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Sports history is littered with superstar athletes who became underperforming managers. Wayne Gretzky, AKA “the Great One,” the best hockey player of all time, never made the playoffs in four seasons as a coach. Five-time NBA champion Magic Johnson resigned from a brief stint coaching the Lakers after losing 11 straight games. Diego Maradona, perhaps the best soccer player ever to live, led Argentina to their worst defeat ever—a 6-1 humiliation from Bolivia. The list goes on and on.
“Just because you’re the best at what you do doesn’t mean you understand how to coach,” says Hannah Cameron, Director of Content Marketing at Affinity. “When you look at NHL coaches, almost none of them were superstar players. But they know how to get the best out of superstars. Once we separate strategy from execution, you start finding stronger leaders.”
The difference between IC and managerial work matters to Hannah. Traditionally, content teams have sat under demand generation or product. As a shared service, they didn’t need a strong leader. But that’s starting to change. Hannah is part of a new generation of content leaders building independent teams.
Hannah’s team operates as a standalone department within Affinity’s marketing org. She reports directly to the VP of Marketing, rather than a director of demand gen or product. Her team is a strategic partner, not a tactical service.
The transition from order-taking sub-function to autonomous department hasn’t been easy for content leaders. It represents a meaningful break from the status quo and requires people to step into newly created leadership positions.
I caught up with Hannah to discuss the realities of leading an independent team, why the best content leaders aren’t necessarily the best writers, and how perceptions of content are changing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When you’re under demand or product, you have a VP or director. You can go to them and say, “I'm overwhelmed. I need help.” They'll advocate for you. But when you're an independent team, if you do not have strong leadership at the top, you get swallowed up quickly. You end up working for everyone else because there’s no one advocating for you.
I'm fortunate that Affinity has thought this through and sees the value in leadership. But I've been at other companies where content is the only department without a director, senior director, or VP.
The other thing is, if you don't have a firm grasp on what makes content important at that company, it can be terrifying because you’re on your own. You must prove that you are valuable to your company. You can't rely on demand or product doing that for you.
You need to know what metrics matter. At the end of the day, it's not pageviews and bounce times and exit rates. Yes, those matter to content and I use them to help decide our content direction, but when I'm speaking to executives, I report on a different set of metrics. I have to tie our work to revenue.
As much as I want to tell our executives that we hit a million pageviews, they won't care. They want to know that I brought in 32 users this week and that I'm going to increase our user acquisition to 500 users a week. They want to know that most new users went on to this product page or that demo page.
You also need to balance the needs of multiple teams with your own. Remember, those team leaders have probably worked at companies where you work for them. They might not understand why you are refusing to do work for them. You have to advocate, but not be a bully. You have to empathize, but not be a pushover. You have to do all of this while also strategizing and managing a team.
Content professionals have been stuck as CMMs for a long time. There's a lot of people waiting for their next step. Companies can find great directors of demand. They can find great directors of product. Content leaders exist. They’re out there.
I find it weird that demand and product have all of these titles but content doesn’t look past CMM. I asked why that was the case. Why does demand have manager, director, VP, and C-suite while content has just CMM? They said, “Well, you guys have nothing to do with revenue. It’s easier to get titles and funding when you directly impact revenue.”
I was really annoyed at that answer.
I said, “I'm going to tell you a funny story. Demand wouldn't do anything without the content we wrote. Product wouldn't get half of their shit shipped without the content we wrote. I resent the idea that we don’t impact revenue.”
But the reality is, we haven't been given as many opportunities. If you’re looking for a director of content, I don't know if you'll find a seasoned person. But you’ll probably find a CMM with the right thought process and mentality.
I might upset a lot of CMMs with this comment, but great content leaders need to see themselves more as strategists than writers. Find the best strategist and logical thinker. Find the person who knows how to structure and plan and get the best out of people. That's where it gets tough. A lot of times, recruiters aren’t looking at it right.
I've been in interviews for director roles (not this one—Affinity was amazing) where they asked for a writing sample or a blog test. Absolutely not. It’s not that I don't write. If I need to, I'll roll my sleeves up. But you're not asking the right question. You need to ask: What is your 30-60-90 plan? What are you going to do when you come in? How will you differentiate content? What hires should we make? If you’re asking a director to write blogs, you're just putting a title there for the sake of it.
Great content leaders are out there… But companies don’t know how to find us.
People are gonna get mad at me again, but the worst leaders are the ones promoted out of seniority. It's like, “David, you've been here six years. You should be the leader now.” They're usually a high producer. What they end up doing is demanding too much from their team, taking on too much, and not understanding their team’s struggles. All they want to do is produce, produce, produce. They want the credit because high producers tend to like praise. I've been a high producer, and I loved praise, but it doesn't make you a good leader, because you're not focused on your team.
As a leader, your voice and name cease to exist. Now, the praise goes to your team. It is your team that is doing the great work. It is your team that's achieving amazing things. You have to put yourself behind the scenes. I'm here to get the best out of my all-star team. Sure, they probably won’t remember the leader, but that’s fine. I'm here to win championships.
People assume the next step for every IC is becoming a people manager. At a previous startup, my manager left, so they appointed this other person to take their place. He was the manager of the whole team, and he fucking hated it. But he didn’t have a choice.
You need to build IC pathways. You shouldn’t force people into managing so they can keep progressing. I advocate heavily for ICs having their own pathways that run from entry-level to executives. You should be able to be a VP with no direct reports. That should be the norm.
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