masterful marketers: ann handley
May 7, 2018

Off-Mic with Masterful Marketers: How Ann Handley Does Great Work

This post is the first in our “Off-Mic with Masterful Marketers” series. We sat down with some of the most inspiring, influential speakers to discuss productivity, making work meaningful, and managing teams to do great work.

“Marketing is art plus intent.” —Ann Handley

For most of us, creativity and productivity are at the opposite ends of the work spectrum. Sometimes it seems like the two work at cross purposes. Either you’re lost in meditative thought, creating up a storm, or you’re nose-to-the-grindstone busy.

We believe that the best marketing work is fundamentally creative.

See our video blog post, "Adding Structure Without Killing Creativity" for ways to enhance productivity without stifling creativity.

Not only is it possible to be productive and creative at the same time, it’s vital for making sure your work has meaning and connects with an audience.

There are few marketers more qualified to prove this point than Ann Handley. As the Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, Ann oversees a content empire of blogs, guides, infographics, and downloadable assets.

In her downtime, she co-wrote Content Rules and wrote Everybody Writes, an indispensable guide to making content more memorable, personable, and engaging.

Ann wages a one-woman war against bland, mediocre content through the written word and speaking engagements around the world. Her success is a testimony to her ability to combine creativity and productivity to create extraordinary content.

Before her Social Media Marketing World session “How to Create Breakthrough Written Marketing Content,” we sat down with Ann to talk time management, creativity, and how to make work truly meaningful.

What do you love most about marketing?

I love that marketing is a mix of art and science.

Marketing is art plus intent. And I love that creativity is still very much at marketing’s center.

You’ve done great work in your career, but really, what does “great work” mean today?

Great work means what it’s always meant: It’s work that an audience values. It’s work that resonates with the people you want to reach.

Also, thank you.

ann handley

What are the biggest obstacles keeping marketers from doing their best work?

One big obstacle is finding the time to be creative.

We tend to start with the task at hand instead of going further upstream and putting flesh on the bones of our story (to mix metaphors). And then expressing that story more creatively, in the context our customers care about.

I get that. I understand how it happens. A deadline is looming, we are pressed to get something (anything!) off of our desks. And the next thing you know we’ve embraced our own inner "yadda-yadda" merchants. And that’s how boring corporate-centric messaging happens.

The worst place to start a piece of content is with “We need a piece of content for _____.” Instead, start with, “Our customer needs….” what?

Rather than starting with a deadline… let’s start with our customers. And let’s find the time to serve them.

You’ve started an online media company, written a bestselling book and run one of the largest B2B marketing events in the United States. What helps you stay focused when you have so many things on your plate?

I have a color-coded day planner and a label maker.

I’m kidding. I have a lot of help on the MarketingProfs front. I have an entire team of whatever the marketing version is of Navy Seals: highly trained and talented specimens who are also the finest people I know. 

The books are all me. (Well, the first book is also half C.C. Chapman’s.) And because I’m busy is the reason why my two books are five years apart.

Inspired by your accomplishments, there are marketers that want to “have it all.” What is one mistake they should avoid?

I just had to spend a few long moments thinking hard about what it means to “have it all.”

I decided I don’t really want to think of myself as “having it all.” Because it would mean that I’ve somehow stopped working toward something. I’ve already reached a pinnacle. Or checked a box. Or unlocked an achievement or level in some weird professional gaming system somewhere. 

Life isn’t like that.

You never really stop trying to accomplish, no matter how accomplished you or others believe you might be.

You never stop accomplishing. To quote Mark Twain: "To stand still is to fall behind."

But I digress… back to your original question: Avoid patterning yourself on anyone else. There is no “right” way.

How do you make the work of marketers around you more meaningful?

I suppose I try to inspire people. I want to inspire marketers to embrace the opportunities I see in this new world of content marketing and social media. And I want to inspire younger professionals, especially.

Also I want people to have a little more fun, too. I’m allergic to people who take themselves too seriously.

In the work you do as a marketer and thought leader how do you prioritize your time and energy?

  • I write when I’m freshest.
  • I shut off email except for certain times of the day.
  • I generally avoid morning phone calls or morning meetings.
  • I try to keep meetings to 30 minutes when possible. Ideally less.
  • I keep myself organized via my Right Hand Jess (
  • I write a "Daily Doable" list. (Three things I want to accomplish that day.)
  • I pledged less screen time, more page time in 2017. (Scroll less, read more.)*
  • I avoid Facebook except for when I’m really tired or need a “cigarette break.” (I don’t smoke. But Facebook for me is the equivalent of the smoking break that smokers typically take.)

*Thus far it’s going really well. Thanks for asking.

Can you share an example of where you were able to do your best work? And what made it successful?

Everybody Writes is truly some of my best work. It’s a Wall Street Journal bestseller and continues to sell briskly. It’s got great reviews on Amazon.

All of that is gratifying, but that’s not really why I’m proud of it. I’m proud of it because I know in my heart and my head that I created something good.

(Side note: The funny thing is that there are things I’d improve and change if I wrote it today… two years after publication. See question five about never stopping the accomplishing!)

So what made it successful: certainly the care and attention and heart I put into the product itself. But also that I didn’t just write the book and let it go: I marketed the heck out of it.

And that’s the secret for authors everywhere: After a book is published, you are no longer an author. You are now in sales.

Stay Creative to Be Productive

As Ann demonstrates, creative work doesn’t have to mean staring at a blank screen hoping for inspiration. Being creative can be a building block, not a stumbling block, for greater productivity.

When marketers are free to create compelling content with genuine empathy, they can do truly meaningful work. It’s worth organizing your time to allow that creative impulse to thrive.

Many thanks to Ann for kicking off this series with wit and insight. Our next "Off-Mic with Masterful Marketers" post features RazorSocial Founder Ian Cleary.

Ian is an expert at finding useful tools marketers can use to be more data-driven and effective. In his post, Ian also shares the daily routine that helps him stay at his most productive.

Subscribe to the Talking Work blog to check out Ian’s post and get more work and productivity advice from our team and beyond.

Don't miss Ann Handley's post "The World-Class Procrastinator's Guide To Getting Stuff Done" with more expert advice.

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