What makes work meaningful for digital marketers?
I sat down for a chat with digital strategist, actor, and all-around storyteller Thomas Gage for a chat about the highs and lows of the industry.
We walk about what there is to love about digital marketing, what’s troublesome, and the ways in which digital content professionals make the most impact and change.
What do you like about your work, and what in your work gives you meaning?
Thomas: There’s a couple of things I like. I like that, for me, it’s about helping people. It’s about finding, understanding who your audience is, what they’re struggling with, and then being as helpful as possible—getting them the most valuable content possible. That will help them.
I think that’s ultimately what keeps on driving me. Keeps on, like fuels that fire. And every time I’m like, “Do I like what I’m doing?” Yes, I do. Because of this.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s helping people out.
Sarah: Yeah, I hear that.
Thomas: Then there’s different surface level things that I like. Technically, it’s very—I’m sure we’ll talk about this a lot, you seem to be very much about this—but the storytelling aspect, right? Like the techniques of how you share information, withhold information, give a little bit, right? Those are fun to play with and fun to explore.
And then there’s the data side that’s really interesting and fascinating. And I don’t know why I like the data side. It’s contrary to everything that I’m about, but I enjoy it. It’s interesting and compelling. So there’s those things on the surface. But I think deep down, the thing that keeps on giving back is the ability to help people when they’re struggling.
Sarah: Funny that you mention the point about liking the artistic side of it and also the data driven side, because I think that a lot of creatives see themselves as non-mathematical people. Which is kind of weird.
Sarah: There are a lot of calculations that go into making art and producing creative work. We’re just not sophisticated enough to understand what those calculations are.
Thomas: Yeah, absolutely, totally, totally.
Sarah: It’s a huge relief to have access to the data.
Thomas: Right. I was thinking about this the other day. Like—and I will go off topic so fast and I apologize—but if you’re a playwright and you’re writing a script and you want to test it out and try it out, if you like, put it on Facebook Live, and then you could see where the big peaks and where people are clearly disengaging. And when people are jumping on like, “What is this? I’m interested in seeing this”. I like using that kind of data I feel like would be really interesting in shaping the art.
Sarah: Yeah. I think a lot of people look at that and say that it takes the art out of it, or they look at these types of behaviors and they get very disappointed in the way that people consume media. As we of course, know that people have very small attention spans and blah, blah, blah. But I don’t know if it’s that we’re actually getting worse at reading or if we were just this way all the time. Now we know about it.
Thomas: We have a choice now. We don’t have to sit down and read a book. We can do some other things for entertainment.
Thomas: Yeah. True.
How do you think that your friends and family see your work?
Thomas: I love the discussion because every time you start having conversations where like “I actually I can tell you about this”, it kind of reveals, how little they know about what I do. And that it is pretty wonky. I think I’ve been doing it for long enough that it doesn’t seem special. It seems like the kind of thing that most people kind of understand Facebook and how the algorithm works. And they get Google and they understand how they get search results. They have a kind of understanding. But no, they don’t. They really don’t. They have no clue.
And so whenever I talk with the clients about the ways they can do SEO or how to make their content show up in people’s feeds more like Facebook, I joke that it will make great dinner party conversation, make it impressive.
But every now and then I listen to my wife trying to describe what I do to her friends. And she’s like, “Have you seen the show Mad Men? Yeah, he does—I think he does that, except his bosses are women. But there’s the drinking involved and then there’s less misogyny. But I’m sure there still is. And then, yeah, I think he does stuff like that.”
Sarah:Wow. Yeah. You should be flattered.
Thomas: I am. I am. Is it good to be the Don Draper? I think aspects of it are really flattering. For sure. What do people say about you?
Sarah: I also have trouble. Yeah, it’s a bit of a reality check when you try to explain what you do to somebody who just, you know, they don’t work in digital because everybody’s really familiar with the general picture of what you do. Everybody knows Google. Everybody knows media. Everybody knows Facebook. But you just know it on an entirely different level. And I find myself having a lot of difficulty, especially with my parents’ generation, explaining what I do, because, I mean, most of the time, I think they think I build websites. Yeah, okay. Sure, sure. It’s close enough.
Thomas: Ish. Yeah. I like having a little bit of mystery to life. You leave them in the dark. And then you pull out utm parameters out of the blue. Yeah. “You know those things and there’s a question mark? That’s how they’re tracking what you’re doing”.
Sarah: Yeah. It is pretty mindblowing. The first times you learn about just how digital information moves around and you realize—it’s not good, but—how much of it is paid for. Yeah. How much of it is—
Thomas: It’s calculated.
Sarah: Those those top 10 lists. They are not organically generated. Somebody’s paying for those.
Sarah: It’s weird.
Thomas: I know, right.
What do you think most of your clients have to learn about storytelling as they craft their brand?
Sarah: The reason I’m asking this is because I think that people are born storytellers and humans obviously love—and need—stories. But we have this weird disconnect between knowing stories intuitively and doing stories for business and for profit in a business setting. So I’m sure you’re really familiar with that.
Thomas:Yeah, yeah. We always overcomplicate it, right? It’s like, “oh no, what do I do?”
I’m helping a friend right now. She’s applied for a 40 under 40. And so she’s struggling with the questions. And it’s they’re simple questions like, What do you do? Right? And so she’s getting all up in her head and over complicating. It’s jus—no. Like, what do you do? Just tell them what you do. Like, what’s your job? And if you want to get visionary or whatever, talk about what you hope to have achieved. You know, if you look back 30 years. But you don’t have to complicate it much more than that. Right?
At our agency we use Simon Sinek’s “why?” and I like it decently. I think it’s a good it’s a good “start with your why”. People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it. And I do like that. I do like the fact that you put at the heart of your story the thing that makes you passionate and a lot of times, some of the clients that are more resistant to looking at that, they just say, “Why? I just I do what I do because I want to make money, you know?” But why is that, right?
Like, if if tomorrow you find out that there is a different way you could be making money, you’re not going to drop what you’re doing right now to do that. Why are you doing the thing that you’re doing now? Something about that is interesting. Something about that connects with you. Something about that drives you, gets you up in the morning. Right? Somewhere in you, there’s something that’s triggered for you—that you are choosing to do this. And why is that? That, I think, is what clients most often struggle with.
They just want, “tell people what we do. Just to get the business out. Get the business out.”
Do you find that you have to do a lot of question-asking in order to get to those places?
Thomas: Yeah. Yeah, not as much as I would. I wish I had more client face time so I could ask more questions. I could go deeper. Because I think that’s always where it’s more interesting. Like the answer is that somebody has those initial answers, the surface ones, the ones that are prepared are always less interesting than when they start saying, “I don’t know”. And then you get to dig deeper. I always think that’s interesting when you get past that.
Sarah: Yeah. When you actually start having those real conversations about it, it’s almost it’s like a therapy session.
Thomas: Yeah. You’re past the elevator pitch. Yeah—I know you know your elevator pitch. And it’s great. It’s great, but…tell me more.
Do you ever have to totally rework people’s brand messages or elevator pitches?
Thomas: A lot of the clients come to us to do that. And then that is kind of like our thing is “brand rebels” so we’re pushed to provide them that strategy to make them stand out. So, yeah.
Sarah: Interesting. I have some questions that are more serious questions.
Thomas: Oh, OK.
Sarah: I have been feeling lately that there is a lot going on in digital media that we sort of gloss over and a lot with, you know, mental health. How healthy is it for us to consume what we are consuming in terms of information and how much we consume? Also issues of, you know, trustworthy information, having access to that. Yeah. Being so driven by data or metrics that we lose sight of, you know, lose sight of the why. As you pointed out, that’s so important. So I’ve been focusing a lot lately on trying to find the places where digital media could use a boost and fix some of its weirdness. So I have a few problems that are more kind of cutting to the chase. I wonder for you:
Do you ever feel uncomfortable or troubled about your field of work? With your industry or just the general approach that you see?
Thomas: Yes. OK. Yes. There’s a lot here. I also love this question. So last year I wrote a Google My Business post, because why not?
Sarah: What is that?
Thomas: So Google My Business. You have your My Business listing. It’s great for local SEO. And you can write posts on it. Usually they’re time-bound so that they’ll be out for 30 days. So those have turned into more places where you can talk about announcements and right now COVID-19 announcements is a big place where you could do that. Like, “This is what we’re doing for COVID-19”.
Thomas: So I was playing with it a creative post about, “is marketing scumbaggy by nature?”, something like that. Inherently is the idea of marketing inherently scumbaggy? Because you’re either trying to create a need where there isn’t one or you’re trying to sell people. Right? I mean, the stereotype is you’re trying to sell people something that they don’t need or something that they don’t want or whatever. And then, you know, beyond that, the platforms that we use, I think, have serious issues. Serious questions—like Facebook in particular—but even Google. Right? There’s a lot of those questions.
And I hadn’t thought of that. But when you were asking your question just now, you were talking about the mental health aspect of it and the fact that there is ever more content to write. We’re feeding a beast where we’re playing an active role. We’re not just saying, “well, people are looking for content”. We’re playing an active role in feeding a beast that gets people to never stop, never stop, never slow down. Constantly. Go, go, go, go.
Thomas: So in all of that. So my first my first layer is: for me, myself, is marketing inherently dirtbaggy?
No. Because I say I believe that marketing inherently is, like I said, helping people. I think that marketing at its core is finding people who—because back to your why, right. Your why. “I am passionate about this”. And that usually is solving a problem. Why you’re doing what you’re doing is, “I get to solve somebody’s problem”. You’re not creating a problem. You’re helping people do something that they’re trying to do. So in that, marketing is helping people.
So there, I think that marketing is made to help people. The other questions are much harder. I wrestle with those a lot more. And I did actually wrestle with the marketing side a lot more when I worked for nonprofits actually, because with the nonprofit, it is about finding ways of sharing your message that is about positioning your message in a way that is speaking to people’s selfishness.
Anyway, we can get into that but more—but the platforms. I think it’s hugely problematic. The fact that we’re using these platforms and really promoting the use of them as well.
Do you ever feel kind of like a sellout or maybe a hypocrite?
Thomas: Yeah, I I do. the ethics of it again, right? One of the courses in university that I loved was a communications and media course. Like, how does media shape our culture? Right? Not just like, “Oh, we have this form of communication right now. And now we’re switching to this. And there are some advantages and disadvantages”, but how they actually shape how we how we think in our brains and the technology. Without this technology, there’d would be a completely different world, right?
And so yes. I do feel like a sellout sometimes because I don’t think that these platforms are positive. For the human race. I don’t think that they are.
I think that they can provide some benefits to society. And I think that sometimes I feel particularly gloomy and I don’t spend enough time recognizing that. That that we are connected in ways that we have never been connected before. Right? And because because the world has accelerated, we forget about that. And COVID-19 has helped us realize that. And I’ve jumped on to far more Zoom call with my family that lives all around the world in the last month than I did in the previous 10 years. Right? And so that that technology enables us to connect in ways that we never were able to before. But that technology also enables us to be separate.
Because we can connect, therefore we can separate more. And with all that comes the fact that that technology is not actually free, right? You are paying for it. Just not with money.
Sarah Yeah. That’s a really good point. I remember my girlfriend was so good. She said, “You know what we are? We’re not more shitty, we’re just more educated about how shitty we are.”And I thought that was a good observation. That’s kind of what you’re saying. It’s got two sides to the coin. Yeah, we’re more connected than ever. But then because we can be connected, we can isolate more. When when everything’s at the touch of a button, what’s the point?
Thomas: If I can more work remotely, then I can work at a job that is in Montreal. If I can talk to my parents who live in France, then it’s OK. Right. Mobility is now much more possible. But do you?
Sarah: Do I feel like a sellout?
Sometimes I feel blinded to limitations. I think that we can’t allow our sense of creativity and innovation to be stunted by the boxes that we live in, specifically the boxes of how platforms are set up, because the digital media industry is still so new and the Internet has has been around commercially in less than my lifetime and I’m still a baby. You know, it’s very new and these platforms were not developed with this deep knowledge of what is great for all of human society. It was kind of made up as we went along.
And yet I think that because we’ve designed them now to be so user friendly and so instantaneous, we kind of just take what we get and say, “OK, how can I monetize this? How can I market on this platform? How can I learn the tricks of WordPress? How can I learn the tricks of YouTube SEO? Without thinking about, “How can I best deliver my message as a brand or a human or an actor or whatever, a pie maker?” I don’t know. How can I best do that? Is that really something I need to do through this platform specifically?
This really came up for me a lot recently, especially with everybody on lockdown as so many people just like you or me say, “OK, it’s time for me to start some of these projects I’ve had on my back burner. So I’m going to start a blog or I’m going to start a podcast.” And I think that for many people, that really makes sense, you know, that they have a passion for that medium and they have the personal aptitude and the know how to make that feasible. But I think in other cases, it’s almost backwards. We think that in order to achieve something external like recognition or a profitable business or a physical location or more customers, we think that we need to do a blog or that we need to do a Facebook campaign or we need to have an email marketer. And I don’t think we do. I think it’s more than possible to run a successful business without this stuff. We just get kind of fooled into thinking that we need to play within these sandboxes and obey these rules in order to be successful just because everybody else is, or whatever. So I do I do feel that sometimes I find myself falling prey to that mindset of, “Oh, if we want to achieve more visits, let’s make another video.”
Sarah:Is that really the best way to do it? Or is there some more out of the box thinking that we could be doing?
Thomas:Interesting, interesting. That’s fascinating, because I often approach it from the completely other side of, I want to I want to provide a system that’s clear. Let’s say here’s your A, B and C. Here’s your box. Like, “You all don’t have you all need a box. Here’s your box. Here’s the way that it is. And it is true, right? Because the reason I want to do that is because that’s what I was looking for. And what the reason I was looking for it is because I just wanted something handed to me.
Instead of, what’s the right thing for me? How can I play with this platform? This platform is here for me to play with. The thing that one do is create content. I just want to I want to write stories. I want to tell stories on the Internet. And so I have this platform. I don’t have to be doing it in a typical box.
Sarah:Yeah. Yeah. There are lots of boxes to choose from. So.
Sarah: It’s not a bad thing.
Thomas: Unlimited number of boxes is unlimited as your personality.
In your work—whether that’s you as a creative in general or in your agency—where do you see yourself creating the most transformation, impact or change?
Thomas: It is being helpful.
One of the things that drives me, my why, really has to do with theater and theater artists. I feel like there’s this scarcity mentality in the industry. And I look at the tools that they have and I look at the the methods that are being used right now to promote plays or to promote themselves theater actors themselves. And I think, “You’re not accessing what’s available”.
And then I look at content creators on YouTube, who—I mean, terrible example because right now I’m on a soapbox of ‘the value of social media is overweighed because it’s all visible. Right? So you think, “Oh, social media that’s obviously the platform that makes more sense for me to be on”. But that’s because you can see how many followers a person has…
Sarah: Yes. Any consumer can see their analytics.
Thomas: Yeah. Exactly. Like in terms of email—you can’t see it. You have no idea how many people are sending email and how many people are on those lists anyway.
So. YouTube is not necessarily a great example, but the fact that people are making a full living that way using a theater artist’s tools—those are our tools, our passion for telling stories, for connecting with people, for, you know, characters’ transformation. Those are in our toolset and and somehow we live within this “in real life box” that I think is self-imposed.
So what I hope to achieve if I look back is just helping people. I learn as much as possible and pass it on. That’s what I want to do. I just want to just pass it on. I want to be the bridge to say that you can change. That’s it. That’s what I want to have achieved. I want to help. I want to see the theater companies using the tools at their disposal better. And I want to see theater artists using the tools at their disposal.
And part of it, right, I realize, is we don’t even know what the tools are. They have no idea what it could look like if they start. Like, “I’m going to start and email list. Who am I talking to? What am I telling them? What it’s like? What is it? What’s the purpose of it?” Right. Like, is that gonna get me in with a casting agent? Right. OK. That’s a very small way of thinking. Sure it could. But is that what you want? You just want to be in front of casting agents? Is that the extent of what you want to be doing in theater? Probably not. There’s so much more. Right?
So, you know, all of our ways of looking at things are so small. And I just want expand. In the end that’s all I want to do. I just want to expand it and then make the tools available to more people.