News & Views

Recent entries from my esteemed colleagues Arjun Kashyap and Jonathan Hopfner addressed various aspects of editorial planning: how companies can ensure their thought leadership efforts drive the agenda in their chosen spheres, rather than regurgitate clichés and jargon.

Given they’ve covered planning, I thought it’d be useful to address the yin to planning’s yang: reflection on editorial progress – or, why companies should also look backwards to take stock of whether they truly succeeded in executing previous publishing plans.

Isn’t that common sense, you ask? Sure. But at n/n we’ve discovered that – much like humans – many companies resist deep reflection. Of course, time for reflection is increasingly hard to come by in this era of likes and listicles. However, that’s not the only reason. It’s also because the sting of failure raises too many uncomfortable questions.

Nevertheless, new publishing plans will be for nought if time isn’t set aside to look back and evaluate how you’ve performed against the thought leadership plans hatched the previous year.

And so, without further ado, here are just a few of the key questions content marketers should reflect on before 2020 kicks in:

1.  Did we publish what we planned to publish? Many companies start the year with bold publishing plans — for example, two blogs, two infographics, and one video per month. They may even have plans for bi-monthly podcasts. But then the ‘tyranny of now’ takes over and the days whiz by in a blur of teleconferences, team lunches, seminars, and offsites. Q1 ends, and they’ve only managed to push three blogs and one infographic out the door. Exacerbating matters is the fact that no one is particularly impressed with the output. Everything was assembled in a mad rush, squeezed in-between other priorities. By the end of the year, the content calendar launched in January is but a painful memory.

What to do? Make an honest determination why you couldn’t follow the programme. Was it 1) budget constraints? 2) too many distractions?  or 3) perhaps that hotshot journalist you hired as Head of Content wasn’t up to the job after all? A combination of all three? Once the reason is clear, make aggressive adjustments accordingly.

2. Were our publishing efforts aligned with broader business goals? This one is crucial. Marketers today are expected to contribute to the business – whether that’s generating new sales leads, expanding market share, or creating a halo around their employer’s reputation (which ultimately leads to more sales). Come to think of it, this business-first approach was the key theme at the B2B Marketing Leaders Forum in Singapore this year. And yet, the uncomfortable truth is sometimes marketers either don’t know how to speak the language of business, or perhaps simply don’t want to, preferring to speak more like creative visionaries than CEOs.

What to do? While mapping out future content calendars, make sure the publishing strategy aligns with the broader commercial strategy of your organisation. Once this is complete, get buy-in from key stakeholders in the business and make sure the C-Suite sees the commercial impact of your efforts. Finally, make sure your marketing team has the right mindset, and understands their role in business success.

3. Did we measure the impact of our work? In other words, did we monitor click rates? Did we systematically collect reader emails and share them with the sales team? More broadly, did we even take the time to ascertain whether the published work is reaching its intended audience? Although ‘measurement tools’ are in fashion these days, you’d be surprised how many organisations just fling their content into the void and hope for the best, with little to no effort given to quantifying or measuring post-publishing impact.

What to do? Commit to formulating a measurement system. It doesn’t have to be fancy – maybe just a simple click rate analysis – but someone, somewhere should be monitoring the impact of your campaigns. Otherwise, what’s the point? Also, prepare for the harsh news: readership rates are often lower than anticipated. But there is a silver lining here: the cold shower of low readership rates could be a reminder you aren’t using the right distribution channels. This should prod your team to more actively promote the content you produce.

4. And finally, was the work interesting? In other words, were our efforts truly compelling? Or did we (sometimes) fake it, and assemble long papers that looked good on the surface, but upon closer investigation revealed themselves to be little more than tangled webs of trendy jargon and bland commentary? These are the most painful questions. Let’s be honest. It’s entirely natural for companies to believe that most of what they write and publish is brilliant. But we all know that’s not true. How many corporate publications do you read in your spare time?

What to do? Tackle lazy thinking like the cancer that it is – and accept that mediocre content just won’t be able to deliver the ROI you’re hoping for. Sharpen those pencils and leave an impression with the work that you publish, even if it means ruffling a few feathers. Good content almost always offends someone — that comes with the territory.

Good luck and we’ll see you in 2020.

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In late August I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd Annual B2B Marketing Leaders’ Forum in Singapore with our Singapore-based Managing Director. It was an inspiring two days of meeting marketers and CMOs from an impressive array of insurers, software developers, real estate services firms, and benefits providers — companies such as Accenture, Autodesk, Colliers, Mercer, Red Hat — and many more.

For the uninitiated, the Forum is one of the only industry events that exclusively focuses on B2B marketing, rather than blending B2B with B2C. Since launching in 2015, it has become the largest conference for B2B CMOs in the region, according to the organisers.

I thought it’d be helpful to share three key takeaways for those of you who couldn’t be there.

I. Asia’s B2B marketers want – and need – a loud voice in the C-Suite

Don’t they have one already? Well, that’s a bit complicated.

There’s certainly a C in the CMO title, but that doesn’t mean CMOs have the CEO’s ear; or that their work has a meaningful impact on their company’s revenue growth. In other words, in some companies CMOs aren’t seen as strategically vital to the business.

Sure, effective ad campaigns and well-attended events are important. But that doesn’t mean such activities are seen to be on par with, say, the CFO’s job of hedging currencies to earn a better return on the company’s cash flows.

That’s why many of Asia’s B2B marketing leaders are now trying to play a vital role in growing revenue – and, importantly, proving why their work is directly responsible for business growth.

This call-to-action was so loud that the event’s organisers splashed it across the cover of the Forum’s programme: [The event is] Where B2B marketers become revenue generating machines, secure larger budgets, and a stronger voice in the C-Suite! That mission statement is also on the Forum’s website.

Over the course of two days, many of the featured speakers advised the audience to downplay brand building-speak, and wholeheartedly embrace ‘the language of business’ — terms such as ROI, TAM, and CAGR — in order to earn the ear of the CEO.

And it shouldn’t stop there. In fact – brace for it — CMOs should aspire to become CEOs! Renee McGowan, Mercer’s Asia CEO, gave a talk entitled CMO to CEO: CMOs at the leadership table and beyond – sharing her personal career journey, which chronicled how she managed to parlay a career as CMO into becoming the Asia CEO. The audience hung onto every word, as if her career arc was that ever elusive capital-I ‘Ideal’ – a perfect life beyond reach of most marketing mortals.

Another talk, this one from Tim Yeaton, Global CMO of Red Hat, was summarised as follows: The role of the CMO as a business leader first, marketer second, and the CEO’s trusted advisor.

Get it? I’m sure you do. If not, here it is again in capital letters — just for fun: BUSINESS FIRST, MARKETING SECOND.

n/n’s View: Truth be told, we find it slightly unnerving that marketers can’t just celebrate being marketers. The work of marketing departments is vital, even if unrecognised by the CEO. It’s a fact of life that such work often goes unacknowledged because its impact is sometimes hard to quantify, especially when compared to the dollar value of contracts signed by the sales team.

Nevertheless, the cold truth remains that business leaders in an emerging region such as Asia often perceive marketing as a cost centre because the marketing department acts like one. Some marketers don’t speak the language of business and don’t act as if they understand what’s at stake – that growing a business is incredibly hard, cash flow and new contracts provide the oxygen to make it all possible, and that costs need to stay under control, lest they sink the fragile ship.

That’s often why budget cutters don’t allocate enough money to deliver compelling campaigns, creating a vicious cycle whereby marketing efforts are underfunded and crippled at the starting gates, further cementing the perception that marketing is a cost centre.

We encounter this dilemma frequently at n/n. Sometimes multinationals approach us about highly strategic work — for example, to develop a year-long thought leadership campaign on currency hedging strategies for Asia-based CFOs. We go in strong with a compelling proposal, and everyone seems excited and ready to go. But then we learn that the client lacks senior ‘buy-in;’ and the budgets are way too small to pay for the campaign.

Eventually the client gives up and goes back to hiring freelancers for one-off pieces that are thematically and stylistically disconnected, and which ultimately fail to deliver any type of ROI. And the cycle repeats itself.

That’s why it’s essential for marketers to sell their campaigns to the C-Suite early, in language that the C-Suite respects and understands: ROI, CAGR, TAM – and perhaps most importantly – how and why the expenditure may lead to actual (rather than theoretical) revenue growth.

II. B2B marketers should focus on ‘outcomes’ instead of ‘actions’

This takeaway is a natural extension of the first – and it’s easy to remember.

What does it mean exactly? Put simply, B2B marketers need to pitch ideas internally in a way that emphasises the intended business outcome, rather than the creative vision behind the project.

The outcome could be anything from acquiring new sales leads among a certain client or investor group; to earning more media visibility (which leads to more revenue); to acquiring more market share in a particular jurisdiction. B2B marketers need to define this intended outcome at the outset, and then work backwards to justify the expenditure.

So, here’s what not to say when arguing for more budget: Hello C-Suite, Down here in marketing, we all agree we should develop a campaign that addresses the impact of the trade war on the valuations of Chinese companies. It’s a really important issue attracting headlines. What do you think?

Saying “it’s really important” is not a sufficient justification. It’s too fuzzy, entirely subjective, and can’t be measured.

Much better to say: Hello C-Suite, Our firm’s commercial goal is to grow our M&A advisory business in China by 25% this year. One way we could help do that is to launch an agenda-setting thought leadership campaign targeting acquisitive CEOs, to ensure they know our bank fully grasps how valuations are impacted by the trade war. We’d measure the readership rates to make sure the campaign is reaching the right CEOs; and the marketing team will work together with the bankers to ensure that readers are converted into clients.

Now the budget keepers are nodding…

n/n’s View: We agree: the CMO pitch needs to focus on outcomes instead of actions. Being ‘interesting’ or ‘insightful’ or ‘creative’ is (unfortunately!) no longer enough. Real contributions to real business results need to follow on from expensive campaigns. Marketers need to measure campaign impact, even if the intended impact is simply to lead a particular conversation in the marketplace, or to attract more clicks on a company LinkedIn page. (Naturally, at n/n we’ve been aware of the importance of campaign measurement from the word go, as our Head of Digital outlines in this post).

In summary, nowadays the first order of business is to define the intended business outcome of a proposed thought leadership campaign; and then the second, sometimes harder task, is to craft an intellectually rigorous campaign that serves that commercial outcome without undermining the campaign’s editorial integrity.

III. B2B marketers agree content is ‘important,’ but disagree about the work involved  

Now for the final key takeaway: I can recall only one speaker who focused on the ‘E’ word. And no, that’s not E for excellence; that’s E for editorial.

This is an interesting one. The idea that content is king has become a tiresome cliché in recent years. Nevertheless, most of the speakers at the Forum agreed on this point: in the digital era traditional advertising is losing value, and quality content is its effective replacement.

However, differences emerged when it came to which aspect of B2B content marketing workflow deserves more attention and resources: Production or distribution?

Many attendees focused on content distribution, and measuring campaign impact with all types of MarTech tools and dashboards. Given the need to deliver measurable results, this is understandable. If I remember correctly, one attendee said his firm “spent about 20% of the time creating the stuff, and about 80% distributing it and measuring its impact.”

At this point another attendee said his firm was in the opposite camp, and spent most of the time creating content, with only about 20% focused on the distribution and measurement side of the equation.

Of course, there is no easy solution to this riddle. Every organisation will prioritise different aspects of content marketing workflow. And every campaign is different. Some campaigns – such as a study of the Asian currency markets — will require heavy-lifting in the content production department; others, such as Tweet campaigns, won’t. It all depends on the specific project.

Over the course of two days, much was said about brand promotion and the need to promote messages that support diversity and positive social change. But when it came to constructing narratives that convey both authentic insight and intellectual credibility? Not so much.

In other words, sometimes it seems that we all aspire to make a hit movie without discussing what ingredients are most likely to generate that outcome. How do we write a gripping script? How do we avoid tired clichés? How do we tell a story in a compelling a manner, with each scene leading to the next in an effortless flow?

Results of industry leading surveys clearly illustrate this challenge. According to Edelman’s 2019 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, decision makers give only 18% of thought leadership pieces high-marks for quality (i.e. ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’). That’s a statistic worth contemplating.

n/n’s View: The business of crafting insightful and engaging narratives is where creative work and corporate conservatism clash. But balancing these two forces – both creative and corporate temperaments – is the only way to produce thought leadership that generates results.

In our work at n/n, we walk this tightrope while working backward from the project’s intended ROI. For example, if the intended ROI is to generate sales leads for new products, it makes sense that focus is paid to the distribution side of the equation, and ensure the content is landing in the hands of potential buyers.

But if the intended ROI is to be perceived as a real thought leader on a major issue (in order to help sales generate new leads), then marketers need to spend a whole lot of time creating insightful and credible content. Mediocrity – or, rushing into publishing and distribution at the expense of content quality — won’t cut it.

I hope this helps those of you who couldn’t attend (a bit long, I know – but there was a lot to cover).

As for the B2B Marketing Leader’s Forum, the entire n/n team is looking forward to another industry-leading event this November. See you all in Melbourne!

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Well, it’s that time again. Another Star Wars film is only months away, and this is a big one: the conclusion of the original Skywalker Saga that began way back in 1977. As expected, the blogosphere is buzzing with commentary. Millions are ecstatic, savouring every detail in the new trailer. Many others are (still) wondering what the fuss is all about.

So what, you say. What does this have to do with corporate thought leadership campaigns? Quite a bit, actually – especially in the area of audience development.

Let me explain.

At n/n we spend our time advising large companies on their B2B content campaigns. A lot of this work begins with defining a campaign’s audience personas.  These personas are best described as investor, professional or stakeholder groups, i.e. This campaign on treasury trends and hedging strategies is targeting Asia-based CFOs. Or, this video series on ASEAN capital markets reform is addressing CEOs of international asset management firms.

Obviously B2C marketing of the Star Wars variety is a different animal. Disney’s goal is to target consumers as individuals. Professional status isn’t a consideration. Come one, come all.  They aren’t selling professional expertise or insight like B2B marketers; they’re selling emotional connections.  They want not only to sell movie tickets, but also merchandising rights to toy and costume companies, and candy and stationery suppliers.

But in order to do that, or at least to do it on a large enough scale, the films need to connect with audiences in authentic ways that don’t feel cheap or forced. If there’s no meaningful connection to Chewbacca, few kids will beg their parents to buy Chewbacca action figures.

The reality is that the same principle holds for the content you produce under the banner of executive thought leadership. If you fail to connect with your audience in an authentic manner, you just might lose that next M&A advisory mandate. This is often forgotten when B2B marketers are devising campaigns. Worse, some B2B marketers may think that the act of presenting oneself as an expert (but not actually speaking or writing like one) is enough. It’s not.

Let’s dig deeper and analyse the parallels between B2C and B2B marketing. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve divided these into three categories.

First, the believers. These people will see the film just because it’s called Star Wars. The brand alone is enough to secure the ticket sale. (Full confession: your author falls into this category as far as Star Wars is concerned). If the film is good, it’s money and time well spent. If not? No big deal. Little follow-up action will come either way.

In the B2B context, these are the readers who will consume your company’s campaigns no matter what.  They are already convinced of your right to speak with authority. They are unlikely to pass harsh judgments about the campaign’s quality; and, they are also unlikely to rave about its value. Easy come, easy go.

Second, the cynics. These consumers have either never seen a Star Wars film, or have maybe watched a few passively, perhaps while sitting on an airplane. They don’t understand what the fuss is about. The most vocal among them might even take pride in not seeing the movies, and brag about that.

In B2B, these are (potential) readers that – even if presented with the most ground-breaking white paper on China’s Belt and Road Initiative – may shrug it off as just another puff piece and never give it a chance. Perhaps as a general rule they think corporations don’t have anything interesting to say; or they’re jaded from reading too many mediocre research reports. It’s a tough crowd.

And finally, the connoisseurs. This is where things get far more interesting. Perhaps the best way to describe the temperament of these consumers is: I’m a big fan so I’ll see the movie, but IT BETTER BE GOOD. These are people who may have seen every film in the series, and who know about most plot twists and character arcs. They may also be film buffs in general, and so will compare the movie – its tone, its structure, its flow – to others in the sci-fi space. In other words, regardless of the hype or cultural pressure to go along, they can’t be fooled.  They’ll notice half-baked dialogue and bad narrative flow. They won’t accept mediocrity.

It’s this last group that is often the most valuable audience for many corporate B2B content campaigns. The reason is simple: they hold the magic seeds that will help you grow your influence.

Why? Because these are the readers that are fully invested in the material and are thus likely to be the most vocal about their appreciation of its quality. That gives them the power to convert a few cynics into new readers. You know, something like this: I heard you were sceptical about Bank X’s expertise in regards to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But trust me, this latest paper of theirs puts it all in perspective – both the opportunities and the risks on the execution side. It’s well-researched and chock full of interesting data. Did you know the sovereign debt of 20-plus BRI countries is rated ‘junk’ by the top agencies? Fascinating stuff.

On the downside, the high expectations held by these readers means they are also likely to voice disappointment with the campaign if it’s of poor quality; and they will back up their criticism with real knowledge. That gives them the power to plant seeds of doubt in the minds of your believers – or, the loyal readers you’ve already captured. You can hear it now: That Belt and Road paper that Bank X published was full of holes. They didn’t even address the issue of failed investments or the impact of the trade war. Or the fact that many BRI countries have ‘junk’ ratings. Not much useful data, and it wasn’t balanced.

It might sound strange that your toughest critics can also serve as your most valuable audience. But in the end, it is precisely this double-edged sword – the ability to either boost your profile or inflict damage – that makes this group so valuable.

Of course, it’s impossible for B2B marketers to make guesses about, or precisely quantify and measure, the individual temperaments of readers in its targeted persona group. John Doe asset manager may be a believer while Jane Doe asset manager is a cynic. Nobody knows.

That means the smartest thing you can do is create thought leadership campaigns with your critics in mind. Yes, they will scoff at mediocrity. But if sufficiently impressed, they might just spread the word and expand your sphere of influence in ways you never anticipated, if only because they are the ones that grasp the full value of your effort.

May the force be with you.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:

    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.
    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.
    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.
    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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Let me start with a short anecdote.

The scene? A Japanese restaurant. Location? The Dubai International Financial Centre.

This was the tail end of 2014. Pre-Trump; in the early years of Xi Jinping’s reign. n/n was just over a year old. There I sat across from a senior marketer representing a global asset manager. His employer was investing in a Middle East expansion, he said, and they wanted to publish insightful commentary to strengthen their brand across the region.

While we scanned the menu, he explained the myriad ways capital markets across the Gulf were changing as they attempted to become more attractive to international investors.

I nodded and launched into consultant mode. There was the issue of regulation, not to mention the nuances that distinguish each Gulf market, from the UAE to Qatar to Kuwait. There was the tussle between Islamic finance and global finance. His firm could get ahead of each development with a distinct voice and potentially ‘own’ the story. White papers, infographics, videos, conferences, op-eds – the works.

He put up his hand. “Let’s first see how the market perceives these reforms,” he said.

On the face of it, this approach made sense. Best to let events evolve and then find one’s unique niche inside of the story. But it soon became apparent that what he really meant was something very different: his employer wanted to follow – rather than lead – the conversation.

In other words: We will let others stick their necks out and comment first. Then we’ll decide what to publish so we don’t offend anyone.

A Common Refrain

This story isn’t unique. At n/n, we frequently hear companies say in the same breath, (1) they want to publish cutting edge thought leadership, and (2) they also want to ensure that anything offensive or controversial is deleted before publication.

These contradictory motivations are especially strong in markets such as China and in the Gulf States, where falling afoul of regulators and policymakers – or uttering views deemed politically distasteful – can carry consequences.

To be sure, in the real-world companies have to weigh interests, just like individuals. They must balance their interest in publishing insightful commentary with a whole host of other considerations – compliance and legal constraints chief among them.

Think of it this way: when your friend asks if you prefer his new hairstyle to his old one (and you really don’t), common decency kicks in and to spare his feelings you are likely to pretend that you do, or at least find some other creative way to dance around the issue. Most of us readily accept that this particular truth simply isn’t worth the cost of delivering it.

Companies employ a similar calculus to self-censor all of the time, but on much more important matters. And therein lies the problem: All truths aren’t equal.

For an example, the Hong Kong office of a global bank may conclude that pointing out the flaws in China’s domestic credit rating system isn’t worth the risk of being seen as ‘anti-China.’

But the reality is the cost of ignoring – or at least failing to address – such an important matter is higher over the long term: investors and other stakeholders will wake up to the fact that such a bank is in the business of publishing hot air and bumf, not insightful commentary. In other words, the market may eventually turn on such companies for keeping their mouths shut.

An Excess of Caution

All of which means when it comes to thought leadership campaigns, companies – especially large, bureaucratic ones – are frequently their own worst enemies. Many not only preemptively self-censor – they also overdo it. What usually happens is this:

The marketing team has a bold idea – say, a compelling series on the real risks of investing in a cross-border infrastructure project linked to China’s Belt & Road Initiative. Work starts off with a bang: they compile lists of failed deals; they identify and attempt to interview frustrated investors.

But then, a rotating carousel of internal stakeholders gets its hands on the campaign.

First, the business heads cut out any material that could be ‘perceived as negative’ to protect the firm’s positive image with clients.

Second, the compliance team cuts out anything that could be ‘perceived as legally problematic’ to mitigate legal risks.

And then, finally, the marketing team looks at the content again – and, in an attempt to prove that they aren’t taking any chances – make another round of ‘just-to-play-it-safe’ cuts.

The result?

What was once a compelling, nuanced and insightful research paper is now a bland commentary that serves no specific audience or particular purpose. It’s as if the Hollywood machine picked up an edgy and utterly original screenplay only to dumb it down into a mediocre we’ve-seen-this-movie-a-dozen-times sequel.

What Can We Do?

With this in mind, how can you avoid ‘death by a thousand cuts’ with your 2019 content campaigns?

Here are a few tips:

  1. Before embarking on a campaign, devise a coherent content strategy and put it all down on paper. The key is to be as specific as possible: This is exactly what we want to say, and importantly, why we want to say it.
  2. Once the strategy is devised, obtain full buy-in from internal stakeholders, from business heads to compliance, before work begins: Make it clear that watered down content results are nothing but wasted effort and expenditure.
  3. Accept that some external audiences will almost certainly disagree with your views: Take that as a compliment and cough it up to the price of being a genuine thought leader. Strong opinions should elicit strong responses.
  4. And finally, if you are too constrained to say anything compelling and insightful, don’t say anything at all: It’s simply a waste of money to fake thought leadership.

At the end of the day, if you refuse to take a risk and say something meaningful, one of your competitors will. And they will walk away with not only the thought leadership crown, but eventually, the other things that go with it: More trust from clients, a stronger voice in the market, and inevitably, more market share.

The good news is there’s plenty to comment on. Trade tensions are escalating. US treasury yields are rising. China continues its ascent while navigating painful contradictions. A populist has emerged victorious in Brazil

Let’s get to work.

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Can your company be an agenda-setting ‘thought leader’ if it practices self-censorship?

Answering this question has taken on an increased sense of urgency in recent weeks, following news that Google is re-evaluating whether to launch a censored version of its search engine in China.

The blogosphere, as expected, is boiling over with criticism of Google and its secret China-friendly project, codenamed Dragonfly. Meanwhile, more than a thousand Google employees have signed a petition condemning what they believe is the tech giant’s abandonment of core principles.

Given Google’s history, the outrage is understandable. Only eight years have passed since Google co-founder Sergey Brin led the vaunted search engine’s much publicised exit from China, citing his extended family’s first-hand experience of living in the Soviet Union. And then there’s Google’s infamous motto “Don’t be evil,” – a clever and memorable way to articulate the company’s belief that technology should always be a force for good.

Sure, you say, but this is Google’s problem – what does it have to do with my company’s content campaigns?

Thought Leadership Requires Consistency

Put simply, Google’s dilemma is the same dilemma that every organisation planning a thought leadership strategy faces – and that is: How do you balance your organisation’s thought leadership ambitions and positioning, with the rules and expectations of tightly controlled markets (not to mention a whole host of additional interest groups such as shareholders and compliance officers)?

Here at n/n we ruminate on this problem daily.  We spend our days devising thought leadership campaigns for some of the world’s largest companies – campaigns that cut across multiple jurisdictions such as New York, Dubai and Shanghai. Our job is to help our clients do the hard work of parsing strong and true ideas from stale and false ones, and to remain consistent in their messaging in all of the markets they operate in.

And so, our view is an emphatic NO – thought leaders don’t self-censor. In fact, just the opposite: thought leaders drive conversations forward by uttering pesky and uncomfortable truths – and they don’t censor their views for certain markets.

On that basis, Sergey Brin’s decision to abandon search efforts in China in 2010, and his statements about his family’s experience in the Soviet Union, were in many ways the ultimate demonstrations of thought leadership.

Here’s the proof: the outcome of Google’s brave move. Even though they gave up search in one of the world’s largest internet markets, they are still – eight years later – the undisputed global leader of search technology. It’s such moves that arguably helped knight Google as the head of the tech pack.

Of course, many of the world’s leading companies have chosen to remain in China and adjust to China’s rules, arguing that (1) it’s wise to play the long game and (2) the benefits outweigh the costs and some exposure to China’s massive market is better than none.  These companies certainly have a point. And such declarations – if made consistently, without apology, and backed by data – also qualify as thought leadership.

The point is this: Thought leadership requires companies to abandon the premise that they can hold a certain view but soften its expression so no party is ruffled or offended.  That means if Google has changed its stance on China since 2010, it needs to come out of the dark and clearly say so – and own any fallout that follows. Only then can it regain lost ground and possibly retain its crown as one of tech’s most trusted thought leaders.

Being a thought leader does not mean courting controversy for the sake of it. But it does mean articulating clear views on major issues – and, importantly, either holding your ground or openly admitting to a change of heart when external forces pressure you to change your mind.

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Those of us in the content marketing industry like to claim that “Today, clients, investors and consumers expect major companies to act like publishers.”

Heard that one before? Given that you’re currently reading an article by n/n, I’m certain you have.

You’d be forgiven if, upon hearing such a declaration, you concluded that it’s simply something content marketers say to justify their work – akin to a donut hawker recommending the regular consumption of donuts.

But alas, I’m afraid that a few recent campaigns demonstrate it’s not just another corporate slogan. For evidence of this, look no further than the Mercedes Benz mini-film, ‘Tough Conversations.’

For those in need of a brief summary, this corporate campaign follows punk rock icon Henry Rollins across Australia as he interviews everyone from famous surfers to local tattoo artists, focusing on the issue of ‘toughness’ – what the concept implies, and how its definition differs for each individual.

Of course, Mr Rollins is driving an X-Class Mercedes pick-up truck throughout – and the video is full of shots that linger on the iconic Mercedes logo gracing the steering wheel, with Mr Rollins’ heavily tattooed arms framing the screen. The message is simple: Mr Rollins is ‘tough,’ and in its own unique way the Mercedes pick-up truck is too.

The camera also lingers overhead and behind the well-built machine as it speeds gracefully down open roads across Australia’s dusty and majestic outback.

Neither Mercedes, nor Mr Rollins for that matter, need further introduction. But it’s safe to say this campaign crosses the proverbial Rubicon. Why? Well, it’s a stark example of a new era in which major companies are making media that resonates well beyond very specific interest groups.

Until a few years ago it’d be slightly unimaginable that someone with the cultural cache of Henry Rollins – punk rocker, author, spoken word artist, and talk show host – would ever align himself with a corporate campaign of this nature.

By the same token, until a few years ago it’d be slightly unimaginable that a corporation such as Mercedes – which sells expensive cars to the global upper class – would ever align itself with someone like Mr Rollins.

And lastly, until a few years ago it’d be safe to conclude that buyers of Mercedes’ cars would be unlikely to “get” or appreciate the campaign. In fact, they might’ve been turned off by the brand’s association with Mr Rollins.

And that just proves the point, doesn’t it? For better or worse, we’re now in a world in which everything is jumbled. There are no clear corporate or cultural demarcation points. That great media democratiser – the Internet – has erased those boundaries, and it looks like they will never return.

Companies are commenting on culture. Cultural heroes (heroes for some of us, at least) are partnering with companies. Corporations are making short films that newsrooms used to produce. And some newsrooms, though they are often loathe to admit it, are producing corporate media under a different name (usually called ‘sponsored content’).

Put another way: Mr Rollins, like many adults, is not above providing his cultural commentary in exchange for a healthy paycheque and high-profile publicity. And Mercedes desperately wants to be ‘cool’ and ‘tough’ so it can sell more X-Class trucks. In this way, they are perfect bedfellows. We can scream heresy if we want. Or we can just dedicate ourselves to producing quality media, regardless of how it is financed.

Mercedes recognised this much when it dumped a whole lot of money into the ‘Tough Conversations’ campaign. I’d wager that many more companies, sensing their new role as publishers, will follow suit with similar productions.

Up next – Johnny Rotten and BMW?

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Those of us in media businesses are surrounded by freelancers. In fact, many of us at one time or another have chosen to be freelancers ourselves, until other opportunities arose (or the need for job security got acute).

Whereas freelancing was once seen as a risky decision, today it is a major feature of the ‘gig’ economy. Many new firms aim to link freelancers with clients: Upwork and Fiverr are just two that come to mind.

In the gig economy, the view of freelance life has changed: it’s now less about going it alone, and more a celebration of individuality, flexibility and the entrepreneurial spirit.

(Full disclosure, n/n – like most businesses — hires freelance contributors on a project basis from time to time. But the issue is knowing when and where to use them.)

One crucial area of media work not suitable for the ‘gig economy’ is the task of developing a coherent, detailed and cutting-edge content strategy for large companies. This takes more than one freelancer – or even a group of them.

It takes a unified team of media consultants who are able, and willing, to formulate an overarching publishing program that is aligned with the client’s messaging goals over a long time horizon.

At n/n, we find some marketers assume that whomever is writing the report or designing the infographic should also formulate the vision behind it. They ask a writer to guess what works, without a coherent strategy in place before writing begins.

This is the proverbial ‘throw something at the wall and hope it sticks’ approach. It’s a waste for everyone – a waste of both the writer’s and client’s time, when, after four weeks of drafting a 5,000-word white paper (or whatever), the client decides it’s not what they wanted.

This isn’t how professionals create good content. When you walk into any newsroom you will see there are journalists cranking out the stories and bureau chiefs and other news planners driving the broader agenda.

The same should apply to companies aiming to make an impact with their content. The business heads, working in collaboration with marketing and editorial consultants, should formulate the broader agenda before the writer or designer works his or her magic on the blank page.

The first step in devising a high-impact publishing program is to conduct an ideation workshop in which campaign stakeholders identify key campaign goals, analyze what’s already been published to see what has worked (and what hasn’t), and try to carve out a unique voice in their sphere of influence. Only then will a long-form campaign have a chance at succeeding in the marketplace of ideas.

Without a doubt, some of the greatest journalism is produced by freelancers, as they are mostly (and blissfully) free of the office politics and corporate constraints that inevitably shape the work of full-time employees.

But the fact remains: effective content strategies can’t be worked out on the fly by a team of disconnected individuals. Rather, such work requires the sustained effort and consistent analysis of a unified team, whether that team sits in-house or out.

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When searching for an effective thought leadership strategy, many of our clients ask us: “Where do we begin? How do we know what to publish?”

That’s a fair question. Publishing with impact is hard no matter who you are.

And then there are those clients – admittedly far fewer in number – who have the exact opposite problem: they simply publish too much. That’s to say, they saturate the market with commentary on every little development, trusting that volume alone will win the battle for more influence.

What these clients forget is that discernment and balance are also vital factors in any sound publishing strategy. We all know that friend who talks too much, much to the annoyance of his fellow dinner guests. After a while you begin to nod mindlessly at the sound of his voice – or tune him out completely.

Another parallel is found in the world of luxury travel. Five-star service is not only knocking on your door at evenly spaced intervals to inquire if you need your shoes polished or desire another complimentary fruit basket. Five-star service is also about knowing when to leave you alone.

These same principles apply to the world of thought leadership publishing. If you don’t publish at all, well – you can’t become a thought leader. If you publish too much, clients and consumers will tune you out.

So, at risk of talking too much and ignoring my own advice, here’s a few tips to help you find that elusive balance.

1. Clean your internal publishing pipes
Clients who publish too much often suffer from the same problem: they lack a formal publishing process and everyone internally – from VPs to MDs – wants a piece of the action. They simply turn on the tap and hope what flows out is good enough. This results in too much content from too many voices – much of it mediocre at best.

Solution: Identify who internally owns which pieces of your company’s editorial output, and give them the authority to set the tone. Have the confidence to say no to those who shouldn’t be publishing – and also resist editing everything you publish via committee. The more editors involved, the more you water down your output.

2. Allocate clearly-defined content budgets
Knowing how much you have to spend on thought leadership (as opposed to other types of marketing) encourages you to make strategic decisions and take a structured approach. It also helps you figure out what’s possible with the budget you have, forcing hard decisions about expenditures and desired ROI.

Solution: Mark the budget at the beginning of each year (or the beginning of each quarter) to establish a clear view of the potential size – or limits – of your publishing programme. And then work backward to define and shape your editorial calendar.

3. Be honest about what you’re qualified to talk about
Let’s be honest – no one is an authority on everything. Take Amazon for example. The e-commerce giant can easily talk about literary trends, because it has the sales data to back up its observations. But it’s better qualified to talk about e-commerce, or internet book retailing in general. More traditional publishers are better positioned to talk about literary trends.

Solution: Be honest about where you stand in the market and pick your sweet spot. Be confident enough to let others – even quasi competitors – to lead a conversation that you aren’t uniquely qualified to speak about.

4. Know what else is out there
Far too many aspiring thought leaders don’t know their place in the public conversation simply because they aren’t aware of what has already been said and what needs saying.

Solution: Read up on the best out there – whether that’s on Bloomberg, Reuters, or in the Financial Times – and do so frequently. That will give you a better view on the value of what you’re saying, and how it is likely to be received in the marketplace of ideas.

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By now it’s almost a cliché to talk about how ‘disruptive’ technologies are redefining global commerce.

There’s FinTech, RegTech, WealthTech, LegalTech, MedTech – and yes, so help us, take a deep breath, even MarTech (marketing technology, for those few still not in the know). Are you tired yet? Perhaps pining for a return to a simpler time? Not going to happen. The tech genie is out of the proverbial bottle, and it will impact us all.

MarTech platforms are designed to enhance efficiency and drive better ROI across the marketing discipline. Tried and tested solutions include MailChimp (email campaigns), HubSpot (inbound marketing) and Marketo (marketing automation). According to digital marketing experts CMSWire, MarTech platforms fall into one of the following categories:

  • Advertising and promotion
  • Content and experience
  • Social and relationships
  • Commerce and sales
  • Data
  • Management

And, take another breath, there are more than 5,000 on the market. That’s right: 5,000! Where to begin? How to choose? Your guess is as good as ours.

But here’s something to keep in mind, gleaned from experience with our roster of Fortune 500 clients over the past few years: You can buy the best MarTech in the world, but that investment will be wasted without the right content.

MarTech solutions generally aggregate, analyse or distribute rather than create. Quality content – or, insightful information, if you prefer – is the oil that flows through the MarTech pipes. What good is fancy piping if you don’t have high quality Texas Tea to pump?

It’s also important to remember that a lack of technology is typically not the main cause for the failure of content campaigns or publishing strategies. In our experience the following factors are more common — and difficult for MarTech alone to address.

  1. Content takes considerable thought and time to produce. You need to be left alone to get the job done.

This runs counter to the culture of many big organisations, where employees tasked with content production often juggle multiple and at times competing obligations, or are expected to be in meetings or on teleconferences all day long.

  1. Quality publishing requires an at least partially objective and journalistic mentality.

Marketing departments are often called upon to ensure content campaigns explicitly support commercial goals, or focus exclusively on the organisation’s achievements, when expert insight and credible, relevant information are far more effective generators of client loyalty and audience engagement.

  1. Immediate results are not guaranteed. Payoff is usually gradual following a series of quality campaigns.

This also runs counter to corporate culture, where quarterly earnings targets often drive the action, and where executives must constantly justify their budget allocations.

These are important realities to consider as you decide to allocate budgets to either MarTech or editorial campaigns. In other words, MarTech might reshape the marketing practice — but it won’t save it.

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HONG KONG/NEW YORK, Feb 8, 2017 — New Narrative, Asia’s leading custom media agency, today announced the expansion of its operations to North America with the opening of an office in New York City that will be led by Glenn Mott, a former executive editor and publishing director at Hearst.

New Narrative creates custom research and thought leadership, multi-platform editorial content and publishing campaigns for top-tier corporations and media organizations worldwide.

Mott, an award-winning editor, publisher and journalist, joins New Narrative as the founding partner of its North American operation. Mott will draw on his extensive experience and industry network to lead the firm’s North American expansion, as well as the development of new production and distribution solutions that will enhance the reach and impact of client content and media projects.

In his previous role as editor and publishing director for the Hearst newspaper syndicate, Mott oversaw an array of syndication partnerships with global media organizations, including The Guardian, The Toronto Star, Bulls Press, Univision, Tribune Content Agency and Gannett. As publishing director he was responsible for printed book, digital and mobile publishing across all Hearst syndicated features. Mott built a diverse catalogue of titles in all formats covering a broad range of categories, including finance, healthcare, memoirs, travel, food and wine, and graphic art.

In these roles Mott also created syndication and editorial marketing strategies for a broad range of clients, including, The Atlantic, the Gallup Organization, Democracy Now!, Gatehouse Media and Lonely Planet.

Mott is a graduate of the Hearst Management Institute, conducted by the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, and Medill School of Journalism. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing (2008-09) and a Kathryn Davis Fellow for Peace at Middlebury College (2013).

“Since its founding by experienced financial journalists in 2013, New Narrative has shown consistent growth in a wide range of sectors including professional and financial services, media, healthcare and technology,” said Joseph Chaney, Hong Kong-based co-founder of New Narrative. “In North America, we will expand into new fields such as education and build the highest-quality customized media services for clients in need of tailor-made editorial content, syndication, and press and publication infrastructure.”

“Given his credentials as an executive editor and publisher with deep expertise in multi-platform product creation and development, syndication and media partnerships, Glenn Mott is ideally positioned to lead the company’s North American journey.”
About New Narrative

New Narrative Ltd. (n/n) is a content consultancy and custom media agency founded in Hong Kong in 2013. The firm conceptualizes and creates tailor-made content campaigns that drive value for a range of global companies, media organizations and research institutes.

New Narrative partners collectively have more than 50 years’ experience as senior editors and executives in leading media organizations, reporting on market-leading events and producing insightful commentary and analysis for an audience of senior decision-makers.
Press enquiries:

In the U.S.:

Glenn Mott, Partner
+1 646 330 3282
In Hong Kong:

Joseph Chaney, Partner
+852 9411 7441

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How can you tell content marketing works? When even the marketing companies are using it. The ‘State of Inbound 2016’ report from sales software specialist HubSpot is a good example, and an insightful piece of research in its own right.

HubSpot being an inbound sales platform, the neutrality of its conclusions might be called into question, but the firm’s certainly done some legwork, polling 4,500 marketers globally and 800 in Asia Pacific alone — most non-HubSpot customers in small and mid-sized enterprises. Not surprisingly, the report shows inbound marketing (that is, getting customers to come to you via a website, content or referrals) is far more effective in terms of return on investment than the ‘outbound’ variety (shouting at customers to come to you with display, banner or other types of ads). Here are some of the other key findings from our perspective:

Content is a must — and a struggle

Creating content was the second-biggest inbound marketing priority for Asia-Pacific companies, just under enhancing their website search engine optimisation. But it doesn’t necessarily come easy; nearly a third (31%) saw targeting content for an international audience as a major challenge.

Content can also be exhausting — 66% of marketers said they develop their own content in-house, and almost a quarter (23%) spend four hours or more crafting one short blog post. It’s great that so much thought and care is going into the process, but (depending on subject matter) it really shouldn’t take that long — and can’t, if small marketing teams hope to generate content at a rate (and on a level of quality) to fuel ambitious campaigns and long-term engagement. Simple lack of capacity may result in more enlisting the help of (ahem) outside agencies to support their content needs, which a mere 21% those polled did currently.

Distribution: The classics reign (for now)

While HubSpot concentrated on blogs in this study, next year’s will almost certainly have to encompass video — YouTube and Facebook video were the most popular emerging content distribution channels, with 51% and 40% of those polled respectively planning to add them to their marketing programs in the next 12 months. Instagram was a distant third (28%) while few placed much emphasis on Snapchat (11%) or Vine (5%). This indicates to us that marketers plan to focus their content efforts on a couple of key formats or platforms, and that’s a sound strategy — far better to master one or two distribution channels than to do a half-hearted job of populating all of them.

The study also shows most people continue to draw a line between social and business networking. Only LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are seen as ‘professional’ platforms; others, including Instagram, WeChat and Weibo, are still used almost exclusively for personal purposes. That doesn’t necessarily mean these channels should be disregarded by businesses, but does suggest that LinkedIn and Facebook are still the places where ‘serious’ content is most likely to connect with decision makers, and have the most impact, particularly in the business-to-business context. This might change as more organisations refine their visual content offerings, or turn their attention to the mainland Chinese market and its homegrown networking platforms.

All in all, it’s encouraging that content and not ad spending is viewing as the new marketing currency, and we look forward to seeing how the results change next year.

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We’re very happy to announce today the formal appointment of n/n’s new Hong Kong-based director of business development, Elizabeth Kwong.

A veteran of top-tier media brands such as Asiamoney, Time and the Economist Group, Elizabeth boasts a formidable combination of sales skills and serious publishing and project management chops, and has helped shape content strategies for a range of clients in industries from technology to retail. We expect Elizabeth to play a major role in our future growth (and perhaps keep the rest of us in line in the process).

For more details on Elizabeth and the rest of the expanding team, please see our People page.

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