We’re super-psyched to welcome Christopher Link to this week’s episode of Agency on Record. Chris is the Head of Content at John Hancock Investments, one of our clients here at Maark, and a genuinely cool guy.

Chris built and runs one of the most impressive marketing content departments that we’ve seen. His team of writers should really be the template for any marketing organizations who are serious about controlling a story, serious about creating content, and serious about digital transformation (seriously). Basically, if you’re following along on the Maark blog, this guy’s a storykeeper.

In this episode, we pick Chris’s brain to see how content became such a priority at John Hancock Investments. What the ROI of a group of writers is like. What kind of writers he looks for. How a bunch of writers became so strategic to a big-time investments business. And why content is vital to digital transformation (seriously).

This was a fun one for us. And it should be a good discussion for anybody trying to create marketing content. For anybody trying to establish thought leadership. For any copywriter trying to prove their value in an organization. For anybody working through a digital transformation (seriously).

Also for anybody who thinks this show should have three hosts instead of two.

Check out the episode!

Jason Ocker is the Executive Director of Creative Strategy at Maark, where he oversees messaging and story across marketing strategy, digital campaigns, and product design for a range of industries, including finance, technology, government, health, life science, and telecommunications. He’s an award-winning author of five books, and has been featured at CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

Posted by Jason Ocker


Every piece of content released by your business—a website, a white paper, a tweet, an app, a video, a speech, a booth, anything with words on or in it—is an opportunity to strengthen your story in the market…or a risk for damaging it. But who in the marketing organization is responsible for the integrity of that story? Who is the one who ensures that every outreach across all the many channels of modern marketing is consistent, accurate, adapted appropriately to its medium, and told well and at maximum power? Who is the storykeeper?

What Makes a Storykeeper?

First, the storykeeper creates the content—the very words of the story—either as author or editor. They are the source or the gateway, and will probably be both, to what degree depending on the size of the organization. But the storykeeper is an expert at content, first and foremost, because content is the vehicle for the story.

Second, the storykeeper has significant knowledge of the business. Books are written by experts, and the storykeeper needs to be an expert to create content about the business. How do the products work? How do clients use them? How do these solutions fit the corporate strategy? The storykeeper needs more than a general idea and casual access to a pool of experts. They need an inherent expertise that they can clearly communicate.

Third, the storykeeper knows the audience. If a storykeeper doesn’t intimately know who the story is intended for, that story will be at best ignorable and at worst irrelevant.

Finally, the storykeeper knows how to tell a good story. If the storykeeper has 1-3 licked, but can’t recognize, plan, and write a good story, then all of that expertise will be bottled behind bad content.

What Roles are Best Suited for Storykeeper?

Let’s start at the top. Should the head of marketing be the storykeeper? They have the knowledge of the business and audience required. They probably even came up with the story itself. However, because of their executive and strategic duties, at least in larger organizations, marketing heads are often a level or more away from where the everyday content decisions are made.

What about the marketing manager? Conceptually, they have a similar role to the marketing head, but are much closer to where content is made and distributed. However, often the marketing manager is more of a much-needed tactical role focused on schedules and channels. Story integrity isn’t about tactics.

Is it the content strategist? Maybe. Nobody knows what a content strategist is. It’s often defined so broadly that it means “marketer.” For instance, here’s a detailed day in the life of a content strategist* that doesn’t mention the words story or narrative once. Here’s one** where the content strategist is defined as an analytics role. And here’s one*** discussing it as a technical role.

That leaves us with the copywriter, the one actually putting key to screen. A customer’s impression of the business and knowledge of the solutions often come via the words a copywriter composes. However, the problem with the copywriter as the storykeeper is trusting the story to a role not often considered strategic. In many marketing departments, copywriters are merely experts at verb tense who have bookmarked. Their role at the table is to transcribe what’s being said. Or to edit somebody else’s copy. As evidence, this role is the most outsourced one on the list.

Seriously, Who Should the Storykeeper Be?

Simply put, the storykeeper in your organizations should be whoever is in charge of content. And the closest person to the content is the copywriter.

They are the original fount for the content. The word experts. And adding domain knowledge atop that defining skill of writing is exactly what a writer does. They become an expert on the topic, and then they write about it.

However, for the copywriter to be the storykeeper, it would take some redefining of the role. The copywriter would be less the gateway grammarian and more the impelling force behind the content. Ideally, the role would be strategic enough to report directly to the CMO.

That’s especially true today, where content marketing is a proven for consistently establishing thought leadership, reaching an audience, and attracting leads. In many respects, this redefined copywriter role is an editorial director, like at a magazine or website. In fact, at larger organizations, this role would head an entire department of content creators.

By the way, there’s an easier way to tell who the storykeeper is for your organization right now. It’s the person saying, “That’s not our story.” Or “How does that fit our story?” or “How do we tell that story?” or “Let me go write the story.” It’s the one obsessed with the story.

If nobody is saying this regularly in your organization, then your story isn’t being kept. And if it isn’t being kept, it’s also not being received.


Jason Ocker is the Executive Director of Creative Strategy at Maark, where he oversees messaging and story across marketing strategy, digital campaigns, and product design for a range of industries, including finance, technology, government, health, life science, and telecommunications. He’s an award-winning author of five books, and has been featured at CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

Photo credits: Michael Kooiman


Artificial Intelligence is difficult to define and even more difficult to build. You’d never know it from reading the news, though. Recently, every tech company and agency is touting how their AI is revolutionizing their industry. Alibaba has one that passed the Turing Test (no, it didn’t). McCann’s wrote a better ad than its human employees (well, more because of its human employees), and Google’s scheduled a hair appointment over the phone without any human intervention (okay, this one merits some consideration). The articles that examine these advancements almost universally include a section about how disruptive the technology will be – ultimately rendering humans useless and putting us out of the job.

In reality, all of these projects are interesting, some of them are nonsense, but none of them are scary.

While I genuinely believe that AI will become so powerful that it will doom the human race, I think that dystopia is centuries away. I’m far more bearish on its disruptive impact this decade, particularly on the marketing front.

Nonetheless, I’ll provide a few tips to bring your company’s marketing efforts up to parity with some of the industry leaders in AI:

  • Write good creative
  • Build good infrastructure
  • Collect good data

In other words, exactly what you’ve always strived to do, and exactly what a broader digital transformation empowers.

Fundamentally, all AI platforms operate in the same way. They ingest data, both structured and unstructured. They organize that data and use it to respond to novel requests. They then process feedback and use that to make better responses in the future. To make the AI smarter, it is still incumbent upon us to give it good working data (creative assets, placements, messaging, brand guidelines, etc), ask it intelligent questions, assign value to its responses, and continue to provide it with novel data over time.

In the case of McCann, their AI succeeded because it was fed data from some of the most successful ad campaigns in recent history. It was able to break down the individual elements that made them successful and combine them into new assets. But the underlying data - the brilliant ideas that taught the machine how to be brilliant - were decidedly human. Marketing isn’t completely objective – at least not yet. It’s relative to our culture and our society at this moment, and it requires thoughtful curation. It was only two years ago that Microsoft thought they could automate culture, and the result was a runaway AI Twitter handle that almost immediately devolved into a racist troll. Even in this future, creative minds are as valuable and imperative as ever.

Likewise, the systems need to be taught how to learn, and this requires feedback. In digital marketing, this feedback system is our website, the analytics behind it, the way that we translate our business requirements and goals into digital values, and all of the third-party technologies that both guide and process the consumer experience. Strategists, analysts, and engineers are all critical to a successful AI.

AI isn’t about replacing the value created by good ideas and skilled labor. It’s about applying the same best practices that make marketing work today to new systems that can make more out of the components we create than we could otherwise. As easy as it is to break down AI relevance to marketing fundamentals, we are all still at risk of becoming complacent. If anything, this underscores the need to ensure that your company understands its own digital transformation.

More and more breakthroughs in marketing are technologically driven, and companies that lag behind on their infrastructure are being outcompeted by savvier rivals. Their ads aren’t finding the right audience. When they find that audience, they aren’t serving the right message. When they serve the right message, they’re overpaying for it. The end result isn’t just inefficiency, it’s irrelevance, and it happens faster today than ever before.

So stop worrying about AI, machine learning, or whatever term they use next month to describe smarter, faster marketing decisions. Instead, keep your creative team doing what they do best, and make sure that you have a data infrastructure in place to make the most of it.

Michael Dowd is the Executive Director of Digital Strategy at Maark, where he coordinates new product development and execution for our clients. Mike brings with him eleven years of experience in agency-side digital marketing, during which he provided guidance on marketing technologies, platforms, and strategies for more than a dozen Fortune 100 companies across the B2B, retail, and automotive industries.

Photo credits: Gerd Altman


“[You] insist upon forcing a square peg into a round hole, because in a round hole you, being a round peg, feel tight and comfortable. Now I call that irrational.”

Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Kenelm Chillingly, His Adventures and Opinions

Agile is the new black. Or at least that’s what its proponents from the software development community proclaim. Since its introduction back in 2001, the Gospel of Agile has gradually moved with evangelistic fervor from engineering teams to other parts of organizations, all the way up to the C-suites of F ortune 500 companies. Beyond its merits, Agile is undoubtedly aided by its name – after all, who doesn’t want their organization to be associated with a word like “agile”? In fact, Agile has become so dominant in the industry that its critics can be looked down upon on social media as being the engineering equivalent of a “flat earther”.

On the surface, Agile would seem to be the ideal, forward-thinking set of principles and methodologies for digital transformation and web and mobile development engagements that we work on every day at Maark. However, based on our own experience and witnessing the experiences of others, I have grown to question that perspective. While I believe that certain aspects of Agile principles and methodologies can be highly beneficial in development projects that we undertake in the services business, a religious adherence to Agile is much like trying to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole.

A Quest for the Silver Bullet

Agile was first introduced in the early 2000s as a modern response to the old school waterfall methodology. The waterfall approach, which has its origins in manufacturing and industrial engineering, was brought over to the world of software development during the early years of computer programming. A waterfall project has a series of sequential phases (requirements, design, development, testing, and delivery). Since a phase is dependent on what came before it, each phase must be completed before the next starts.

The primary benefits of waterfall are that the scope and timeframe are agreed to and known beforehand; it’s predictable, driven by a plan, and has built-in methods of accountability. However, the waterfall approach to software development has long been derided because of its inflexibility in dealing with changes, inevitable unknowns until the full product is built, and a tendency to sacrifice testing when time runs short.

Enter Agile. While the waterfall approach focuses on upfront planning and a strict adherence to that plan, Agile is all about flexibility and iteration. With Agile, a product evolves over time, and plans are constantly reevaluated to adapt to changing conditions. Priorities are set together on a collaborative cross-discipline team, and then implemented through small phases called sprints. A product using the waterfall approach will be releasable only at the very end of the project, but an Agile-driven product will be releasable at the end of each sprint.

The promises of Agile are alluring and seductive: adaptability, responsiveness, a launchable product at end of each sprint, and a transparent, collaborative environment in which business stakeholders and the development team work closely together to plan and prioritize. Fueled by such potential, Agile has ruled the roost for over 15 years. In fact, a whole cottage industry has developed around it: over 40 variants of Agile; consultants, books, and certification programs; and even new job titles. Terms like sprint, scrum, and user story have become a natural part of the vernacular for most any professional in the tech space.

However, in spite of the accolades, be careful not to think of Agile as a silver bullet and appropriate for all contexts. It’s not.

Something is Rotten in Denmark

As Agile spread in popularity in the 2000s, we at Maark began to incorporate Agile principles and practices into our teams and projects. We assigned scrum masters, created user stories in Jira, restructured projects into sprints, and even experimented with planning poker for time estimates. But, in project after project, its benefits proved elusive.

One might offer a critique and say that Agile didn’t work for us because we weren’t committed enough to its principles. Or perhaps we didn’t follow the methodology rigorously enough or implement the right variant of Agile. Sure, there were many ways in which we could have done Agile better. But, at the same time, I don’t believe any tweaks or changes to our approach would have had a significant impact on our results. Instead, I would argue that we uncovered a deeper, more fundamental problem: that there are almost intractable tensions between the principles and practices of Agile and the real world in which we operate.

First, Agile principles almost inevitably run counter to stakeholder expectations. When we engage a client for a particular software deliverable – whether it is an app or website – the client is chiefly concerned with two things: our ability to deliver the product vision, and the timeline and budget required to do so. The vision often evolves as we work with the stakeholders during the planning stages, but, at the end of the day, the stakeholders want to know where we are going to finish before the first line of actual code is written.

The reality is that much of the larger world outside of software development runs upon predefined plans and predictive results. And most stakeholders who inhabit that world naturally expect to structure engagements in a similar fashion. Therefore, trying to force Agile into this environment naively assumes others will (or even can) adjust to these values and methodologies.

Second, Agile priorities often clash with the priorities of the stakeholder. One of the primary tenants of Agile is to empower teams and create a learning organization. As such, misdirections or deadends are considered not so much failures as much as they are educational opportunities. This perspective contrasts starkly with stakeholders that I spend time with. Misdirections made during development will never be thought of by clients as “valuable learning experiences”. Instead, they are major blunders that could potentially cost them a strategic opportunity, sales, or, in extreme cases, even their job.

Third, Agile tries to combine two worlds that don’t easily mesh. Agile requires everyone involved with the product to be part of a collaborative decision-making process. The theory is great, but it places a huge demand on all of the parties. It requires the stakeholders not only to be intimately involved in developing the product, but also to be savvy in both Agile as well as the principles of software development. In the end, clients engage us because they don’t have bandwidth or expertise for this level of involvement.

Others are also reaching similar conclusions on the shortcomings of Agile. Over the past few years, I have seen a steady increase in developers reacting against it. Blog posts with scathing titles such as “Run Away from Agile” or “Agile Is The New Waterfall” illustrate the frustration that some have with the methodology. Even Andy Hunt, one of the original authors of the Agile Manifesto back in 2001, believes it has lost its way in his “The Failure of Agile” blog post.

The S.W.A.T Approach

At Maark, we’ve taken a pragmatic approach to the shortcomings of waterfall and Agile and adopted principles and techniques that work best for the realities of the services business. We don’t do Agile; instead, we are focused on being agile, moving quickly across an enterprise as a “S.W.A.T. team” to deliver pragmatic value to our clients. In my follow-on post, I will dive into how we moved from Agile to develop app and website solutions using a S.W.A.T. approach.

Rich Wagner is the Managing Director of Engineering of Maark where he leads the development team and spearheads the technology strategy of the agency. He has led the development of multiple enterprise apps, mobile apps, and websites for Fortune 500 companies. Rich has also authored over 20 books on software development and other subjects.

Photo credit: LiveTrucking

Posted by Michael Colombo


For CIOs, the ask from the business is to turn a C130 Hercules into a fighter jet…while it’s in the air. It sounds like magic. Even if the mechanics were well understood, perfecting the execution might take years or decades of practice to pull off. Stepping in to support marketing in a digital transformation initiative often feels like an attempt against similar odds.

Digital transformation is about building world-class customer experiences, but there are so few organizations with a real understanding of the mechanics involved, let alone the flight hours needed to succeed. Building digital tiger teams with specific backgrounds and a nuanced set of technical skills is the first step toward reorganizing IT around the customer experience. These nuanced skills can mean the difference between delivering the fighter jet or just a pile of parts.

The skills between the skills.

At a glance, digital transformation programs look familiar. Requirements and Architecture, Screens and Flows, Development and Integration, QA and Deploy. You’ve been down this road a million times, right? Well, not exactly. The difference comes in shifting the priority from delivering a feature set to delivering an experience. And while nailing a feature set is difficult, delivering it within a world-class digital experience is where all the nuance lives. Mastering the nuance has big implications. An IT team with new digital skills in between the traditional IT skills and a proven ability to execute on experience moves them squarely into the growth strategy of the business.

“I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is that you fund research, and you learn the basic facts.”

Bill Gates


To effectively document requirements, you need a new kind of business analyst. Going to business stakeholders, understanding their needs and how they apply to the bigger picture of the business strategy, and documenting those requirements and their system implications for a technical team is not enough in the context of digital experience. The nuance here to the traditional business analyst role is that they should now be able to communicate all of the facts of the User Experience. Business intake and competitive research resulting in a User Requirements Specification (URS) should be accompanied by traditional UX deliverables, such as User Flows, Information Architecture, and even rough wireframes and prototypes. Your business analyst should be able to help during concept testing as well as the QA process, as they should have a strong vision for the quality of the experience that is being delivered. The requirements that the new business/UX analyst delivers need to have the users at their core and be directly translatable to digital execution teams.

Project Management:

Project managers, like business analysts, need to know that they exist entirely in an experience-first context. It is not enough for them to deliver on the functional requirements of the system. I can’t state that more strongly. Development and project management teams that have forever judged success based on a “Does it work?” mantra are not poised to successfully deliver world class digital experience. Instead of, “Does it work?” they need to start asking, “Does it deliver an industry-leading experience?” If they are not asking that question, then they are not focused on the right result.

Project managers who have never delivered customer-facing products have a steep learning curve. They will need to begin forming their own vision for the experience they are delivering, and consider how closely they match that vision as their primary success metric. That it “works” is a given, but delivering an experience that technically “works” but nobody likes is a failure. It’s a setback to the business, not an advancement. It’s prioritizing an MVP over an actual ROI. Everyone on the team needs to internalize this reality.


While the big shift in IT toward cloud, agile and DevOps are improving the flexibility of what can be delivered inside the enterprise, the underlying point of these advances can sometimes be lost. Putting things in AWS isn’t a win on its own. Spinning up GitHub doesn’t mean you’ve got a modern development organization. The goal is speed, pure and simple. The number one enemy of the enterprise - when it comes to long term competitive threats - is the amount of time it takes to innovate and iterate. If the systems you are buying and putting on AWS are not making you faster, then they aren’t going to help you compete with digitally native companies.

If the DevOps tools you are setting up aren’t actually helping you respond in near real-time with new products and features, then you aren’t getting what you need out of them. If the focus is not entirely on speed, then you aren’t focused on the right thing. The shift in focus to user experience also shifts the business model of IT. While cost is always an important determinant of IT maneuvers, speed to market is your new primary metric. And speed to market with better digital products and services is about new revenue opportunities and increasing the lifetime value of your customers. In this context, IT is core to the brand and the growth strategy of the company.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Steve Jobs


OK, here’s where the rubber meets the road. We all know that you can have the best requirements, the most diligent and focused project managers, and an infrastructure humming like a fighter jet…but if you can’t reproduce a design comp, you’re toast. “Reproduce a comp” may not even be in the IT vernacular yet, but it should be. Delivering a world class digital experience is brain surgery. It really is. And if you’re treating it like a routine procedure, you’ve got no chance.

The demand for good development talent couldn’t be higher. Some estimates have it at about 5 jobs for every 1 developer. So, just getting good talent in the door is difficult enough. However, changes in the B2C and B2B application space is torrential, so most times any ‘ol “full stack” developer won’t do. You need specific developers with nuanced skills. Frameworks and technologies on both the back end and the front end take years to master, as do the excess of marketing and sales technologies running behind the scenes of the user experience.

Bringing all of these pieces together into a flawless UI is impossible to do with “any ‘ol” guy or gal. (The interface, by the way, is a specialty just like the rest of the stack. HTML and CSS are not passive skills and are advancing rapidly like everything else. They are core competencies of digital tiger teams.) Each area of the application requires expertise and focus. You have to be able to put every pixel in its place in order to get the ROI that the business is looking for.


Partnering with marketing on digital transformation initiatives means signing up to deliver world class user experience as a repeatable capability. Everyone inside and outside the organization has a standard for this level of work staring right back at them every time they pick up their phone, their tablet or a laptop. It’s all around us. We all expect it to be great, and we all immediately recognize when it isn’t. But because the demands are so high, and the needs are so vast, delivering Digital Transformation has become one of the hardest things to do in business. It takes a clear strategy and an experience-first focus, and then a rethinking of core IT skill sets. Flying the C130 while turning it into a fighter jet is the ask. Understanding the mechanics involved and the skills required to pull it off are the first step.

Michael Colombo is the founder and CEO of Maark where he oversees the overall direction and development of the agency as it continues to build its brand as a leading marketing and innovation engine for its customers. He has served as the executive lead in programs including corporate rebranding, solution marketing, sales enablement, digital transformation, and new product design for Fortune 500 companies around the world.

Photo credits: Johnson Barros, Pavel Vanka