How Zaphod Beeblebrox, the Monkees, U2's albums and my car insurance help explain the problems faced by young content creators
When I returned from working in America, I did not know what to do with my career.
It seemed to be a straight choice between finding a job and consulting. The flexibility of the latter had always appealed while I like to think I had enough competence, experience and connections to go it alone.
But I still looked for jobs at the requisite level, so I typed all the variations of “VP” and “Digital Content” into LinkedIn.
Nothing came up.
But it is worth revisiting after the micro-furore surrounding a tweet suggesting NBA social media managers should be paid at least $75,000. Then there was a blog post backing it up.
The gist of the argument being a) they work very hard b) content is ki-… errrr... crucial in telling the story of these very special organisations c) this has an increasingly important commercial benefit.
All this is true but, unfortunately, the head of the content team is not going to be thumping the boardroom table anytime soon.
Even if they are represented, it tends to be as the junior partner in an amalgamated position with marketing or communication or digital technology. I could find stand-alone "Heads of Content" but not UK "Directors" or US "Vice-Presidents".
And that does not put the discipline in a position to forcibly argue for a bump in salary.
All this illustrates the first home truth, you are not paid for what you do, but for the responsibility you hold.
I have built numerous content teams from the bottom. I was the first full-time digital content employee at Arsenal and gradually constructed a team of approaching 20 with a host of matchday freelancers. Gradually, I did less of the creative work and spent more time ensuring I recruited the people who could do it better than myself. (This is no false humility, I started off filming and editing the videos!)
The other part was dealing with problems. I was the first point of call for content issues, which is a constantly sticky wicket for a club like Arsenal.
When everything was going well, I had time to properly lead content development - the third big part of my later role.
Taking on greater management was necessary for career progression. You have to be very talented, very connected and very freelance to move upward solely as a content creator.
The rest of us make the trade-off between security and creativity.
I do believe that content teams are among the most hard-working in sports clubs. A couple of stories illustrate this. When Arsenal toured abroad the timetable basically consisted of training, matches and activations. The first two were largely business as usual but last was different. They were vital to the twin tour aims of growing revenue and global audience but they were also one-off events in often challenging environments.
It took endless planning meetings to pull off successful and increasingly ambitious activations. Other departments took on greater responsibility (see my earlier point about remuneration) but the content team were the only ones attending the planning meetings and involved in the execution before they started their real work – producing and aggregating the content.
The camaraderie of tours was wonderful and, after completing their hard day’s work, the other departments would go for a well-deserved meal or drinks. Most often, the content team were not there or followed on many hours later. It was no issue, they had done their bit but ours had a crucial extra stage.
Meanwhile, at Colorado Rapids, the stadium staff and matchday team would fulfil long shifts every other week. They were the first in, certainly, but we were both the last departments out. And, of course, we were doing this job home and away. Road trips were weekends off for others.
This is not about points-scoring or martyrdom. This is the role of the content team. If you do not like it then work elsewhere because there is a long queue of equally-talented and hungry youngsters behind you.
I have taken two major pay-cuts (30-50%) to stay closer to content creation. The first of those was to take up my first role as a journalist. This was 1994 and one reporter I trained alongside was bringing home just £5,000 per year. Our lead news reporter worked in a bar to top up her salary. This was all pretty much standard at the time.
A lack of financial reward did not stop young people wanting to enter that profession then and it won’t stop them entering this one either. However, I do feel a dose of reality is needed.
For me, it is irresponsible for anyone to suggest youngsters should quit jobs to “find their calling” or because they are “not appreciated”. This is idealistic garbage that will put you at the back of an ever-increasing queue and outside an industry that is notoriously hard to penetrate. Just grind it out for a few months and search with a salary or coast a bit while you develop the side gig and resign when you have the financial means to do so.
It is almost like we need Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex from the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, a device that gave you a nano-second of clarity as to your place in the universe. Everyone bar the mighty Zaphod Beeblebrox, galactic president and arch-egotist, found out they were “an invisible dot on an invisible dot” and the reality fried their brain.
There are also echoes of Simon Sinek’s concern about the readjustments ahead for a generation who have been told that they are special.
I am not bashing Millennials here, for every content creator throughout history there is the danger of only considering everything within their narrow gaze. It used to be called the “arrogance of the author”.
And while creativity is sometimes blunted by advancing years, perspective and decision-making get better with experience.
This is why U2 don’t make good albums anymore but my car insurance is cheaper than it was when I was 21.
The truth of the matter is that sports organisations pay the biggest money to those who earn them money directly - be it goals, tickets, TV deals or sponsorship.
This is why U2 don’t make good albums anymore but my car insurance is cheaper than it was when I was 21
Unfortunately, most of the time, content creators are seen as just a necessary hurdle. The players would rather just play/train and the commercial arms are only interested when there is money to extract.
Content creation is still viewed as a cost centre and therefore must always be controlled or at least channelled.
The protagonists on both sides of this argument can suffer from disillusion, anger or resignation - emotional and actual. But, as the power is on the opposite side to the content team, they are more likely to suffer the consequences of any fallout.
Watch enough music documentaries and you see the story played in the starkest terms. Youngsters burst through with a vision of self-expressive creativity only to be chewed up and spat out by a business that sees only dollar bills.
The best example I have seen is the Monkees, a band created for a TV show, who later turned into a band. As they matured, there was always creative tension between the group and their manager, music titan Don Kirshner. When he offered them an incredibly catchy song called Sugar, Sugar, they angrily refused as they had grown tired of cheesy pop and now wanted creative control.
The group thought they were right as they went on to make their music their way and bid farewell by making a highly original, heavily psychedelic and still revered movie called Head.
Kirshner thought he was right because he created a fictional band called the Archies who "could not talk back and... would do it my way". Sugar, Sugar sold six million copies and was still making money this year when a Liverpool fan created a viral fan chant from its tune.
Once again, it all comes down to the way you measure success. It is not as simple as art/sport/creativity/engagement v the money. We all have to pay the bills. But it is portrayed like it sometimes.
As I have said before, content and its creators should be coveted by their teams more than ever. Right now, their organisations can get away with undervaluing them because established revenue streams are propping them up. In 10 years time will those 14-year-olds, currently consumed by gaming and YouTube, be prepared to buy a season ticket, a shirt or even sit through a 90-minute match on TV? The battle is on and engaging storytelling is one of the best weapons.
As ever, brave organisations will win the day by playing a longer game, hiring the best creatives, paying them sufficiently to stay in the long term and then moving as many obstacles as possible out of their way.
Oversupply and low barriers to entry will still keep salaries lower than they should be.
But there will be more VPs of Content, that is for sure.
In fact, I looked on LinkedIn recently, one or two are starting to appear already.
But I’ll have to be patient for a good while longer before the right role comes up for me ... as will NBA social media managers looking for $75,000 per year.