent. In getting so overt in their search around the need for writers (and other types of creators), I can almost sense executives throwing up their hands. “Enough with the pretenders. We need actual creative talent in here already!"

But they're not finding it. Whether startup or enterprise, Boston or beyond, it's just not consistently there.

Lastly, I'd point to my community group, Boston Content. We're hell-bent on the skill- and career-development of our 1,200 members. But at this moment in our industry's evolution, if I had to characterize the talent pool, this is what it looks like today:

talent crunch chart

That might be okay, if the top wasn't SO much smaller and more scarce. We need to funnel more people from the bottom towards the middle and, eventually, to the top. And quickly!

I'm not alone in noticing this problem either.

In a recent episode of This Old Marketing, a Content Marketing Institute podcast, CMI’s Robert Rose describes this talent crunch as he sees it. He starts by recounting a conversation he had with an executive in the entertainment industry. Robert talks about how media companies will create movies or shows and then launch products to sell. Disney has merchandise of all kinds around each of its movies and characters. Marvel and DC will produce comics, movies, and shows, but they'll also sell action figures and clothing. And none of us bat an eye about that. It not only feels natural and normal, it's embraced -- we line up to buy this stuff.

Robert then asked this executive about why, when the opposite happens and product-first companies decide to produce media, people think, “Ick! They’re trying to sell me something!"

The executive replies with a poignant and terrifying reality: “Well, because media companies are GOOD at [creating media]."

“Right,” replied Robert. “It’s all about who has the talent.”

But what if product companies COULD find that talent? What if Coke targeted the same talent as Pixar? What if DraftKings hired away top editorial minds from ESPN? What if companies that started with products and services could actually compete for this type of talent, these creative wizards we all so adore?

I've always felt like content marketing is the creative kids' table of the internet. We have a FEW really, truly special creative minds. And then everyone else is faking it as best we can.

But what if something like THIS was normal? What if nothing at all changed about the end product -- a tremendous movie -- except the company that produced it? 

But the fact remains, we’re not there yet. We need more talent in our industry.

This could happen in one of two ways:

  1. We attract better talent to our industry from elsewhere.
  2. We train these people from within our companies.

I just don’t see the second happening.

In a survey I conducted with Boston Content last year, I asked our members to think of their job in four parts: Planning (strategy, buying tech, crafting editorial calendars, etc.), Production (creating and editing the content itself), Distribution (marketing), and Analysis (how’d it do?). I asked them to identify where they receive the least amount of internal support and, no surprise at all, they almost unanimously said it was the second — producing the work. The marketing world is just not built to improve the creative talents of its people, generally speaking. Nobody is paying the money it would require to train and support that part of the job internally. There are definitely exceptions, but it’s not widespread, nor is it normally in-house, as agencies and freelancers tend to own the notion of "creative" in our industry. 

Unfortunately, when it comes to the other possible solution — attracting better talent from elsewhere — we have a long way to go.

For starters, it’s very hard to be craft-driven and be happy in content marketing. I often lament and propose solutions to that problem on this very blog, but looking across the industry, I’m one of only a few people talking openly about why we need to honor good creative process and cultivate genuinely great writers, designers, videographers, podcasters, et al. (Hat tip to some of the others doing so, and doing so much better than me, like Ann Handley and Doug Kessler.)

Want to be a truly prolific writer with a meaningful, fulfilling career? Join a media company. Become a solopreneuer blogger. But of course, don't join MARKETING! That'd be absurd, right? 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the marketing world’s obsession with the “quality versus quantity” debate. Not only are those quite literally NOT opposite ideas, but it's also not reality. Creatives sitting at the adult tables of the digital world (media outlets, for instance) don’t ever get to ask that question. They have to do both! I know some journalists who publish 2-3 articles per DAY, all while working on 1-2 longer, more in-depth pieces. And they have to meet a high quality bar set by their editors. If we asked them, “Do you write to be high quality or high quantity?" ... they'd just laugh at us.

Us content marketers at our little kids' table. That has to end. 

And while I don’t have the answer, we need to start talking more openly about this problem and start working towards a sustainable solution. We need to figure this out and fast, or my worst nightmare is going to come true: I’m going to give a presentation while naked. 

Wait, no, sorry: My SECOND biggest nightmare is going to come true: This wonderful, exciting, rewarding industry niche is going to come crashing down.

I’ll close with a few half-baked ideas (you know I love those) on what we might do.

1) Create a program to “make” better creators.

Launch Academy is a great program here in Boston that literally “creates” engineers for startups. They train individuals through a rigorous, hands-on educational program. Then they partner with businesses in need of these types of skills to help their students land jobs, and both sides win.

What if we had a studio somewhere where young marketers could learn the crafts of producing media and hooking that up to a larger marketing strategy? (This could then scale to multiple offline locations. Online could work too, though I'd argue not as well.)

Think about that one guy or gal you know who’s a tremendous creator and marketer. You know how you admire them because of how rare and special they are? (Hi, Brendan and Amanda.) Well, what if we could literally PRINT those people?

2) Change how we source, interview, and vet candidates.

I’ve written at length about this, but we simply can’t take the same process used to hire good marketers and hope to succeed when hiring prolific creators. I mean, the best writer I’ve ever hired was a bartender for ten years prior to my hiring him. And I almost completely messed that up by applying the traditional hiring process to him.

Whether we tweak our vetting process or interview differently, if we want to attract new and awesome types of talent, we need to use a process and approach that are specifically built for this challenge.

3) Evolve how we talk and think about creative.

This starts and ends with the ability for product companies to put aside their products and their agendas to first focus on creating amazing content FOR ITS OWN SAKE. If there's one reason media companies are so much better at producing media, its because they obsess over that -- they care about the story and media and creative FIRST. They then retrofit the products they sell around a great film, show, book, and so on. The writers, designers, and animators who craft historically great stories and characters (i.e., the ones we all dream of hiring) don't wake up thinking, "What can I create today to sell more action figures?"

But marketers? Boy, do we get this backwards. And that's unfortunate, since better content would yield better results for us. But that's playing the long game, and most individuals (or industry powers that be, maybe) try to play the short game. 

Right now, as I mentioned above, we don’t talk about creative the right way on content marketing teams to attract top talent. We focus almost exclusively on the end result, to the expense of (rather than to harmonize with) the craft of creation. Sometimes, a blog isn't working because it sucks to read. It has nothing to do with your distribution plan.

One way this lack of understanding comes out is the question that most makes me want to toss my laptop: “How many words should my blog posts be?” What a great way to turn off prolific, quality writers from joining your organization.

kevin spacey quote - start with story

This desire to know some magical word count is a sign that (A) someone is interested in shortcuts above craft, (B) they aren’t a born writer, as nobody who IS would ever ask that question, and (C) they don’t think about their audience first. That's because audiences view a blog post as merely a container. The stuff inside is what they’re after. I believe people are multi-dimensional and complex. They'll read any length and consume any medium, provided the stuff inside those containers is worthy. But we make such a fuss over the container that we forget that fact.

Is our work worthy of our audience's time? Perhaps. IF we start in the right place with the right mentality. IF we change the dialogue. IF we can hire the best talent.

We Need to Act NOW

It’s 8:43AM on a foggy Boston morning as I write this. I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop downtown. And, hand to God, as I finished typing the section above, one of our startup CEOs plopped down in the chair across from me, totally unexpectedly. “Good to see you man. Here’s what I’m struggling with…” he starts. 

The topic? Everything you just read.

The solution…?

It’s time we found one.


What do you think we could do to attract and hire more/better talent in our industry? Leave a comment!

Posted on August 26, 2015 .