‘I’ve finally decided that I really should be writing books backwards.’
Instead of locking himself away in a room to write a book (as he did first time round), or even getting some supporting research in hand beforehand (book 2), top marketer Drew Davis is writing his third book backwards. He’s started with a hypothesis and he’s testing it out week by week on YouTube, taking on board the feedback, and discovering that the outline for this book looks very different to what he’d originally thought.
This is just one of the brilliantly practical tactics Drew shares with me in this conversation: you can also discover how he overcame imposter syndrome at a stroke, and what he learned from the Muppets.
Andrew’s site: https://www.akadrewdavis.com/
Andrew on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DrewDavisHere
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Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. And it’s a joy to be here today with Andrew Davis who is a best selling author and a keynote speaker. He’s built and then sold a digital marketing agency. He’s produced for NBC and worked … I can’t tell you how excited I am about this … he worked for the Muppets. Today he teaches business leaders how to grow their businesses, transform their cities and leave their legacy.
Alison Jones: Welcome to the show, Andrew.
Andrew Davis: Hey, thanks for having me. This is so fun.
Alison Jones: It’s so great to have you here. And I’m sorry, we’re going to have to start with the Muppets.
Andrew Davis: That’s all right.
Alison Jones: I bet you get this a lot, right?
Andrew Davis: I do, I do. It’s great.
Alison Jones: When Joe Pulizzi recommended you as a guest for the show, I actually said to him, “Well, you had me at The Muppets.” Tell us what it was like working with Kermit and what business lessons you took away from that period of your life?
Andrew Davis: It was a really interesting time in The Jim Henson Company actually. This was in the late 1990s and The Jim Henson Company, they’d been struggling since Jim Henson died which was in the early 1990s. I was actually hired to work in the workshop which is where they make the puppets. Early morning I would get off the elevator into the workshop and Miss Piggy would be sitting there staring at me and I’d pinch her nose and wish her a good morning. It was that kind of work environment. But I worked with really talented artists. But what I really learned, I think, at The Muppets, especially in retrospect, I didn’t really, I think, comprehend it at the time, but the first show I worked on was actually Bear in the Big Blue House which, I don’t know, do you know it?
Alison Jones: We did get it, yeah, it wasn’t as big over here, but I do remember seeing it.
Andrew Davis: I also worked on an English show called Mopatop Shop, I don’t know if you remember that.
Alison Jones: No.
Andrew Davis: It was not around very long, but that was an English show. But anyway, Bear in the Big Blue House was a really great, unbelievable show. I was in charge of the budget for the workshop. It was my first big job at The Jim Henson Company. We would go to these meetings, like the first meeting I went to, production for the show hadn’t even started yet. I had run a budget report to find that we were already over budget for the entire season in the workshop. And we still had the shoot, 13 episodes. So I was a little panicked and I come up with this plan to help us get back on track. I went to the meeting and everybody went around the room, it was Sony executives and Disney executives and The Jim Henson Company executives. And everybody, their status report was like, “Green light, green light, green light,” and they got to me and I said, “Hi, I’m new here, but I just want to put up a red flag, we’re in kind of in trouble in the workshop. We’re over budget, but I’ve got a plan to put it on track.”
Andrew Davis: I was interrupted by Brian Henson actually and he just said, “Hey, welcome to the company. So glad you’re working on the problem. Don’t worry about it. Thanks for joining the team.” I thought, “That’s a weird response.”
Alison Jones: “Maybe he didn’t understand.”
Andrew Davis: Yeah, I thought, “Why would you not worry about the budget because we’re so over budget that you’re really in trouble.” It turned out, a few weeks later, I was invited to have a meeting with the two people who ran the merchandising and licencing teams at The Jim Henson Company. I sat down with these two people. They’re definitely like the most, I would say the smartest people on The Jim Henson Company’s … especially when it comes to money. And they told me that, “Look, don’t worry about your budget overages until they get to the tens, twenties, thirties of millions of dollars.” I was like, “What do you mean?” They said, “Look, unless you make great content, there is no demand in the marketplace for the products that are a result of the content we create. So no one needs a Bear in the Big Blue House interactive toy. No one needs a Bear in the Big Blue House sleeping bag. They won’t need a Bear in the Big Blue House plush doll unless the content is so good. And if you constrain the people who are making Bear, the puppet that we’re going to use, so that Bear isn’t lifelike and he isn’t able to express himself and it isn’t an unbelievable puppet, we will not be able to licence the product.”
And it dawned on me as I’ve looked back on my career at The Jim Henson Company that The Jim Henson Company itself never really made money on any of the entertainment they created. What they made money on was creating a demand for a product that they could then sell by just creating unbelievably good content. So Sesame Street is a global phenomenon, it’s licenced in hundreds and hundreds of countries all around the world. And there’s no demand for a Grover plush doll unless you fall in love with Grover. They make their money by licencing the stuff that they’ve created and selling the products that are a result of unbelievably good content. And at the end of the day, The Jim Henson Company is just an unbelievable marketer. My entire career after that has been dedicated to really trying to understand how you can inspire people to buy something they didn’t know they needed by having them fall in love with whatever you’re creating.
Alison Jones: That’s absolutely fascinating. So The Muppets was, in fact, content marketing, but we never knew it?
Andrew Davis: That’s right. And most really amazing media empires are really content marketers at the end of the day. They create entertainment properties that are so far reaching that they sell a lot of stuff related to it. Star Wars is another great example, right?
Alison Jones: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew Davis: Lego’s a company that makes Lego toys, but they also now have unbelievably amazing feature length films that then drive demand for a whole new set of toys for a whole new generation of kids and even adults.
Alison Jones: And there’s such an interesting conversation there isn’t there, about sticking to your core and making yourself really, really clear about what it is that you do and where you focus your time and energy, but also being really clear about where you’re diversifying to make the revenue.
Andrew Davis: That’s right, yeah, yeah, especially in the media world. If you’re thinking, “Hey, I’ll just sell books,” or, “I’ll just write for a living,” you can do that and you can actually make a really good living doing it especially if you’re just a New York Times bestseller time over time, over time. But, you also have the ability to really think more broadly about the revenue opportunities that are out there if you think more like The Jim Henson Company or Disney or Lego and think, “What are the opportunities for revenue streams that I haven’t even thought of, and what might my content be inspiring people to buy and how can I actually leverage that myself?”
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. Can we, that actually leads us really nicely to talk about the books because, obviously, you have a digital media, you’re a marketing man, you’re a speaker and you’ve got two books. How did Brandscaping and Town INC. come about? Why would you think it was important for you to write them? And how do they fit with the other stuff that you do in your business?
Andrew Davis: Both of them came about, I guess, in a similar way. Let’s start with Brandscaping which is the first book I wrote in 2012. That book, I ran a digital marketing agency for 12 years. I sold it in 2012 and decided that I should try to encapsulate the marketing philosophy we had used and the frameworks and the concepts at a very high level and share them with the rest of the world. So I shut myself in a room and wrote this book and then published it. Then that resulted in a bunch of speaking so the book helped propel the speaking, I guess, in a sense.
And then Town INC. was actually inspired by all the travel I was doing speaking. I started going to some cities that were really struggling to get by and then other cities that were booming. I couldn’t figure out from a marketing perspective what was different about these two cities or towns even if they were only 50 miles apart. One was really struggling and the one down the street seemed to be an oasis. So I thought, “Let me start investigating what’s the difference between these places that seem to be very successful and the ones that are struggling. And from a marketing perspective, see if I can find the answer to the question of how do you market a place so that you can leave a legacy and really drive revenue.”
That three-year journey of research led me to a new way of looking at marketing places and cities. So both of those books were experiences that it turned into something I really wanted to share and something I think had discovered that was worth sharing with the world.
Alison Jones: What I love about that, I mean, Brandscaping seems to be almost the end of that first process. You did the work and then you were like, “You know what? I should put this in a book.” But Town INC. sounds like it came more from a question and you used the process of writing the book to answer the question and discover the stuff and then build a new line of stuff, products, talks, all the rest of it off the back of that.
Andrew Davis: Yeah, yeah. I actually started my career in the television business as a journalist essentially. I was producing and writing basically public affairs programming is what they call it in the United States. But it’s basically news shows and that’s what I was doing, working for NBC on the Today show and I wrote for a guy named Charles Kuralt who was a great story teller, but it was all public affairs programming. For me, I’m a curious guy and I’m always looking for answers and challenging, I guess, traditional solutions looking for a better way to do things and the stories that support those. So for me, I’ve always approached writing as an investigative journalist maybe, where I have a hypothesis and I’m going out to find the answer to the questions that I have through the stories that I find. And that’s been really successful for me.
I think my next book, I’m working on a book now that I’m tentatively titling The Loyalty Loop, but my thinking has even gone further. Today, I’m really thinking that … Here was the problem with … Interrupt me, by the way, if this is boring.
Alison Jones: No, it’s fascinating. Keep going.
Andrew Davis: I think what was wrong with Brandscaping, let’s take them one by one. Brandscaping, I took this huge body of knowledge that the agency had collected over 12 years and stuffed it into a book and then went out to talk about it. And even when I went out to do the speeches about Brandscaping, the questions I got from audience participants were great, insightful questions that I realised aren’t answered in the book. It left me thinking, “Wow, man, what a missed opportunity. I can’t believe I’m out here talking about this book and some of the crucial, and probably most basic questions, I took for granted.” And I said, “You know what? I’m not going to make that mistake next time.”
So next time when I started working on Town INC., I was like, “Let me aerate this idea with a few people. Let me partner with Northeastern University and do some quantifiable research so that I can support my claim and the thesis in the book.” I thought: there’s not going to be any questions about this. So I started, I did the same thing again. I went out and started speaking about the book only to realise that, man, I could have done a better job of really diving deeper into understanding what the audience really needs out of this instead of just really supporting the hypothesis I had and figuring out how it worked. So this book, I’ve finally decided that I really should be writing books backwards.
I have a hypothesis and I started, the first week of January, I wrote an outline for The Loyalty Loop and then instead of immediately writing, I started creating a You Tube series where once a week I do, essentially, a story that started as a chapter that was in the book. So the first one was on moments of inspiration and I tell this story about moments of inspiration and show people what it is. And then I started immediately getting questions from the audience I was sharing the videos with and that has now, over the course of the last 20 weeks or 22 weeks that I’ve been doing this video series, it’s completely changed what the book is about if I look back at the outline I started with. Does that make sense?
Alison Jones: It makes complete sense. What you’re doing is basically the agile principle here, isn’t it? You got your MVP, you go out with an idea, and then you take the feedback and you pivot and you run with it. It was interesting because you used that phrase about locking yourself in a room to write your first book and I was like, “Oh, interesting.” This, I think, is a much more rewarding, engaging way to do it. And of course by the time the book comes out, you’re going to have this cohort of people who are just desperate to get their hands on it.
Andrew Davis: Yeah, I’m building an audience for the book which I think is awesome, right? And it’s definitely something that I think is a great by-product of thinking like an investigator. I’ve been calling it Aeration, like I’m aerating the idea-
Alison Jones: I like that word, yes.
Andrew Davis: … with the audience and getting their feedback and incorporating it. And funnily enough, some of the things that I thought would resonate, haven’t resonated with the audience, but they’ve regurgitated it to me in a way that I realise I can elevate and include in a much more sound way. So it’s been really, really awesome. It’s essentially, the process today is research, publish my stuff on You Tube and then I’m actually instead of just taking it directly to a book, I’m actually taking it on the road speaking. So I’m actually doing a speech called The Loyalty Loop. As a result, I’m refining the ideas that I’m learning and realising what are the crucial elements of the story, how can I actually present these in a way that people are intrigued and engaged and the final thing I’ll do is write the book instead of speak after I’ve written the book.
Alison Jones: I’m going, “Ha, really good question.” I love that.
Andrew Davis: Got a new approach, hopefully it’ll work.
Alison Jones: And I like too the way that that brings together the digital and the offline because a book feels like old technology and I think a lot of people … I have to admit, when I was in digital publishing back in the early 2000s, I was really confident that e-books were going to replace print books over time because they were much more portable and you could search them, all these affordances that they had. But the print book has been incredibly resilient. What’s interesting to me is the way that the end point, in a sense, the end product, that the landmark product is the book, contributing to it and alongside it and all the stuff that’s going into it, is also all that digital marketing stuff. And the story gets told across all the different channels, doesn’t it?
Andrew Davis: Yeah, I’ve been preaching for a long time that the future of digital content is print because, funnily enough, I think the digital world, it moves so rapidly even for longer form mediums with longer tail effects like YouTube or maybe even LinkedIn that move a little slower. You’re talking about, 72 hours is the life span of the content you’ve created. But in the print world, there’s a really long, long tail meaning the book sits around or the magazine sits around or even the direct mail piece sits around or it’s passed along and it’s engaged with in a very different way. The problem is people, I think, feel like they should be different media like, “Oh, let me think about my digital strategy and let me think about my print strategy.” Whereas I think the people that are really successful build a very sound digital strategy and they only elevate the stuff that really showed signs of working and requiring an elevation and elongation in the print world. And that’s when you have something worth publishing or printing.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. I love the word elongation. Aeration and elongation, those have been my best words from this conversation.
Andrew Davis: Those are good ones.
Alison Jones: Those are good ones. Let’s go under the hood a bit because everyone says, “Oh, I wrote my book…” and I want to know what that looks like. Tell me a bit more about what writing actually looks like for you. What’s your routine? What gets you going? What keeps you going?
Andrew Davis: Yeah. I’ll talk about what I’m doing today and maybe that’ll help. I take the videos very seriously so I actually, it’s basically a week-long production process that includes the first step being writing the script for it. I actually write out the script and some of these are ten minutes long, some of them are six minutes long, but they’re fairly long form for video and very highly produced. I’m trying to treat it like a television show. Generally on Mondays, I write the script. If I need to shoot, I’ll shoot on Mondays if it’s something that’s time sensitive and is happening today, I’ll shoot. But I need to have a good idea of what I’m doing. And then over the course of the week, I essentially edit the videos together and distribute it every Friday at 3:00 PM. The writing at this point is very much focused on the video.
I can tell you, in the past, I mentioned that I just squirrel away and write the book in a locked room. I don’t know that I’m the most routine-oriented writer. A lot of people say they write 1,000 words a day and they do that before they get started. I’ve tried those things. I’m just not that effective at it. So for me, when I’m really passionate about telling a story, that’s when all of a sudden I think the urge to write it actually happens and the creativity gets going. I think on the broader scale, yeah, that kind of research a story, interview some subjects, publish the first version on some social channel that I can get some feedback on. Then speaking about it, which I also write by the way, my speeches, and rehearse tremendously. That helps crystallise what I’m going to write. So I think by the time I get to the writing, it’s actually more like writing what I’ve been talking about for months and it happens very fast. Does that sound odd?
Alison Jones: No, it’s really interesting. What I was going to ask you is, do you use the content that you’ve written in those talks and in the scripts for the videos. But it sounds like that’s your first draft, but then having done it, you simply go and then write the full thing because it’s all in your head?
Andrew Davis: Yeah, because it’s all in my head and it’s been rehearsed so much and delivered so many times to so many audiences, that I can actually hear the audience as I’m writing. And I can see how they’re going to react. One of the things I do when I speak, I speak a lot, I speak about 50 times a year. And every speech I’ve given, I videotape so on day one I videotape myself. On day two when I’m speaking, I videotape the audience so I actually can see the audience engage and disengage or tweet something because I can see them pick up their phone and then get back to it. I can see when they pick up the conference agenda because that’s a clear sign they want to know who’s next. They’re done with me.
Alison Jones: That’s a bad sign, right?
Andrew Davis: Yeah, exactly. Those are the things that I, before writing, I feel like I’ve got to sort out like, “Okay, three people now in the last 30 seconds have picked up the conference agenda, this is a very slow part.” It means maybe the story isn’t working or resonating. It means I maybe haven’t connected the dots to this audience. It means maybe the central premise or even this idea is not very well expressed or totally useless to the audience, but fascinating to me. I really feel like by the time I’m actually writing something that I’m going to publish in a book, a chapter in a book, that it just is part of what I’ve been performing for a long time. And at that point, it’s, “Get it on paper, fact check it and make sure that I’m still telling the same story that I started with and even pull out some of the interviews I did to get to the speech or get to the video and go from there.”
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And there will be lots of people listening to this who are struggling with their first book at the moment. What one best tip would you give them?
Andrew Davis: Oh, man, it’s a tough one. I think there are a whole lot of people who believe you have to be the expert. They have imposter syndrome, right? They’re like, “What qualifies me to write a book about X, Y and Z?” Even if they have experience and they consider themselves an expert, I think there’s this little bit of doubt in their mind that they’re maybe not an expert. I think you can overcome that pretty quickly. In fact, I actually think there’s huge competition in that kind of expert space. I think as a first time writer, I would say think of yourself as an investigator, as a researcher and extract yourself completely. You don’t need to be an expert in whatever you want to write about. What you actually need to do is seek out the stories, build some hypotheses, find the answers, extract the principles from what you’re hearing and listening to and you can write an amazing book. But you don’t need to be an expert.
For me, that’s what qualified me in my mind to write Town INC. The book is all about marketing places and the central premise is essentially, what happens when you market the place you do business more than the business you do. I don’t know anything about marketing a place. I’ve never had a client that marketed a place. I’d never worked for an economic development organisation. I don’t know anything about destination marketing. So, for me, if I wanted to become an expert, that might have taken me three years, five years just to get some insight in the industry and have a few clients, right? Instead, I said, “Well, screw it, you know what? I want to use this to my advantage. I don’t know anything about the industry, so I’m coming at it with no preconceived notions. I’m going to start asking tonnes and tonnes of questions and try to uncover the hidden truths that everybody else who’s an expert has overlooked. And that’s where I’m going to find the answer to how you really could market a place and be really effective at it in today’s marketplace.”
Number one, it was liberating. Number two, I think it resulted in a better book. And number three, it’s a concept that I’m really proud of at the end of the day and qualified to talk about because I did the research …
Alison Jones: That’s so smart. And I love the mindset shift that it gives you, as you say, because you can really stuck yourself, can’t you? “Oh, I’m putting myself forward as an expert. What will people say?” But if you just treat yourself as somebody who’s an investigator, then you remove that completely and it’s just that you’re going with curiosity rather than fear, which is brilliant.
Andrew Davis: Yeah, and I think, think of yourself as a visionary. You’re looking for something that people have maybe stepped over for millennia-
Alison Jones: Because they’re too close to it, yes.
Andrew Davis: … and you’re going to be the first to find it. And I think you’ll find …They’re too close to it, yeah. It’s really much more fun actually as well, I find.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you. I always ask people to recommend another guest on the show. That’s why you’re here, of course, because Joe Pulizzi recommended you. He’s so great.
Andrew Davis: He’s such a great guy.
Alison Jones: So someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books. Who do you think we should have on next?
Andrew Davis: I was going to recommend David Burkus, but I know you’ve had him on the show and he is an amazing guy especially when it comes to business books. A Friend of a Friend is a great book so I decided I should recommend Ann Handley because number one, she’s an amazing writer, but number two, I think she’s got a really interesting perspective on how she writes. And that’s exactly what this world needs, everybody needs a little Ann Handley in their life.
Alison Jones: What a great recommendation. I don’t Ann at all so that’s brilliant. Thank you so much, brilliant recommendation.
Alison Jones: Also, I’m going to cheat a bit and ask you for another recommendation. Obviously, everyone should go and read Brandscaping and Town INC. and when it comes out, A Loyalty Leap, but apart those books, which business book do you recommend that everyone listening should read because it’s just so awesome?
Andrew Davis: I recommend, especially for writers, by the way, I think everybody should read the Wizard of Ads.
Alison Jones: I’ve never heard of it. What a great title.
Andrew Davis: You’ve never heard of that? You know what? I’m shocked that more people haven’t read the Wizard of Ads, but I have two books of his basically on my counter. My favourite one is actually Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads and it’s by a guy named Roy H. Williams.
Oh, whoops, see I just knocked it over.
Alison Jones: A little audio ambience there, thank you.
Andrew Davis: Yeah, sorry about that, that’s proof that I own the book, right?
Alison Jones: You don’t get that with an e-book, do you? No.
Andrew Davis: I just knocked everything over on my desk to get it. No, you don’t. You don’t get that knocking sound.
But here’s why, number one, it’s unbelievably well written. It’s extremely insightful. I find it very inspiring. That’s three things, by the way, instead of number one. But number two, you have to get the print version of the book. It is a unique print experience. He writes in the book with a magic marker, and he circles words, and he has these little call-outs and weird little notes to the reader. It’s a fascinating experience to read it. So if you haven’t read Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads or the Wizard of Ads-
Alison Jones: Brilliant. And it’s obviously got some heft by the sound of it as well.
Andrew Davis: I put it away. It does. It’s kind of a thick book, but it’s because the paper is part of the experience. It’s like, imagine if Dumbledore handed you a book that was written 300 years ago on parchment paper by a pirate. That’s how the book is.
Alison Jones: Wow. That’s very cool.
Andrew Davis: It’s a real experience. And if you’ve seen the number one New York Times bestseller, or actually, I don’t know if it’s number one anymore, Be Like Amazon. Roy H. Williams is actually the inspiration and the ghost writer behind that book.
Alison Jones: How interesting. No, I didn’t know that. Okay. Brilliant.
Andrew Davis: He’s an amazing guy.
Alison Jones: I love it when I get recommendations for books I don’t know and people I don’t so this is brilliant. Thank you.
Andrew Davis: You have to get it in print. If you don’t get it in print, don’t get it.
Alison Jones: No. Okay, understood. Got it. Thank you so much, Andrew. That was absolutely fascinating. Now if people want to find out more about you, more about all the work that you do and more about your books, those that are already out and the one that’s coming, where should they go?
Andrew Davis: You can find me online at akadrewdavis.com, that you’ll find my books and all that stuff. You can find me on You Tube every Friday with my Loyalty Loop series and you can find me on Instagram as @drewdavis.
Alison Jones: Brilliant and I shall put all those links up on the show notes, at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com. So you can go and find them there. Thank you so much. What a fascinating conversation.
Andrew Davis: This has been so much fun. Thanks for having me on.