Ghostwriters, Spies, and Content Marketing’s Thought Leadership Problem

By Jordan Teicher June 17th, 2014

At the end of movies about the CIA, there’s often some takeaway about the thankless life of an intelligence officer. I was watching Argo this weekend, and sure enough, after all the diplomats were saved from Iran, Tony Mendez—the hero played by Ben Affleck—is notified he received an award from the President. Only he never actually gets the award, because, as his boss tells him in a parking lot, nobody can know about his mission.

Then it hit me: That’s the life of a content marketing ghostwriter.

Sure, you need to strip away all the danger and heroism and patriotism, but the function of doing a job without any recognition is identical.

I bring that up, because on June 3, writer and editor Amy Westervelt published an article on Medium titled “Content Marketing Used to be King. Now It’s the Joker” that ripped the content marketing industry for its reliance on thought leadership pieces actually ghostwritten by freelancers rather than the “thought leaders” themselves. Westervelt argued the trend was taking away meaningful work from journalists, and she didn’t want to be a part of the problem anymore. She didn’t expect the piece to take off, but it quickly gained traction. As she told me over email, “I got a lot of hateful comments and a lot of marriage proposals, all in the same week.”

I haven’t seen the marriage proposals, but the hate aimed at Westervelt was on full display. Most of it focused on why it’s stupid to think about ghostwriting content in terms of morality, sentimentality, and pride. Check out some LinkedIn condescension from one writer. (Sample: “If you want to be an ink-stained wrench in a dying industry, knock yourself out.”) Or catch up on some Twitter beef from Pando editorial director Paul Carr.

Here we have both sides of the debate, and you can tell we’re dealing in extremes, because there’s a lot of cursing and insults flying around. Even Westervelt comments on how “f*cked up the media is today,” noting how publishers, desperate for content, are incentivized to take free ghostwritten articles from CEOs, while CEOs are incentivized to crank out ghostwritten content, and journalists are incentivized to take their money and write for them.

As journalists, should we write for big money and no credit? Little money and total credit? Or should we hold expensive seminars to teach CEOs how to write well?

I don’t know what the right answer is. But the wrong answer is to pretend there isn’t a content marketing thought leadership problem.

As a freelance writer and an editor, I’m always aware of the split between my “honorable” journalistic projects and the “strictly business” content marketing projects. I empathize with Westervelt; making good money to ghostwrite articles for another company doesn’t upset me, but there’s something uneasy about the whole process when someone who didn’t do the work gets the byline.

To clarify, this discussion about thought leadership “journalism” is only focused on a subset of content marketing. There are a number of brands like American Express, Microsoft, and Porter that give writers bylines and worthwhile compensation for real reporting. (Full disclosure: American Express is a Contently client.) Westervelt admitted she could’ve explained herself a bit better in regards to what aspects of content marketing she was railing against. She’s still open to the idea of copyrighting, working on case studies, and composing ebooks for brands. Her real target, as she said, is “fake thought leadership—where the writer is coming up with the ideas that will help establish the client as a thought leader.”

Now that content marketing has been around long enough for trends to cement, we’re getting close to a thought leadership bubble. Too much of it has become farce. The widespread publishing of ghostwritten posts from marketing leaders will continue to cheapen the impact that comes from the leaders who regularly put in the time and effort to pen their own insightful work. To me, that point seems inarguable.

“Marketers are beginning to get less value out of these posts,” Westervelt added. “Not just because of whatever Google decides to do with guest blogging, but because being one of only a handful of CEOs to contribute a story to Forbes once in a while is a whole lot more valuable than being just one among hundreds and having your post buried within minutes of being published.”

Google, in the spirit of keeping the Internet free of clutter, has echoed this idea by penalizing some guest blogging network in search rankings to prevent readers from accessing spammy content that all sounds the same.

In addition to taking on the overwhelming quantity of thought leadership pieces, Westervelt’s outrage also came from the fact that freelancers who may be women and/or minorities were mostly writing for white males in positions of power. She believes it would make a difference if she wrote on behalf of female and minority CEOs. “This practice tends to reinforce some cultural norms that aren’t so great,” she said. “It takes a certain lack of ego to come up with ideas to make someone else look smart, and I think white men in power tend to feel more comfortable asking women and minorities to do that. And on the other side, perhaps women are more willing to do it.”

Right now, writers relying on income from ghostwriting thought leadership pieces only have two options: Take the money and learn to accept someone else taking credit for your work, or turn away from nice content marketing paychecks to chase bylined journalism. Clearly, there are strong feelings on both sides of the fence. The book industry seems to have found a fairly respectable solution when divvying up credit to leaders and ghostwriters by promoting popular figures on the covers with large fonts and the wordsmiths who actually write the books with smaller typeface. Would it be possible for publishers to do the same when running a ghostwritten article?

It’s easy to understand why some of these ghostwriters, hidden in their apartments and co-working spaces, are upset about attribution and appreciation. The irony with the Argo analogy is people now know about Mendez’s mission because of the movie. But it’s Ben Affleck, the white male movie star, who gets most of the credit for someone else’s story. As I’m sure some would say, a thankless job nobody knows about is still better than no job at all, even if you never get a movie made about your accomplishments.

Image by Glebstock
Tags: , ,