5 years as Content Agency owner – what Tom’s learned

Next up as part of our “sharing the wisdom” series: Tom Sandford, Content Marketing Strategist at Future Content. Tom founded Future Content, a content agency, in 2012.

Now, Tom, in an attempt to capture some of the wisdom you’ve gained as a professional so far, what are “5 stand-out things” you’ve learned in the past 5 years, working in ‘content’?


1. Content strategy and content marketing are heavily interlinked, but completely different.

Tom Sandford

Content strategy – the systems, resources, goals and process behind creating content (mostly for websites and apps) – is a very systematic, logical discipline. It’s spreadsheet heavy, research heavy and requires good commercial knowledge. Content marketing – the creation and distribution of content to entertain, educate or inform – is much more creative, intuitive and nuanced.

I don’t think it’s possible to be good at both. It’s like combining sales and marketing. One is tactical, the other strategic. There are very few people who can move between the two with the skill and focus that two specialists can.

2. Customer centric isn’t just a buzzword.

I wish it was.

The temptation, as specialists in any field, is to dictate what people need. Interviewing users is messy, time-consuming and often ruins our plans for that awesome multimedia project we’re desperate to produce. But every time we do user testing or customer research we learn their subtle concerns and perspectives that turn a beautiful blog into a beautiful, profitable, high performing blog. We’re getting close to the point where we’ll refuse to take on a project without primary customer research.

3. Content theory is incredibly simple; the application is hard.

I used to get frustrated with all the content strategy/marketing books saying exactly the same thing. But the truth is, when it comes to the theory, there’s actually not that much to say. Understand your customer – their hopes and fears, the steps they take when making decisions, the channels they’re on – and create really f**king useful content for them.

It’s the details that make all the difference. And they don’t come from a text book, they come from the weird culture of the client’s company, the limitations of the budget and the opportunities that thorough research uncovers.

We have a blog post – a whopping 3.5k-word monster on how to turn an agency into a content marketing machine – that demonstrates this point. Enjoy!

4. With content marketing, the goal posts move quicker than you imagine.

As everyone’s jumped into content marketing, so the quality of strategy and execution has had to shift. Honestly, we’ve been caught out by this on a few occasions. It’s very easy to get into the way that you do things… and miss that ‘the way’ is less effective than it was just six months ago.

Having a good handle on the metrics that are crucial to the project (and not just those that are easy to get) is the only way to protect yourself.

5. There’s a massive difference between copywriters and journalists.

Journalists write long; copywriters write short. They might tell you they can do both but, if it’s quality you’re after (and I hope it is), then you want to have the right people in the right seats.

Callum, our Head of Copy (copywriter), will pour over every line in his copy and feel energised by the process. Brand messages and calls to action rock his world.

Stu, our Head of Content (journalist) will find stories in the most unexpected places (we have some very obscure B2B tech clients,) and craft stories until the cows come home (or, at least, until the office is locked up for the night).

You may not have the luxury of having two skilled writers, but having access to both has convinced me that, while it may be tempting from a briefing and cost perspective to combine the two, you’ll get far better results by respecting the very different skill sets they possess.


If you would like to hear more from Tom and Future Content they email a weekly content industry round-up. You can get in touch with Tom via Linkedin on Twitter.

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