John Alderman Charles Schwab
Director of Account Planning, Charles Schwab, John Alderman © Bart Nagel

Some careers are destined for a traditional path. The rungs of the ladder are already set, with the order in which to climb predetermined. This is not the case for many working in content creation. Backgrounds can (and do) vary greatly with business, journalism, advertising, and marketing oftentimes carrying equal weight as a foundation for content success.

John Alderman’s career path from a journalist at Wired to his current position as the Director of Account Planning at Charles Schwab has been an interesting ride. Alderman talks to Content Science Review about creativity, influencers, creating content that goes out and meets people, and the one app he cannot live without.

Like many journalists turned content strategists, your career path is nonlinear. Can you describe the process of transitioning from editorial to agency life to in-house?  

It was pretty straightforward for me because as a journalist, and specifically as an editor, I was working at Wired in its early days, at HotWired, which was the world’s first commercial web site, and we had to address many of the issues of content strategy. Building on that, the first agency work I did was at Eat Creative in Japan, partly as an editor of their beautiful food magazine, and partly helping to build a multi-language website for an international airline. My boss there came up with the great title of Editorial Strategist – this was 2002, and it made sense to me.

Back in the States I got a job at Razorfish just as the discipline of content strategy was developing, and as the scale of reach suddenly was becoming very mainstream. There, I was exposed to the most variety of content efforts, and it was all a great challenge, especially as our part of the project wasn’t always fully understood, or accounted for.

That’s when I realized I needed to have a working toolset of methods that could be flexible enough to work across types of businesses, but scalable enough that they wouldn’t become a bottleneck.

I also realized that my content strategy documents needed to tell a story, needed to articulate a company’s vision in a way that was compelling enough to convince a board room, and inspiring enough that writers, editors, and even video teams could work from it.

That led to me being named Creative Director, though I was still grounding my work very closely to content creation and editorial direction.

How do you think each of those roles prepared you for your role today?

I still have several roles, and wear a lot of different hats, and am about to pull out a range of tools from strategy through copywriting. The main thing about being a planner or a strategist is that it’s about asking questions, finding out what matters, and then coming up with a framework that lets everyone give, or get, permission to do cool things.

Has there been a universal skillset that translates across industries that you’ve found particularly beneficial to your career evolution?

Interviewing skills, hands down. As a journalist I got to interview many of my heroes and heroines, as well as many other luminaries. Now as a consultant, I’m not at all intimidated when interviewing people of any level, even though the old journalist technique of asking the stupid questions needs to be tempered a little when you’re hired to be a smart guy.

I also think that working in editorial brought a perspective that a lot of people coming out of agencies don’t have: that of building something expected to grow over time. As an agency it tends to be that you deliver something and then walk away. But if you’re doing a magazine – online or off – you think in terms of cycles, whether monthly or daily or whatever. Creating a habit is much more valuable than getting a quick glance.

You work at Charles Schwab, are there content strategies that are only at play within the financial sector?

Well, it’s definitely its own kind of business, and I’m just speaking for myself here, not the company. But certainly we have to be very careful about anything overly promissory, and just in general very careful – it’s largely people’s nest eggs, certainly other people’s money that we’re taking care of, and it’s important to never forget that, nor forget that the markets are beyond our control.

I’ve always tried to stick with methods are scalable and portable across industries. Fundamentally the strategies I use are ones that work just about everywhere. Having a brand and a point of view, telling stories that resonate with people, and trying to be helpful at the right place and the right time for your customers. How you get to that may change, but those are pretty solid fundamentals.

What’s the best bit of career advice you’ve held onto and who gave it to you?

I think it was Timothy Leary, who was at a point in his life when he was promoting computers as tools for thinking, sort of like Steve Jobs’ “computers are like bicycles for our minds.” I was at a conference, 16 years old, and after chatting a little, Leary announced to the adults there that I could do whatever I wanted in life, and was on the right track, using computers for thinking and communication. It led directly to my move to California, and then to Wired.

Gary Wolf, my old boss at Wired has been an inspiration in that he’s used his own career as a journalist as a launch pad for the Quantified Self, combining continuous questioning with jumping in and trying things himself, and then getting others interested by talking about it and encouraging them to do things themselves, too.

Where would you like to see content experiences heading?

I really do think that the rise of big data, in a broad sense, presents content strategists with a huge opportunity.

Storytelling is about making sense of the world and what we as humans can hope to do within it.

With the rise in the amounts of data available to us, making sense of the world is more important than ever. Developing ways of processing information that makes it understandable, actionable, and helps inform our human place in an ever-expanding world – that’s something that I’d like to see content experiences start to handle. If we thought content strategy got big over the recent decade, just wait until the next, as we have to really cope with information overload and information possibility.

You’ve had some interesting titles – Creative Director, Author, where does creativity come into play now that you’re a Director of Account Planning?

It comes into play in almost everything. For me as a planner it’s very much about being able to set up the creative challenge for others to solve, and doing that requires drawing from as many sources as possible to describe a situation or tension that a creative person can work from. So there’s thinking, research, empathy, all being brought in to define and communicate what we’re doing.

What’s your favorite type of client and type of content to create?

There are the obvious things around personal taste, like my interest in food, music, and design. But there’s the less obvious stuff like digging into a challenge and helping people. I like it when the work is built up on solid discovery and creative concepts are well grounded. Sometimes the luxury of time is involved, but what’s more valuable is the luxury of thinking and the willingness to stand out. Not needlessly provocative, but by being substantive, interesting, and helpful. Or daringly beautiful.

I love bold clients who are really working hard to get their message out, especially when they are actually doing or making interesting things worth talking about. When it comes to a highly regulated, competitive industry like financial services the differences can be subtle, but I do think they show themselves, especially over time.

Aside from your smartphone, what is the one bit of technology you couldn’t do your job without?

I really use the hell out of MindNode, a small, easy app for making mind maps. This is just a great, simple tool for helping me organizing insights, points of data, and my thoughts as they come to me.

What is one thing you think all companies should be doing in regards to an overall content strategy?

Do interesting things that are worth talking about, then figure out the best places to get the conversation rolling. I think too often content strategy can get bogged down with what I call “archeology”: caretaking all of this stuff and really hoarding it, creating unnecessary clutter. It’s like a salesperson worrying more about collecting things for a fancy office than in getting on the phone and talking to clients and prospects, or going out and meeting people. The former might make us comfortable and feel more tangible, but the latter will get far more results.

Make some content that goes out and meets people.

I like to start by defining the persuasions your work is trying to achieve, and thinking about what kind of conversations drive those, rather than simply listing what you want to say and building content around that. It’s a subtle shift, but it means considering the audience, the location, and the cycle of communication, and not just checking off a list that you’ve published your point, without bothering to check what effect it had. Seems obvious, but I’ve found too often that it’s not.

The Authors

Content Science is a growing content strategy and intelligence company and the publisher of Content Science Review. We empower digital enterprises for the content era by taking their content approach to the next level. Customers of our professional services and one-of-a-kind products (such as ContentWRX and Content Science Academy) include the Fortune 50, the world’s largest nonprofits, and the most trusted government agencies.

John Alderman is the Director of Account Planning at Charles Schwab.

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