Velocity’s Doug Kessler on bringing the mojo back to content marketing

We know “mojo” is not your typical marketing jargon, and it’s not often thrown around in a business setting, but that’s exactly what today’s guest says we’re missing.

And no, we’re not talking about Austin Powers! Doug Kessler is the co-founder and creative director at Velocity Partners, a B2B Marketing Agency with a laser-sharp focus on content strategy, and the writer of articles such as The Search for Meaning in B2B, Crap, and Insane Honesty. Although he started his career as a suit on Ogilvy & Mather in Madison Avenue back in the 80s, it wasn’t until he shifted to B2B that he found his true calling.

Over the years, Doug realized something. Business-to-business communications haven’t exactly been known for their glitz and glam, let’s face it – a lot of times, it’s a veritable festival of… meh. But, it doesn’t have to be. Doug firmly believes in embracing the confidence, energy, and passion you put into your work, so much so that he built a business on it. Mojo, he says, can be a valuable differentiator in your marketing, and that, in this day and age, is something very much worth fighting for.

In this episode, we sat down with Doug to chat about embracing the mojo and creating a brand strategy that connects with the audience and stands out from the crowd.

Short on time? Here are a few key takeaways:

  • You can usually discover the brand’s voice by talking to the passionate, excited, hard-working employees in your company. It’s likely already there; it just needs to be tapped into.
  • Constantly putting out mediocre pieces is hurting your content brand. Be honest with your content and don’t be afraid to kill it if it doesn’t live up to your expectations.
  • Swearing and radical honesty are strategies most companies steer away from, but if used well, they can be surprising and come off as more honest and authentic.
  • A good way to raise your content above mediocrity is to be empathetic, work to understand your audience, and build authority – the rest will likely follow.
  • Stakeholders aren’t always on board with marketers’ ideas of what good content looks like. It’s up to you to make your case and show them just how it’ll help the business stand out.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Lean into the mojo

Liam Geraghty: Doug, thanks for being here. You’re very welcome to the show.

Doug Kessler: Thanks for having me.

Liam: I’d love to hear a bit about your journey to this point because I think it’s a really interesting one. Did you start out in New York in an advertising firm?

Doug: That’s right. Ogilvy & Mather. Madison Avenue in the ’80s. It was like the tail end of the Mad Men era. There were still people taking four-hour lunches and coming back or not coming back at all. It was a proper advertising background and I’m glad because it gave me a real grounding in concepts and the big idea and all those kinds of things. It was also a fun time to be there.

Liam: And what switched you over to B2B? Did you get sick of anything in particular?

Doug: You know what? At the time, I felt we were manipulating consumers a little. I was on a fabric softener account and it was like, “Be a good mother, use this fabric softener.” And I felt bad about it. It just felt fake. I got onto a B2B account, AT&T, and I just thought, “Now we’re convincing people to do something on the merits of an argument.” It was more like a lawyer. I’ve learned that a mix of emotion and rational arguments is obviously the strongest thing, but I gravitated toward making a case and selling this thing.

Liam: Right, absolutely. For people who may be searching for the right tone of voice and personality for their brand, how do you go about discovering it? And why do you think it’s important?

Doug: That’s really a great question because you said “discovering”, and a lot of people think voice is something you can just lay on top. You have to discover the voice of a brand or a company by talking to the people in it. And what you invariably find is that there are people full of energy and passion and mojo and confidence and loving what they’re doing and somehow, that never makes it to the customer. It gets scrubbed out. People think Marketing doesn’t talk like that and they filter it. The voice is there, it just needs to be tapped.

“We talk about our agency Velocity as Meaning, Metrics and Mojo. Mojo is what we’ve built the business on”

It’s not the same for every brand, but obviously, there are some brands you could bring all this mojo to, and the minute you contact them and start talking to them, you’ll have a decompression experience of what happened to that voice. Like, where did it go? You really want it to be authentic. Discovery is absolutely right, and I think you’re looking for the people having the most fun in the company. Often it’s the engineers, sometimes the salespeople, who just believe and love talking about this stuff. And that’s what you want to tap into.

Liam: You mentioned the word “mojo” there. Where does mojo come into this?

Doug: Mojo’s become a big deal for us. We talk about our agency Velocity as Meaning, Metrics and Mojo. Mojo is what we’ve built the business on. And it’s a funny word. I did a talk on it once a while back that’s got some great connotations, but the ones we like about it are its confidence, attitude, and energy. We know brands with mojo. Nike has it, Apple has it, and there are all sorts of brands that just have it. And it’s what B2B often lacks most, and we want to find that. I think confidence is the nearest best word. We want to bring confidence to our clients and show that they’re confident about what they do, they’re good at it, they like it they’re having fun doing it. That’s magnetic. It’s not arrogance – it’s a strong sense of presence in the room.

Liam: And, I suppose it’s something not to be scared of either?

Doug: Yeah. People really do get scared of it. Often, you’ll see it happen in the revision cycles. The first draft might have a lot of mojo, but as people start going at it, any word they noticed that made them feel anything at all, they want to tone down. There’s just a natural impulse to do that. Or it’s a case of, “Hey, that punchy little summary isn’t completely accurate. Let’s make sure we add this, this, and that.” A single word becomes three, you get these listy type lines, and that kills the voice. There’s either accuracy or a fear of feeling something that makes people want to scrub it out.

Liam: Yeah, it’s so unfortunate. As you said there, it’s about finding those people that make up the brand, the people who are having fun and, I suppose, their kind of loves and hates and the things that drive them.

“It’s a force multiplier, which means a budget multiplier if you get it right”

Doug: Yeah, absolutely. And part of it is, “Look, you guys should agree on voice upfront.” I know everyone has a “tone of voice” statement. It’s generally the same statement for everybody. But really talk to people about voice as a differentiator, as an opportunity for this brand to stand out. And often, in markets where a lot of products are very similar, it’s one of your only opportunities to stand out. For me, it’s a force multiplier, which means a budget multiplier if you get it right. If you could agree ahead of time that you’re going to aim for that, say “this is what we need for this,” so that when the reviewers take their pencils out, their red pens, they know what you’re aiming for something different, not something the same as everybody else.

Liam: And, I suppose, a good place to start could be to look back at why the company was founded in the first place.

Doug: That’s often a big source of it. Some companies don’t have a direct line to that. Many still do, especially early-stage start-ups. We’ll ask in our input process, “Why did you start this company?” And you often get these great stories of, “I was really angry at something. I wanted something to stop. I wanted to fix this or fill that gap.” So, yeah, origin stories are one big source. It’s not the only one, but it’s a really good one.

The art of killing stories

Liam: I love your Six Principles of Great Content Brands. I was wondering if you could take us through them a bit?

Doug: Sure. The first idea is that there is such a thing as a great content brand, in addition to a great product brand. If people think of it that way, they start thinking, “All right, we’re building a content brand.” And that means something that people feel that if it comes from those guys, it’s worth reading. It’s going to be worth my time, either for entertainment or value or both. That’s the goal. And you have to earn that. You don’t just get to keep putting stuff out.

One of the principles is Be the Buyer. So, obviously, empathy’s a big deal. It sounds so obvious, and it’s repeated so often, but it’s still incredibly rare that people actually start with “What does this audience, the specific audience, our ideal customers, care most about?” Do not start with “What product do I have to talk about? What is my goal and agenda here?” You have to build a bridge between those two, but you better start with what they care about.

Being authoritative is another, which is all about the sweet spot. A lot of people think, “Now I’ve discovered what they care about. I’m going to write about that.” And it’s not that simple because you may not have any authority in that area. You’ve got to look at the overlap of “they care about it” and “I have a right to talk about it. I’ve got something to bring to the table.” So, that’s a big one.

“Find the best story. Even if it’s 90% of the way through what you thought you were making – if you find the real thread, go there”

One of the principles is about being strategic, which I guess means “don’t do one-offs.” And that’s about content marketing as a tactic, as opposed to specifically the brand. I still believe in being prolific, although I think if you do a lot of that, your quality bar lowers. That’s not good. Passionate is the mojo thing we talked about.

And the big one is to be honest with yourself. This is another one that is rarely practiced because you need to be able to pause and say, “Is this really as good as it can be? Is it the right thing to do?” A lot of people don’t really want to pivot midway in a content piece. If you’re a documentary maker, you know that you may find a story halfway and you may want to follow that. You may not want to stick with the exact roadmap. The same should be true of marketers and content. Find the best story. Even if it’s 90% of the way through what you thought you were making – if you find the real thread, go there. I’d like to see people be honest with themselves and kill more pieces, or at least pivot them. Just be honest. Is this going to help build the content brand, or is it just another thing?

Liam: I remember reading an interview with the host of This American Life, Ira Glass, where he was asked how their show has such a high hit rate for great stories. And he said it’s because they kill a lot of them. They’ll send reporters out to start work on a story, and if they realize it’s not really great or going anywhere or interesting enough, they just can it. So, as you mentioned there, is that approach possible in content marketing? Should we be killing more content?

“It’s not that everything they touch is gold. It’s they know to put down the stuff that isn’t gold”

Doug: It’s harder. I think you have to build a culture that you’re going to have a lot more starts than completes and that you’re going to call it early when you notice it’s not there. Or if there’s still a twinkle to find, keep some resources going that way. It’s a different kind of culture. And I think that the documentary mindset, which I’ve written about in the blog, is a big thing here. It’s like, “Let’s go find stories.” Some of them won’t be. That idea of killing, I think, is fucking precious.

I took a course with David McCandless, who does Information is Beautiful, about data journalism. He’s great. And he has such a high hit rate. Somebody asked him during the workshop the same question. He had the same answer. “We kill a lot.” And it made a huge impression on me, too, just as it obviously did on you. It’s not that everything they touch is gold. It’s they know to put down the stuff that isn’t gold.

Marketers don’t know how. “We’ve committed, we’ve got a budget, we’ve got a timetable, we’ve got stakeholders.” But if we could change the culture a bit to make it one of experimentation, it could lead to this kind of thing. And we get to kill more without shame. Right now, the way it’s built, it’s conveyor-belt law. “If you start it, you’re going to finish it, deliver on time, on budget, that’s professionalism.” Well, with this kind of marketing, it may be professional, but it may not lead to the best outcomes.

“If you consistently put out things that should have been changed or killed, you’re hurting your content brand”

Liam: Yeah, absolutely. I come from a radio background, and we used to call it “shooting puppies” when you had to tell a guest that unfortunately, we weren’t going to… You feel bad about it, but you have to do it.

Doug: Yeah, it’s true. And it can be hard when you involve stakeholders. “Hey, Mr. CEO! We didn’t think what you did there was good enough.” So you’ve got to be careful and plan accordingly. But if we felt free enough to kill more, we could be honest with ourselves. If you know you can’t kill a piece, it’s harder to be honest with yourself. You’re less likely to speak up. It’s like, “Look, let’s just get through this one. Let’s publish and let’s get to the next one.” And I understand that’s a real-world thing, but again, we’re talking about building great content brands. If you consistently put out things that should have been changed or killed, you’re hurting your content brand.

Breaking the rules

Liam: Something that occurred to me there, where do you stand on swearing in content marketing? Our listeners will know where we stand because that wasn’t bleeped out. What do you think about it, in general?

Doug: It’s funny because I’ve done a talk and I’ve done a post on it. I’ve actually studied a lot. I’ve read a ton of research about swearing. Because swearing touches a different part of the brain, it really does something else to the listener that no other language does. And there’s a lot of research on it. We do swear at Velocity. We have a very swear-y culture and we’re honest about it. And I’m sorry that it alienates some very nice people who we’d work well with – i’s not a great filter in that sense.

“Being surprising, having a bunch of passion, signaling you care, signaling honesty and authenticity. Those are the things that matter, and swearing is one of the routes to it”

But we were wondering, why do we swear? As I was researching it, some answers started coming up about what swearing does for you. Used well, it can surprise, it can lower people’s defenses, it can come off as way more honest and authentic, it can signal passion, it can be funny. There are a lot of things a good use of swearing can do. And, obviously, the lazy use doesn’t do those things. But the most important thing for people is not, “Well, then swear.” It’s doing those things swearing lets you do. Being surprising, having a bunch of passion, signaling you care, signaling honesty and authenticity. Those are the things that matter, and swearing is one of the routes to it. It’s obviously not right for every brand, although I have a swipe file that has a lot of swearing in almost every market, including financial services, the driest markets in the world. And so, I don’t think it’s a definite “no.” I think it’s something that can be explored.

Liam: I suppose, off the back of that, and you’ve mentioned it a lot throughout our chat, is honesty. You talk about insane honesty in content and marketing, and it’s something I’m a big fan of. Often, brands can be really resistant to just being honest about things. And I can’t believe I’m asking this, but why is honesty a good thing?

Doug: Well, honesty, of course, is professional, ethical, and we hope we are all over that bar. But, insane honesty is an extra thing. It’s like a tactic that says, “take one of your weakest points, put it right out in front and lead with it,” as Volkswagen Beetle did with the ugly ads. They just admitted they were ugly. They reveled in ugliness, and they made it fun. They realized they weren’t going to alienate people who were really going to buy the car because people who really cared about that weren’t going to buy Beetles anyway.

It’s breaking conventions, just like swearing is. But this is even more powerful. People expect you to only say good things about yourself. And when you don’t, when you go out and say, “You know what? Our dashboard isn’t as good as some of the other guys. But here’s why, and here’s what we value and what we’re doing about it,” it’s just disarming. People lower their marketing defense barriers, “Wait. Someone’s saying something true. They’re actually admitting to a fairly big thing.” So, it’s beyond that professional, ethical honesty. It’s this tactic called insane honesty, which we’ve written a lot about and is incredibly powerful. And again, it’s rarely done, which is why it still has its power.

“She kept telling me why not to choose them. And that’s insane honesty. It signalled that she cared more about us having a good time than about her winning the business”

Liam: I love the example you give about booking a restaurant for a work thing and how that played out.

Doug: Yeah, we had this big Christmas thing. We go to a different city every Christmas with everybody and their partners. Back then, it was, I think, 50 people – we’re up to 100 this year. I was looking around for the restaurant, and most had very cursory answers to my needs. But one restaurant kept saying, “Look, I know you said you wanted a private room. Ours isn’t private. Here’s what it looks like. I know you wanted a place for drinks beforehand. We can’t really do that, but we can do this. I know you wanted vegetarian options. We do have them, but you should know it’s a fish restaurant,” blah blah blah. She kept telling me why not to choose them. And that’s insane honesty. It signaled that she cared more about us having a good time than about her winning the business.

And, wow! What a signal. Now imagine doing that for your content. If the reader says, “Holy cow! They care more about our success than their own win here.” That is just such a powerful signal. And we picked them. We had a great evening at that restaurant, and yeah, they did care. They were incredible. The service was amazing. So, that made me think that was something everybody should be doing.

The content marketing deluge

Liam: I love it. One of your most inspiring pieces, and one that probably a lot of people listening will remember, is called Crap, and how it’s the single biggest threat to B2B content marketing. Where do we stand right now with this? Is the sludge out there just getting thicker and thicker?

Doug: I think, unfortunately, it’s come true. And I don’t think it was that hard to predict it was going to happen. It’s like, “Here comes marketing.” The bar’s gone way up. At the very beginning, and even when Crap was written, just doing content marketing conferred an advantage to your brand. It was like, “Wow! You’re packaging up your expertise and helping someone do their job for nothing?” And that was fresh. “They have an ebook, come get it.” Imagine that.

“It’s like a bell curve – if you’re in the middle, that’s the ‘Mountain of meh,’ as I like to call it. It’s just more content”

And, obviously, when everyone’s doing it, you don’t get that instant advantage anymore. It means you have to work harder for that advantage. I think Crap was almost overstating it. It’s more about mediocrity. Most of it is good; it’s not utter crap. Most of it is just good. It’s like a bell curve – if you’re in the middle, that’s the “Mountain of meh,” as I like to call it. It’s just more content. Whereas if you can get up to that tail, that right side of the bell curve, and have that kind of content brand, you’ve got your advantage back. So, unfortunately, Crap stayed true, and it’s still a perennial. It still gets a lot of reads every year, even though it feels old news for me now.

Liam: That leads us on to how there’s a huge Lord of The Rings-esque battle for people’s waning attention spans. What do content marketers need to do to win that battle for attention?

Doug: There’s been a lot of talk about how there was a tipping point where the amount of content exceeded the audience’s ability to consume it. You know what? That probably happened in the Middle Ages. There was never a time when anyone could read everything about everything. Yes, attention’s a hard thing to get. But if you’re granular, focused, empathetic, if you’re right in there with what your audience, your ideal prospects care most about, and it’s timely – because the world keeps changing, so there’s no sense that you’ll ever be done –, then I think it’s not a big devil. To not do content marketing because of that problem, that saturation, is a big miss. Who wants a brand that’s content-free? That’s not an option. So, get granular, get timely, get specific, and then, if you keep the mojo in there and the quality up, you’ll find your audience.

“The obstacles to doing great content marketing were senior people who grew up in a different world when you just battered people with your ad messages until they succumbed”

Liam: What do you do when your senior executives are getting in the way of what you’re doing?

Doug: For a long time, that was the number one obstacle. We asked clients and did a few polls, and the obstacles to doing great content marketing and building a brand were senior people who grew up in a different world when you just battered people with your ad messages until they succumbed. They’re aging out of the market. We have some smart CMOs in B2B tech and there are a lot of really great CMOs now. Some stakeholders need some educating and bringing along, but part of what makes great marketers great is that they know how to bring stakeholders along. Don’t just expect them to understand marketing as well as we all do. And so, part of it is change management and education.

If you really find yourself in a place where the CEO’s idea of good marketing is just not your idea of good marketing, get out of there and get yourself to another company. Life’s too short. But usually, it’s your job to make that case and get your stakeholders on board and excited about what you want to do.

Searching for meaning

Liam: Before we wrap up, I loved your piece on the search for meaning in B2B marketing. I think it’s something that all of us content marketers think about at some point in our careers. Where did you find meaning in it?

Doug: Yeah, that’s the most important and personal piece to me. I almost didn’t publish it because it was so personal. It’s not glamorous work, and it’s not saving the world – some of my friends do some very important work –, so why do I love it so much? Because I knew that I loved it, and I still do. And so, I started trying to answer that question in that piece and came up with seven sources of meaning, and some are kind of mundane: “I love helping businesses that I believe in grow.” “I like helping people. I feel like we owe the clients who chose us a win, and I want to help their career.”

“My meaning is here. I enjoy this, and here’s why”

These are the sources, and there are seven of them in the piece. When you added them up, they were more than a good enough answer that this was a great place to spend a career. I can enjoy this without feeling ashamed or guilty or embarrassed. My meaning is here. I enjoy this, and here’s why. That piece still works for me when I’m flagging with my own energy.

Liam: Yeah, absolutely. And then, finally, what’s next? Have you any big plans or projects for 2022? I’m sure you’ve loads of them.

Doug: Yeah, a lot is going on. We’ve got to a certain size at Velocity – we’re about 70 people, two offices – and there’s a tipping point where you’re innovating on a whole bunch of fronts at once, and you have to weave them together. We have a really fast-growing performance team doing new things in SEO for B2B, that kind of stuff. And they each have their exciting roadmap. But how does it work all together around a galvanizing story, this central idea for the brand? The innovation, which is going in five different directions, plus the integration of that into a whole thing is the “next thing” for us.

Liam: And lastly, where can our listeners go to keep up with you and your work?

Doug: We have a blog,, and we have a newsletter. We promise not to spam people. It’s fun and a little bit quirky. It’s not just shoving content in people’s faces. The newsletter seems to get some good engagement. So, that’s a nice place to start, too.

Liam: Yeah, absolutely. I love the Velocity blog. There are some really great pieces in there. Doug, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.

Doug: Thank you, Liam. I really enjoyed it. And congrats on your own podcast. I think it’s one of the longest-running and one of the best going, so bravo!

Liam: Thank you.

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