Monday, November 30, 2009

Rest in Peace, old buddy

Last night, sitting in an airport and reading the news on my iPhone, I learned that a friend and former boss had died.
And I want to take a few moments here today to remember him ... and to share with you why he was important to those of us in B2B.
Mark Pittman was only 52 when he died. But he was already a legend in the business. If you didn't know Mark or his work, take a few minutes now to read about his accomplishments. CJR has links to major events in his career as well as an interview with him from earlier this year. And the Washington Post has published a fitting obituary.

Mark will be remembered as one of a handful of reporters who sounded the alarm as the world neared financial chaos. That's a good way to be remembered. He did his job. And he did it well at a time when few others did.

When I worked with Mark, he was the team leader of the Public Finance team at Bloomberg. I was the editor on that team. But before I write another word, let me make one thing clear: I had nothing to do with Mark's remarkable accomplishment in deciphering -- and warning the world -- about the madness that had taken over the markets.
Mark was my boss, not the other way around. And he was the guy who first taught me about credit-default swaps, mortgage-backed securities and other derivatives, and the dangers they hid. I don't think I taught the guy a thing.
More importantly, Mark's greatest accomplishment (the Loeb Award) took place well after I left Bloomberg. Although I was a fan of the fantastic stuff he wrote in recent years, I was not his editor for any of it.

But let's put aside Mark's accomplishments for now. Because I can't write about Mark without writing about what he meant to me personally while I was at Bloomberg.
Anyone who knows me knows that I disliked working at Bloomberg. I just couldn't stand what Portfolio called "the famously bizarre corporate culture" at Bloomberg.
But I liked Mark.
Heck, I loved Mark. It was impossible to do otherwise. He was a bigger-than-life, over-the-top, lovable stereotype of the perfect reporter. He drank. He smoked. He worked too hard (he went weeks and weeks limping around the office in a makeshift bandage and untied sneaker rather than take time to visit the doctor after injuring his foot.)
He was also both an inspiring iconoclast and a genuinely kind man in a culture that seemed to disdain both individualism and sweetness.

He was also, ultimately, a guy who loved this game.
He lived for the story. He believed -- in a way that's all too rare in B2B -- that his role was to bring difficult truths into the light.
I think of him often when I run into B2B journalists who spend their days worrying about how advertisers or publishers might react to a story. I think of Mark every time a B2B journalist starts talking about "my industry" and I realize he means the industry he covers, rather than the B2B publishing industry he works in.
Mark was never the sort to wonder what his role was. He wasn't a businessman. He was a business journalist.
And he was one of the best there ever was.
I'm going to miss you, old buddy.

For an interesting take on Mark's career from a former critic, look at this post on Reuters.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A tale of two audiences

I visited the campus of Northwestern University a few weeks ago to do some recruiting for a client. Things worked out OK. I met a few interesting students. And at least one of them may get a job out of it.
But the overall experience of my day on campus was a bit disconcerting, as has often been the case when I visit with academics and students.
And, with one notable exception, things were disconcerting in the same way they've been for years now.

The more things change ...
First, let me mention the exception.
For the first time in the five years or so that I've been visiting with students, every single person I met at Northwestern had at least basic multimedia skills and some Web experience. I cannot begin to tell you what a relief that was.
On the other hand, I saw too much of the same-old nonsense I've come to expect on campuses. One student handed me a cover letter with spelling and grammar errors. Most of the students who signed up for an interview had failed to do even cursory research on me or my client. One didn't even know my name. Not one student could correctly answer my all-purpose, do-you-know-anything-about-business questions (1. Approximately where did the Dow close yesterday? And 2. Roughly what would it cost to buy an ounce of gold today? I was willing to accept anything remotely close to 10,000 and $1,000 as answers.)
And, of course, none of the students seemed to have any idea at all about B2B publishing.

When my day ended I left the old, dusty journalism building and walked about 15 yards to a brand-spanking-new building where a colleague was to give a presentation about opportunities in marketing.
And that brief journey was like walking into an entirely new world.
Whereas only two people had attended a presentation earlier in the day with me and a recruiter from the Village Voice, this room was packed with students from Northwestern's new program in integrated marketing communications.
More importantly, the students in the marketing meeting were engaged -- typing notes on laptops, asking good questions. They seemed excited and eager to learn.
I fell in love with those students.
That was the exact opposite of how I felt about my time with the journalism students.
Most of the future journalists seemed, well, disinterested. Only one seemed truly enthusiastic about the profession. They were largely unprepared and disengaged. Most didn't take notes until I suggested they do so. Two of them needed to borrow a pen.

The nice kids
I shouldn't have been surprised.
Because what I saw in those two buildings was, in a nutshell, what's happening across the entire communications industry. Journalists (and journalism teachers and students) are making incremental adjustments to the new world, but marketers and public-relations professionals (as well as teachers and students in those fields) are morphing like crazy.
Most of the marketing people I know love the new world. They're excited. They can't seem to believe their good fortune to be working in a field where the rules are being rewritten.
But many journalism folks I know can generally be described as somewhat less than thrilled. Those differing sentiments among professionals (and academics) must have an effect on students.
There's also no doubt that the economy has had an impact.
Prospective journalists are being told time and again that jobs are disappearing.
Marketing/p.r. students, on the other hand, seem to understand that the skills they are acquiring have value.

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you know I'm not saying anything new.
It was more than three years ago that I first wrote of my concern that B2B journalists were adopting the techniques of conversational editorial more slowly than were the public relations and marketing executives of the industries we cover.
And it's been more than two years since I started writing about content marketing, which I see as the the most exciting and fastest-growing area in B2B publishing. And content marketing is nothing more (or less) than marketers learning to perform the tasks of journalists.
But what I saw at Northwestern was new, at least to me: that in academia, as in business, the marketing space is attracting an extraordinary new type of communicator; while journalism programs are producing a more skilled, but not-so-very-different-from-the-old-days type of person.

If you're interested in spreading the word about B2B among journalism programs, there are some things you can do.
First, reach out to the j-schools in your area. Offer to do a guest lecture. Make yourself available for interviews.
Second, offer your support to the ASBPE Foundation. Funding for the foundation is in short supply. It could do with your help. Among other academic-related efforts, the group hopes to endow a university chair for an "ASBPE professor of business-to-business journalism."

If you'd like to learn more about what's happening in the world of B2B marketing, public relations and content marketing, the Web is full of great resources.
Three of my new favorites are Mengel Musings, owned by Amy Mengel; the B2BBloggers site, dedicated to "shaping the future of btob marketing;" and Social Media B2B, described as "exploring the impact of social media on B2B."