“Placemats” Strategy Framework And Why Value Matters Most With Sean Gordon [AMP 152]

Do you spend more time coordinating or completing your work? Marketers need to create content that matters to their target audience. If the content is not valuable, then it’s worthless to waste their time and yours. Today’s guest is Sean Gordon, marketing manager at Vanguard Charitable. Sean shares how a simple and agile “placemats” framework plans and delivers high-value projects. When clients expect more from Sean and his team, they expect more from themselves. 

Some of the highlights of the show include:
  • Search for Efficiencies and Maximize Resources: Unintentional but not uncommon to use makeshift marketing 
  • Marketing and Planning Process: Vanguard Charitable sponsors and uses donor-advised funds (DAFs) to strategically think about charitable activities
  • Operational Communications: Conduct grant research, communicate with nonprofits, and reach donors
  • Placemats Framework: Set strategic vision of goals to achieve; execute, and adapt when necessary 
  • Prioritize/Deprioritize: Get more done, or do most valuable work
  • Value of Agile. Setbacks happen; accept, learn, and try something else next time
  • Successful Solutions: Leverage CoSchedule and other tools to communicate with clients and donors
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Placemats Strategy Framework And Why Value Matters Most With Sean Gordon

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Nathan: Value. Marketers use this word a lot and for good reason. Marketers need to create content their audiences value so much that they actually go out there and find the stuff we’re creating. Marketers seem to create value for the organizations we serve and marketers need to value their core skill sets and strengths they bring to the table to deliver upon these super high expectations. Today, we are chatting with Sean Gordon on the Actionable Marketing Podcast. Sean is the Marketing Manager at Vanguard Charitable. It’s Sean’s job to align what he and his team do to high value projects. That really means airing on the side of delivering upon customer value over internal process. It takes some agility, a drive to ship, then learn, then iterate, and then ship again. Today, Sean is going to share how he plans work with a framework he calls placemats. That’s pretty simple and elegant, if you ask me. You’ll learn how Vanguard Charitable balances planned work with pop up projects. You’re going to learn how when clients expect more from Sean and his team, they simply expect more from themselves. Is that mentality that’s lead them to search for efficiencies and ways to maximize the resources that they already have at their disposal today. This episode is a part of our makeshift marketing deep-dive. Makeshift marketing is that headache that comes from disconnected, single function tools that simply don’t play well together. It’s unintentional, but it’s really common that marketers use spreadsheets, and then single tool for content marketing, another tool for social media, and another tool for work management, yet another for asset management. The list goes on, but when these things just don’t speak or connect with one another, it really makes your life difficult and it can hurt your results. In the end, we hear that people feel like they’re spending more time coordinating their work rather than actually completing it. Today, Sean has a lot of good advice to share on how he and his team at Vanguard Charitable are solving makeshift marketing. Let’s get started with Sean, it’s time to get AMPed. Hey, Sean. Thanks so much for being on the show today. Sean: Happy to be here. Thanks for having me. Nathan: We’re going to be talking a little bit about makeshift marketing today, getting a glimpse into how you approach solving that, but before we get there, I was wondering if could tell me just a little bit about Vanguard and what you do there? Sean: I actually work for Vanguard Charitable. We’re a 501(c)(3), a non-profit organization. We are founded by Vanguard back in 1997, but we operate as a separate entity. As a separate entity, we are, for all intents and purposes, a different legal organization than Vanguard. We are proud of our Vanguard heritage on a lot of what we do. We really ensure that we are being true to the Vanguard brand and living by those values and principles. Here at Vanguard Charitable, we sponsor donor-advised funds. Donor-advised funds are a really quickly growing philanthropic tool available to individuals, corporations, US taxpayers that really allow individuals and to be used to donate to this donor-advised fund that is sponsored by a non-profit—Vanguard Charitable. The donor-advised fund itself can be thought of a little bit like a checking account, where you’re able to donate money to the account now. You as a donor, would get your tax write-off or deduction at the time of the donation. But rather than needing to say, “Hey, here’s $500 and I wanted to go write to the American Red Cross,” with the donor-advised fund you often have the ability to invest that to the stock market. Over time, while you’re recommending grants out, you also get a little bit of investment growth on that. It’s a really useful tool for philanthropist and donors who wants some long-term strategic giving vehicle but may not really be able to incur that cost of running a private foundation or religious, want the simplicity of having some of that illustration outsourced. Nathan: Nice. I love it. Thanks for the clarity, too. I really appreciate that. I was going for the short form there. What does the day and life look like for you there, Sean? Sean: I’m the Marketing Manager at Vanguard Charitable. I’d been in my role for about a little over two years. We’re really focused on making sure that we are continuing to make people aware that donor-advised funds are often a good tool to have in one’s toolkit and then making sure that we’re helping those people have the best experience they can. From day-to-day perspective, really what my team does is traditional marketing. We’re going out and trying to fundraise and find people who may want to open a DAF at Vanguard Charitable, we’re looking to engage our current donors, and make sure that they understand the long-term value of what they’re doing. Part of what my team is also doing is making sure that we’re producing leadership pieces blogs or other pieces of content that help people see how they can use DAFs differently, or how they can think about their charitable activities more strategically, and really trying to help them understand the full breadth of what a donor-advised fund at Vanguard Charitable can offer. That’s one part of what we do day-to-day. My team also plays a role in operational communications. Communications more broadly within Vanguard Charitable, so we may be helping our team members who are doing grant research, we may help them with communicating out to non-profits or reaching donors. We are responsible for public relations at Vanguard Charitable. We’re also in the midst of evolving the entire Vanguard Charitable Organization to a really enterprise-wide agile framework. We’re spending a lot of time figuring out as a team how do we make that happen, where the value add activities that we’re doing and how can we improve our own processes. Nathan: I really like that concept. Seems like you guys got a lot of things going on, lots of different moving parts. Sean: We do for sure. Nathan: I love to pick your brain just a little bit more on that. Can we talk a little bit about that game plan or marketing goals? Can you tell me a little bit about that planning approach that you guys have there? Sean: Yeah. We are very fortunate that we work in an organization that really understands the importance of being able to do the job well. It means we have to know where we’re going. Our senior leadership has done a really great job of setting out a strategic vision and then really making that more tangible by working with me and my peers to develop a one year placemat, that we call. It’s a one page document and it really is some ray of, “Here is what we want to achieve.” You can imagine at the start of a fiscal year, you could set up this plan, you have these goals. The conceit as we all know, things are going to change and pop up. The placemat is where we start. At the start of the year, I meet with my team, my peers to understand how can we as a group, get to those goals. We start drafting out high-level. We may have the editorial calendar, high-level advertising plan to understand what are the key conferences events that we’re going to sponsor or exhibit at. But then things change and we need to make sure that we’re being agile and responding to donor needs, to internal stakeholder needs. There’s a healthy mix of trying to project out and figure out what are the big place holders that we need to make sure we have the resources for. We have a couple of big strategically important projects going on right now. What I do is really trying to estimate how many resources do we need for those big things that I know were going to happen, and then how can we take our planning to a smaller interval set where we can really say, “Okay, what are we going to get done this month?” And then as we’re going through the month, we’re really be able to iterate and say, “Hey, just what we have on the docket for August, does that still makes sense? Do you think it needs to get pushed?” We certainly have a lot going on and a real part of my role is understanding what are the trade-offs. We want to get done more, but I think to us, it’s more important that we’re doing the right work and the most valuable work. Sometimes things need to get deprioritized. That’s where we try and get creative about how we could sometimes achieve two goals with one after, or work with partners in a different way to outsource somewhere, or even find new opportunities for people across the business who have an interest in something to get their hands on a project that  otherwise may not have been open to or available to them. Nathan: That’s some of the first time I’ve heard a placemat or a placeholder planning, but it makes so much sense. It sounds like you’ve got some of those things that are hard dates like conferences for example; it’s easy to plan. I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about some of those pop up projects that you’re just talking about. I’ve heard people call those fire drills before. Some of those requests, they might come at the last minute. They always feel urgent. How do you work that in alongside the placemat projects? I’m super interested in that. Sean: I try not to call them a fire drill, but I know it does feel like that, especially in the moment. What I try to do is take a look at where we’re truly at capacity and think about what needs to fall and what is the cost of delay. I think we’re in a good place right now where fortunately, for a lot of what we’re doing, the cost of delay may not be so severe. There are instances where things come up, maybe there’s a big opportunity that our fundraising team has identified and they have a big meeting with our pretty big prospect. They want something that understandably feels very polished, personalized maybe, a unique presentation. Honestly, those things are really valuable. It’s being able to understand what is the biggest value to Vanguard Charitable in the long run and diverting resources to that activity. We did relatively recently in the last year, bring on a few new people and restructure the department a bit to give us a little bit more overlap and skill sets. That’s been a huge help. It used to be that we had one person that I’d be able to trust to do something like that. Now, we have two, three, four, who I felt really confident and pulling often and contributing. It’s always a challenge, but an important piece of it is recognizing a plan as just that starting point and then being on the South Pole, questioning and being honest about what’s going to be the biggest value to the business. Sometimes choices aren’t clear and easy. There’s always going to be some tensions within a business. There’s competing priorities, and that’s okay. It’s important just to talk through those with your business partners when an outcome doesn’t meet maybe whatever one had hoped. Nathan: I love that you avoid that term fire drills, too. It’s such a negative one. Sean: I know. It does feel like that so I don’t call anyone. Nathan: It makes sense. You’re focused on providing the most value and I love that you stay that. Something that I hear all the time is how can marketing teams deliver more value to the organizations they serve and sounds like you have a pretty good framework for handling that. Sean: We’re in the process of building out a really good framework for it. We’re really trying to transition. There’s a thing that I try and make sure, especially my team knows is one of these decisions are not always clear cut. There’s going to be hits, there’s going to be misses. Over time we are getting better at identifying what is the value add and making sure we’re asking questions that we may not have asked in the past, being really open with our thought process so that we can demonstrate we’re not challenging the other person, but we’re just trying to understand so that we can make sure we’re making the best decision in using everyone’s time appropriately. We’re still trying to figure out the best way of doing it, but I think we’ve made strides the past six months or so. Nathan: I had a mentor once that told me, “You just need to jump in and do something to learn how you should do it.” It seems like you guys are well on the right path. You know what you want to do. It’s just a matter of finding the best approach to get there. Sean: Yeah, especially as an entire enterprise really recognize the value of agile. We need to really test to learn and try new things. As frustrating as some of the setbacks can be, we really do need to recognize that that’s going to happen and just accept, learn, and try something else next time. Nathan: I like that. Could I pick on that just a little bit? Agile, is that as simple as your framework is, just test, learn, and repeat? Could you tell me a little bit more about the frameworks that you applied for agile? Sean: Sure. We’re in the midst of identifying where in the Vanguard Charitable business does it make sense for us to go agile in the way that has been traditionally applied to software development. This idea of customer value, being the biggest point of emphasis, even if it means sometimes that we’re not following the process, whatever that process is. There’s much nuance. I’m not an expert, but we were trying to really make that change apparent at Vanguard Charitable and find ways that we can do that within our own business. The framework is really being critical of what is going to provide the value, being open to that valuation, not necessarily aligning with what your own departmental or personal goals are, but then being able to get on board, put the right resources to a project and let the teams figure it out. The one piece where you have done a really good job at in marketing specifically is I have really enjoyed being able to push a lot of the creative aspects down to the team. Really pushed a lot more responsibility to the team who I have trusted to make the right decisions, ask away questions, raise their hand when they need help, but being able to let people who are closer to the client, let people who are closer to the problems solution those problems then work quickly often as the best way of approaching a problem. I think we’ve done that pretty well with marketing. So far I’m excited to see how they take that forward over the next year or so. Nathan: Sean’s got some more advice to share with all of you guys in a minute here, but it’s time for a break, and I want to share a new resource with you guys. It’s the Agile Marketing Guide from your friends at CoSchedule. If you want to explore agile marketing and really see how you can implement pieces of it within your own team, this is the resource for you. Actual marketers are 252% more successful than marketers who don’t incorporate at least some elements of agile within their processes. This is the guide that’s going to help you implement this stuff. It’s super robust, it’s written by our friend Ben [...] on our Content Marketing Team here at CoSchedule. Actionable is the definition of this thing. It’s going to help you find those elements of agile that really makes sense for your own team. Pick up your agile marketing guide at coschedule.com/agile-marketing-guide. Now let’s get back to the show with Sean. I just love the topic of agile within marketing. At CoSchedule, I get the benefit of working alongside developers. I get to see how they do agile. The way that we approach is a lot different than the way that they do. We partnered with AgileSherpas recently for a state of agile marketing report that we put out. One of our cool findings from that is that marketers who adopt a hybrid approach to agile, just pieces that makes sense for marketing are the most successful marketers. It sounds like you guys are trying to adopt what makes sense and to me, that’s just super logical. That’s where other marketers have also found success. Sean: I’m certainly glad to hear that. It’s a little bit of the thinking we had here. There’s a thought that a purely agile team is the best. For a lot of things that’s true, but in marketing, things like annual reports and longer term projects that traditional agile framework may not support perfectly. We’re really trying to be thoughtful about what does that look like here. We’re still on that journey. We’re glad to hear we’re headed down a good path. Nathan: I think so. It leads me something I want to ask you about. We’ve done a bunch of these different research reports and a different one we just released earlier in the year was the State of Marketing Strategy and Management. One of the biggest findings we found was that just organized marketers, marketers who report that they are organized are among the most successful marketers we’ve talked to. There’s a really strong correlation there. I was wondering if I could just pick your brain on some and ask what do you find is the best way to keep your team on track or on tasks? How do you help them hit project deadlines? All that sort of thing. It might relate back to agile, but we’d love to hear your perspective. Sean: As I reflect back on a little over two years in marketing, I noticed a big shift once we started becoming more thoughtful about how we’re organized [...] they are working really providing that stability. The team started there was 4-5, depending on the time of the year, lots of Excel Spreadsheets, lots of different views for different people. I actually came from working at a software company and had actually joined Vanguard Charitable as a business analyst. I like to think that I have a much more systems-minded approach to problems. When we brought in CoSchedule to help us see what is the work we’re doing and help provide the visibility over dependencies, timelines, it really just helped us think more critically about what we were committing to but also did help incentivize us to meet those deadlines. There is real value in having a deadline sometimes, even if it’s not maybe a mission-critical deadline because a lot of people like to check that box. Being able to see everything in one calendar view did a few things. It helped us better identify where there are gaps. A lot of times it’d be easy for us to talk day-to-day, “Hey, I’m working on X blog, working on Y email,” but we forget that, “Hey, we also have this annual report lurking in the background that we need to do over the summer,” and the next thing you know, it’s Labor Day weekend and, “Oh, has anyone really worked on that in your report?" It really helped us visualize the totality of our work to make sure that it may not be everyone’s focus all the time, but we have that project ownership that has assigned out responsibility for someone to be thinking of it, even if it’s not top of mind at the moment. That was a huge shift. Being able to integrate the entire project, task, communication within a view that people are working in day-in-day-out at all hours of the day, has really just helped provide additional visibility. We’re still finding opportunities on how we could use things differently. When those “fire drill” opportunities come up, sometimes we’re not as disciplined with using our tool. We have to figure out how to make it work for us. Having that calendar view for the team has been incredibly useful. It’s been enabling us to think more about not just what the work we’re doing today but how we can leverage it for future work. Nathan: I really like that example specifically of the annual report. If that’s something you want to shift in September, you might know that you need to start working on it. Is that where you use that placemat framework? Do you think about that ahead of time so that you can plan that into your CoSchedule or into your road map? And then work on that for the things that come later? Sean: The placemat, we’re really focused on these big outcomes, big projects. There’s going to be things that we know we need to do via Q3, via Q4. There may be things that are big goals such as we want to reach this grand total in this year. At the beginning of the year, we plan out, how do we get there? That’s where we can start putting items on the calendar for the remainder of the year. Those things could shift or we realize, “Hey, it seemed like we needed a big campaign to talk about this feature we’re rolling out.” Maybe we don’t need a big campaign, maybe we just need to put messaging into different newsletters. It’s a great way for us to start the conversation, the thinking, and then over time, [...]. Nathan: Got it. Thanks for explaining that. That makes a lot of sense. You’re definitely starting with strategy and afterward thinking about the execution. I was jumping into the execution, as I think a lot of marketers tend to do. Sean: Yeah. Nathan: Thanks for that, Sean. I wanted to ask you about the idea of the amount of work that marketing is being asked to do. When we started this conversation, you mentioned you guys are in charge of PR, you’ve got traditional marketing. I know you said you’re thinking about ads. There seems like a lot on your plate. Something that I know from some recent Gartner research we found that marketers are being asked to do more, but they’re not necessarily given more headcount to do that. I was wondering, if you maybe feel that pressure at Vanguard Charitable? And if you do, how do you go about managing that? Sean: The way I think about the way our jobs change every year. Every year, the clients can expect more and we need to expect more of ourselves. Sometimes we’re fortunate that we get head count, other times, we don’t really think it makes sense. An example of where we have started to really question, is headcount even the right solution as we’re on the PR space? We could have made a case to bring in someone who has jobs in PR, lots of background, had experience, but we thought a little bit more about, is this something that we’d actually be better suited by hiring a PR firm that can address these three competencies that we feel like we need? What I’ve really tried to do is identify where are their partners, freelancers, outsourced opportunities for us to bring in expertise that we may not be able to hire for, for whatever reason. And then lean on our existing vendors to understand what are their capabilities that we’re not taking advantage of. Occasionally or at least right now I have, you’ve hired or onboarded a tool to do one thing without realizing it does nine others that could actually be really beneficial. We have another tool that I love, that I actually brought in when we were a little bit more short-staffed was called Siteimprove. It does a crawl of your website once a week and gives you some really interesting insights on how it’s performing, how accessible your content is when looking at WCAG guidelines, can help you identify spelling errors, broken links, etc. We brought that in because I needed additional assistance to make sure we didn’t have 404 errors topping all the time. We didn’t have links going up to partners sites that weren’t valid. Over time we’ve realized there’s actually a lot more it can do. We’ve really relied on how we’re leveraging partners and trying to develop more partnerships with other marketing departments because we really do think a lot of what other people are doing out there is really valuable and our donors would benefit from it. Where there is synergy where it makes sense for them to get in front of our donors and it makes sense for that message to be in front of our donors, I’m all for it. It’s definitely something we all think of especially as we put greater expectations on ourselves every year. We’ve had to really think about how can we use key in critical partners to achieve some of those functions.  Again, the other piece that I keep coming back to is, some things will drop and we need to be understanding what those things are and make our pretty honest assessment if they can drop, something can’t, and we need to figure out the best way of resourcing them. At some things, even if we really like doing them, we may think, “Hey, that actually can drop.” We may need to message around, that we may need to take a half step back before the full step, but it is also looking at what is the scope of work we’re doing and what is really adding that value to the business with the client. Nathan: I love that. Just to bring up what you kicked that off with, “When the client expects more from you, you expect more from yourself.” I love that quote. Seems like you’re doing everything you can to look for those efficiencies where they’re possible too. I think that’s really smart. It’s an easy thing to miss, but then when you bring it up, it seems like the perfect place to focus on. Sean: It doesn’t solve every problem, but we have been able to figure out ways of leveraging different solutions, including CoSchedule, to make our lives easier and let us focus on what we do best which is communicating with our clients and donors. Nathan: Awesome advice, Sean. That’s a perfect place to end this episode. I want to say thank you for being here today, for preparing for this. I appreciate that very much. Thanks for rocking CoSchedule too! Sean: Thank you, Nathan. It’s a lot of fun. Nathan: I think this is worth repeating, “When the clients expects more, you should expect more from yourself.” If you ask me, it’s a pretty smart approach to look into the tools you already have and figure out ways to maximize the value you receive from them. The same goes for your team, your vendors, and your partners. There’s always another way to become more efficient. It just takes that careful eye to spot some of those opportunities and then just do something about it. Subscribe to the Actionable Marketing Podcast
About the Author

Nathan is the Head of Content & SEO at SimpleTexting. He's a demand generation enthusiast, content marketing advocate, and team player. He enjoys spending time with family and friends, running ultra marathons, and canoeing in the Boundary Waters in Minnesota. Connect with Nathan on LinkedIn.