Content Marketing

The Traits You Need to Thrive in the New Era of Marketing

This past February, I was writing in a cafe in Cartagena while on sabbatical—a perk that all Contentlyians get after five years. Suddenly, I broke a promise to myself. I checked my work email.

At the top of my inbox was an invitation from our head of HR to take a WholeBrain assessment—one of those pop-sci frameworks that helps you understand your strengths and how you think. I took the assessment, went back to writing, and forgot about it.

I’d spent the past few years as Contently’s Head of Content Strategy, but when I landed back in New York, our CEO asked me to make a switch and take over as our head of marketing. I accepted.

My first task: take the WholeBrain leadership training.

The Danger Zone

When I stumbled out of the journalism world and into marketing eight years ago, I learned that half the job was creating a flawless perception of yourself. The modern marketer is told they’re supposed to be a data-driven unicorn-octopi hybrid, with eight hands and a natural-born instinct for Instagram stories. We’re told we need to be masters of analytics, incredible writers, top-notch videographers, quirky creatives that can manage a team of 10 and get the board on your side (all others need not apply).

This is obviously an insane expectation, but it’s a prevalent reaction to the massive upheaval in the marketing world. When you’re absorbing data from 20 different platforms and connecting with customers across dozens of platforms, the job requirements never end.

As a marketing leader, it can feel like half the job is making people believe you’re that rare unicorn-octopi. I’d done a decent job of it so far, aided by the fact that I wrote a book about the art and science of storytelling. I felt fairly confident that I could keep it up.

But then the training began.

After some icebreakers, we got our results. Immediately, I knew it was in trouble. My results made me look like a crazy person.

The jig was up.

content marketing skills


In WholeBrain, each quadrant represents a different way of thinking. Blue is very factual/analytical/data-driven; green is organized and detail-oriented; yellow is big-picture strategic thinking; red is all about relationships.

As you can see, I was all yellow and red. A head-in-the-clouds thinker obsessed with how everyone is feeling, disorganized with a disregard for data.

The instructor grabbed it from my desk and showed it to the other leaders in the room.

My facade was shattered, but here’s the thing I soon learned: almost no one is whole brain. We all have strengths and deficits—even the most successful entrepreneurs on earth. And as it turns out, this is especially true of those who end up in marketing.

This launched me on an odyssey. If it was damn-near impossible to have all the innate skills that organizations ask of modern marketers, which traits really matter? Over the past decade, I’d worked with some incredible clients that I suspected were just as imbalanced as me. What helped them thrive?

The traits that really matter

The answers to this are what I’m going to cover in my talk at Content Marketing World, so I don’t want to give too much away. But in my interviews and work with the top marketers today, a few traits stand out:

  • Unleashing your story-driven brain. As humans, we’re storytelling animals. Embracing this part of ourselves is the key to empathizing with our customers, creating content that drives action, and leading teams.
  • Intellectual humility and bridge building. The ability to understand where you’re weak, the willingness to accept where you’re wrong, and the tenacity to build partnerships with those who can do what you cannot.
  • Relentless experimentation. A simple mindset shift in which you constantly challenge your assumptions, and view every aspect of your marketing program as a laboratory for innovation.

If you’re one of the thousands of content marketing nerds gathering in Cleveland next month, I hope you can join me at 11:20 on September 4th so that we can find our way forward, together.

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