I love your story.
You’ve got one. Everybody does. Storytelling is what makes people people, and it’s what makes organizations succeed or fail.
For 40-odd years, I’ve been in love with stories, and I’ve spent a lifetime building structures to help people tell them.
My wife and I try to attend the Union Gallery’s annual fundraiser every year. It’s called Cézanne’s Closet; the format is you pay $100 for a ticket, and about 100 artists donate work to the gallery. You browse before the event, and then ticket numbers get called at random. If your number comes up, you pick a piece of art to keep!
It’s a ton of fun, especially as a couple — there’s always an interesting evaluation-and-negotiation phase to hit on pieces we both love.
This year, though, our #1 was identical when we compared notes: Wrong Turn at Point Pleasant, West Virginia, by artist Darby Huk.
We were chuffed! Darby’s a Master’s student at Queen’s University, and we could hear her on the Zoom call for the gallery event, so I knew she was in town.
Unbeknownst to Marisa, I reached out to her after the event and asked if she’d be interested in a commission of two more paintings to make it a trio of sorts (I don’t think this is technically a triptych, but I’m calling it that anyway), keeping with the “cryptids and vices” theme. Fortunately, she was into it! So we bought two more paintings from her…
¡Cumpleaños! Puerto Rico
Girls Night, Douglas, Wyoming
Together, they look like this…
Again, we’re super stoked! Now we just have to figure out where we can clear some wall space…
In a role where I’m part director and part do-er, I keep a very active hand in everything from composing Tweets to writing five-year plans. I came up through the business as a mutt, with everything from community radio to professional journalism to strategic marketing under my belt.
But among all the past experiences, I think comics writing has been the most valuable.
It was never my job, in the sense that it was paying me a full-time salary. At the best, I got pizza money; for the vast majority of my work, nothing but the joy of doing it. There was one time where a creator-owned series I did got optioned and was being pitched around for a prestige TV adaption, but that’s a story for another time.
But the joy was in the doing, as my friend Adam reminded me recently.
It was also in the learning!
I legitimately believe that every creative person should try comics, for a while, at least once. Not just one page, and not just writing, but the whole process. I’ve been a writer for 99% of the comics I’ve done, but have tried my hand at full process at things like 24 hour comics jams. I was a very good artist when I was in the third grade, peaked in the fifth grade, and think I can now draw about as well as most fifth-graders. It doesn’t stop me from making comics, and it shouldn’t stop you either.
At the moment, though, let’s talk about marketing, writing, and writing for comics.
What does writing for comics teach you?
Economy of language
This is tops. Especially in some formats of comics. I’m in the process of moving a decade of a daily strip I did with my good friend and brilliant art madman James Duncan to the blog. It was a M-F four-panel comedy strip that was also a serial story, about a man who was bitten by a radioactive man and gained the proportionate abilities of a man. It was called Man-Man.
Here’s the thing about a four-panel daily strip: it has to be punchy. You have four panels a day to tell a story. Given panel size constraints, you really shouldn’t have more than two people on a panel, sometimes three. You shouldn’t have more than 10 words in a word balloon.
So — while it never paid in money — writing a long-form serial adventure, that unfolded in four panels a day, where there were never more than two people speaking at once, and only speaking in bursts of 10 words or less — it paid in experience.
I am a wordy SOB, and this was hard. Bleed-from-the-eyes hard. It was not, admittedly, super funny sometimes (that’s on me, not James). But expressing what needs to be expressed — and striving to end in a joke every day — taught me in immeasurable amount about compact writing.
Never tell what’s showing, is essentially the golden rule. If a character is pulling a gun, having them say “I’m pulling a gun!” is pointless. If the artist has invested the on-panel action in the gun-pulling, he’s freed you up to have that character say something else entirely. It can be prosaic and additive (“I’ve been waiting five years for this, Tompkins!”), or show disassociation (“Nice day for a picnic, isn’t it?”) or even lunacy (“The banana people live under the stairs!”).
Point being, getting a handle on how text should complement image, and not be redundant to it, is critically important. Text can even contradict an image, for some sort of jarring narrative effect, but it’s another form of economy that comics teaches you real fast.
The passage of time, and scenes
Scott McCloud, certified genius and comics-maker, talks about this a lot in his book Understanding Comics, which I’d argue should be in every creative’s library. The space between comic panels (“gutters”) contain fungible amounts of time and movement, and every unit of comic (panels) can leap through time at the speed the author desires. I’m mildly mangling the word “fungible” here because it’s kind of an exchangeable commodity, in that you can choose to have the gutter or larger panels, and the division depends on how you want the passage of time, or a split in locations, to be perceived in the narrative — going full comics nerd at this point, sorry.
It’s a low-cost, intensive way to really understand how time works in narratives, and a great way to cut your teeth for future video production. Will your next shot be the next moment in a sequence, or five years later? Will your next shot stay in the same place, or take you to a new location?
I call everything I do “storytelling” in internal conversations, which I’m sure makes some of my colleagues think I’m a pretentious weirdo sometimes. But they are! Every social media post is a story. Every news item is a story. Every research profile is a story.
Comics make you tell stories while thinking on that image/text mesh plane. Above and beyond that mesh, you’re also thinking of beginnings, middles, and ends. This isn’t exclusive to comics, but it separates the good’uns from the bad’uns: what’s your act structure? What are your impact points? What do you need a full-page splash for, versus a tiny inset panel?
Tell a story in 24 pages of nine-panel grids. Then tell a story in a single page with 12 small boxes of art and words. Then tell a story in a four-panel comic strip. Then in one big image/text combo.
Once you can get ideas down in a single panel that have a beginning, middle and end, and marry compelling art with prosaic text, you’re ready to write a tweet. Or film a killer Tik-Tok minute. Or even write a 3,000-word feature, but mindful of what pictures you’ll need at the other end to make it sing.
The project that broke me was a crazily ambitious series called Rise, Kraken! that at one point had a group of agents for an international crime organization called Kraken trapped in a facility with killer panda bears that spoke through Speak-n’-Spells grafted to their chests, being pursued by an army of hundreds of howler monkeys. At another point, zeppelins were being taken out by weaponized War Tubas. I haven’t put it up on the site yet because I need to find the art (and ask the artist for permission to post it). I wrote an adaptation of Captain Blood, the classic novel of piracy, with full-on multi-ship naval battles raging throughout the narrative.
More than any other medium, comics let you think big. As much as they force economy in the word balloons, there’s an infinite canvas of ideas and space you can draw on. There is no better training ground for the imagination.
The infinite budget is trapped within a confined physical space. Usually something about as big as a letter-sized piece of paper. Sometimes just a comic strip. Sometimes a two-page spread. Your omnipotent powers are trapped in a box of a certain size, and you have to deploy all of the above skills — mastery of the economy of language, the word/text mesh, the passage of time and space — to have the infinite idea translate into a very finite space.
Learning to work with artists
Comics artists are not in it for the money. It’s a notoriously difficult profession to break into and stick with. Also true for writers, but while a writer can write a comic in a few working days, it takes an artist at least weeks to draw one. So the investment ration in the writer:artist relationship is way out of whack.
Since writers are also conventionally the “idea people,” it’s frankly a weird dynamic. Sometimes you luck out and find an artist who is completely in sync, and totally committed to the bit, and you take it as far as it goes.
Often, though, the artist — stops. They’ve found a better-paying gig (or a paying gig, period), or they’ve lost interest, or there isn’t a payoff to the project that seems evident and they want to focus on other things. Unless you’ve got a lot of money to pay them to follow through on things (I didn’t), you can’t really fault them. You can cajole, wheedle, promise, negotiate — but you’re ultimately powerless in the hands of another to see something get to fruition.
It gives you a ton of hands-on experience in sharing an idea, inspiring somebody to get on board with it, and then being as consistent and reliable as humanly possible on your end to ensure they get what they need to succeed. Some artists need things explained in complete detail. Others much prefer “I need a fight scene here, and it has to end like this.” You learn to work with all sorts of other creatives, from the affable to the temperamental.
[This is a bit of a demarcation line -- from here it’s less “what can you learn from working on comics for a bit” to a more diarist “what did I learn from a decade-plus of beating my head against a wall”. You can skip down to the end if you want to avoid the maudlin bits.]
Learning to pitch
This is getting a little far afield of what anyone can learn by doing comics for a while. But part of the process when I was trying to make a go of it was pitching comics companies, large and small, to see if they’d be interested in what you were doing. In retrospect, I think all of this would have been much easier if I’d been in a place where I could form relationships, instead of in Sherbrooke, Quebec for the bulk of this part of my life.
It was, again, a tremendous skill to learn. How do you package something to get somebody’s attention? What do publishers need to know vs what audiences need to know? How do you sell something with a 2-3 sentence email that entices somebody to take the time to open and read the attachment? It’s its own art, and concurrent with working as a copywriter, then strategist with a national ad agency, it was a good art to learn.
Learning to fail
You may have noticed I’m not a professional comics writer. Which is fine — with time and some tempering, I can even admit to myself now that if I’d been given the opportunity to pursue it, I’d be a solidly b-list writer: probably pretty good, with solid ideas and sound writing, but not up there with the Alan Moores and Grant Morrisons, Dwayne McDuffies, Kelly Sue DeConnicks, Tom Kings, etc. I would have been fine. I would not have been great.
Through one lens, my comics-writing “career” was a succession of failures — good ideas that never found an audience, drawing-board projects that never found a publisher, amazing ideas that never found the right artist to even push through the pitch phase.
The “coulda, woulda, shoulda” has been painful at times. Even loading old projects onto the blog (and I’m not even 10% there — I did a lot over almost two decades of striving) is bittersweet. No fewer than four of my former collaborators have their own Wikipedia pages now, which feels weird. My wife had to see me through a legitimate identity crisis about five years ago, when we went to a comics convention in Toronto and I ran into a few collaborators who were cutting their teeth at the same time as me and are now thriving in the industry.
For a very long time, though, I would get myself up, dust myself off, find as much passion for one project as I had for the last, and plunge back in. The “final” project was one I truly believed would set the world on fire, crashed and burned when the artist involved just decided to stop working on it with no further explanation, and that… capsized me. That was the hard stop — I haven’t written for comics in the decade-plus since.
Not the passion, though — that just started to go in other directions. Creativity at work, other personal projects — even, eventually, this thing right here. There’s no shortage of outlets for the creative spark if you’ve got it and want to invest it somewhere.
But I learned a ton from not succeeding. Every non-success was its own learning process, and contributed to all of the above — economy of language, an understanding of the mesh of art and language, developing a relationship with the passage of time and space. It also built scar tissue, and the ability to put disappointment behind you and move on to the next thing. There’s always a next thing.
In short, make comics
It doesn’t have to be a big thing. But you can do it today! Now! Grab a sheet of paper, draw some boxes, and have Stick Person 1 go on a little adventure. Think about the infinite possibilities inherent in that blank page, but also the tremendous constraints of that physical space. Hell, just take a bunch of panels from an existing comic and draw over the word balloons. But get in there and experiment. See how the words mix with the images and complement (or contrast) them.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a favourite phrase of my grandfather Shepherd’s — “the lazy man’s burden.” I’m not sure of its provenance, but he’d use it whenever we were visiting the cottage and he’d see me or a sibling staggering down the hill from the driveway, trying to carry too many things, dropping things and having to stop and pick them up, and so on.
It would have made more sense to make multiple trips with fewer items, but we were lazy. Staggering under the burden.
“The lazy man’s burden” — struggling with an unnecessary load, rather than doing a little more work that would have resulted in less effort and anguish overall.
Laziness on the brain
It’s been an exceptionally busy year for a normally busy job, and I can feel a certain… haste start to creep in around the edges of my work. Decades doing The Work has given me a sixth sense that starts to whisper you’re cutting corners in the back of my mind.
And sometimes cutting corners feels good. You’re getting things done! Knockin’ stuff out of the inbox! Ticking things off the list! Yeah!
On the cottage porch in the back of my mind, Grampa Shepherd, smoking his pipe and shaking his head, is rightly pointing out that the lazy man is creating burdens:
First — fast work sliding into sloppy work.
When I work fast it gets things out the door, to be sure.
But it’s an invitation to mistakes, and undoing a mistake is a massive investment of time and labour, not to say a significant loss of face. Deleting and retweeting a tweet, editing a Facebook or Instagram post, replying to comments saying “actually…” — it’s a lot more work than taking the five minutes to take a breath and compose something well would have been in the first place.
Second — production over people.
This one is more insidious. I work with highly gifted teammates, on both sides of the management structure. Amazing staff, great bosses.
The immediate instinct to just get it done or just fix it without having a conversation of what’s being done and why — or talking through a task that somebody else really should be doing, then having them do it, work through issues, and have them get it right — once again, it’s the lazy man’s burden. I’m doing things not because it’s the best way. It’s just the expedient way.
The galling thing is that I’m not only creating more work for myself by taking on too much — see the first point — but I’m making a system worse by breaking it. And I’m robbing other people of the opportunity to learn and do. I work with remarkable people who are up to just about any task; not delegating and training to just “get it done” is a bad habit to get into, and harms more people than just me.
Checking my head
Like everyone in this work I feel burdened from time to time; that’s a good moment to head-check myself and ask if I’m burdened with good work, or if I’m taking on a lazy man’s burden, and it’s time to look at workload and pace. Doing the latter can be difficult. It should be — it’s the antithesis of the lazy man’s burden, and that means that’s the burden that probably should be borne.
Bonus scone recipe
I write these on Sunday mornings, and with a lovely day outside it felt like a scone kind of morning. These bad boys took about 40 minutes, pillar to post. Walnut pieces inside, some maple sugar sprinkled atop.
Preheat oven to 425, mix flour, sugar and stir-ins in bowl. Stir in coconut milk until just combined Turn onto floured surface, gently fold 4-5 times for even texture/not sticky. Don’t overmix. Add more flour if dough sticky. Dough should be a ‘lovely texture’, not sticky / not dry. Shape into 8-inch square, cut into 8 triangles using pizza cutter. Keep pieces together. Brush last tbsp. of coconut milk on top, sprinkle w/ tsp. of sugar. Bake on parchment paper, top rack, 17-20 mins. Let cool before reglazing (if desired).
Anyone who has grown up in a small village (I did) knows that all villages are weird, in their own Robertson Davies Deptford kind of ways, but this village is weird.
The strange thing about this village is how people talk to each other.
There are lots of people here: Joe, and Mohammed, and Jessica, and Fatima, and Desiree, and Matt (that’s me!), and Dr. Pebbles the vet, and Gord the butcher, and Linda the florist, and so on.
But nobody talks to each other. When they have something to say, they all go to one person.
She lives in the middle of the village, and spends all day every day conveying information from one person to another. She is Santa Clausian in her powers to flit from eye to eye and ear to ear instantaneously.
But — regardless of her speed and alacrity (or maybe because of it), she is the conduit through which all talk passes.
If Joe wants to shout to the rooftops that his dog just had puppies, he goes to her to spread the news. She is the gatekeeper for Fatima to share pictures of the pie she just baked. Gord the Butcher is having a sale on Bavarian sausages, a recipe passed down from his grandmother — he goes to this woman. And so on.
Nobody can hear from anybody else except through her.
She controls what everyone in the village sees. There is no way for one villager to talk to another villager directly, unless she instigates that conversation.
Her name is Allie Go’Rhythm.
Here’s the thing about Allie.
Allie is, as stated, the gatekeeper for all news in the village.
She’s also… unpredictable.
She might share Joe’s puppy with everyone in the village, but she might just tell Fatima (because Fatima likes dogs) or Mohammed (because Mohammed is friends with Joe). Or both, or neither. It depends on what other news reaches her ears that she thinks Fatima and Mohammed might want to hear.
Allie has some sort of complex internal system, which she discloses to nobody, about what she’ll share, and with whom. If you look at its patterns, it makes a certain sort of sense, but there’s also a certain lurking dread that Allie is actually just clinically insane.
She remains the sole conduit for news-spreading, however. So if Gord wants to tell the whole village about his Bavarian sausage sale, he must go to Allie. And Allie may, or may not, spread the news.
Here are a few other things we know about Allie:
Allie wants to make sure people only talk to Allie. She’s greedy that way. She doesn’t want them watching Netflix, or going for a walk in the woods, or playing Frisbee with their dog, when they could be talking to Allie. So when Allie is deciding what news to share, she looks at the past history of the person she’s getting the news from. Have people been interested in Joe and Joe’s life in the past? Are people clamouring for more Joe? If yes, Allie will gladly spread Joe’s news far and wide. People love hearing about Joe! If Allie is talking about Joe, people will want to talk to Allie. And Allie only wants people to talk to her.
But if the last five or six times she’s shared Gord’s sausage news, people have grunted and walked away… Allie’s not going to tell people about Gord’s grandmother’s recipe. Gord seems to turn people off. Allie doesn’t want to turn people off… she wants people to talk to her, and only her.
She doesn’t always tell the truth.
Allie has… a loose relationship with the truth and accuracy. She’s just sharing the news! She doesn’t make it. But if Matt’s wild stories about the mayor being a lizard person are getting people excited and engaged, and every time Allie shares a story about the lizard people theory the whole village gets hetted up and only wants to talk to Allie about lizard people — Allie loves it! She loves it when people talk to her! So she’ll happily share that news; if she’s called out, she might mention that the story seems a bit dubious. In some circumstances she might even stop listening to Matt. But generally speaking, Allie’s motivation is to keep people talking to Allie. No matter what. Allie’s really into politics, and controversy, and whatever keeps people engaged with and talking to Allie.
She spreads secondary as well as primary news.
Allie will also tell people how other people reacted to news. So if she only tells Fatima about Joe’s puppies, and Fatima doesn’t react, Allie doesn’t do much. She files it away in the “maybe Joe is boring and I should tell fewer Joe stories” pile. But if Fatima responds, then Allie judges Fatima’s reaction on kind of a sliding scale, and then decides which of Fatima’s friends to share her reaction with. A dry nod might not generate much. If Fatima smiles, Allie might consider sharing Joe’s news with some of Fatima’s friends. But if Fatima leaps up with a delighted laugh and claps her hands and says “how excellent for Joe!”, Allie will tell all Fatima’sfriends how delighted she was — and in so doing also share Joe’s puppy news.
The important note there — Allie is still taking in, parsing, and distributing stories according to her inscrutable Go’Rhythm ways. Fatima and Joe might be conversing directly about Joe’s puppies, in a conversation Allie instigated, but how other people learn of this news is still dependent on whether Allie shares it, or not.
So Joe is compelled to make his puppy news as thrilling as possible. He’s competing with Matt’s loony lizard people theories! That’s a tough act to follow.
She knows and cares about your networks.
Allie cares about what the people in the village care about. And who. People can declare to Allie that they want to stay on top of news from certain other people or businesses. And Allie will deliver their news faithfully, to a point… if Mohammed says he’s interested in what Gord and Fatima have to say, Allie will share Gord and Fatima’s news faithfully with Mohammed. But if Mohammed declares he is friends with thousands of people, and following hundreds of businesses, Allie will fall back on her “boring/not-boring” dichotomy to decide what Mohammed needs to hear.
Allie can be bribed.
You can pay Allie money to have a much higher chance she’ll spread your news. She still might not! But she’ll at least consider it, and she only makes you pay for the news she actually spreads. This does not, however, affect Allie’s current opinion of you and your stories as “interesting and worth sharing” or “boring and not worth spreading.” Her contractual relationship to spread your news is totally disconnected with her daily news-spreading routines.
What does this mean?
We all live in the village. For whatever reason, the vast majority of us are here.
And we’re all subject to the whims of Allie Go’Rhythm. Our relationship with Allie, and our dependence on her, has had a number of consequences.
Our communication has drifted, over time, from detailed to symbolic. Busy people want to get as much news from Allie as quickly as they can. Allie wants to keep as many people interested as she can. So if we want those people to react when Allie shares news, and ensure Allie keeps sharing our news, we have to make that news as dramatic, arresting and exciting as possible.
In some ways, that makes us better communicators: more succinct, more mindful of getting to the core principle or point of things.
In other ways, that makes us worse communicators: sacrificing nuance, context and depth in favour of impact.
It also puts communicators into a terrible state of dread and uncertainty. We can tell Allie things, but we can never be certain who she’ll share them with or why. We make decisions about what news to share based on what news Allie likes to spread, not what news is important to us… or we choose to take risks on Allie’s largesse and tell the stories we think need to be told, and hope they find an audience if she chooses to share them. We run contests and hold events just to get villagers to tell Allie they like us, in the hopes she’ll share our news with them.
Here’s where it gets especially weird.
There’s more than one Allie.
There’s more than one storytelling network in this village.
Allie Go’Rhythm actually has a number of sisters, and they all run their own story-sharing systems. Some people like Allie T. Go’Rhythm more than Allie F.B. Go’Rhythm, others prefer Allie L.I. Go’Rhythm.
But all members of the Go’Rhythm clan share the same core attributes: they are the sole intermediary through which news gets to their network. They all want you to talk to them and never do anything else — especially not talk to another Go’Rhythm sister. Well, Allie F.B. Go’Rhythm and Allie I.G. Go’Rhythm are actually twins, and — that’s a whole other thing.
They’re also all slightly different, so telling Allie I.G. Go’Rhythm something that she spreads far and wide might have radically different results with Allie L.I. Go’Rhythm.
What’s your relationship with the sisters?
Do you spend your time courting one Go’Rhythm sister, learning the intricacies of her likes and dislikes, or do you woo all the Go’Rhythms at the same time, knowing that what works with some might not work as well with others?
Do you spend money on one Go’Rhythm because you think she talks to the villagers you want to reach? Or all of them? Or none?
When one of the Go’Rhythms has gone sour on you and your news, do you aggressively pursue her to win her back, or do you focus on the others, trusting that your natural charm will winnow you back into her good graces?
These are not questions with answers. Anyone who claims to know the Go’Rhythm sisters to the point of absolute predictability is a liar, or a fool mistaking good luck for pure knowledge. Some people have a better idea than others, and some have invested time and study to develop a very good sense — and even then, only a sense — of what a particular Go’Rhythm sister might like or do. But the sisters are fickle, and may change their own internal logic at a moment’s notice.
This is the village.
This is where we live; you can generously look at it as where we choose to spend time, or more negatively as where we’re all trapped. Ultimately, though, it is a choice, and it’s one that almost everybody has made at some point.
We all live here with Allie. Allie’s not going anywhere.
So we’re all finding ways to work with her and her sisters; changing what we say and how we say it, hoping to find favour, claiming genius when we do and cursing our bad luck when we do.
This is the village. Population… call it about four billion. That’s a lot of people.
All clamouring for Allie’s attention and good graces.
We work for managers, and clients, and bosses. We work for satisfaction and achievement and triumph. We work for good causes and for financial gain.
But at the end of the day we’re all working for Allie.
Any higher education marketing & communications shop combines two vital mandates: being a strategic unit, and being a service unit. Running optimally, you’re both making decisions about how to plan and shape a long-term marketing and communications mandate, but also handling requests, triaging emergencies, and helping other units who need expertise or support.
Somewhere in the mix lies decision-making: occasionally proactive, when you can sit down and take a breath and look at what’s coming and plan appropriately. Usually, though, reactive — you’re getting a lot of requests for coverage or support, you’ve got finite resources to provide it, and you’re making allocation choices about where to put your resources. You need to get as much attention as you can muster, using as few resources as possible.
It’s time to use the F-BOMB.
No, not that f-bomb, and you knew that already. It’s a goofy acronym*:
F-BOMB isn’t perfect, but it’s a good rule of thumb for juggling ideas and priorities. Breaking it down a bit more… let’s look at these, and also talk about burritos, because I like burritos.
Essentially “new”, but “N-BOMB” doesn’t work. Is this something you’re doing ahead of everyone else? Breaking new ground, blazing new trails? Newness is great! It’s a chance to display innovation and novel thought while distinguishing yourself in a crowded world. Are you the first burrito joint in town? Fly that flag!
Where are you superior? Ideally in an area where people are genuinely interested in your superiority. Any time you can make an honest claim that you’re ahead in your field, that’s a good place to go. If your burritos are quantitatively the best, or even qualitatively, tell people why you have the superior burrito.
This, and “most,” get deeper into the areas where you really need to do some research and make sure you’re “only” in an area where people want what only you do. I could be the only person in town who sells burritos made from ground beef and bell pepper stuffed into used gym socks, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.
See above. It’s a good claim, if you’ve got the most of something people want. “Most” doesn’t have to be tangible, but if you move into non-physical spaces “most” and “best” get kind of interchangeable. “Most” also risks moving you into vanity metrics that don’t actually mean anything at all… when your correlation to “most” isn’t an absolute, but a qualifier like “per capita” or “per square foot,” watch out: you might be effectively saying nothing at all: a two-house, one-business town where the sole business sells burritos might offer the most burrito restaurants per capita of any town in the world, but it still shouldn’t be a tourist destination for burrito fans.
Got nothin’? The Hail Mary pass is to look for things that other people do but nobody talks about and hurl the ball in that direction. Every burrito restaurant in town provides free guac, but if you’re the only burrito restaurant advertising free guac, for a little while, at least, you might as well be the only one doing it.
The F-BOMB is also combinatorial
If you have more than one first, you can take the F and work your way back down the list: FBe is better than FO, FM, or FBl. If you’re the best in several areas, BO is better than BM (yes, I see it too) or BBl. And so on.
This is not a replacement for an actual marketing and communications plan! It’s just a fun thing to look at when you’ve got a lot of options in front of you and have to make a command decision. There are a lot of factors that go into your decisions, but F-BOMB is a tried and true starting point for fairly reasonable decisions.
*as distinguished from an initialism: you can pronounce an acronym. “FBI” is an initialism, “NASA” is an acronym. “CIA” is an initialism, and somehow “CSIS” is an acronym. And so on.
Wrapping it up, it struck me that we’re dealing with bidirectional symbolism. On the brand stewardship front, I think this is a fairly straightforward proposition. A university or college’s brand boils down to just a few highly charged representations: a crest, a school name, a set of colours, the name of their sports teams. What people think and feel when they see the crest or hear the name is the essence of brand stewardship.
MarComms and the Journey to Symbol
I want to break down the marketing and communications journey from the thing to the symbol a bit more, however. If you asked me what marketing and communications was all about, I’d say something along the lines of getting the right information to the right people at the right time, in a way that attracts and keeps their attention.
Re-parsing that sentence in the context of symbol generation, though:
getting the right information to the right people at the right time, in a way that attracts and keeps their attention
This applies to pretty much every aspect of the thing, but taking research promotion as a f’rinstance, let’s walk through the path from The Thing Itself to the symbol of the thing.
Let’s talk about cows.
There are about a billion cows on Earth right now. That’s… that’s a lot of cows. It’s a mind-boggling amount of cows. It’s an abstraction of cows; if I try to think of a number of distinct cows that I can hold in my mind at one moment, I could probably get to 40 or 50 concurrent cows that I can maintain, mentally. A billion cows is a lot more cows than that.
So what happens if you’re promoting the research of somebody who is researching cows?
Before you even get to marketing and communications, you’re forcing the Reality of Cows through a number of abstractions.
Start with one billion cows, and the totality of what those cows represent. Height, weight, feeding habits, milk and meat production, environmental impact, religious and cultural importance, cow subtypes, evolutionary history of cows, ethical considerations around cows and cow farming, cow behaviour and social structures, domestic v. wild cows… there is so much to cows.
But, we’re going to take the vast totality of one billion cows, and push it through the lens of a single field. What area of endeavour is approaching the totality of cows? Anthropology? Engineering? Socioeconomics? Philosophy and ethics?
From there, we’re going to pick an area of focus within that area of endeavour. A researcher looking at the environmental impact of cows’ methane production based on feed type.
It’s an impossibility for a researcher to research all billion cows individually. So we have to have a set of cows that the researcher can reasonably find or gather data on.
Then, we’re confined to the data that is actually collected.
The researcher — subject to the limits of funding, capacity, and the strength of data — will write and present findings that condense the totality of gathered data into some sort of paper or report. This may, or may not, make it into an academic journal.
Crossing the MarComms Line
Assuming something about the paper is noteworthy (and really, all papers are noteworthy, if you look at them hard and can take a creative view of talking about research), a news piece or press release further condenses the research into a short, public- or specialist-facing piece of content that abbreviates the paper into a digestible short read.
The story is, of course, accompanied by a dazzling visual, or short video, which represents a key concept or very high-level points as presented in the research.
But we have to get people to the story, so a social media post that takes the most powerful idea in the story is pushed out onto the fast-paced worlds of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Maybe somebody makes a rad TikTok about cow research!
The key element of the social post isn’t the text — sorry, writers — it’s the image or an even-shorter video that can get somebody to stop scrolling and listen up. This is often a reworked, condensed, or cropped version of the arresting image mentioned above that was developed for the story.
And the above points are forced through their own concurrent lenses of social media best practices — algorithmically, you’re rewarded or punished based on post engagement, so the juggling act is a constant tension (there’s that word again) between trying to maintain loyalty with the upstream complexity, and the need to push out something that’s gonna get hella likes or watch your social platforms collapse.
Good social media presence — which is one of the pillars of responsibility in this role — means using language, images and approaches that drive social media engagement, and doing that without compromising the integrity of what you’re speaking about is an exercise in compromise as much as creativity.
So — through a series of steps — we have reduced one billion cows, and the totality and vastness and complexity of cowness, to an animated cow GIF on TikTok over that “Oh No” audio snippet. Or, in a tortuously tall image (sorry, phone-scrollers):
Each step moves you from the total reality toward symbolism. The tension, obviously, is in finding the symbol that best preserves integrity of the original idea but also functions as an arresting symbol that can engage attention and curiosity.
But each step also invites higher levels of interpretation, and demands more of the audience to move them from symbol to each escalating step of reality, culminating most often in my world with the news piece, and sometimes — ideally — with people checking out the actual research.
This is a good time to shout out my Ryerson English professor, Roberta Imboden (RIP), who largely abdicated most of a Canadian Literature course one semester to talk to us a lot about Jacques Derrida.I still don’t really get Derrida profoundly (sorry, Roberta), but having even a baseline understanding of deconstruction and what it means for work to exist in a dynamic and collaborative relationship with the reader, rather than simply being in a constant “push” state, is maybe one of the most important things I learned in university. Lives of the Saints was also a real good book.
Symbolism isn’t front of mind for me in the daily, but maybe it should be more — the nature of representation, reduction, and the steps of complex compromise that go into knowledge translation. It’s a vital part of the job. I think I might look up some sort of Derrida refresher this week.
Something I think about a lot is the fact that higher education marketing exists in a space between two overlapping and seemingly contradictory sets of needs. It’s a tightrope (which is admittedly an overly dramatic image; it’s more like a line on the ground, but that’s no fun to draw). You’re balancing two things: marketing, and brand stewardship, which exist in tension with each other in some important ways.
Thing 1: it’s marketing.
Marketing is inherently disruptive. There are as many ways to describe marketing as there are grains of sand on a beach. One of them is that it’s about making sure the right people know the right things at the right time.
That means you have to get the right people’s attention at the right time.
1a: Content with stopping power
Standing out means doing things that aren’t expected. To break expectations and halt somebody mid-Instagram scroll to force them to take notice.
That’s inherently risky. Because when something is new, it’s different. And when something is different, it requires interpretation. Interpretation means you’re inviting gaps in understanding, and the gaps are where the danger is.
1b: Simplifying the complex
It also means condensing things. I can write 10,000 words about how our school is the best school, in excruciating and accurate detail. I can’t drop that on Facebook and compete with a cute puppy or political outrage for stopping power. What’s the one thing people must know? How do I express it with as much impact as possible?
So you need to condense. Condensing moves you from the thing to a symbol of a thing… and we’re back to interpretation, and the hazard that people won’t interpret things in the spirit you intended them.
Thing 2: it’s brand stewardship.
This is inherently opposite to marketing. You need small-c conservative, hundred-year thinking. Ensure that you’re taking as few risks as possible that may damage your brand in the eye of your stakeholders.
I articulated this a bit in the risk ladder note a few weeks ago. But while the brand ladder shows where risk resides and where it should be tolerated, it doesn’t really capture the fact that the whole ladder lives in dynamic tension from rung to rung.
Brand stewardship overlaps marketing
The obligation to safeguard the brand actually has primacy over the marketing mission. So while the initial Venn diagram has marketing and brand stewardship overlapping, the marketing thought actually more accurately happens inside the brand stewardship circle:
Getting back to the ladder metaphor, brand stewardship tilts the ladder downward, if not lying it down flat. The appetite for risk to achieve the best possible marketing is subsumed by the need for caution in the brand space.
There’s some flex here — imagine the external circle growing and shrinking according to the mandate. A newer institution, without the benefit (and weight) of a lot of venerable history behind it, can take more risks. A new program at a venerable institution is in a middle ground where the program hasn’t accrued an identity that needs to be maintained, but it still exists in that larger context.
So what initially seems like an overlapping Venn diagram is really a contained one. It grows, it shrinks, and in vanishingly rare circumstances the “marketing” circle might eclipse the brand stewardship one.
Interestingly, and something I don’t quite have the brainwidth to unpack right now: both are really about symbols. Marketing reduces complex sets of information to compact communication units, moving them closer and closer to symbolism. Brand stewardship is about ensuring the smallest unit of information: a logo, a name — carries as much power and weight as a symbol possibly can. So one need drives you to symbolism. The other need is about preserving and adding value to an existing symbol. Hmm.
Obviously, this is not impossible to reconcile. It’s actually kind of fun to work through these challenges. This is where having a strategy is key. You need to figure out the marketing who/what/when/how, but you also need to figure in a creative approach that is disruptive inside a larger brand context.
It’s a tightrope, but people walk tightropes. They do it because it’s challenging, and fun. When you pull it off you’re doing something kind of amazing and dazzling the crowd. You get on the tightrope because you want that challenge. And while it’s scary while you’re walking it, it’s profoundly rewarding every time you get to the other side.
I’m working on my LLM — a Master’s in Law — at the moment. It’s… well, it’s a lot, to be honest, even at one course a semester on top of a pretty consuming day job. But I’m learning a considerable amount, and leaning into it as something that overlaps with work.
LLM apparently stands for “Legum Magister”, meaning Master of Laws, and if you, like me, are very bothered by the fact that there is an extra “L” in there, apparently in Latin you indicate plurals in contractions by doubling the letter, which doesn’t seem right but I guess we’re learning Latin now too.
The LLM “flavour” I’m pursuing is five advanced law courses and a mini-thesis; as somebody without a law degree (JD or LLB — there’s that double L again), it’s been a bit of frantic dog-paddling to grasp some of the context and premises of the courses, but I’m getting there. After a couple of false starts (an interest in puffery, notionally, which kind of turned out to be an academic dead end, an initial paper topic in the legal incongruity of legislation on video game loot boxes, which turned out to be a bit more tangential than where I wanted to take this degree) I feel like I’m on strong footing taking courses that overlap with my professional space: privacy, copyright, hopefully trademarks soon, and/or patent law.
The course formula, more or less, rotates around a major paper (25 pages, ~8K words); it’s a lot of work, but I definitely get the pedagogy; it forces me to really dig into one aspect of the topic, and do a tremendous amount of research and writing on it. To date, I’ve completed a paper on last term’s course — privacy — and am currently whacking away at the paper on copyright.
In the interest of professional overlap, I’ve been looking at things that dovetail with what I do for a living. Last term’s paper, on privacy law and photo consent, actually turned out to be darned interesting, if I do say so myself — the notional idea of privacy in public, and how we seek and manage consent in photography and video at the day-to-day level in higher ed marketing.
I’m not going to share the paper here — my professor wants me to work on it a bit more, and submit it for publication in legal journals, and I gather that the making available of drafts is frowned upon in the circles that I’d be submitting it to.
But — spoiler! — we marketing people are not that good at law stuff.
There are a bunch of reasons for that:
First, there’s a lot of law to wrap your head around. PIPEDA, in Canada, is the most critical piece of legislation, but it’s under review right now with a major overhaul tabled last November. It’s federal, so applies to the entire country. But there are also provincial schemes, in Alberta and B.C., which have their own nuances and spins on legal privacy. Ontario is considering its own provincial privacy scheme as well. Quebec, as a civil law jurisdiction (the rest of the country is common law), has its own approach to laws and even its own charter of human rights (where a lot of privacy stuff resides), and is also currently looking at a bill to overhaul its provincial privacy statutes.
Second, there’s not that much action in the courts, or even in tribunals. One of the long, slow discoveries about the law for me is that it’s generally pretty elevated and really moves from abstract to tangible when something hits the courts — public or private. So what we understand of privacy legislation, PIPEDA, etc. is statutory, vague, and in many cases actually untested or not well-tested in the system. When the law is clear, it’s clear, but in one of the many areas where it’s kind of vague, clarity will only be achieved when somebody tests that vagueness, which means (a) somebody has to do something questionable, (b) somebody has to object strenuously enough to take it to the Privacy Commissioner or a similar provincial body, and (c) the Privacy Commissioner has to do something about it.
So while we’re not talking Mad Max levels of anarchy here, things are a lot… fuzzier… when you start poking at the law than I ever expected before I started studying it.
As for privacy last term, so for copyright this term… as a quick f’rinstance, I’m working on a paper on copyright assignment, and trying to figure out how students on placement from a college fit into the schema of “contract of service / contract for services” in terms of automatic copyright assignment to the employer. The intuitive stance is that they’re “employed,” but there’s actually more ambiguity than one might think.
If they’re on the kind of placement where they partially set their own hours, and especially if they use their own equipment (more common in this, the era of pandemic-related remote work), and if for some reason their placement duties overlap with something else they’re doing as a side hustle (say, a student who is working on photo assignments as a placement, but also setting up their own professional photography business on the side)… suddenly there’s the Sagaz test, and the status of their copyright assignments becomes a bit more dubious.
“But aren’t they apprentices, as defined in s13(3)” of the Copyright Act?”, you ask. “Show me the legal definition of ‘apprentice’ in the context of the Act,” I reply. And then you’re down a rabbit hole of “how has the term apprentice been defined in law in the past in Canada?” Is it strictly reserved for government-recognized, trades-related training programs? Or has the colloquial understanding of the word found meaning in the courts?
And until somebody takes it to the mat, pointing at a placement student in front of a judge and saying “this should be considered equivalent to an apprentice in the context of X,” and a judge decides, and any appeals on that decision are quashed, we don’t really know where a “placement student = apprentice, in the context of the Copyright Act” argument will land. It could be as simple as a judge saying “no, dummy, we’re defining ‘apprentice’ according to the Income Tax Act, and what a dumb thing to bring up”, but there’s a non-zero chance that a judge could read a broader interpretation of ‘apprenticeship’ into the drafting intent of the Act.
Which is what makes the law a pretty fun thing to study, but also a pretty frustrating thing to try to figure out. If you like absolutes, this is not a great space to be spending a lot of time in.
So — in the interest of keeping this reasonably brief (and getting back to writing that copyright paper, and the other Business of Sunday), I can park this at “law is hard.”
But! Writing this, I realize there’s a lot of space (and work) in the privacy/consent area I could and should be unpacking, so you can expect more of that in this space. I can’t run my paper here, but I can certainly revisit the themes and ideas — and law — that it unpacks. More on that! Soon!
Here’s a terrible truth: outside of the 40-ish hours I work every week, and the morning I spend writing/drawing this thing… I don’t think much about marketing.
Yet another terrible truth: I find “24/7/365” marketing culture kind of unnerving.
I’m legitimately a bit jealous of anyone who has found their jam to the point that it’s all they want to do or think about. Since about the age of 12 and my first paper route, I’ve never gone more than a week without some sort of job… and I’ve never found a “love what you do” profession to the point that I’m ardently chasing or thinking about work in my free time.
Other people have written more, and better, about the constructed realities of online life and social media, exacerbated by a pandemic pushing us all a little more toward digital over the last 12(!) months.
I’ve certainly noticed that my feelings of constant guilt over not being marketing-minded every minute of every day have been exacerbated by Facebook and LinkedIn. The steady drip of Type-A high-performers continually broadcasting triumphs, sharing articles, pushing white papers. It feels like if you’re not on the treadmill, you’re getting left behind.
I definitely feel like I’m being left behind.
I scroll through social media with a lurching dread rising in my gorge that everyone else is working harder, being more brilliant, doing more.
But… countervailing that fear, and outweighing it… I also don’t feel like making my life about just one thing.
It’s a consequence of having a magpie mind, and more interests and ideas than I can pursue in three lifetimes. I’ve made some furniture and designed some t-shirts; I’m pursuing a Masters in Law. I cook a lot, practice the banjo, obsessively tag a ridiculous music collection, canoe, build hobby websites. I’ve done radio shows and podcasts. I’ve written bad drafts of books I never finished. I own and operate the world’s smallest art gallery.
Point being: when I’m off the clock, I’m off the clock. I don’t read about marketing. I don’t watch documentaries about marketing. I don’t listen to podcasts about marketing.
I avoid the marketers writing for marketers who read about marketing and then talk about marketing with other marketers.
It’s a Moebius strip: it connects to itself. It’s a closed ecosystem.
And I suspect people like me are the ones injecting new ideas into that space when they return to it.
In other words: I think studiously avoiding thinking about marketing when I’m not being paid to think about marketing… makes me much better at marketing.
What am I doing today, after this? I’m not sure: possibly re-reading Dan Slott and the Allreds’ exemplary 2014-16 run on Silver Surfer. Maybe trying to do some make-up cooking after a disastrous curried-tofu-couscous experiment from the other night. Possibly shopping for a frame for some amazing artwork from a friend. Probably working on a paper for a copyright law course I’m taking this semester. Tonight, Sunday night movie with my wife — her turn to pick, I have no idea what’s going to happen there.
But… not marketing.
And what am I going to bring back with me on Monday? I don’t know. But I’m getting new inputs. From time with my family and friends. From nature. From all sorts of media — music, books, comics, video games. I think the lateral connections bring something that the direct connections don’t. And — ergo — not doing marketing is good for marketing.
So — a bit of self-reflection and self-therapizing here, but also a permission slip for anyone else who feels a sense of lurching dread when they look at all the 24/7 marketing minds whirring away out there, and wonder why they’re not wired that way, or feel like they’re being outpaced.
It’s okay. It’s better than okay, it’s good. We need people to forage out into the wide world and bring the new things back.
As much as some goofball on the Internet with a blog can sanction you to think about and do other things, I sanction you. I’m waving my hand in a weird way and saying something vaguely Latin. You have my blessing and best wishes.
Go forth and do not think about this stuff for a while.
Risk management is a tricky business. Heck, risk is a tricky business — I bought and read a book on the subject a few years ago (The Science of Fear, but titled Risk when I bought it).
It was an eye-opener — a lot of things I’d intuited but never really understood laid out plain, with the general takeaway that as story-driven people, we perceive risk on a very different level than risk exists at.
It’s important, initially, to understand that there’s a massive tension at the heart of marketing for any great institution.
Marketing is by its nature disruptive. It’s meant to get and hold attention, and doing things in exactly the expected way, as safely as possible, is not a good way of doing that. You capture attention through innovative and different ways of doing things.
Innovation, and difference — are risky.
This makes marketing and communications in higher ed a perpetual engine of contradiction: you succeed by being innovative and disruptive, but are beholden to steward a brand and story that can be hundreds of years old, with stakeholders spanning older alumni, major donors, government, the worlds of science and the arts, the local community, prospective students, current students… and more besides.
In higher ed, I’ve been coming to realize that part of the risk aversion is due to the breadth of the stakeholder base, and also that marketing and communications means a lot in this context.
It’s a very broad idea that gathers a lot of types of thinking, and they sometimes get bundled as a single understanding of risk — and consequent processes — than separated out into constituent parts with their own risk profile.
I’m thinking about that, and thinking about ladders.
Ladders are risky; the higher you climb, the worse you can fall.
But the higher you climb, the more you’re laddering. You can reach more, see further… every rung up the ladder makes it more ladder and less… tiptoes or stepstool.
What if we were to look at the range of activity like a ladder? Some things mean climbing higher and chancing more to do them well. Others — stay close to the ground.
Awards / events
The funny thing about the ladder is that I keep trying to conflate activity types with channel types, to the point that I think there’s a whole separate question here to look at: must certain channels be riskier than others? It feels like social media has to be more daring to cut through the noise / clutter / amazingly entertaining things out there, while web-based or print journalism can be a bit more stoic.
I’ve carved it up as story promotion and storytelling above, which at a glance might seem incoherent. But I think there’s a less-risky, more-staid “story” on the site, or in print, but what drives eyes to that story — on social media, or elsewhere — needs to be a bit more marketing-ish to succeed.
This is a bit of a bolt from the blue moment for me, as I realize I’ve actually settled into a pretty static view of storytelling myself; I’ve been thinking of the full-story-to-social-media spectrum as a continuity of the same thing, not that the social media component is actually advertising for the story it’s sharing… it’s a subtle difference, but it feels profound the more I think about it.
There’s also an audience ladder that I think lives next to the activity ladders, organized roughly and unscientifically according to how much moxie I think goes into reaching them across the board:
Prospective grad students
Prospective undergrad students? How are you going to tell them you have the best theatre program in the country in a way that competes with Twitch livestreams and TikTok?
And so on down the chain, in frankly a slightly ageist way (sorry); alumni squarely in the middle because they encompass such a broad range of ages and interests; The Concerned being that specific set of people that are agitated about a very specific issue that crisis communications needs to manage. They may be all over the map demographically, but the crisis at hand is not the right time to get innovative in how you’re addressing it.
The central point being — I think risk is ill-understood everywhere, but there’s a conflated sense of risk in higher ed, and people outside the marcomms sphere will assume that when you’re stewarding a mighty, generations-old brand, the risk aversion mentality of the lower rungs of the ladder should be applied to everything.
Which is — well, safe, which is I guess the point, but it means you never get to climb.
One tactic I’ve used to have risk conversations in the past is a causal chain approach: acknowledging that there’s a level of risk in what you’re doing, but asking the other party to unpack with you where the risk actually resides. Is there a high probability of a negative outcome, or is a negative outcome the result of a series of increasingly improbable events?
What’s the negative outcome they’re worried about… and, step by step, how does one arrive there? Sometimes there’s a probable risk — and change is needed — but sometimes you find that the path to the actual problem is so long, and so unlikely, that the benefit of a more readable piece, or more functional marketing, is worth accepting a very slight chance of a bad outcome.
It comes up when people conflate audiences — what if somebody on a lower rung sees something intended for an audience on a higher rung? It’s a legitimate concern, but in an increasingly crowded media world, are we evaluating that risk effectively and well? And what benefits are we losing by gearing higher-rung needs down to lower rungs?
An understanding of the ladder, though — that different things, for different audiences, may ask us to look at risk differently — that feels like a narrative I should try to advance in my conversations.
Getting back to the ladder metaphor, there’s a lot left there to unpack as well. There are safe and unsafe ways to use a ladder (I am, in the context of my organization, a certified ladder user, I have taken a specific ladder safety course and am now allowed to use ladders). There’s how you situate the ladder, what you lean it against, what it’s resting on… man, you can just ladder-metaphor all day. But I’m happy with the height/view/fall element for now.