How I failed to teach my team how to learn – and got fired because of it

I worked at a company for one and a half years as a team coordinator. I had 11 collaborators, from interns to senior analysts. Despite the names of our ranks, we were all new to our craft. We had come together from different backgrounds into this newly formed team to help the company thrive in a time of economic disaster throughout the country.

I had no idea what to do.

How do you teach your team when you are a novice yourself?

My first action was to assembled the team in my office and let them know that we were on the same boat. We were all apprentices. We had to learn together and we had to learn fast. We had to deliver.

Learning to create reports on Excel and memorizing formulas was pretty easy and we all learned fast. But, analyzing all the information and turning in the reports with due analyses was a bit harder. We had to learn what to tell the sales team so they could meet and ultimately over-deliver on their goals. We had to make the company grow.

And learning technicalities is also easy. We excelled in that as well. We were a good team.

But, there was more that we had to learn. We had to learn to work together, to respect each other’s differences, to help bring up to speed those who were a little behind. We had to learn our weaknesses and strengths and work on them. We all had to learn to be leaders.

Quite a task.

What to do?

I had to start somewhere, so I asked my team to do two things. First, only read and respond to e-mails twice a day and for no longer than two hours. This would keep them from wasting too much time on unimportant things and it would keep annoying, needy people away. It would also improve productivity. If something was urgent, people would call or come looking for us at our office.

Nothing was ever urgent, so now we bought some time.

Second, I asked them to take one hour a day to read, watch, listen, and learn. Whether it was magazines, newspapers, TED videos, online courses, anything! They should spend one hour each day learning something new. Then, they should share with everybody else something interesting that they found, so that the whole team could benefit from each one’s individual learning.

I didn’t want us to learn only about our technical jobs, but also about business, entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership, culture, human behaviors. I wanted all of us to become better humans and better problem solvers. I wanted us to learn to have millions of ideas every day, execute them well, and learn how to deal with all kinds of people at all kinds of situations. I wanted us to start growing immediately.

I thought this was the greatest idea I had ever had.

…and then things took a turn for the worse.

Boy, was I wrong.

It turns out that the culture instilled in employees inside an industry/sales business was that of “busyness”. We didn’t have to be busy 24/7, but we had to appear that we were. If we weren’t busy with something, we weren’t looking in the right places.

I always thought busyness was overrated and harmful. I believed that real productivity was to meet your deadlines (and over-deliver with quality) within your daily working hours, and grow professionally in the process. .

But, culture is a difficult thing to change. It took me three months to convince my team to get up from their chairs and leave at 4:48 p.m. (the end of their shift), because they were used to working extra hours every single day. When I looked at them during the day, it always seemed as if they were working on the most important project there ever was. But, I knew that this didn’t happen that often. Not everything that landed on our plates were extremely important or urgent. But, they thought that they had to work hard all the time, every day; even if there wasn’t much hard work to do. But, working hard isn’t just about making 10 Excel reports per hour. Learning is also work.

Nurturing the intellect is key to thriving in our careers.

After I set the task of learning everyday, I found out that they felt embarrassed to be seen with videos and articles on their computers. They were afraid that people would pass by them, look at their screen and infer that they were wasting company money and time with leisure-related activities.

No matter how much I told them not to worry and that I would take responsibility if ever we were confronted about this, they wouldn’t do it. They felt their careers would be damaged – even though I was their boss. Plus, they always had something important an urgent to do.

I persisted for 2 months, and then something happened.

During lunchtime, I ate at my desk so I could read. At the time, I was reading Tim Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Work Week, which was terribly translated to “Work for only four hours a week” (Trabalhe 4 horas por semana). This book is where I learned about the dangers of e-mail compulsive disorder and decided to change my approach to online letter exchange, as well as many other ideas to help improve my productivity. The “living a rich life” part of the book I’m saving for the not-so-distant future.

One day, a friend came to me and said, “Listen, I have to talk to you. Some guys from your team have been gossiping about you. They talked about that book you’re reading and said that you’re trying to dump all the work on them so you can work for only 4 hours a week. They think the whole ‘learn something every day’ thing is an excuse for you to work even less. Now, I know none of this is true and that you’re trying to create different ways to improve your team. But that’s not how you’re being perceived.”

Well, that certainly wasn’t what I expected.

If I ever felt like a failure in my lifetime, it was in that moment. The moment I realized that sometimes even our most respectable intentions can be misinterpreted. not everybody is susceptible to changes, to improvement. Some people conform to the norms and they’re very happy with it. It gives them security and peace of mind.

It wasn’t that they were afraid to learn something new and change the way they worked. They were afraid of how they would be perceived by their colleagues by doing things differently. They were afraid that their careers could be harmed if it turned out that I was wrong.

Conventionality was safe.

Innovation was risky.

I decided to change my approach to my team. I adapted to their standards and lead them in a way that they could follow and grow in their own terms. I also learned very much from them. I learned that following rules was guaranteed to keep you safe. That depending on the company you work at, keeping your opinions to yourself preserved you. That challenging status quo could get you fired.

I refused to be ordinary. And so I was fired.

(My team wasn’t, thankfully)

I wasn’t fired because I was incompetent. I was fired because I didn’t fit in at the company. We had different ideas for the future and for our employees. They needed someone who could sell; I was someone who could teach.

I started searching for another job two months before I was fired. When they finally kicked me out, I wasn’t surprised; I was delighted. We definitely weren’t a match.

I hope that my former team will continue to develop themselves and learn to grow and learn always and often. I hope they will understand the value of self-improvement and problem-solving. I hope they will benefit from it and grow because of it. If not, I hope they will be happy with the lives that they chose. We are all different, anyways. Happiness and success means different things to all of us.

Meanwhile, I’m getting in trouble at my new job with my weird, unconventional ideas.

I’ll take the risk.

I prefer to grow and stumble along the way, than to stay put and remain ordinary. (Remember, I am not a tree)

Who said change was easy?

Life is perception

I often wonder if the world sees me as I see myself.

Do people perceive me as I really am?

Am I what I think I am? I don’t even know.

For some reason, when we exhale into the world, we disguise ourselves according to the context we are breathing in. We unconsciously blend in. We say what we think we should say, not what we really want to say.

Does that change who we are?

I envy those who have the courage to stand out. They embrace their awkwardness, their creativity, their uniqueness. I tend to hide mine. Deep in the confines of my head.

Blending in puts you in a safety bubble, where you are overlooked by most and ignored by many.

In one of Maria Popova’s amazing essays, “7 things I learned in 7 years of reading, writing and living“, she teaches us something – paraphrasing Maya Angelou – that I personally took to heart: “When someone tells you who they are, believe them. When someone tries to tell you who you are, don’t believe them”.

 

Life is perception.

KurtVonnegut2-1024x485

A friend once told me that I was arrogant. I’m really not. But she perceived me as being arrogant, because of how I spoke. In thoughts, however, my speech sounded very different.

Life is perception.

“You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.” (Maria Popova)

If I consider myself kind, considerate and thoughtful – which I do – does it mean that I am also being perceived as kind, considerate and thoughtful by others?

In contrast, if others think me to be arrogant, rude and stubborn, should I be worried? Is it possible that they are right?

A few weeks ago, a friend gave his opinion on a topic we were discussing. My response was perceived as arrogant, rude and stubborn by him (and maybe it was, to some extent). I spent the following week thinking about what he said and eventually decided that he was right. I called him back and told him so. An apology of sorts. Am I still arrogant, rude and stubborn?

No. I’m human.

Life is perception. And humility.

And so it goes.

 

A poem I wrote 8 years ago, when I realized that throughout life I’d often be misunderstood:

UNKNOWN

In my lifetime
I have passed by a million people
unseen untouched unspoken
I have breathed their air
and shared their glances
looked deep into their souls
passed by them in acute silence.
I now encounter myself in the future
and I find myself
completely
unknown.

The singing dancing soccer player

This week I showed up at my son’s school to drop off his afternoon snack. I arrived as his Physical Education class was going on. He and his classmates were playing soccer at the court.

Noah neither likes soccer, nor knows how to play it. But, everybody had to take part. This was the required P.E. activity for all the boys – though not for the girls, I noticed.

As I observed, the ball was kicked from one side of the court to the other and all the kids would race towards it like their lives depended on it. Pushing and shoving each other to get to the ball. Noah was nowhere to be seen. When I finally found him, he was way in the back, strolling and spinning his way towards the ball, way behind everybody else, in his own pace and looking as if he was in another dimension.

Everybody talks about being in flow state. That’s what Noah looked like… Like he was in his own flow state.

The game went on and on and Noah seemed to follow the boys wherever they went. But, he moved very slow, not caring much about what was going on. He was doing his own thing – dancing, spinning, skipping. His teacher kept calling out his name, urging him to run for the ball and take part.

But, no. He just wanted to do his strolling and dancing through the court. The ball was definitely not his priority at that moment.

At some point, I realized that he was doing some kind of performance in his head. Right there, in the middle of soccer practice. He was singing, dancing and performing in the middle of the soccer court during P.E. class.

That’s Noah. The boy who sings and dances all the time, everywhere, in front of everybody and isn’t the least worried about it.

He will sing songs by Ariana Grande and Beyoncé and imitate their choreographies. Other times, he’ll put on Master of Puppets, by Metallica, and listen to it two or three times in a row, while doing his own version of rock dancing. He listens to The Beatles while in the shower and pretends he’s George Harrison playing guitar. He watched La La Land recently and has been singing and dancing to it’s music for the past month – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

He’s not afraid of expressing himself, no matter the situation or location. He’s not afraid that people will be looking or judging. He doesn’t care if he looks weird. He’s not worried if he’s on beat or in tune.

Some people will say that little 6-year-old boys shouldn’t be dancing to music by Ariana Grande and Katy Perry. I’ve heard some say that it might affect his “masculinity” – whatever the hell that means. Boys should play soccer, watch sports on TV, play video-games and wear blue, obviously.

Noah isn’t playing the “boy” part very well, according to people. But, he’s not playing the “girl” part either. So what does that make of him?

To me, it makes him unique.

I know that if I start trimming the parts of Noah that society believes must be trimmed, I will be raising him to be an average society-approved person.

But I don’t raise Noah according to society norms; I raise him by my own standards.

I give him freedom.

Noah will dance and sing. He will study music and paint.

He will shake his booty, if that’s what he wants.

And he’ll grow up to be… Noah.

………………………

And if by any chance you speak Portuguese, you may want to watch my son’s recommendation of La La Land on YouTube. It’s super sweet. Though you cannot view it on phones and tablets, because it contains music from the movie.

The insignificance of titles

On February 2nd, 2016, I was fired for the first time in my life.

BAM!

Just like that.

As I sat in my car, parked on the street corner in front of the company, with all my shit from my office scattered on the passenger seat, I thought, “I’m no longer Larissa: Senior Coordinator of Business Intelligence at Coca-Cola; I’m just Larissa, unemployed.”

I got home and put my things away, lay down on my bed and thought about how it felt to be fired. And the only thing that went through my head was my title: Coordinator of Business Intelligence. I had lost it.

Titleless, I would no longer sound important when people asked me what I did. It was no longer the highlight of my Linkedin profile. No longer my e-mail signature.

Sem título

My new Linkedin title is much cooler now

That’s what I had become. Someone who was attached to a silly title.

 

Throughout the following (consistently unemployed) year, this matter of having a title kept coming back to me. Why did it matter so much? Titles don’t define you. They’re not who you are. They’re temporary. As soon as you leave the job, company, post or whatever, you cease to have that title.

Not only do titles give the distorted impression of you as being important; they make you sound like an authority, an expert, a leader and master of sorts without needing to have any actual credentials.

I certainly didn’t feel like an expert in business intelligence; I was still learning. I was a beginner; far from being an expert. Come to think about it, I have always been an apprentice. Every job I ever had was completely different from the one before. So, every time I started a new one, I had to learn the ABCs of whatever the hell it was that I had to do. Throughout these jobs, my titles should all have been the same: Larissa, Senior Apprentice of All Things Related to Current Job Status.

Calling myself “Senior Coordinator of Business Intelligence” was a bit of a lie. I realized that the title wasn’t actually earned. It was just handed to me for some period of time. It was a loan. When the time came, it was taken away from me and given to somebody else.

Temporary.

So I decided that I wouldn’t let titles define me anymore.  I wouldn’t let the have any effect on how I perceived myself. To hell with titles.

Throughout the following months, after analyzing my life even a bit further, I realized that I actually had quite a few titles. But these were earned, given for life. They represent who I am and what I really stand for. They tell others much more about myself than a silly temporary job description. They show my personality, my attitudes, my accomplishments, and my goals.

I’m Larissa, badass mom.
Larissa, struggling artist.
Larissa, eternal student and learner.
Larissa, novice writer and poet.
Larissa, advertiser (not so proud of this one, but nevertheless).
Larissa, trusting friend.
Larissa, awesome granddaughter, daughter and sister.
Larissa, patient listener.
Larissa, amateur musician.
Larissa, avid reader.
Larissa, compulsive thinker.

No one can take those titles away from me.

I’m senior master badass of my own life.

Take that, Mr. Middle Manager.

Some tragedies are bigger than others

A tragedy happened recently in Brazil where dozens of people were killed in an airplane crash. Among them were the players of the Brazilian soccer team, Chapecoense

The entire country was devastated.

On Facebook, people changed their avatar to art designs that showed support to the victims and their families. For weeks others were posting about the magnitude of their pain and their sorrow and how this tragic event brought the country together. It was a collective sadness.

Companies and organizations held memorials and made all sorts of contributions to the team and the families of the players. Friendly soccer games were held to honor them, where the teams playing wore the jerseys of the Chapecó team. The country was united in the willingness to grieve and remember these victims.

It was a great tragedy.

For some reason, however, I wasn’t so struck by this tragedy like most of the country was. I wasn’t grieving, changing my avatar or posting about my sadness. I didn’t go out and buy the team’s jersey to show my support and the accident wasn’t a topic of any conversations that I held with anyone during that time.

To people around me, I seemed apathetic and cold; halfhearted. To them, it seemed that I didn’t care. I wasn’t a true Brazilian, perhaps. I had no empathy. No heart.

It’s funny how distorted people’s perception of us can be.

I cared. Of course I cared. It was a tragedy and it made me sad.

But, I just can’t understand why this particular tragedy seemed so much more important than all the others that happen every day, in every street corner, to so many families.

Families lose their children or parents or loved ones every day. They lose them to murderers and rapists and violent husbands or unexpected strangers. They lose them to drunk drivers and traffic accidents. They lose them to floods and earthquakes. They lose them to tirany and war. They lose them to cancer and AIDS and alcoholism and drugs and depression.

Families are torn apart, love is lost, lives are stained, happiness is a blur, suffering is inevitable and mourning becomes breathing.

Most of these tragedies are never known to us, for only the ones who can captivate an audience really make it to the news. Advertising is grateful.

And every time I watch something like this on TV, I cry.

Every. Single. Time.

So, to avoid crying, I don’t watch TV.

I’m not cold.

I actually care too much.

So when a national tragedy like the Chapecó accident happens, I suffer just the same. Just like everybody else.
But I think it is unfair and disrespectful to all the other people in the world who are suffering their own tragedies when one single event is so overexposed and deemed so much more important than everything else.

To me, everyone deserves the same amount of empathy and kindness. Every death deserves to be grieved.

But, to the world, it just seems that some tragedies are bigger than others.

You are not a tree

You are not a tree.

Who you are right now is not who you will always be. You are the decisions you made all the years before and the ones still to come. You are the condensed confusion of all your past mistakes and endeavors. Every thing you did brought you to this moment. And tomorrow you will be a completely different person. Maybe you’ll be better, maybe worse, maybe close to who you are now. But, you will be different.

When someone feels stuck, they tend to say that they’re going in circles. But, life does not move in a circular motion. It can move in all types of motions and directions, except circular. Circular motion means that when you’re done travelling the entire way, you will be back at the exact point where you started.

That is impossible.

Life is a spiral.

spiral-04

When you finish your round trip, you will never be back at the same point. You will always be a little off, a little different, a little changed, a little ahead. It may be that you are happier or maybe sadder. You may become more confident or more insecure. Maybe you will come back with a plan and a goal. Maybe you’ll find out that you have nowhere to go or no idea how to climb from the hole in which you fell.

It doesn’t matter how you turn out when you complete the turn around your life spiral. Whatever happens, you will always be at least a few millimeters ahead from the line where you started. You will always be ahead. You will always move forward.

And that little white space between the line where you are now and the line from which you left? That’s called experience.

So, no matter how or where you are now, you are more prepared to change your situation than you were before, because now you have experience. The more turns you take, the more white spaces you accumulate, and the more opportunities you create for yourself.

Embrace that.

Move forward and outward.

Remember, you are not a tree.

 


Notes:

  1. I read the expression “you are not a tree” in a book called Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley. I believe it was first coined by Jim Rohn. The full excerpt is: “If you don’t like how things are, change them! You’re not a tree.”
  2. My apologies to trees. This is really unfair to them since the changes that trees undergo throughout their existence – whether through surviving cold winters, dry summers, hard winds and lack of nutrition from the grounds – only adds to their magnificence.

We are not raising children; we are breeding adults

Noah started reading when he was 3. When he was almost 4, he could write his own name. Between ages 4 and 5, he learned the basics of reading and writing and started to put small sentences together. By age 5, he could read simple children’s books. At the current age of 6, he was able to follow the captions to the movie Lalaland, which we watched together last week. Last year at school he learned how to add and subtract and at home I taught him how to multiply and divide.

Noah is a fast learner and I think it’s kind of cool.

But, is this really important at this point? Would there had been any consequences if he had started to learn to read and write at age 6 or 8 rather than age 3? Does he have to know how to add and subtract at 6?

Noah has been sitting at a desk, staring at a whiteboard and doing homework since he was 3. 

I had no other choice but to put him in school. Compared to other possibilities, school was cheaper.  But, I pay a price.

At the age of 6 (and the preceding years), I believe that kids should play. They should create and build and search and discover and pretend and imagine and be curious and PLAY. They should run and climb trees and fall and play ball and swim and be active. They should make friends and interact and socialize. They should sing and dance and paint and draw and act. They should even get bored – something kids don’t have the luxury of doing nowadays.

But we aren’t nurturing creativity and curiosity, we are killing them. (see Do schools kill creativity? by Ken Robinson)

Instead of coming home with drawings, paintings and new games to play from school, Noah brings two textbooks and 6 or 7 pages of homework to do every single day.

Again, he’s 6.

I want him to read. I want him to learn through books. As far as I know, that’s where real knowledge is and that’s one of the ways we cultivate imagination.

As part of homework, Noah now has to watch videos on my phone. Augmented reality is now a school subject and smartphones are the new books.

Noah loves to sing and dance and paint and act. But, school hasn’t supported or encouraged him in these activities. Originality and uniqueness are not praised; they are contained. Everyone has to wear the same clothes, sing the same songs and on recitals, they all play the same part.

It’s all backwards.

Schools are not striving to nurture creative human beings. They want to create disciplined students who are great at memorizing historic dates and who’ll get into the best universities when they’re 18. Which will be hard, since none of them will excel in anything, for they will have always learned to stay at the same level as the others. We’re settling for average.

So it seems that we are not raising children; we are breeding adults. And not very good ones, mind you.

We’re not raising thinkers; we’re breeding memory champions. We’re not teaching curiosity; we’re celebrating obedience. We’re not nurturing talents; we are striving for average. We are not cultivating their art – in whatever form that may be; we are demanding an A+ on math.

School may not prioritize art, creativity and movement in Noah’s daily life. And I no longer expect them to.

But, as long as he’s with me, we will live as curious adventurous artists every day. I’ll make sure of it.

To hell with school.


This afternoon (Saturday), Noah and I came home from lunch and we stayed downstairs for a while. Our building has coconut trees and there were a few of coconuts on the grass, at the bottom of this little hill. We picked up about 10 of them and started throwing them from the top to see which ones rolled faster down the hill. It was a coconut race. He won every time. Then, we came up to the apartment and laid down on the sofa with our books and read together for about 40 minutes. While I’m writing, he is still on the couch, reading.

We are making our own art.

PS: For my own sake, I hope he doesn’t decide to become a doctor or an engineer.

Year Long Prayer

Jeff Buckley is an artist that admire for many reasons, some being his incredible capacity to turn poetry into music, his voice, his guitar-playing skills, his passion. He was complete. He once wrote a beautiful poem, which I have replicated at the end of this post. Inspired by his poem, I wrote the following:

Year long prayer

I pray that you will smile always at the silliest things, like the uncommon brightness of the sun, the colorfully-stained mess your child made on your wall, the crunchiness of that butter-filled toast on Sunday mornings

I pray that you will kiss your lover whole, inch by inch, skin by skin, until everything is permanently stained and scarred and tainted and branded

I pray for everlasting temporary relationships for which you will cry endless tears of sorrow and happiness

I pray for true love at least once in your lifetime, even if it doesn’t last

I pray that you will enjoy full glasses of cheap red wine of the most terrible taste with your closest friends on a boring Saturday night while laughing at nothing in particular

I pray that you will wake up the next day and swear, in the midst of a catastrophic hangover, that you will never drink again (until next Saturday, of course)

I pray that you will cry with every highly uninspired holiday commercial (tears are for the courageous)

I pray for kaleidoscopic frenzies, blinding flashing lights and hypnotic music loudly playing, forcing your body to move in its rhythm, losing yourself in an abstract dream of powerful ecstasy

I pray that you will dance in each and every opportunity

I pray that you dream and in your dreams discover the beauty of your soul

I pray that you discover the magical power of forgiveness

I pray that you understand that knowledge is the most powerful weapon you will ever handle

I pray that you will accomplish all these little things that you probably won’t remember in a little while, for we have a tendency to forget everything that matters

I pray that you become free

I pray that you see

I pray for you and me

I pray

Larissa Fernandes – 2006


Jeff Buckley’s New Year’s Eve Prayer:

You my love are allowed to forget about the Christmas you just spent stressed out in your parents house

You my love are allowed to shed the weight of all the years before like bad disco clothes, save them for a night of dancing, stoned with you lover

You my love are allowed to let yourself drown every night in bottomless wild and naked symbolic dreams

You my love in sleep can unlock your youth and your most terrifying magic and dreaming is for the courageous

You my love are allowed to grab my guitar and sing me idiot love songs if you’ve lost your ability to speak, keep it down to two minutes

You my love are allowed to rot and to die and to live again more alive and incandescent than before

You my love are allowed to beat the shit out of your television, choke it’s thoughts and corrupt it’s mind kill kill kill kill the motherfucker before the song of zombiefied pain and panic and malaise and it’s narrow right winged vision and it’s cheap commercial gang rate becomes the white noise of the world (turn about is fair play)

You my love are allowed to forgive and love your television

You my love are allowed to speak in kisses to those around you and those up in heaven

You my love are allowed to show your babies how to dance full bodied, starry eyed, audacious, supernatural and glorified

You my love are allowed to suck in every single endeavor

You my love are allowed to be soaked like a lovers blanket in the New York summertime with the wonder of your own special gift

You my love are allowed to receive praise

You my love are allowed to have time

You my love are allowed to understand

You my love are allowed to love

Woman disobey

Little man believe

You my love are a rebellion

If you’re not making great content, you’re not doing great marketing

This happened in 2011, the year I founded my former online marketing business, EuComunico. I decided that I needed to be creative if I wanted to start something new with no clients and no portfolio. I had the knowledge, but didn’t have anything to show for it. So, I decided to send an e-mail to no one else other than the guy I considered to be the BEST of the best: David Meerman Scott.

To my surprise, not only did he answer my e-mail readily, but he also agreed on lending me 15 minutes of his time for a Skype interview. Below is the original post that I published back in 2011 on my company’s now-extinguished website.

Without further ado, my first professional interview:

2961469474354.original

At the beginning of this month I had the opportunity to speak through Skype with David Meerman Scott, marketing strategist, keynote speaker and author of 7 books – including the bestseller “The New Rules of Marketing and PR“. David’s blog – WebInkNow – is considered one of the best marketing blogs in the world, according to AdAge Power 150. David has presented speeches to companies like Cisco, HP,Microsoft, Ford Motor Company, U.S. Air Force e Dow Jones, among so many others.

And for this reason, I didn’t believe when he agreed to give me 15 minutes of his time to talk about Content Marketing. It was just enough time.

At the end of our conversation, David asked, with the politeness that’s characteristic of Americans that, in case I wrote or published something about him, that I used his full name – David Meerman Scott. Here you can see why: https://youtu.be/W0HgzS0QEY8

LARISSA FERNANDES – You are a great supporter of content as an effective way to engage clients, correct?

DAVID MEERMAN SCOTT – Yes, I’m a really big fan of content marketing, because it allows anybody: individual people or companies or non-profit organizations or governments, anybody, to reach the people that they want to reach through the search engines and through social networks when they create valuable content.

LF – When, in your opinion, did this phenomenon around content begin? I understand that the notion of content has been around for decades, but when did companies and agencies realize that content was so important in the age of the internet?

DMS – You’re right that content marketing has been around for a very long time. If you think about the Michelin Guide, that’s a print publication. That’s a form of content marketing, because it is a guide for restaurants and hotels created by a tire company. Very good example of content marketing.

In terms of the web, for the first 10 years of the internet, and I’m talking from 1995 – when the public web first exploded – into around 2005, people weren’t thinking too much about content. They were thinking about creating things like banner ads, newsletters. But content itself wasn’t very big.

I identified content marketing – although I didn’t use that term back then – as a big thing back in 2004. I wrote a book that came out in 2005 which is called “Cashing In With Content“. It’s a dated book now, it’s not appropriate so much now because so much has changed. But I was one of the first people to talk about content marketing way back in 2005. So that’s what, about 7 years ago? And at that time, people were very very skeptical, because there weren’t that many people connected to the internet yet. And it didn’t seem like something that companies should invest in.

Its only been in the last one or two years that content marketing has really taken of, and the main reason for that is because people now understand that term, “content marketing”. I’ve been talking about content marketing since 2005, but everything I was telling people to do since 2005, and I have written 7 books since then and given about 500 speeches, is that it’s all about content marketing. It’s about creating great content for your website, it’s about creating YouTube videos. Now that we’ve got social media it’s about Twitter feeds and getting a Facebook page and all of that.

There’s been people like me who have been talking about it that have helped. Some companies that naturally gravitated to it that have helped a lot. And its only been in the last year that it’s taken off as a name “content marketing”, that people in the marketplace recognize it. But they’ve been doing it for longer than they actually believe.

LF – Do you think that the fact that content marketing has had a boom in the past year has something to do with social media becoming actual means of communication between clients and companies?

DMS – I think they’re related. And the main reason why I think they’re related is because if you want to use social media as a form of marketing, one of the things that you have to have is valuable content to share using social media. So if all you’re doing is participating on Facebook and Twitter but you don’t have anything interesting that you’re creating, it’s very hard to build a following, it’s very hard to get people to engage with you.

But if you’re creating interesting videos, if you’re creating blog posts, and you’re creating photographs, charts or other types of information, and then you’re using social networks like Facebook or Twitter or other networks to share that content, then that becomes particularly valuable. And therefore I think that the rise of social networks and the rise of content marketing are kind of interrelated.

LF – On that topic, many new and usually small companies are using social media and content to get their businesses out there and to attract new clients. For people who don’t have a lot of knowledge or experience in this specific area, what traps or strategies should they avoid so they don’t scare away consumers or so that they don’t look phony?

DMS – The biggest thing, the most important thing, is that you should not create content about your company’s products and services. The reason I say that is because you actually need to think about who are the people that you’re trying to reach. Who are the people that you want to contact. And then you need to understand what problems those people have that you can help to solve. And you need to understand how they think. Then you need to create the content with them in mind.

So it’s very much like journalism. I actually call it brand journalism because when you’re creating content marketing you’re actually thinking like a journalist and creating content like a journalist. And it needs to be valuable for the readers. But most marketing people are very bad at that. What marketing people are skilled at is creating content about their products and about their services. But again, that’s not what people are looking for and that’s not going to be successful – if you’re only creating content about your products and services.

LF – There are many tools and platforms that help professionals organize and schedule content for social networks, blogs and websites, such as Hootsuite. Something that I have noticed here in Brazil is that professionals tend to schedule most of the content. Sometimes a week in advance, two weeks in advance, a month. Do you think this is a proper way to work? And do people notice when there are many programmed posts and tweets? Can they pick it up, that the content wasn’t created at that specific moment?

DMS – I think people do pick it up. If you send a scheduled tweet you have to be willing to react if somebody comments back to you. I think it’s OK sometimes to use a scheduled piece of content. I sometimes do a scheduled blog post, if I want to release a blog post at a particular time. I might do it myself. But it’s a good idea to make sure that if you do that, that you’re prepared if somebody comments that you can comment back, if they tweet back to you that you tweet back to them.

However, I think what’s really important is that every day, every hour, every minute there is something happening in social networks that you can comment on. So if your only strategy is to think two weeks ahead of time, you’re not living in the moment, you’re not living in “right now”. It’s right now when things are happening. So I think that companies who are only focused on long-term planning are much less successful than the companies that create content and use social networks to create information that’s going to be valuable right now.

LF – In that perspective, what kind of professionals do you think should be doing social media and content. Should the companies do it themselves? Should they hire someone specifically for that job? Should they hire a web company, an agency? It’s so new that people don’t know yet how to organize that part of their strategy.

DMS – I think that the most valuable person you can hire for your company is a journalist. I think that companies should all have journalists on staff. I actually think having a journalist is more important than having a marketer. So what I recommend to companies is that they hire either a former newspaper reporter or a former magazine reporter or even a former broadcaster or somebody who does television.That should be the person who creates the content. I’m not saying that should be the person who is active in social media. Maybe you could have somebody else active in social media. But a journalist is the one who should be creating your blog posts. A journalist is the one who should be creating your research reports.

Again, like I mentioned earlier, the most important thing in content marketing is you need to create content that is valuable for your audience. You need to be a storyteller. And a journalist is a professional storyteller. So I think companies should have journalists on staff. Either full time, if you’re a larger organization, or you if you’re a really big organization you can have many journalists. If you’re a smaller company, you can have a part-time journalist that you pay on an hourly basis or once a week. But that’s the right person to create content.

LF – Something that I notice here in Brazil is that people tend to focus on social media as the solution. In the past year and a half we have had social media courses, specialization courses and MBAs in Social Media. We have social media professionals and social media agencies. It seems like the use of social media is more important than the content that is created. Brazilian companies hire what we call coolhunters or trendhunters more often than journalists, writers and copywriters. Have you observed this in other countries? Is it because both things: content and social media, are so new?

DMS – Yes. I think it happens because it’s so new. And I think that companies that really dig into it realize that hiring people who aren’t skilled at creating content is not going to work effectively. By the way, you mentioned copywriters. Copywriters are the worst people to be creating content. Because they are people who are good at talking about products and services. And products and services are not the right thing you should be talking about when you’re creating content marketing. So the right people to hire are journalists.

You do need to have somebody to help create your social media strategy and execute with social media. But like I said earlier, there’s a combination of creating great original content and then sharing it through social media and that’s incredibly effective. Much more effective than just social media by itself without the content creation.

LF – In a perfect world all companies will try to communicate with their clients the best way possible through the internet. How do you think companies and public figures can stand out, when you’re competitors are already doing a great job at communicating with their clients?

DMS – I don’t think every company is going to do this. Just like every company doesn’t do television advertisement, every company doesn’t do other forms of marketing. I think that for a very long period of time going forward, everybody who creates great content will be rewarded because there are so many different marketplaces out there.

Anyone of us is in a niche market. We create some particular product, and we may have some competitors, but  when people are looking for our type of product the goal should be to just be the best content marketers to create the best information in our particular marketplace. You don’t have to create the best information in Brazil, you just need to create the best information about automobile tires – if you’re in that business – and that’s a lot easier than trying to compete with everybody. I think there’s room for great content, just like there’s room for many newspapers and television stations. I think there’s room for many companies to create great content.

The perks of dreams

What do I want?

Some people dream of building a balloon. They want to travel the world or maybe just next door. Some want to cure cancer or AIDS and some just want to get rid of myopia. There are a few who dream of playing at the World Cup and others wish they can be healthy enough to play ball with their friends next Saturday. Some people dream of dancing like Michael Jackson and others just wish they could loosen up at a party. Some people want to pilot planes or run for Formula 1, others just want to be able to pay for this year’s family vacation or trade their old noisy car for a newer one.

Some people dream of having 5 kids, some are happy and fulfilled with a few nephews. Some people want to be rich, others just want enough. Some people want to swim at the Olympics, others wish they could see the sea for the first time. There are some who want to live to be 100, others wish their loved ones could live forever. Some people dream of having a million friends, others prefer as many as they can call every week. Some people don’t want anything and there’s all kind of people out there.

Some people wish to be loved, others are afraid to be touched. Some people dream of hearing their first I love you, some wish they hadn’t waited so long to say it. Some people dream of having the wedding of the century, others are happy living their entire lives just having that one person to talk to every day. Some people want to be big, some dream small. Some people want to grow up, some wish it hadn’t happened.

What do you want?

What I want, I will.