News & Views

Why editorial talent is still hard to find – and even harder to retain

It’s no secret that large corporations have a tough time recruiting for internal editorial positions. And even if they get lucky and find the right candidate, retaining the newcomer for the long haul is often even more of a challenge.

In fact, some of n/n’s clients readily admit that they first approach us simply because they are unable to build an internal editorial team of their own.

Why is this the case? After all, some estimates proclaim content marketing will become a US$400+ billion industry by 2021, up from US$195 billion in 2016. If ‘content’ is now so important, and consuming ever larger chunks of marketing budgets, why is the discipline so hard to hire for?

Here’s our two cents on this issue, given what we’ve seen over the years from our perch as one of Asia’s largest specialist content agencies. Every situation is different, or course. But according to what our clients tell us, the following patterns have emerged as relatively consistent across a number of organisations.

1. RESOURCES

Content creation is hard – and takes more than one person
Editorial production is a team effort, and very time consuming. That’s why top newsrooms are staffed by numerous specialist journalists and editors.  But in corporate life, the ‘content team’ is sometimes a team of one reporting into a larger marketing department — which is also responsible for many non-editorial initiatives, such as event planning and sponsorships.  Problems quickly arise when business leaders make competing content demands on one content executive. For example, the Head of Greater China wants a 5,000-word overview of Belt and Road investment opportunities, while the Head of Debt Capital Markets wants an op-ed series on the evolution of risk pricing in China. Both business heads want the work finished in just two weeks.

The result? Frustration all around. The content executive throws his or her hands up and says it can’t be done – the deadlines are unrealistic.  The business heads are frustrated that their requests are denied; and the marketing team wonders if they’ve wasted their money hiring the content executive in the first place.

2.TALENT

Top editorial talent is often in the newsroom — or working at an agency
Often times those who have dedicated their lives to content want to be in the centre of the action – and that means they want to work for the world’s most prestigious newsrooms, whether that’s the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal. They dream of Pulitzer prizes, shaping WTO policies with brilliant analyses, and taking down corrupt politicians with hard-hitting investigations. The corporate life simply can’t offer the buzz of a newsroom – or even the workflow variety offered by a top agency, for that matter.

The result? Corporate hiring managers are often left with slim pickings, as they are unwilling to pay enough to attract senior editorial professionals. Those willing to take the internal corporate job often don’t have the skills or experience to shape editorial strategies and marshal sufficient resources from the ground up.

3. WORKFLOW

Lack of diversity (and controversy) in the work itself
Corporate content managers are required to think about the same entity everyday: his or her employer. The topics may change, but the end product is always the same – i.e. this is my company’s views on X and this is my company’s views on Y. Just compare that to life in a newsroom, where there is a never-ending buffet – refreshed daily — of projects on offer. On Monday you’re covering a shareholder scandal in a technology company; and on Tuesday breaking news on an industry changing M&A deal.

The result? Boredom sets in. The corporate content executive feels underutilised. S/he struggles to exercise news judgement because that judgment is always constrained by other corporate priorities and plans. Meanwhile, a range of internal actors – from business heads to compliance officers – seek control over the editorial agenda to manage legal risks and protect commercial interests, exacerbating the content executive’s feelings of powerlessness.

4. OFFICE ATMOSPHERE

Writers and other ‘content creators’ need ample amounts of alone time 
Although editorial planning and production requires a team, getting down to work on a white paper or infographic or video script is often a solo affair. Door shut, phone off, and headphones on. The problem is corporate life doesn’t really support such solitude. Executives at every level are often required to join teleconferences and group meetings – and those that refuse risk being branded a stubborn outsider.

The result? The content executive grows tired of asking to be left alone; while his or her colleagues wonder what the big deal is and why they can’t join the team lunch like everyone else.

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So, what to do? Give up and stop searching? Not necessarily. But at n/n we think it’s best to keep the following principles in mind:

  1. RESOURCES
    Allocate enough budget so the editorial leader can hire a small team for support – either internal employees or an external content agency. Explain to business leaders very clearly and without apology that quality editorial production is hard and time consuming: a tiny team simply can’t produce the volumes produced by large newsrooms.
  2. TALENT
    Accept that you pay for what you get. If you want the Wall Street Journal’s former Beijing Bureau Chief, you must entice him or her away from that exciting life with substantial incentives and rewards.
  3. WORKFLOW
    Allow the editorial executive to utilise his or her core competency – news judgement. That means they get to significantly influence the editorial agenda. Also, accept that they’ll likely recommend topics that are ‘controversial.’  While you can tone down these topics to suit your corporate strategy, the fact remains that asking editorial professionals to churn out corporate pablum won’t work if you want them to stick around.
  4. OFFICE ATMOSPHERE
    This one is self-explanatory: let the content executive get on with it — and accept that they aren’t likely to have the time to participate in every teleconference or team building event and exercise. If they absolutely must join each of those activities, ensure they have external resources on call to produce the work while they are pulled away from their desks.

That’s it for now – I’ll leave you with the Content Marketing Institute’s guide to building a content team, which includes far more tips than those outlined above. Happy CNY to all, and best of luck building your content teams in 2019 and beyond.

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