you want to pay me $250 for a comprehensive marketing strategy? that’s cute.

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Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo

Let’s not talk about the time I was offered $250 for a comprehensive marketing strategy — weeks worth of work — and say we did.

There’s something many of my peers have been discussing in private groups and behind closed doors but no dares to speak out loud for fear of losing work. We trade emails where editors think $25 for 500-word articles, replete with secondary sources and rounds of revision, to be a living wage. We lament over the fact that seasoned marketers are being outbid by people with little to no actual work experience beyond preening themselves in front of a camera. I’m told, why would I pay X if Competitor A offers a third of your rate, to which I respond: I don’t compete on price; I compete on value, efficacy, and experience. Last week someone told me that she made more money doing the same thing ten years ago than she does now. Her professional life is one of diminishing returns: she has to work twice as hard now to make the same money she made a decade ago. In a private Facebook group, scores of influential bloggers talk about how brands and publicists trot out the word “exposure” in exchange for free work. Recently, writer Victoria Philpott shared a perfect scenario of this charade in her incisive essay about the trap of blogging for exposure:

A new startup wants you to review their app on your site, host a competition to give 5 away to your readers and write about them on the App Store. In return you’ll get to be one of the first to try the new app. You go back and tell them that’s advertising and will cost but they ‘don’t have the budget for that’.

So, they want a good few hours work, and access to your audience, in return for an app you didn’t ask for or want?

Another friend seethes when she’s told by her editor that college kids would be willing to work for free (or for a fraction of the standard rate) because everyone wants exposure and experience. In a hustle economy, everyone’s juggling side gigs and projects, and the refrain is constant: we’re working harder for less.

I worked through college — balancing a 20+ hour work week with a full course load, volunteer activities, and a social life. Most of my internships were paid because I couldn’t afford not to make money, and while I understood that my compensation directly correlated with my experience, it was unthinkable to compete with full-time employees’ comp, people who had years of experience.

Let me be clear and say that this isn’t a get-off-my-lawn rant, a Gen X vs. Gen Y kerfuffle that rivals Biggie and Tupac. We need each other, and I believe in the power of symbiotic mentorship. After I left a digital marketing agency where I was an equity partner, I kept in close contact with many people who reported to me, brilliant women who went on to break ranks and with whom I forged close relationships. Although we were 10–15 years apart in age, we knew our respective value, and it was equal and powerful. I mentored women on being a manager and leader, how to negotiate comp and deal with toxic employees, and they kept me fresh on burgeoning trends and social media, and what I’ve learned most from my millennial friends is the power of reinvention. Of taking something old and seeing in it the new.

So if you’re ready to get riled up at the kids today, there are plenty of articles on Medium that will satiate you — this is not one of them.

For the past few years, I’ve witnessed a disturbing trend in some agencies where they’ve skimmed the top (less P&L impact) and hired junior talent in hopes of growing them rapidly into senior roles. A whole middle layer of management was nearly non-existent, so you had very senior people too deep in the weeds and junior talent feeling overwhelmed and non-equipped to manage work and situations in which they had little experience. In The Devil’s Advocate (bear with me), Al Pacino’s character tells a young and arrogant Keanu Reeves:

I know you got talent, I knew that before you got here. It’s just the other thing I wonder about: pressure, it changes everything. Some people you squeeze them, they focus. Others fold. Can you summon your talent at will? Can you deliver on a deadline? Can you sleep at night?

Some people surprise you — they’re natural leaders and they exude confidence and acumen beyond their years, a talent that’s rare and priceless. A soon-to-be college grad outlines, in detail, how hard she worked to get published in bold-face publications before graduation, and I respect her tenacity, talent, and hustle. Yet, there’s something to be said for tenure, for having the years, for enduring experience and learning from it and then having the perspective that only time and distance brings to bear on new situations. I will always believe in the adage “you get what you pay for”.Replacing tenured talent with cheap labor to save bottom-line impact isn’t a viable long-term strategy. Placing band-aids on dams might work in the short-term but inevitably the dam will burst.

There’s real and tangible value in having a college or intern perspective. There’s value in having someone who knows the nuances of a particular social media channel give input on content and strategy. However, the value is complementary, not interchangeable. Just because someone will do something for free doesn’t mean you need to take advantage of it for the short-term savings, completely sacrificing the value of experience and perspective. Complement, don’t replace all.

Let’s revisit that offer of $250 and what comprises an integrated marketing strategy. Building a strategy requires (I’m summarizing big time here):

  1. Discovery/Research: A complete brand and business immersion and discussions with staff across business units — all of this in the context of industry factors and consumer trends/behavior
  2. Key Learnings: From all of the research and discussions, I tend to identify challenges and opportunities, along with some kick fixes or wins. Since I’m removed from the day-to-day, I have the fortune of distance and perspective and can usually identify issues (internal and external) and opportunities that staff too close to the business might miss
  3. Objectives/Goals Discussion: This is lengthy, and often we review past day and performance as well as a deeper conversation about their existing customer base. We discuss quantifiable and qualitative goals and objectives, knowing that our strategy has to satisfy or meet those goals/objectives. We discuss what success is and how to measure/optimize it, by channel, by tactic
  4. Strategy Outline: This is the “What” — What we’ll do to service the goals/objectives. This isn’t a tactic, a “we’ll launch an Instagram channel” or “we’ll hire a YouTube celeb to bolster our brand” — this is the big idea and plan that will impact the entire business, and will be implemented across paid, owned, earned and partner media.
  5. Tactical Roadmap: From the strategy falls the tactics, which brings the ideas to life in a practical way, i.e. the “How”. This will invariably require the collaboration between partners (internal and external) for development of distinct and detailed plans with budgets, timelines, and allocated resources

So you think all that work — weeks of labor — is worth $250? I’ve worked hard for 17+ years to be paid $250 for a marketing strategy? Surely you jest.

You think the hours it takes for writers to find sources, compose interview questions, transcribe interviews, draft articles and make revisions are worth $25? $100? $250?

As Shannon Barber so sagely writes: “No one can eat exposure.” I tell people I’m not operating a non-profit. Would I ask my doctor to reduce her rate because someone down the street charges less? Would I nickel and dime a plumber? Would I ask someone to paint my apartment for free in exchange for an Instagram post? Why is it that people find it easy to diminish the value of writers and marketers (non-tactile skills)? Why is it so easy to sacrifice quality for short-term profit?

When will brands and businesses focus on complementary talent rather than bottom-line savings that hurt over time?


I originally published this post on Medium
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the road ahead was supposed to be clear + filled with light {long read}

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In the midway of this our mortal life,/I found me in a gloomy wood, astray/Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell,/It were no easy task, how savage wild/That forest, how robust and rough its growth,/Which to remember only, my dismay/Renews, in bitterness not far from death. ― Dante Alighieri, The Inferno

We find ourselves in a tangled, savage forest. The sky is obscured by a copse of trees, and the ground below is cold and damp, like a grave. We cry out for our Virgil because we’ve lost our way. We’ve traveled from uncertain shores and our eyes our heavy and our knees ache for the cold quiet and rest. We consider all that we’ve abandoned and all that lay before us, the weight of it, the mess of it, and we feel trapped in the space between the two. We are our indecision. And because of this, we are here, but we’re not here, and you know how it is.

We were children born out of the wreckage of war and subterfuge, the looming spectre of a great bomb hanging invisible over the dark night, and a belief that every moment was the eve before the end — I had not thought death had undone so many, wrote Eliot, said me — and we felt the aftershocks of this constant fear: the foiled-wrapped salisbury steaks, television shows where the husband and wife slept in twin beds, and a life spread out over the pages of photo albums. We were the children born to a generation who clung to their photographed youth.

We were told that we needed to be smarter, better than what had come before. Our parents played cards with the deeds to their houses in their hands. {It occurs to me now that actors in silent movies — a kind of like life — were called players.} The script we were handed was a repeat of an old theme with minor variations: go to college, work hard, marry, create a life, build a home, believe in a god, and die knowing you did everything you were supposed to. From the womb, we were preached from this guidebook, it left its indelible mark — and we took these words, this outline for a life, as sermon.

Until we grew up and realized that our mothers slipped coins under our beds in exchange for our rotting teeth, and we asked, out loud, How is it possible for Santa to visit every house, slip down every chimney? Until we regarded this outline for a life to be an incomplete story, a narrative in parts, designed by parents who tethered themselves to disquiet. How did we think they knew any better? Because they were older? Because they felt the horror of loss and the banality of life? Or did we, as dutiful children, want to play out their hand?

Once we begin to feel our years, once we get a glimpse of the next generation scratching at our feet, do we realize this: the road isn’t linear. A great life isn’t assured. The maps we were given were drawn by parents who were lost. And we watch this new generation {millennial, Y} subvert every rule we had been taught, and we spit out words such as: entitlement, lazy, impatient, and part of us envies their perceived sense of freedom. They’re writing their own story while we’re fleshing out the outline of our parent’s story. Of course they’re impatient! We only have this one life.

I have a friend who did everything by the script. He went to Harvard + Harvard Law. He worked his way up in a prestigious firm and made this great money, had this great partner, lived this great life, but there was an ache, an emptiness that needed filling for he craved purpose. He craved a life that intermingled his love of law and his passion for writing. I tell him that there is little difference between us since lawyers and writers are consumed by the dissection of a paragraph, a vivisection of the written word. Last year he made the very difficult decision to be a defender of human rights {less money, an uncertain career path}. Now he advocates on behalf of people who don’t have a voice, and he’s nearly done with a novel that was a five-year Odyssey. Now he has time. He wakes with purpose in his heart.

I have another friend, Summer, who’s a prolific artist. I met her twelve years ago when she was strumming a guitar and writing her own songs and bits of poetry. Over a decade I watched her oscillate from story writing, illustrating, painting, and singing — but still the one pure purpose hadn’t revealed itself to her until this past year. A confluence of events, starting with her incredible book being pulled out of print, allowed her to explore what it is she’s meant to do rather than what it is that she should be doing. Did I also mention she’s an incredible mother, devoted wife and extraordinary baker of pies?

It took me 38 years to realize that just because I’m good at something doesn’t mean I’m meant to do that something. I refuse to inherit the previous generation’s disquiet. I refuse to make fear-based decisions that are only pragmatic and devoid of wonder.

Summer has combined two art forms to create comics filled with difficult stories. The visual nature of comics is accessible, and the fact that she can overlay painful prose is pretty brilliant. When I last saw Summer, I felt the glow of her and told her that she, as Woolf once wrote, has found her vision. Summer will be 41.

Right now, many of us are in that black forest, that trembling wood, and we are lost. For most of our lives we followed that outline and realized that script allowed for only one path — no deviation, no veer in the wood — and much like our Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy, it took us this long to realize that what the script was missing was life. That we may wake one day and realize our jobs are killing us and we no longer want to be anesthetized. We may wake and look over at our lover and wonder: Could anyone else love me more? We may wake and realize that this life isn’t what we wanted.

What then? We’re in our 30s and suddenly we’re authors and architects, designing a life on the fly. But we don’t have the tools, and is there a store that we can go to buy this life? A book that will tell us what tools we need to use and how to use them? We were instructed to not deviate, but we’ve deviated and what then? Many of us talk about how we can’t fathom the idea of relaxing because we have to work. We were born to.

Over the past year I’ve been playing the hand as it lays — terrifying for someone who is methodical and lives her life so deliberately. I like knowing what’s behind Curtain #2. I prefer the familiar command of the stage and the circus that is the daily workplace performance. I’ve experienced heartache, and professional setbacks that left me confused and questioning my purpose {reading this and this gave me some solace} — until it struck me that I was playing out the very definition of insanity. I was searching for that one, linear path {because for 38 years that’s all I knew}, that constant, the ah! that’s the answer!, when what’s clearly in front of me is non-linear.

One of the many reasons I left my job last year was that I wanted a life where marketing, writing, and food were given equal time on the proverbial playing field — that none of them were to be relegated to the status of changeling. The portfolio career? Possibly. And for the past year I’ve pursued all of these in a very binary fashion. I have my marketing friends, my artist friends, my food friends, and it was only until I saw what Summer did with her life did it make me realize that maybe there is a fusion between these three roles I play that creates a title role, and the rest are merely supporting cast.

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Ask yourself? What is it that you really love? What do you want to spend your days doing? Don’t think about money {as that tends to change the answer into what we should be doing}. For me, it’s writing. It’s writing in different forms. I love novel writing, I love merging image and type in this space through the lens, for the most part, of food. I look at the marketing work I do very simply: How do I tell better stories?

And then I think about prioritization against pragmatic need because I’ve rent, monthly obligations, and credit card/student loan debt. I know that marketing pays my rent and allows me to write and travel, so that gets 40% of my time {I structure most of my major consulting projects where I work 25 hours/week, and take on smaller projects that ensure I don’t mess with this overall mix, but still pay my bills}. Novel writing is a passion (I’m nearly done with my second book) and that gets 30% of my time. And the remaining 30% goes to the ephemeral — all sorts of projects and experiments {travel, food, interviews with people like myself who’ve made a leap over a meal we cook together} that help me constantly hone in on my art but allowing me to be agile enough to keep refining my title role and supporting cast. Because maybe that remaining 30% will allow for something beautiful and magical and unforseen to emerge.

Amidst this forest, having strayed from the path to find my way into dark, I’ve created a structured, unstructured life that allows me to find my way out of the dark by creating my own light.

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