This blog is part of Brandpoint’s ongoing interview series where we talk with marketing professionals about their career, their unique opinions about the industry and some key advice they’ve learned along the way.
Jennifer Zick planned to start her own business in a few years.
Then she lost her job.
After thinking for a couple of weeks, she decided to take the plunge. In March of 2017, Jennifer launched Authentic Brand, a content messaging and brand strategy agency, and it’s been a wild ride ever since.
She’s a talented, strategy-minded marketer and during our chat, she was energetic, enthusiastic and, yes, authentic. In the interview, we talked about how to turn a content marketing strategy into action, how to create content that matters and how to master the invaluable practice of setting and managing expectations.
Nels: You were a marketing consultant even before you started Authentic Brand. What has changed since then?
Jennifer: Everything has changed. My first foray into consulting was really just a bridge between jobs. I had worked at a startup web development company, learned a ton and knew I wanted to expand into marketing and technology. But I didn’t have the next role lined up. So I freelanced for a while until I sort of networked my way into the next opportunity at what would become Magnet 360.
Back then I was 23 years old, had about two years of marketing experience, and thought I knew it all. I had a great gig freelancing for a year between gigs. But now with 20 years of experience under my belt, I know how much I didn’t know. And that’s probably the biggest difference. Age and experience teaches you what you don’t know and gives you perspective on what you’re good at and what you’re not.
In building Authentic Brand, I’m not looking to be a solopreneur. I’m being really purposeful about building a company that does meaningful work and creates meaningful careers.
N: Do you remember the moment you realized you wanted to build a business?
J: I have some qualities of an entrepreneur, and I’m willing to put a lot out there. But I’m not a huge risk-taker in every area of my life. There was a phase in my life when my husband and I were building a family, raising children and felt that a good, steady job was the right place to be. And I was fortunate to have a great job and really love the work I was doing.
But I always had this desire to start something of my own. I had been planning that, in two to three years, I’d go for it. But the role I was in got cut and the company went through a lot of changes in that time. So suddenly, I was at a crossroad I didn’t expect.
I had a decision to make: Would I get another great marketing job, or would I take the plunge? It took me about two weeks to think about it and I just couldn’t get it out of my heart and mind that this was the right time to go for it. That was February of this year … just 9 months ago … and it’s been a great and very affirming adventure ever since!
N: Why did you decide to start an agency as opposed to being an independent consultant?
J: There are two ways you can be your own boss. One way is to feed yourself by consulting and networking your way into a book of clients. Which is an amazing way to do it.
But one thing I know about myself is that I’m a serial extrovert and that I perform better when I’m part of a team, not just the client’s team, but a team of my own. I enjoy the hands-on work I get to do with clients as a consultant. But I know I’m even better at building a big idea and assembling a team of really talented people to go after it.
N: I had an interview with Kristina Halvorson, an author and content strategy consultant extraordinaire. She said that she doesn’t solve content problems, she solves people problems. Have you seen a similar pattern in your work?
J: Yes, I totally agree. Until the futuristic AI robots take over (wink wink), content will always originate with people. The problem with most of the content that I see in the market is that even if it’s well written, it’s not saying anything truly meaningful or unique. It’s corporate jargon, not human-to-human communication.
One thing I focus on is helping clients move from “What” messaging to “So What” messaging. Whether you’re selling to B2B or B2C or even a complex stakeholder group, your message has to be relatable. The clients I see struggling with this the most are those so focused on growing their business in the market that they tend to lose sight of their message. Their message looks like all of their competitors and they don’t address why it matters for the buyer.
If I’m your buyer and go to your website and read your content, do I feel like I’m looking in a mirror? Do I see my issues reflected in your content? If the answer is no, then the messaging needs some work.
N: How do you create a message that resonates with the organization you work with and their clients and customers?
J: When we do message strategy workshops, I engage the internal group of client-facing employees who have sales and delivery responsibility at the leadership level. That usually means the CEO, the head of sales, a marketing director and a head of delivery or product. I also might include the top two or three sales reps. I get those people in the same room and go over the content strategy.
These key stakeholders own the client-facing message. If they don’t help shape it and don’t really believe it, I know it’s going to fall off the cliff.
Another key ingredient is client interviews. If they haven’t taken the time to understand why their clients chose them (or why missed opportunities passed on them), that’s usually a sign that there’s an issue as well.
All these elements are important because a messaging strategy shouldn’t just be on the marketing team. If you’re developing a real, consistent authentic brand story, everyone in the company — the executives, HR, marketing, fulfillment — needs to believe it and work toward telling it.
[Related: Want to really get to know your customers? Learn how to build a bulletproof buyer persona.]
N: What’s the toughest part of being an independent consultant?
J: For most of the consultants I know, the hardest part is making the decision about whether to be an independent consultant, or build a business because they take very different paths. For me, in these early months especially, it’s really important my clients don’t see themselves buying Jennifer Zick’s services. It’s something bigger than that. I’m certainly very hands-on right now and I love that work. But it has to be bigger than me and the client’s trust needs to extend to the other partners in my network.
It’s difficult to grow. Because that means maxing out my own capacity while also developing proven processes and models to serve my clients. Paying myself is easy but investing in a company to grow is a bit tougher.
In the early days, it was really hard for me to let go of the reins. But once I realized I wanted to build a business and developed a process I knew worked, a lot of that stress went away.
N: What’s one of the most common marketing challenges that organizations are dealing with?
J: This has been a really interesting learning process as I’ve grown this business. My first few engagements were centered around a strategy. But what I’m learning about a lot of these small- to mid-sized businesses who don’t necessarily have robust marketing capabilities is that these strategies are only as good as their capacity and ability to execute it.
You can have a beautiful brand narrative and even campaign and persona strategies. But if you can’t take that information and build out a cohesive and focused content plan, it won’t get very far. It might end up in a sales deck or on the homepage. But then what?
Once I recognized that was a real struggle, I started partnering with some of the best digital folks in the cities to help my clients put that plan in action.
There’s also a tremendous information gap when it comes to marketing technology like marketing automation. At a previous role, I asked my head of marketing how we were going to produce all the content to power our marketing automation program and his response was, “My understanding is that this tool will really automate those functions.”
I was shocked. Even though marketing automation technology has been around for quite some time, there’s still a HUGE learning curve among both small and large organizations about the roles those tools can play and what kind of additional resources it takes to power them.
[Ready to put your strategy in action? Download our free editorial calendar template and get crackin’.]
N: How do you take a plan and turn it into “so what” content?
J: A lot of it isn’t rocket science. When we put together a marketing plan, we borrow a lot of principles from EOS (entrepreneurial operating system). We map out what the vision is, what the concrete goals are and how we’re going to measure it.
But we also add another couple of pages that outline a 12-month commitment — the type and volume of content they’re committing to over the next year plus any necessary external resources or training — and what the budget is. That helps clients step back and really align their goals, their intentions and their resources.
N: From the looks of your website, you’re creating a LOT of Authentic Brand’s content. As someone who’s extremely busy building a business, how do you prioritize the content you create?
J: When I was a corporate marketing leader, content creation was a huge part of my role. So it’s easy for me to default to content creation and I would do that all day long if I could. But the reality is I just can’t. My client work is my first priority.
So now, content creation is an opportunistic thing for me. When I have a chance to create something, I do.
N: I see a lot of community service content on your blog. Tell me a little bit about that.
J: At Authentic Brand, our first value is service. “Serve others first.” That’s what led to the creation of Two Or More, which is a community service movement that I launched at the onset of my business. Every couple of months, I organize my network and we all swarm around a community service project. It’s a great way to combine valuable networking and relationship building time with giving back to the community.
It’s really powerful because I know how much it costs these people to leave work for a few hours. So to have them involved in something like this is really special.
N: What do you see as the most overrated content marketing tactic? Underrated?
J: I’ve had the opportunity to experience marketing from within a company as well as a consultant. The most overrated approach is that there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for any business. I’ve sat in on a lot of different marketing conferences that drive this “you can’t compete unless you’re doing XYZ” type of message. And that’s just not true.
When I worked at Magnet 360, our marketing plan didn’t include a lot of the standard demand generation practices that were critical for the consultancy I joined afterward. Business leaders are inundated with the message that they need to do this certain thing or be on that particular channel.
Sure, it’s important to use the channels you have available to you in the right way to reach your audience. But effective marketing starts at a much more foundational level than that.
When I work with clients, we’ll always take a peek at their top three to five competitors, but we’re not going to obsess over what they’re doing. The last thing you want to do if you’re trying to break through the noise is build something that looks like your competitors.
N: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
J: It may sound cliche, but for me it’s the golden rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. Be honest and consistent and treat people well. Say what you will or won’t do — and then follow through.
N: What is your 2018 marketing resolution?
J: Plan ahead! I want to map out my Two or More events a lot farther ahead of time. Another resolution is to actually put together my own content plan and put it on the calendar. I spend a lot of time helping my clients understanding the importance of putting it on the calendar but have a hard time prioritizing that kind of planning for myself.