Sunsetting the Tenacity5 Brand

I am publishing this post with a profound sense of sadness. Over the past six months, Tenacity5 experienced a lovely spike in growth. It was followed by an epic collapse while I was in Africa, creating a challenging situation.

Some of the issues had to do with client acquisitions and reorganizations, but I would be lying if I didn’t note that some of our own mistakes contributed to this situation. Though they have been corrected, we have been grinding through the current slump for several months. Now I have decided to sunset the brand at the end of the year.

My decision to do this lies in three factors:

1) We’re not making great money.
2) The work we are getting is tactical and not highly engaging (social media community management, blogs, white papers).
3) The amount of effort needed to turn the company around is extremely demanding for a middle-aged man with a family.

Frankly, any one of these reasons would not be enough to stop me. Even two might be worth grinding through. All three, however, have forced some deep introspection and a decision to return to independent strategy consulting short term; some photojournalism work; and a new, more enjoyable challenge long term. I guess tenaciousness has its limits.

Erin Feldman will inherit our remaining content marketing accounts and execute on them through the rest of the year (and hopefully beyond). She is a fantastic marketing program creator and writer. I want to thank her for all of her hard work over the past two years. Erin is literally the best employee I have ever had, and a tremendous team player. My hat is off to you, “Write Right”.

We will keep the Tenacity5 site up for any residual leads. Peace to those who have supported us during the past two years. I am grateful for our experiences together.


How a Landscape Impacts a Story

Earlier this month, I published my photography portfolio, and opened it with a gallery of my very best landscapes (five of which are featured in this story). I opened with landscapes just like I would most stories these days. Landscapes are one of the most popular photograph subjects you can see online. They also play a critical role in telling a remarkable written story for brands or individuals alike.

Creating hybrid stories that blend the literal word and the visual photo is not the easiest thing to do. When you consider articles and stories, they are often crafted by writers. Or they are published by photographers with few words serving as captions. The two together are rarely deployed well as a seamless rich media story.


Together, in a hybrid pictorial, photos compliment the written story by illustrating and expanding on it. The written words expand on the pictures by providing details. For example, the caption for the above photo might read, “Another dawn on the Potomac, how I start at least two of my days every week.” We move from a pretty picture to personal story, one that may or may not be about business.

Landscapes are central to both groups of media assets. They set the scene for the story. They provide a sense of context for where events are happening, either from a business perspective or on a personal level. A landscape can allude to historical context, and words can expanded on that story.

Opening Stories with Scenes and Landscapes

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A lot of people introduce stories with pictures of people. If it’s a business story, we see people at work or an individual person, a protagonist. If it’s a personal vacation, we see people at the airport. Perhaps they start their album with a picture of them at the destination. I personally like to introduce stories with landscapes sans people because it provides a sense of place.

Consider movies that take place in far away lands or in future periods. The first Star Wars movie opened with spacescape. This year’s critically acclaimed Fury Road started with the below epic desolated wasteland. National Geographic stories start with an epic landscape photo. Plays open with the a set scene, and then the actors walk onto the stage.

Fury Road Opening Scene

Instead of another dry story about a woman or man in their office changing the world for their customers, open up the story with an epic sunrise or sunset pic at the office building. Or take a great architecture shot inside the building. If the building is lame, wait until late afternoon and the sun comes in the windows almost horizontally, take an office pic then with no people in it. Set the scene.


If it is a vacation, set the scene with an opening shot of the place you are landing. Then put yourself in it. The above shot of Half Moon Bay was how I opened my Facebook sharing of our family vacation to Hawaii this year. We stopped first in California.

When I told the story of the Trans-Jordan Landfill for Audi, I opened it with a sunrise picture over the landfill. When I filed stories with the Huffington Post and with Triple Pundit on Africa (see header image) I suggested opening them with landscapes. In both cases the stories feature landscapes very early on to provide a sense of place.

The Pacific Ocean at Night

The same tool also provides a great way to close the story. By closing with the scene you are providing a cue, the visual fade to black. The above photo is from our last night in Hawaii this year. It’s the beach in Kona. I often think of it as the closing scene to our vacation.

It’s just my personal preferred method of storytelling. Every story works better with context. And a landscape or cityscape is one of the best ways to provide that context.

What do you think of the use of scenes in the narrative context?

Why Data Driven Content Fails Alone

Have you read any recent content marketing articles? Today’s articles feature shiny objects to distribute content through (hi, Snapchat and Periscope) and platitudes about impact. Largely trend pieces with statistics, they fail to help marketers grow and become better. Worse, the new account-based marketing trend — which is just hyper-targeted data-driven content marketing — focuses on precision provided by analytics, but not the technique used to create niche content.

To be clear, a marketer’s job is to connect with and compel people; usually, but not always, their customers. To do that, content needs to tell a good story.

In many ways, trends like social media tools and data analysis provide new powers for marketing, much like an electric drill works better than a hand crank. So we have a bunch of marketers walking around with power tools drilling holes in a wall hoping they hit the right spot. Even though they have data and the latest networks, they miss the mark more often than not. They don’t understand the wall and its dimensions. As a result, marketers destroy the wall.

What we have is a data problem. Too much focus on data and trends, not enough on creating compelling content.

To be crystal clear with this post: Data and trends in content marketing are nice. They inform creativity. They do not replace creativity.

Impact Requires a Story


Results in communications are contingent on compelling stakeholder groups — by groups of ten, by the thousands, or entire market segments. Regardless of where the content lies in a company’s user experience, it needs to impact someone’s journey. That is true of the consumer, that is true of the business stakeholder.

Why else would someone act? Buying is an emotional decision. If your content doesn’t create positive emotion for someone — even if it is just allaying fears — then you have a problem.

I love media and how it empowers us to communicate with each other. What I find most interesting is how people use those media forms to connect, and the outcomes these connections create. Why was that Periscope video successful? How did that article help someone come decide to engage with the “build your own” tool on your site? Why did that series of personal case studies increased conversions of your software product?

Stories. Content must tell stories or help people envision their own narrative. The media changes, the methods allow for more precision, there are more distractions now, but once you get someone to try your content, it has to compel them.

How Data Helps Storytelling, But Doesn’t Replace It

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Let’s use another analogy: Just because Google Maps can tell you the fastest route, doesn’t mean it can teach you how to drive. Your trip is not guaranteed to be timely, much less safe.

In my mind, data is beautiful. It provides a great deal of research to inform creativity. It points out who the customer is (demographics), what they like, and which media they use. In some cases, it provides insights into their behavior, concerns and interests with a particular brand. What more could a creative want? This information provides the means to create content that moves the stakeholder.

Yet when I am called into situations to analyze why a marketing or communications program isn’t working, I find that the tactics may beed tweaking, the data analysis needs improvement, but generally they are heading in the right direction. No, the problems come down to two primary groups of issues:

1) Lame content: Corporate messages instead of stories, dry style (e.g. it’s safe and uncompelling), antiquated style (for example long text with no rich media), no personal story or connection, no style, etc.
2) Poor distribution: Including lack of email, lack of native ad-spend, non-engaging social media, using the wrong channels, etc.

Poor distribution has always been an issue, and it is becoming an increasingly difficult one. I highly recommend you read Mark Schaefer’s Content Code if this is concerning you.

On the first issue, the actual content continues to be a problem. Style counts for a lot more than you would think. Data can always be used to better steer a communications effort, but the effort must be made. Data alone cannot deliver compelling media.

Storytelling Must Return


Whether you call it creative, design, writing, PR or marketing, we build narratives with customers. There are many, many useful methods of telling stories that have been discussed, and as many ideas out there (this one 2014 post features 200+ blog article approaches) as there are distribution methods:

  • Some use an advertising approach, using imagery to tell, and words to compel (Think General Electric).
  • Consider the traditional social media approach of first person experiential tales (Gary Vaynerchuk has to be the best at this in our business).
  • There’s third person journalistic storytelling (Adobe does this well across all properties).
  • You have wonky, funny joke telling (Hello, Captain Obvious!).
  • Others provide historical context (National Geographic uses historical storytelling to sell adventures).

These brands use available data to inform their storytelling approach and build something compelling to people. It’s not enough to create targeted brochureware for what they believe people need to hear.

Content really needs to interest and then resolve the stakeholder’s raison d’etre. This is French for reason of being. Why are they investing time? The content better fulfill that reason or the brand will lose the prospective customer. This ethos is at the heart of the current user experience trend driving branding and digital design.

Trends come and go, but corporate and marketing communications [oops, content marketing ;)] always lives and dies based on stakeholder response. Response is the ultimate metric that every manager ultimately judges a communications program by. No response means changes are in store, from the micro to the macro.

That is why it is so necessary to build a compelling story that creates response. This is true regardless of purpose: Launch or customer experience, micro account-based level comms or social network-wide (organic and paid). Marketers better tell a good story that the audience relates with instead of highly targeted noise.

Why Some Agencies Are Dying

I have experienced a crazy trend in the past six months, the client movement to have multiple and diverse agencies working together. Tenacity5 has already experienced five partnering deals with other agencies this year and it’s only July. I may have partnered five times total in the past five years preceding 2015.

Sharing the revenue pie is not something most agencies do well. However, some agencies are suffering as a result. Others are dying. They cannot adapt to the new collaborative approach clients are demanding.

My friend Patrick Ashamalla sent me this year’s SODA Report (see the below chart), which showed that highly specialized players are taking a larger priority. Pair this with the the whole “agency of record is dying” trend and you have a movement.


CMOs don’t want to hire a generalist firm to execute their entire scope of work. It’s not reasonable to expect a one size fits all agency will do a decent job on all of activities in a significant scope of work. CMOs don’t believe agencies that say they can do it all. In fact, they find such claims suspect.

The Collaboration Economy

Collaborate Well
Image Courtesy of Wild Blue Yonder.

Corroborating this trend was Gary Duke’s excellent Wild Blue Yonder research presented to DC Ad Club last week. Gary dubbed this the Polygamous Client trend, and noted it is spreading like wildfire across the Fortune 1000.

Those agencies who want to remain competitive need to become more agile, collaborative and highly specialized. Those who are not evolving and insist on the mass integrated marcomm agency role are shrinking.

“Agencies must take on a collaborative approach with other agencies because they simply don’t have any other choice today,” said Gary Duke via email. “It’s not only what clients expect — it’s what they demand of their agency partners. If it’s not in your DNA to play well with others in the sandbox, then you just better pick up your toys and go home.”

Of the agency efforts I have participated on this year, some have been super fluid and one in particular was a disaster. And in that case the primary partner clearly wanted all pieces of the biz, was not collaborative or transparent, and ignored other agency/partner recommendations in spite of a clear lack of competency in some project areas. No surprise: The relationship and overall initiative blew up.

The Nimble Agency of Now

Collaboration Scores
Image Courtesy of Wild Blue Yonder.

Jeremiah Owyang likes to talk about Crowd Companies, businesses that share resources on the Internet. Well, the agency business has not quite devolved to that point, though you could argue that companies like crowdSPRING have eroded the bottom side of the market.

CMOs want access to agencies or agency teams with wide spread resources, usually freelancers and other partners. That means an agency must work well with others, share scope, and bring on third party resources as needed.

In essence, they want more nimble partners who have access to diverse capabilities. They want best of breed in every marketing function. Integration is still needed, but instead of it being under one roof, marketing organizations want agencies that can assemble or play with assembled teams that possess superior niche skill sets.

These are shared resources in many ways. That means integration is a result of project management instead of scope or overall billing. Project management across diverse creative assets becomes a necessary skill for the strategy lead. Duke hammered this point home over and over again in his presentation.

Here are some steps I am taking as a result of this trend:

  • Building a diverse agency partner network to refer and garner referrals
  • Doubling down on focus and expertise in digital content and platform creation
  • Avoiding services spread into areas that we are not good at, such as SEO, media buying, branding, media relations, etc.
  • Building stronger project management skillsets
  • Taking an adaptive attitude towards strategy, specifically be willing to drive or psimply fulfill a role as needed.

Are you seeing a similar trend with your business?

xPotomac Returns on June 12

My DC friends will be happy to know that Patrick Ashamalla, Shonali Burke and I have been very busy over the past few months. We can finally announce xPotomac 15 this June 12.

Our keynote this year is author Mark W. Schaefer, who just released The Content Code, which highlights how the marketing world has gone mad.  In his new book, Mark challenges communicators to break through information density by thinking about audiences in a new way


This year’s xPotomac returns to the Georgetown University Campus, but will be held at the Healey Family Student Center, which includes an in-building parking garage. Special thanks to our event host and sponsor the Communications Culture and Technology programShana Glickfield, cofounder of the Beekeeper Group, will again emcee xPotomac.

The remaining three sessions and their speakers have been selected:

It’s a data driven world, but you still need creative free thinking to succeed. Senior Vice President for Social@Ogilvy Kathy Baird will discuss some lessons she learned at the Burning Man festival as they apply to digital communications.

Next up, Gannett’s Director of Social Media and Engagement Jodi Gersh and Assistant Managing Editor, Video for the Washington Business Journal Jen Nycz-Conner will discuss how digital media continues to impact the way news is developed and shared.

The first millennials are now 35 years old and taking over executive leadership positions. How does the new digital-savvy leadership impact workplace culture. DC-based authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant will discuss the concepts discussed in their new book, When Millennials Take Over.

After our lunch break, crisis communications expert and Commcore Consulting Founder Andy Gilman will join xPotomac cofounders Shonali Burke and Geoff Livingston for a digital crisis communications bootcamp.  Help resolve a digital crisis live! For those that don’t know Andy, he has counseled clients for 60 Minutes appearances, Congressional hearings, and most notably provided counsel to Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol 1 crisis and the Government of Canada for the SARS Outbreak.

Register today for xPotomac 15 today! A version of this post also ran on the xPotomac site.

SXSW Is Dead, Long Live SXSW!

Many people who were a part of the social media boom last decade attended SXSW. It was the place to see and be seen, where apps went mainstream and reputations were forged. In recent years, social media experts have stopped going, proclaiming SXSW dead.

And after attending my seventh one, I have to agree. SXSW is dead… For social media experts.

SXSW is about the Internet, and how various media and industries are adapting to it. In that sense SXSW is a zeitgeist. And the time of social media dominating SXSW, while not completely gone, has certainly waned.

Social networking and communities are a part of the Internet’s fiber, but they are no longer a special topic. That makes social less of a premium newsmaker at an Internet conference focused on trends, and as a result social media experts aren’t getting the attention they used to at SXSW. So it is little wonder that those who used to thrive on the subject find the conference unappealing.

What SXSW Has Become

A woman solders a chip, part of a device she was building at SXCreate.

What SXSW 2015 offered was an incredible series of mini-conferences that ranged from fashion (think wearable tech in the form of smart clothing) and start-up manufacturing to SXSports and large broadcast brands boasting their digital entertainment properties. SXSW is now a festival of many Internet industries. Social media and perhaps the now stronger digital marketing communities are just individual industry segments amongst the multitude.

My friend Dave Weinberg, CEO of loop88 said, “The fact that we’re all here and that we have these serendipitous situations is what made this SXSW special. It’s totally different than it has been.”

I have to agree. This year’s SXSW was the best one I have attended in a long time. The networking was diverse and phenomenal.

“The amount of education, of giving back knowledge to the community is absolutely unparalleled,” said Howard Greenstein, COO of DomainSkate and adjunct professor at Columbia University. “From small sessions sponsored by companies on specific topics to niche panels about everything from legal hackers to bitcoin, you can learn about anything from people who are actually doing the work.”

Signs of How SXSW Changed


SXSW 2015 saw the break-out of Meerkat, the first app to breakout at SXSW in a couple of years. Yet, while this was a big story, it was not the story, far from it. There were many threads throughout the event, many of which revolved around celebrity appearances and cancellations.

For the first time in years I attended sessions, and thoroughly enjoyed 75% of what I saw. This is pretty good compared to most conferences I go to. Some of the better events and sessions I attended included the Jack Welch versus Gary Vaynerchuk discussion on executive leadership, the SXCreate session on building micro manufacturing companies.

There were fewer uber-influencer swordfests at SXSW, which made it more pleasant. It was also easier to avoid those situations when they arose.

At the same time while the mighty influencer is gone, the suit has arrived. And with the business audience has come a tension between the old school casual SXSW attendee and the proliferation of suits and heels at the conference. I’m glad I brought a jacket and two collared shirts because when I wore T-shirts and a jersey I received more than my fair share of looks.

And with the rise of the celebrity, there were more high powered executives, stars and brands attending the event. I met more high caliber successful people than I have at any prior SXSW.

SXSW is much bigger than it used to be, but is also much different. It has evolved, and with it so have my expectations of it. It’s funky still, but now it is transforming into a big dollar business event. But the reason I still come is the incredible relationship opportunities it continues to offer, even as a humbler small business owner. And that continues to make SXSW a must-attend event for me.