Content Marketers: Are You a Cook or a Chef?

I’m most of the way through yet another amazing essay from Wait But Why — in this case, the last installment of a series on Elon Musk. In this particular entry, the unfairly talented Tim Urban writes about the secret sauce behind Musk’s greatness. Tim just spent months of his life writing huge-yet-addicting posts about this one man — his audacious vision, his bold claims, his unwillingness to sit idly on his giant personal mountain of money. There’s GOT to be some kind of secret behind all of his thinking, right?

Tim thinks so, so he outlines what he dubs “reasoning from first principles” (among many more typically brilliant and Wait But Why-ish frameworks Tim uses to help us all make sense of complex ideas).

People who reason from first principles inform their own thinking by using the most basic and often hard-to-reach truths behind things in our world. They are often the kids who ask “Why?” a million times — and they’re the adults who refuse to accept “Because I said so” answers from anyone. Their key ability is amazingly powerful: arriving at their own conclusions. This is deceptively hard. Most of us blindly subscribe to established ways of thinking, whether due to upbringing or other influences that create dogma and tribal thinking. And we’ve evolved as a species to seek out alignment and solidarity with others, which is an emotion-ridden, never-ending journey. But Elon Musk and others who reason from first principles form their own thinking based on the most fundamental facts at hand.

Said another way: Some people create and some people copy.

The analogy that Tim Urban draws is simple: People sit on a spectrum between being cooks — those who rely on recipes — and chefs — those who create original recipes by using the most raw ingredients and building up from there.

Image via Wait But Why, the greatest site on this or any other planet.

Image via Wait But Why, the greatest site on this or any other planet.

Most people are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Most people will have moments of being a chef and moments of being a cook. You could argue that this very article that you’re reading is rather cook-like, as I’m not coming up with this concept — merely adding my own perspective and spin. The main point I drew from the Wait But Why article is that simply being or behaving like a cook or a chef is not necessarily good or bad in a vacuum. It’s only when applied to certain situations that we can make such a judgment call.

That’s because some problems and topics require a chef-like approach to make progress, but unfortunately, our tendency as humans is to find the recipe, find the tribe, and behave like cooks. It’s much harder to examine the objective first principles and draw our own conclusions. This can often be seen in today’s most challenging societal and cultural debates around politics, race, gender, sexual identity, religion, wars, and more. It can also be seen in less species-altering but still very challenging cases, like deciding the right career path for yourself or schooling for your kids.

Another area where this philosophy takes hold and changes us? Marketing.

Content cooks and chefs

In our industry, this spectrum should feel familiar. Some marketers want the recipe, eagerly reading blog posts like “12 Steps to Get More Twitter Followers for Your Business” or, in a far more extreme example of cookishness, “How to Buy Twitter Followers.” (If you abhor that idea too, here’s a parody flowchart you might enjoy. Also, if you’re wondering, extreme cookish behavior in business is why the internet is so chock-full of clearly bogus posts like The One Secret Thing All Successful People Do, which not only receive surprising amounts of readership but cause the offending writer to hurtle uncontrollably into an existential crisis.)

On the other end of the spectrum are the content marketing chefs. Whereas some content marketers like to apply best practices in all they do, following the most accepted or safest (or simply most discussed) ways of doing things, these chef-like content marketers create their own recipes. They’re far less likely to churn out copycat content as a result, and they aren’t likely to adopt some sexy new channel just because other marketers are screaming about it.

These people get to the first principles behind our work. These include ideas like:

  1. Why any business exists. (It’s not “to make money.” It’s to solve customer problems or fulfill customer desires. We can do this through products and services, but we can ALSO do this through content!)
  2. Why our specific business exists. (Our “why” — our mission. Go read this great article about the Why behind B2B content by Doug Kessler right now, because he articulates this better than I could: The why is a shorter path to revenue, not a fluffy ideal. Read it! Actually, finish this article first. But read Doug’s after. Actually, read the Wait But Why thing first. Actually, that one is super long. Okay, new plan: Finish this post, read Doug’s thoughts, then read Wait But Why. Coffee in between is fine. No beer, as you will get sleepy and miss the brilliance of Wait But Why. Bourbon is fine if you can hold your liquor — it’s sophisticated. Ready? Break!)
  3. Why your specific content exists for your audience. (Your editorial mission statement. And yes, you need one.)
  4. Why people use a certain social network or channel a certain way. (The psychology of SnapChat that is native to SnapChat, versus that of Twitter, versus Facebook, versus Google, versus email, versus offline events…)
  5. How people operate in general. (EXTREME empathy is so key to our work. This helps you use your own taste and intuition to identify what’s quality and worth publishing as compared to what’s spammy, salesy, lazy, or copycat, as well as all the various shades of gray in between awesome and awful.)
  6. How the broader consumer world works today and how it’s evolved over time. (Summarized as: the consumer has all the power.)

These are some of content marketing’s first principles, and these and other ideas are what the chefs of our industry study and consider when making decisions and creating their work. They reject that there can be any one way of doing things — or that the one way that others prescribe could possibly be the right way for this moment, this company, this audience. They never seek one ideal word count for every blog post. They don’t believe that some new technology will save them or their strategy. They recognize it’s never a good idea to batch-and-blast across channels, and that this behavior is a symptom of something deeper: a lack of understanding of first principles, as well as the severe skittishness about missing numbers that this lack of understanding creates.

Additionally, content marketing chefs see those ubiquitous “Ultimate Guides” for what they are: over-promised bullshittery. After all, “ultimate” literally means “final.” And subscribing to someone else’s thoughts as final would fly in the face of being a chef and reasoning from first principles to come up with your own thinking. (Full disclosure: my post next week is pretty ultimate guide-like, hence me wanting to write this ahead of time.)

Yes, we all sit across this spectrum between chefs and cooks in marketing. But as you can likely conclude based on the description of each…

Content marketing has too many cooks.

We tend to over-index on marketers who like and seek and blindly repeat recipes. Now, cooks are the majority of professionals in most industries, I’d guess, and even the best chefs have some cook-like moments just to be efficient or productive in between moments of chefyness. It’s also just human nature to repeat something you know well, so we should definitely embrace that. Lastly, as Tim writes on Wait But Why, it can be downright exhausting to try and think like a chef and figure out first principles all the time. That’s hard. Really hard.

But once in awhile, we need to do what’s hard.

Every so often, we need to pick our heads up and think and learn and invent using first principles and original conclusions we draw. So everyone is on Twitter. Should YOU be on Twitter? So everyone blogs. Should YOU blog? So everyone loves how-to articles. Should YOU write how-to articles? So everyone is now podcasting. Should YOU podcast? And should you podcast that specific WAY? With that specific STYLE? With that specific STRATEGY?

The more our reasoning from first principles can lead to something new and original, rather than something that follows established dogma, the better our industry will become. And, I think, we’ll see far better results for our companies.

We as content marketers have a responsibility to be better. To be riskier. To be more creative. To be CHEFS! That’s because we are in a production-oriented role. By definition, we put things out into the world and inform that world, whether on a small scale (that one resulting link someone finds on Google for a specific longtail keyword) or something much grander (like how Red Bull has transformed the action sports media landscape globally or how AmEx is transforming how small businesses interact and grow or how Nike has shifted athletes from wanting to be like Mike to worshipping the grit and hustle to get there).

When we refuse to act like anything but cooks, we fill the world with more crappy listicles. We perpetuate shortcut culture. We stall out on our mental effort, and our industry grows stale.

We can be better. We must be better.

If you believe smart folks like Joe Pulizzi and Doug Kessler (and you should!), we are entering a very precarious time in our industry — one wherein cooking the same damn recipes over and over again, blindly, without even attempting to do the hard thing, could spell disaster.

But we can try our hands at being chefs. We can try the hard thing. We must try it. YOU need to start doing the hard thing. This isn’t simply about this month’s leads or this year’s growth. This is about having pride in your work, in your craft, and in your career. Your company owes you nothing. This industry owes you nothing. And this new thinking will not come from the top, because the top often wants more cooks. With a few shining exceptions, the top IS MADE OF cooks.

Our industry is lopsided with cooks, so it’s on us to be the chefs.

Because if you’re anything like me, there is one job, one privilege for which you’re willing to work incredibly hard: the chance to wake up every single day knowing that the most important professional thing you can do … is to cook things people love.


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This post’s “One Different Thing” = Reacting to a popular writer

^ What is this? ^

Content marketing would be a much better industry for both practitioners and audiences if we tried to do just one subtle new thing in each piece we created, rather than churn out more copycat junk. It’s a small thing to try that could make a big difference. Read more about the One Different Thing challenge.

This post originally appeared on Sorry for Marketing.

1 thought on “Content Marketers: Are You a Cook or a Chef?

  1. This is not at all the difference between a chef and a cook. “Chef” is just French for “boss”. In a restaurant kitchen, the cooks do the cooking at their station and the chefs run the kitchen. There are cooks who contribute their own recipes and there are chefs who don’t. Chefs are generally less involved with the preparing of the food itself than the cooks because they are so busy managing people. In the actual running of the kitchen, all the work is very methodical and process oriented – there is no place for creativity or originality or reinvention when you’re on the clock – the entire operation of the place depends on consistency of product. It’s craftsmanship, not artistry.

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