Craig Heimbuch of Barefoot Proximity
Storytelling Innovator Series

Meet the Agency Innovator: Craig Heimbuch of Barefoot Proximity

Craig Heimbuch is the Senior Content Strategist at Barefoot Proximity, the Cincinnati office of the BBDO/Proximity network. He’s been at Barefoot Proximity for three years and worked with some of Barefoot’s impeccable client brands.

Agency folks can look out for Craig at Content Marketing World in the fall and SXSW Interactive in the spring, where he’s spoken twice before. Apart from that, Craig is often traveling and evangelizing content within the Proximity network.

Q: First things first. You’re pushing the content marketing envelope at a really great shop, so how did you get here?

Prior to joining Barefoot Proximity, I was the managing editor of a couple of magazines: Cincinnati Gentlemen and Housetrends. Both were regional and I did both jobs at the same time. I began my career as a newspaper reporter when I walked into my hometown weekly at 17 and offered to write for free if they would have me. Needless to say, they took me up on it and I spent the next decade — through college and beyond — covering everything from college sports to car wrecks, local school boards to Capitol Hill. I started a small and very short-lived magazine and went on to edit regional magazines. I’ve had work featured on, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, The Northern Virginia Daily, and the auspicious Avon Lake Press, among others.

I came to the agency while doing what every journalist does out of habit: googling job opportunities. Barefoot Proximity was getting set to launch and had a listing for a “Men’s Magazine Editor.” Since I was one of only two people in Cincinnati who could make that claim, it seemed like a natural fit. The work has evolved over the course of time. The digital world blew my mind. We have the Proximity Center of Excellence for Measurement, Optimization, and Search in our office, and getting to understand the work they do really opened my eyes to what’s possible. It was, in a way, kismet that a person of my background could suddenly have access to such knowledge and tools and has been a real boost to my career, let alone my enthusiasm.

Q: Sounds like you have some serious journalism chops. Exactly how much have you written?

I tried to calculate how much I’ve written for public consumption over the last 17 years, and with books, blogs, articles, reporting, and others, I think I’m approaching two million words, yet my mother-in-law still isn’t sure what I do for a living. I’ve written two books for myself — Chasing Oliver Hazard Perry (Clerisy, 2010) and And Now We Shall Do Manly Things (Wm. Morrow/HarperCollins, 2012) — and ghostwritten a few more, one of which was an Amazon best-seller. I’ve got a couple more on the way. Like I mentioned before, I’ve written thousands of articles on everything from politics to the aftermath of 9/11 and — get ready for it — even a feature about a man with the largest collection of coffee cups in a rural Virginia county. My latest is a white paper called “Content as Value Creation Tool.” I believe at least three people have read that. I’m working on a content strategy book that should be out later this year.

Q: OK, so you’re an award-winning journalist, author, and digital strategist. Great pedigree for somebody heading up content strategy for Fortune100 agency clients. Given your background, how would you define content strategy? Which elements are most important?

I come at content strategy from a different perspective. In my experience, the best strategies identify a few key things ahead of time:

Where does the content have to win? Does the brand have a right-to-win?

What topics and executions do you avoid? Where do brands not only not have a right-to-win, but no clear authority to participate?

And, the most important, how do you define business success? What is the path-to-purchase and how will content be evaluated against it?

It’s been my experience that too many marketers get into content without an endgame in mind. Or, they want to become a brand newsroom. I’ve never understood this. Content for content’s sake is no different than advertising and is a lot less effective. Brands should not — and here I tend to get a lot of strange looks in pitches — be publishers. They should be content marketers. This means they have clear goals in mind and a strategy for measuring and optimizing the value of content against those goals. Content is not, after all, an art, something to be admired for its aesthetic value. Nor is it a commodity to be bought in bulk and disregarded. For marketers, content is a tool to drive consumer conversion. It’s a matter of understanding your consumers — their interests, needs, passions, curiosities — and establishing a context for the brand to serve them. Content marketing is a service industry, and the first moment-of-truth happens far away from the store shelf or Amazon cart. It happens in the search bar, the Facebook feed, the link passed between friends.

I have a note stuck to the wall next to my desk that reads: “Content, even great content, is dead until it’s found, consumed, shared, and acted upon.” It’s sort of our motto. Content can’t be done in a silo; it has to be the connective tissue for a brand’s digital ecosystem.

Q: How has content strategy evolved in the last few years?

Quality has become more and more important. It was just a few years ago when 10,000 $5 articles were a good solution. Google put an end to that with the Panda update. Authenticity has also become very important, as important to content marketing as it is to hip-hop. AOL did a study about two years ago that found that 63% of time spent online is spent consuming content and nearly 60% of all content shared person-to-person (several million pieces a day in the U.S.) contains a specific brand reference. Brands don’t just have a right to participate in content, they have a mandate to do it right. I think you’ll see this become increasingly important. I also think CRM and content have come to fit more hand-in-glove. That’s the really exciting development that keeps me up at night.

Q: How are you innovating content strategy at your agency? What new products, services, and skill sets are you focused on?

I’ve worked really closely with our measurement and optimization team on two key innovations over the last several months. The first is called Content Efficacy, which is a proprietary algorithm that measures content value to specific stages of the path to purchase — discovery, engagement, and conversion. It helps us identify what content is working hardest to drive specific business results and helps us understand the relationships between individual pieces of content as it relates to overall effectiveness. We use this data to drive optimization — which we call Content Darwinism — soup-to-nuts, everything from headline treatment to individual authors, content partners, topics, formats, and lengths. The idea is to create feedback loops to constantly improve the health of the content libraries on our clients’ sites. For a person like me, it’s the perfect fusion of left and right brains.

I’m also focused on driving and understanding user participation — from UGC to social sharing — and establishing a means to understand the value of each step. The notion of a hash tag fascinates me. In my mind, it’s the new frontier of personalization — having your brand so strongly represent something that users incorporate it into self-identification. Completely fascinating.

Q: What current projects (work and personal) are you especially proud of?

I’m really proud of the work we’re doing with some of our biggest clients. Non-disclosures don’t allow me to discuss them, but I feel like our work at Proximity is going to contribute to the evolution and improvement of consumer-brand relationships. Our company’s brand promise is “We make brands more valuable to people and people more valuable to brands.” I really believe in that. It permeates all the work I do. I’m constantly pushing, wondering how an idea can be made better, to drive that mutual exchange of value. I have young kids and I never want them to feel like they have to stand outside a Best Buy on Thanksgiving night to feel valued by a brand. I believe the work we are doing is laying at least a small part of the groundwork for a new relationship with a brand.

Q: Who or what do you look to for inspiration and ideas?

Lately, its been Tim Ferriss. I used to not be able to stand the guy — his writing is so thick and dense — but something clicked a few months back and I, all of the sudden, got it. Agency life can be pretty cluttered and hectic. He’s all about focus. That has really inspired a lot of my recent work. It’s not about finding or contriving ways for brands to inject themselves into a content category; it’s about focusing on what’s driving the most meaningful results. That has spilled over into my personal life as well and will probably continue to be a big influence.

My personality is pretty split. Part Bourdain, part Bill Bryson, part Buddy Holly, part Jay-Z. All Miles Davis. I think that helps when dreaming up the future: not being too stuck in your ways. And professionally, I find a lot of inspiration from J. Peterman and Seth Godin, both of whom are visionaries on the power of story to move people. I like to think the work we’re doing here is the next iteration of that and you’ve got to be able to play both sides of the coin in order to pull it off. Spock AND Kirk. Not one or the other.

Q: What are some top lessons you’ve learned in business and in life?

In no particular order, here they are:

  • Always ask yourself “to what end?” This business can fall in love with its own cleverness pretty quickly. If you don’t have an endgame in mind, what’s the point?
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc — my favorite expression. It translates to “after this; therefore, because of this.” It’s the fallacy of most marketing measurements. Sales went up in November? Must have been the ads we ran early that month. It connotes correlation. I’m not terribly interested in correlation. I like causation. It’s harder to do, but in the digital space, it is possible.
  • Above all else, be useful. I’m pretty sure my dad said that once, or it came to me in a dream. Clients are looking for leadership from their agencies and I believe we need to be in love with our clients’ results, not focused on how many awards we can win. We need to be obsessed with the idea of strengthening the mutual value equation. This mindset, I believe, is one of the things that makes working where I work so special.

If you or someone you know would like to be highlighted in this agency innovator series please send me an email. And to learn more about how agencies are innovating download Skyword’s original report.

Photo source: Craig Heimbuch

Recommended for you