To Grow Your Agency Blog, Find Writers in Unexpected Places

It's Not Always Writing Pros With the Best Ideas and Compelling Tales

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Please don't share this post with anybody at my agency. I plan to tell some secrets that I use to get our people to write for the PJA blog. In recruiting them, I've had to change my philosophy about what makes a good, or at least an interesting, writer. It's not always the writing professionals who have the best ideas or the most compelling stories to tell.

When we first launched "Bow + Arrow," the agency blog, back in the prehistoric days of blogging, we kept the talent pool to a couple of people, and I often had to twist their arms and cajole them into performing their civic duty. Not surprisingly, the heavily edited blog didn't show up on any top-10, or even top-100, lists. Basically it languished like a deserted plot of digital land on the Internet.

Then two years ago, just about the time agency blogs became totally blasé, I decided to rethink ours. We already distributed a lot of content through social channels, but I wanted to create a centralized destination for our ideas and expand the range of topics we wrote about. So, I set the goal to publish at least one new post every week. My motive was simple; I wanted a dynamic blog that in its totality reflected the culture and thinking of the entire agency. That meant we needed more writers.

Using peer pressure, and an occasional bribe, I signed up a cross-section of people from every group and level to post weekly for six months. I confess that I expected to get a lot of garbage, and I took some comfort in knowing that you would need advanced search skills to find us on the Web.

The results surprised me. People sent me their posts and unless they were inappropriate, or completely bizarre, I ran them. Good or bad, the blog offers an honest window into the personalities and life of our agency. Most impressive, people whom I assumed had no writing skills have written some engaging and original posts.

We've had people write about how to score good concert tickets, and what to do when your kid says, "Daddy don't do that bad advertising." The point is not that everyone is a writer, but rather that everyone has something to say. Here are a handful of insights about getting the best out of writers and non-writers alike.

Give people the freedom to write about whatever they want. This could include horrible bosses (at other agencies, of course!) and how much they hate commercials with babies . Passion trumps grammar and logic almost every time. People will also work twice as hard to express themselves about something they care about.

No matter how bad, or incomprehensible the first draft, tell people that you love it. You've got to keep the writer in the game, and nine times out of ten there's a diamond in the rough. All of us will work hard to improve a piece of writing that's got promise, but have little motive to fix something that's trashed from the start.

Celebrate the non-verbal. Even for an agency I'm surprised how most of us still approach all writing assignments like a traditional essay. Here's someone's visual take on the evolution of the creative brief.

Don't pigeonhole people. Everybody has a story to tell, a new insight or a strong opinion. By encouraging everyone to contribute, I've spotted talent I never knew we had. One of our developers had the bright idea to pay someone to write his post for him. Why didn't I think of that?

Make people famous, at least among their peers. I share every post with an agency-wide email, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and any other relevant social platforms. It's a great way to promote people who may be junior or introverted.

Every once in a while, I wonder if we're straying too far from our business mission, or I worry that a post might not be relevant to a public audience. Then I remind myself that the aggregate is more meaningful than any single post. It's the whole that reveals the character and talent of the agency. We all strive to differentiate our agencies, and if we're serious about that goal, we shouldn't shy away from what makes us unique.

I think that's what clients are paying us for.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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