Growth Hacking Interview Series #129: Carla Johnson
Carla Johnson helps marketers become storytellers. She works with companies to develop frameworks and build teams to tell better stories in order to develop deep relationships with customers and employees, create delightful experiences for audiences and generate top-line revenue.
Her clients include Motorola Solutions, Dell, Emerson, VMware, Western Union, American Express, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other corporate, government and nonprofit organizations.
Named one of the top 20 most influential content marketers, one of top 25 business-to-business marketers, and one of the top 50 women in marketing, Carla is the co-author of Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, which teaches marketers how to develop, manage and lead the creation of valuable experiences for their organizations.
She also serves as the Vice President of Thought Leadership on the Board of Directors for the Business Marketing Association, an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute and the Association for National Advertisers, is a frequent speaker and writes about creativity and innovation, the power of brand storytelling, and customer experience for the Content Marketing Institute, Chief Content Officer magazine, CMSwire and other media outlets.
Follow her on Twitter @carlajohnson.
How did you start out as a marketer?
I started out as an electrical engineering major and after a few years decided that I preferred to spend more time with people and less time studying on weekends. I have an undergraduate degree in business and history and a master’s degree in history.
It’s this odd combination that has helped me the most in marketing…plus writing has always come naturally for me. I got my first job in marketing with an architecture firm because I understood the technical side of things and could tell a story that made sense to nontechnical people.
I loved the work, loved telling stories and loved bringing work in the door.
Looking back, what is your hardest struggle when it came to delivering results?
Definitely educating executives on the value that marketing can bring to the table. With some companies, executives tolerate marketing so that things look “pretty.” This has changed significantly since I started my company in 2001. Now executives are more open to the conversation.
But if the expectation of marketers is to deliver better or different results, then everyone needs to be willing to let marketing behave differently. If marketing can deliver results that drive the business forward, execs care less about how they got there.
How did you get your first client back then, and what kind of service did you do for them?
When I started out, I told everyone I knew what I was doing and that I’d appreciate them either considering hiring me or sharing my name. I sent letters to everyone I knew and let them know I was in business. It was one of these letters that brought me my first client, for whom I did writing.
What do you find most rewarding about what you do?
The variety of people I meet and projects on which I work.
How is your typical work day structured?
We have three kids, so there’s a lot of unexpected hiccups in my day. But ideally I get up at 5:30, meditate or journal for 15-20 minutes, and then go to the gym. I see one daughter off to school before I go and the other two when I get home.
I focus on my biggest projects for the day when I’m fresh. Then calls midday and ideally another few hours of focus in the afternoon. During weeks when I travel, I never stick to this schedule. I’m a night owl by nature and when I’m away from home it’s very hard for me to turn in at the end of the day.
Can you tell us about a time where you had to put in significant effort up front and then wait a long time for success?
I don’t think about upfront time and how long it takes to pay off. I do the things I do because I love what I do. Some people say that it takes years to build up a network like mine, but it never felt like I was putting in work for a pay off.
I’ve loved the people I’ve met and worked with, and truly enjoy staying in touch with them. Overtime there’s the payoff of rich relationships which has certainly helped me, because I value all of their opinions.
Learning is the same way. I hope that I always remain a student of marketing, business, people and life itself.
Can you tell us about a past situation where you had to juggle multiple projects with competing deadlines?
When I first started my business I focused on freelance writing before I went back into strategy. That’s the nature of a freelance writer, or at least it was for me. I like the variety of the short-turn around projects mixed with the long-term gigs.
I’m not an organized person by nature, but people think that I am. It’s because I have to write everything (if it’s not written down or on my calendar, it doesn’t exist…) and I organize the priority of my work with sticky notes next to my desk.
What do you do to stay up to date with new marketing techniques?
Read, listen to and watch everything you can from the best in the industry. People say that they don’t have time to learn, but access to learning is the easiest thing in the world.
If you don’t have time to learn then you’ll have plenty of time to look for a new job because you won’t stay employable in an industry that’s changing as fast as marketing is today.
Can you tell us about a project you’re most proud of from your past work history?
The one of which I’m most proud and was the most fun was writing the corporate history for Western Union for its 155th anniversary. They were getting ready to split from First Data Corporation and become independently owned and operated again.
Back to my history roots…it was a fabulous way to blend history and branding that came out it a truly stunning book. We had a very diverse project team that included three lawyers. Everyone understood the end goal and it was one of the most collaborative teams on which I’ve ever worked.
Which one book/blog post would you recommend every Marketer should read?
Well of course I’m partial to Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing because I co-wrote it.
The blogs I read regularly are the Marketing Insider Group (Michael Brenner), ANNUITUS (Carlos Hidalgo) and Marketing Interactions (Ardath Albee).
What advice would you share with other Marketers who want to become more productive?
Break your work down into smaller chunks and prioritize everything. Many people do a lot of work but never feel like they get much done. Or they don’t feel like they make progress on the big things.
I prioritize my work for the week and then work on the most important thing until it’s done or I can’t go any further. Then I move onto the next thing. Just because something’s urgent doesn’t mean that it’s important.