More and more we’re seeing well-known journalists move over to the “dark side.” Most recently, Cotton Delo of Ad Age comes to mind. In this interview with our very own James Au, a previous GigaOM editor and multi-book games author, we learn why he took the leap to agency life, the similarities between technology journalism and communications/ marketing, and his recommendations for other writers who find themselves daydreaming of driving the strategy—not merely reporting on it.
Can you tell us a little bit about your professional background and what you were doing before theMIX agency?
I started as a professional freelance writer in 2000, primarily for WIRED and Salon. I then worked for Linden Lab as its embedded journalist in Second Life and later, reported for GigaOM for several years. After that, I wrote for a few gaming companies including Outspark. That’s actually how I got introduced to theMIX agency—I hired Vanessa to do our PR and communications.
Along the way I wrote a few books: The Making of Second Life from HarperCollins, which came out in 2008 on HarperCollins, and Game Design Secrets on Wiley in 2012.
So what interested you about making the move to an agency?
A large part was working with really interesting companies, and getting to write more from the development side, which I enjoy as much as journalism—if not more.
Vanessa has a great knack for choosing to work with clients doing cool, groundbreaking things. They are often so cutting-edge it’s a challenge to explain why they’re so important to the rest of the world. This is a lot of what I do anyway when I have my journalist hat on: convince readers that a certain trend or company is going to be really important and transformative.
What does your role now entail?
On a basic level I’m in charge of explaining who our clients are and how they work to the world. And that applies itself in all kinds of ways—from thought leadership posts, to the company’s blog, to website copy, and even down to emails and social media messaging.
One thing you have to realize is a lot of companies and their executives mostly only talk among themselves and with their direct peers. Often the jargon they use seems like common language to them, but confuses everyone else. We help correct that.
Another really important piece is knowing how journalists will view a client, and avoiding any fluffy or vague language that might confuse the story of who they are. This also means I’m often asking our clients the same kinds of hard questions I’d ask as a journalist. The result is a more bulletproof product message for our clients.
So, do you think all journalists can be good at marketing and PR?
There’s quite a bit of crossover, especially if you go from covering a specific space to actually working in it. At the same time, you have to believe in what your clients are doing. Good journalists have an internal BS detector so a client that can’t deliver on its promises will constantly flash that detector.
That brings up an interesting point. An agency’s goal is to serve the client, whereas a writer’s goal is to serve the reader—sometimes to the detriment of a company. Has it been difficult shifting your mindset?
Not really. The most challenging part of the transition has been working as an integrated team member, as opposed to a lone-wolf journalist. At the same time, I’ve always gone back and forth between working on the development and journalism sides. Even as an embedded journalist for Linden Lab I was indirectly promoting Second Life but it was still genuine journalism—my job was to illustrate the ways culture was being changed by online communities.
Reporters are not just leaving for agencies but for startups and large tech companies. Dan Lyons, who went to Hubspot last year, comes to mind. On a macro level, what do you think is driving this?
Fundamentally the media has not figured out a revenue model to survive in the digital age, especially as we transition to mobile. Journalism/editorial is still a very tenuous thing while agency gigs are more reliable.
But on a higher level, most tech journalists are passionate about technology. So, whether they’re writing about technology or for technology, they’re writing in technology. And that’s often what they care about most.
Ironically, one of the things I’m most passionate about at theMIX is working with clients who are figuring out media monetization and how content creators can make money online and in mobile. I almost feel like I’m trying to save my career as a writer by helping our clients do well.
You told me recently that in some ways, you’re doing more journalism now than when you were a professional reporter. Can you extrapolate on that?
I’m doing as much as or more genuine journalism here as when I worked at “official” news outlets. Specifically, execs have a lot of insider knowledge and data that’s important for the larger public to know about. And tech companies—not tech publications or journalists—are in the best position to gather aggregate user that reveals a lot about broader social and cultural trends. I first had this insight when I was working at Linden Lab, and it’s constantly reinforced. I’ve spoken to researchers at Ivy League colleges, for instance, and they’re jealous of OKCupid’s data. They’ll never get a data set that big.
Anything you miss about working as a journalist?
There’s not a lot I miss because the intellectual energy and camaraderie is about the same. We also still end up going to the same parties and social events, so it doesn’t feel like that much of a transition! I’m also still able to maintain my blog New World Notes, which gives me a venue for my interests that complements but doesn’t overlap with client work.
What advice would you give to other writers and bloggers who want to follow your lead?
First of all, make sure you’re a really good writer. It’s easier to get away with a mediocre news post than a blog post for a well-paying client. You should also work on promoting your writing and personal brand on social media because that means you can put those skills to service for your clients.
I also recommend forming a strong network of people you know in the industry (and people who know of you) because that will make you a lot more value to a communications agency. Otherwise, you’re interchangeable with any other up-and-coming writer.
Finally, work out a way to continue your own writing on the side. Not only so you can keep your vocation alive, but to give you an outside perspective that’s beyond what your clients’ interests are. That will only benefit you in the long run.
Oh, and be prepared to wake up a bit earlier. But that’s what coffee is for.