Joel Johnson: The Interview
Creative agency relationships, the psychology of client stuff & Gawker Media writers: Context Collapse #147
In this issue: Catching up with strategist Joel Johnson about Scope Creep/Positioning strategy/Gawker Media’s legacy/Distinctions between marketing, advertising and PR/AOR relationships/Corporate culture+More.
I just had the chance to catch up with Joel Johnson.
Joel’s a brand and communications strategist who writes the Scope Creep newsletter. He primarily works with Fortune 50 companies like IBM alongside growth-stage startups. He previously worked in the journalism world with Gawker Media, Wired and others.
I met Johnson years ago when I was working as an intern at Gawker Media in an entirely different post-9/11, early-stages-of-broadband-internet media universe.
Since then, he’s been up to… well… some very interesting media and PR stuff. And I’m very happy he agreed to sit down for an interview.
Neal Ungerleider: For the readers: Who are you. What is Scope Creep?
Joel Johnson: I am a strategist. Heavy emphasis on brand and positioning strategy, both in reputation—how people feel about my clients and their brands—and revenue funnels. But really what I am is a counselor: I try to help people get out of their own heads and build plans that will leave their company smarter and more successful.
Scope Creep is really two things so far: my attempt to write a first draft of...well, not a book exactly. A pamphlet, maybe. A small set of essays and worksheets that can be read by founders and other non-marketing leaders to really understand what they should expect from their marketing investments and, more critically, what headspace they need to be in to be a collaborative client.
It's also become a place where I write about things happening in brand and comms without all the gloss of the industry trades. I started my career as a reporter and writer, and it turns out that I only have one mode when writing in public.
NU: With that said... How do you help people get out of their own heads and build plans that will leave their company smarter and more successful in a brand/positioning context anyway?
JJ: There's not one approach here, because every client is human and thus insane in their own way. Although there are some commonalities, which is sort of what I'm aiming at when writing the essays to first-time founders. But two things give me the best shot at helping: a client has to be comfortable having their presumptions challenged, which takes a great deal of trust in each other; trust that has to be garnered in quick fashion, often before a formal scope is signed.
The other is having clear boundaries up front: clear end dates; what feedback is useful and what I will be cheerily ignoring; and understanding that the outcome—often "just" a strategy, some documents, a presentation—is my best attempt to give them a plan that can be put into action, but by definition can't be the reality they and their team and the agencies and resources I connect them to will be living through for the next six to 18 months.
(I could go on here about the psychology of client stuff but don't have to.)
NU: That's a really, really good answer. Thank you.
So we first "met" (and I use that word very loosely, as in being CC'ed on emails you sent) back at Gawker Media in the early 2000s, a journalism industry lifetime or two ago. Looking back, what do you think were the biggest legacies of the Gawker stable of blogs, 2022-speaking?
JJ: Oh lord.
My keyboard doesn't have enough plastic and my therapist doesn't have enough emotional strength for me to really give this a proper answer.
But without being too pat, I think the only important legacy of Gawker Media were the hundreds of writers who got their start there, most of whom are still working as writers today. That's not me trying to be generous or take an easy out, either.
I think that's the only unalloyed good that Gawker Media contributed to modern publishing. But in the "It's Complicated!" category, we basically validated the model of internet publishing by which the majority of words-based media operates today. We missed video completely, out of fear and incompetence.
We institutionalized several rhetorical, shame-based gambits that broke important stories while also creating the template for much of the cruelty of outrage culture that's with us today not just on "fun" social media but in politics. And we proved in several verticals—in technology and other enthusiast categories—that there was a gigantic audience of people who were hungry for subjects that were previously considered too niche, especially when reported in an approachable, low-bullshit way.
We failed more often than we succeeded, but when it really worked... We proved that journalists could be flawed, weird, complicated humans in public right alongside hard news.
NU: Fair, fair. That question also leads to several possible tangents, but since we're here to promote your newsletter let’s skip that today.
JJ: Someday I want to read what you think of Gawker Media's legacy! One thing Gawker people all have in common is that we all thought Gawker was way more important than it was. The curse that was necessary to write so stridently!
NU: So what I'll add for myself, on record, from the Gawker Media years is that it taught me how to write under pressure, it was an exceedingly fascinating journalism boot camp but also taught me some work habits that... weren't the best... that I had to unlearn in the following years.
It also had a very transformative (good and bad ways!) role in the ecosystem that set a lot of tone and stylistic templates that lasted waaaaaaay into the present and I mean that is what it is.
Which, looking at it now, was a good segueway for this question:
How do you make (is it even possible?) a meaningful distinction between digital marketing, PR and customer outreach in 2022?
JJ: It all depends on altitude. Overall—the "brand" level—it's all basically doing the same thing: trying to convince a customer that giving you their money will be their best chance at joy, relief, or more money.
The fact that at a brand level it's all the same thing now makes many business operators angry. Especially when they are trying to solve a specific problem and then some asshole like me comes in and starts telling them that Actually, all of us are starstuff. We are all connected. But it's a subtle yet critical understanding: it all matters. But it matters in order of priority.
Customer service I'll put aside for a second. I care about it deeply, think it's hard to do but morally right, and one of the first things that fall apart when customer success teams are valued as less important than, say, an engineer.
But that tends to fall under Operations and doesn't always have a lot of margin to play with as it is a cost center in a quarter-by-quarter sense, despite its pretty easily measurable impact on LTV. But marketing, paid channels or whatever, can be balanced alongside PR, owned channels, stunts...everything you have to account for in its creation, its ongoing maintenance, and its impact.
Almost without fail, one of the outputs of my strategy work is just a channel strategy. Not the creative ideas per channel, but a recommendation about which channels to light up in what order, which ones to ignore or leave to civilian communities, or which ones that you might not ever need to use at all.
That's really the crux of what I do: take the ridiculous number of channels and different ways they can be used, all the hopes and desires of leaders and staffers, a practical understanding of what your real first-order revenue model is, and then knock them away one-by-one to end up with a Step Two.
NU: That makes sense. Do you have any tips for getting agencies and in-house marketing and/or comms departments to play well together?
JJ: It really depends on the terms of the relationship. Have you ever been in a meeting with a creative agency for, say, a new visual identity system or a television commercial? The vibe is so different. The agency tends to be treated with a bit of awe. The clients get flown in from their everyday workplace and get taken out to dinner, get to talk to smart people, classic Madison Avenue stuff, except Don Draper has a full sleeve of tattoos.
There are reasons why all that client services magic is something you need to be wary of. But the power dynamic is pretty balanced.
AOR(agency of record) relationships—how most PR agencies operate—are much trickier. It's sub/dom. Comms departments rarely get the respect and participation they deserve inside their organization.
That disrespect and abuse often rolls downhill to the agency partners, at least from bad clients. In my experience, there two things that can help if you are the client, which together might seem at odds.
The first is to bring in your agency partners basically as members of your team. Give them full Slack access, invite them to every meeting you can get them into, ignore any instinct to say "We don't want to treat you as a 'staffing agency." You're hiring them to supplement what you can't do in house for whatever reason. Treat them like a staffing agency!
The other, paradoxically, is to give any agency with an ongoing relationship clear goals they can reach with minimal in-house participation. Let them run down a creative idea without your step-by-step feedback. Trust them as experts and counselors, at least if they've got the chops.
But reality is usually more complex than that, and there are times when clients are just not good matches with an agency. I haven't been engaged to do many of these jobs recently, but there was a period of time where I was being hired specifically to repair agency relationships with clients, which was often literally marriage counseling.
And sometimes I had to tell a client that they'd picked the wrong agency and they needed to get a divorce to save the children.
NU: Next question (and last one on my side): When you switched from journalism to comms and marketing, what were the most important things you had to learn? Was there anything you had to unlearn?
This is a great question, and one that's somewhat hard to answer, because in the decade since I went fully in the service of capitalism, I think I've grown a lot as a person and collaborator.
I hope that would have happened inside journalism, but if I had to guess it probably wouldn't have.
The hierarchical nature of corporate cultures has been humbling, and it took me several years to tease out when I needed to show deference or just shut the fuck up, while not losing the confidence to speak up when I felt strongly about an idea.
Funnily enough, I've almost come full circle: I've made specific choices about how to structure my career so that my disadvantages can be more advantageous, not just to me but to clients. And to learn to trust in myself to know what is normal bullshit that everyone has to deal with in corporate cultures and what is actually novel, malicious, or misguided bullshit and give myself permission to speak up.
But the most critical thing I had to unlearn was the presumption that working in "the business world" is easy. That was sort of necessary mental hand-wave I had to do to stay in a critical mode as a journalist, but not one that I actually believe in. Don't get me wrong—many jobs are easy and many people are bad at them—but doing good work, with other people and partners, is extremely hard. As hard as journalism. (At least good journalism.)
NU: 💯. Anything you want to add? Any other things besides Scope Creep you want to plug or give the readers a heads up on?
JJ: I've talked about me plenty here. But I read recently how you got a lot out of Rick Webb's book "Agency" about what he learned as a co-founder of The Barbarian Group, a relatively small but very influential creative agency that came up in the aughts. (I really like that book, too.)
So I'm going to plug Rick's Substack, the Webb Chatham Report, which has very little to do with marketing but a lot to do with his music tastes, his garden, and his actual-factual life. It's good old fashioned blogging and I enjoy it very much.
NU: Joel - thanks again for agreeing to do this. I appreciate it.
This interview was conducted via IM in August 2022. Some light edits were made for formatting purposes.
AOR = Agency of Record. This term has slightly different meanings in the advertising, marketing and PR worlds but typically means an agency with an exclusive contract with a client to provide services. In many cases, a company may have different AORs for digital marketing and public relations, say, or different AORs for different divisions inside the company. This frequently, as you might expect, leads to turf wars and complicated corporate politics!
I first came across The Barbarian Group via Burger King’s Subservient Chicken microsite in 2004. It was one of the first times I saw something on the internet that made me go “Dude, I wish I made that.” Later on, they threw some very fun SXSW parties I went to. There’s apparently an oral history of the parties, which makes perfect sense in retrospect.