Episode 18: Rachel Lovinger, Publicis Sapient - The Changing Roles of the Content Strategist

April 18, 2019

This week, content strategy pioneer Rachel Lovinger covers a wide range of topics with Kristina, including her content modeling work at Publicis Sapient and the core challenges faced by today’s publishers. They also dive into the intersection between content design and systems design, as well as how the role of the content strategist has evolved over time.

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About this week’s guest

Rachel Lovinger

Rachel Lovinger has worked in online publishing, website development, and content management for 20 years. She’s officially been a content strategist since she joined the content strategy (now content design) team at Razorfish (now Publicis Sapient), almost 13 years ago. She regularly works on public-facing and enterprise projects, developing content models, metadata strategies, and overall content strategies for clients in a wide range of industries, including automotive, publishing, medical, financial services, travel, and entertainment. Rachel is dedicated to exploring a future in which information is well-structured and well-described, and connections are more easily discovered.



Episode transcript

Kristina: Hello again, welcome to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host, Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at BrainTraffic.com.


Hey there. This week I have a wonderful friend who I’ve known for years and years on the podcast. And her name is Rachel Lovinger. I am sure you have heard of Ms. Rachel Lovinger. She is the content design director and content strategist at SapientRazorfish in New York City. She is an internationally recognized thought leader in content strategy and has worked in online publishing, website development, and content management for nearly 20 years.

And in her work she’s dedicated to exploring a future in which information is more efficiently structured and connections more easily discovered. Rachel, hi.

Rachel:  Hi, Kristina.

Kristina: How’s it going?

Rachel: Great. Great talking to you today. Oh, my gosh.

Kristina: Yay. I’m so glad you’re here.

Rachel: I should mention our company changed its name to Publicis Sapient now.

Kristina: That … it is Publicis Sapient. Can we edit that? Okay, so Rachel is going to content strategy her bio. [laughs]

Rachel, you and I have known each other for so many years. I in fact know exactly when we met because your article, “The Philosophy of Content Strategy, the Philosophy of Data.” Did I get that right?

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Kristina: Was published in Boxes and Arrows in 2007. And that was a real watershed moment for me and I think at least 12 other content strategists around the country because that’s about all there were of us. Seeing that article and going, “Oh, this is what I do. And there’s a name for it. And it’s a thing.” And I mean it is widely recognized as kind of the first published article around content strategy sort of in the “we make websites field.”

And it was not long after that I think that I reached out to you and I was completely just like, “Rachel Lovinger? Hi, I’m Kristina. I love you.” And we have just kind of stayed in touch and crossed paths a million times, and talked about content strategy a lot over the last several years.

Rachel: Yes.

Kristina: So I am excited to have you here because we have not chatted in a while. And I want to know what you’ve been up to. What’s getting you out of bed in the morning these days?

Rachel: So it’s funny that you ask. I was talking actually with Melanie Seibert the other day and she asked me how much of my time I spend doing content modeling. Because I usually I describe what I do as that’s sort of my main focus, content modeling, making a model for the CMS. And I consider that kind of my main focus these days.

But she asked me how much of my time I spent actually doing that. And I realized that I actually spend probably about maybe 5% of my time actually doing the content model and the rest of my time is spent kind of advocating for the content model or sort of shepherding it or kind of helping other people understand what it is.

And I should say I don’t feel like the content model is like a sacred text or anything. Here we’re documenting this is how the CMS should be set up. But the idea is with the business, with the designers, we’re making decisions and then I kind of document what decisions we’ve made in this form. And then we use that to do other things.

But the documenting itself takes a few minutes or maybe a couple hours a week. And then the rest of my time is helping the developers understand what requirements we’ve captured there, helping the designers understand what’s currently possible. And then sometimes they come back to me and say, “We want to do something different.” Then we have to add something or the developers might come back and have some suggestions on how to improve things. And we’re adding new features or we’re adding new capabilities.

So a lot of it is more about me explaining to people what we’ve decided and put in there. And then coming back with, okay, there’s new things we need. Then talking with our authors, the people that are actually going to use the system. Help them understand how to use it. They come back to me with new requirements saying, “Here’s the thing we forgot to tell you we want to be able to do.” And just sort of shepherding it between all of these different communities as the kind of this point of truth of how the content is going to be created for the site.

Kristina: There’s so much to unpack there. And we’re going to do it. We’re going to do it right now. I love what you just ended with though which is that you’re sort of single point of truth when it comes to the content. And kind of continually connecting the dots for all of these other folks, or sort of working on creating and strengthening kind of those fibers between the different departments to make sure that everything is well choreographed when it comes to actually sitting down and people creating content within the system so that everybody’s on the same page.

I feel strongly that that is a tremendously important role of any content strategist. And I think that the folks who are sort of progressing in their organizations or who are doing really interesting work for clients are really working on building out those kind of mediating and facilitating roles as an ongoing advocate for the content.

Rachel: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean going back to that article that I wrote. I think even at that time I was talking about if you don’t have a content strategist in your organization and you look around and you’re the person who cares the most about the content, you’re the content strategist.

Kristina: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Rachel: Advocacy is a huge part of it.

Kristina: Exactly. It’s funny because I think I even sometimes will tweet, “Oh, it’s 2018 or it’s 2019 and I can’t believe that this is still happening with the content. What’s wrong with people?” And I sort of had this epiphany, I think it was early last year where I was just like, I think this is never going to change. I think this is always going to be the case and no matter what, how the digital platform changes or our website properties or how information is managed, I just feel like this is going to be a role that is really going to be required for the foreseeable future. So yay, job security.

Rachel: Yeah. Well, I mean how long ago I wrote this nimble report about the sort of the future of digital journalism and digital publishing.

Kristina: Where you said content wants to be free.

Rachel: Yeah, and that was in 2010. And I think a lot of those issues publishers are still trying to grapple with as they try to understand how to move from old forms of media into digital and what that means for their operating model, what that means for their business model. All of these new things are not easily solved.

Kristina: No. And why do you think that is? What do you think are some of the core challenges for why organizations are still like, “Okay. We’ve known that this stuff was coming. We’ve had challenges with this for 20 years.” Why are organizations still struggling with even the basics of, not just from what should our content say so that it makes sense for and it’s useful for end users, but also how do we need to be building and structuring this content for reuse across platforms. What do you think the core issues are there? What is wrong with people? That’s my question.

Rachel: Well, I think it’s a different issue for publishers probably than it is for other organizations. I think for publishers a lot of what they grapple with is especially publishers that have been doing this for decades or even centuries, they’re like, “We get content.” But they have a misunderstanding about what their product is. So they think their product is a newspaper or a book or a magazine or something like that and not the information. And that makes it hard for them to shift from “our product is a book” to “our product is information.” And shifting that into digital realm.

Kristina: And isn’t that interesting because frankly that is an ongoing conversation and I think the websites specifically design industry kind of had an aha moment several years ago where they were like, “Oh, without content a website is just a design. So the website isn’t necessarily the product. It’s the content that fuels that site experience.” So similar.

Rachel: Yeah. And I mean I think that problem eventually will be solved. We see a lot more now sort of digital native publishers and organizations and products that are built around content and they were digital first. And they’re thinking about that. And then you see that there’s a lot of crisis going on in the traditional media world. But the ones that are sort of going to weather that storm are going to be the ones who are able to figure this out and sort of shift their focus on what their product is.

Kristina: You started off mentioning the work that you’re doing with content models. Can you talk for just a minute about what a content model is and how it can help an organization with content management?

Rachel: So I guess at one level or the most basic level it’s just documenting what the different types of content are, like the different page types or different types of content that you’re going to have in your website or your digital product. And then what all of the fields are for each type and how they connect with each other.

So I work with functional analysts a lot. They’re kind of documenting the behaviors of the site on the front end. And I’m documenting what’s happening in the backend, like how the CMS is going to be set up to allow people to publish it.

In some ways that seems pretty straightforward, but when you start talking about those things, what it leads to is a lot of conversations about the requirements around how flexible this content is going to be, what’s required, what’s not required. How do we make sure that even though we’re looking at one particular instance of a design of a page that has one set of things, what are the different variations and the different ways that we want to allow authors to be able to have control over the layout or the different things that they see on the page?

So you might have some structures that are very specifically structured and laid out. It’s got to have these exact things. You may want to have other models where it’s kind of more flexible and give people the ability to be more creative and create a wider range of things. And finding that balance between very structured and very flexible is like a constant negotiation with the designers, with the authors, with the business, with the technology group. Everybody has to be involved in these decisions.

Kristina: So this actually leads us directly into what prompted me to reach out to you recently in the first place, which is that at Brain Traffic we have something called the content strategy quad that we use as kind of our framework for talking about content strategy and sort of helping people break apart different parts of challenges that they’re facing with their content and kind of examine them through specific lenses in order to kind of figure out what information can be useful in analysis and then work with them to kind of synthesis around these different areas of practice. And we’ll include a link to our original post about kind of our newer quad that I think we introduced last year or 2017.

But you left a super interesting comment on that post not too long ago that sort of challenged the idea of sort of separating out content design as just editorial and experience considerations. And then talking about structure specifically within designing repeatable systems. And even just reading your bio I’m like, “Oh, interesting. You’re the content design director but you’re working on these models.”

Tell me a little bit about what your perspective is and where you come at that conversation of what is content strategy and how can we frame it up in a way that it’s going to be meaningful enough to kind of bring together these different folks who are really kind of beginning to branch into areas of specific expertise and specialties across content modeling, content experience design, product design, and so on. Tell me what you think.

Rachel: Yeah, so first of all the four corners of the quadrant I think make total sense to me. And even the way that you’ve sort of divided them with editorial and experience on one side and structure and process on another side makes sense. And the only question I had was about calling one side content design and the other side systems design.

And so one of the reasons I question that is because my department actually, we’ve recently renamed ourselves from content strategy to content design. And as our group sort of questioned ourselves and we’re like, “What does this mean? Does it change what we do?” We felt like it doesn’t really change the range of things that we do. What I think we were trying to express ... And it wasn’t my call to change the name. So this is my opinion and not necessarily everyone else’s, but the way I see it is that we are changing from content strategy to content design more to express that we’re not just consulting on what content should be, but we’re actually creating things. We’re actually designing things. And the things that we’re designing are systems.

And my feeling that the whole thing is about systems actually is partly based on a talk given by Erin Kissane that she gave at Webstock. I think it was 2012 when she was working for Brain Traffic. And she gave this talk called “Little Big Systems.” And sort of speaking of watershed moments, when I watched this video that was one of the things that kind of helped me realize like, “Oh, yeah. This is why I do what I do.” And she really talks about content strategy and how it approaches systems. I’m not going to try to summarize her talk or encapsulate her whole talk. But it sort of opened my eyes to this idea of what’s consistent between thinking about editorial systems, editorial messaging, the more front end side of content, and thinking about these sort of backend structural parts like the common thread is this level of abstraction of thinking about content as a system.

And whether that system is a system of messaging or a system of hierarchical, taxonomical terms, all of it is part of what we think of as content strategy. And I don’t know. Her talking about that made me realize, “Oh, it’s all about content systems.” When I think about these two labels, it’s almost like a shorthand. So content design, if you unpacked that, what we’re talking about there is the design of content design systems which is a mouthful. But if you think about design systems like when organizations go like, “This is our design system.” And they show you all the sort of modular bits of here are the way we do buttons. Here are the way we do logos. Here are the way ... Whatever. The same way you’d have a design system, like a content design system, would be a similar thing but for editorial and sort of how the content experience plays out. And so I think in that quadrant, what we’re doing is we’re designing those content design systems.

Kristina: So I totally follow what you’re saying. And I think that I don’t want to ... I think there’s a risk of me being like, “But what does this word mean? What does this word mean? And couldn’t we say you’re building systems instead of designing it?” I always sort of cringe when people start picking at words. So that’s not my intent at all.

So there’s two things about the actual phrase “content design” though, well, actually one thing that I wanted to ask about, which is content design as a practice has been pretty well defined and is spreading like wildfire in the UK and really throughout Europe. And I feel like potentially the way that you are talking about content design at your company is different from that. So do you feel like that is going to be a problem or a challenge? Or do you feel like,“Eh, it’s nothing that we haven’t been struggling with content strategy forever.” Did they think about that? What do you think?

Rachel: I think it is sort of similar challenge to what we’ve been grappling with with content strategy. I remember that when I started in this field I had a friend who lived in England and was working at the BBC as an information architect. And when I described to him what I did as a content strategist here, he was like, “Well, we call that information architecture here.”

So a lot of these words or phrases are kind of you can put it different lens on them and see a totally different side of it. So I don’t know. It is tricky for sure.

Kristina: You know what’s interesting is that I really did used to hold fast to the “I don’t care what you call it or what you call yourself, just get the work done.” And people were like, “Yeah, just get the work done.” But what’s interesting is that especially over the last I’d say two years, I’m getting calls from HR departments and head hunters and agencies and they’re just like, “We need to hire for ... what I would call ...a content strategist position. And we keep getting all the wrong people replying to this because there are so many definitions for content strategy.”

And so I’ve kind of come around to, it’s really too bad that we can’t all kind of stand around and nod our heads and just be like, “Yeah, this is what we call a content strategist. And this is what we call whatever.” But I just don’t … I was complaining to somebody I think that the field of content strategy is evolving so rapidly and Margot Bloomstein was talking about not that it’s splintering per say but kind of what I was saying earlier, that people are becoming more and more comfortable saying, “This is my area of expertise. I don’t feel like I need to be super fluent in all four areas of the quad or whatever. And I’m going to stand on this and I can find jobs with this.”

Product content strategy is a perfect example. Where those folks are, they’re really deeply involved in product design but they are really, really the guardians of and the keepers of word choice and how stories unfold. And they’re just like, “We’re going to call this product content strategy. I’m going to call myself a UX writer. This is the work that I do.”

And so as we sort of take that terminology and run with it and shape it ourselves, I just wonder how we’re able to kind of continually represent that or align on that to kind of the rest of the world. Do you feel like when you guys are walking into new organizations and you say content design and “I’m a content strategist in the content design department” that people are like, “Oh, yeah. That.”

Rachel: No. No, I think we still definitely—

Kristina: Okay. Well, thanks for being on the show. [laughs]

Rachel: We definitely still need to get more into the details and describe what that means. I mean even across our organization I find different project teams and different account people and different clients definitely interpret it different ways. I mean I’m glad to hear that other people are grappling with this too and you and Margot. And I think for a while I’ve been wondering about this. A couple of years ago, I was like, “Is content strategy too vague to describe what it is that we do?” And there’s something important about having that phrase, but there’s also something important about getting more specific. And I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people over the years who came to me and said, “I’m interested in this content strategy thing. But am I like a fraud if I call myself a content strategist because I only do this?”

Kristina: Totally, yeah, no. I hear you.

Rachel: And I go like, “No, absolutely. That’s what you do and you should be clear about the fact that you do social strategy or you do whatever it is that you do and not make it seem like you’re a broad content strategist. And not let yourself feel like, ‘Oh, you need to be able to do UX writing if that’s not your skill.’” There is something important I think for the growth of this field for people to be able to get more specific about what their roles are. My prediction, if I can be bold right now, is eventually content strategy is not going to be something that we say, “I am a content strategist.” It’s going to be like saying, “I’m a scientist.” You can say it, but people will then want to know what kind of science do you do. It’s not going to stand on its own like that.

Kristina: So I could not agree with you more. It is sort of the idea of watching ... since strategic thinking was sort of introduced as a concept in the 60s and watching how that as a practice has been extrapolated into so many different ways of looking at problems and tackling problems and identifying, to your point, systems to design to both analyze and kind of synthesize those challenges.

There are a million different approaches now to what is called strategic thinking. But I would suggest that 900,000 of them are not actually strategic thinking. But anyway, there’s a lot of different approaches. And I think that you’re right. I think with content strategy that these different sort of subdisciplines or practitioners who have areas of real specific expertise that that’s going to be gaining a lot of ground.

And what’s interesting that, again, I don’t know how many times I’ve received, whether it’s from clients or people who’ve hired us to sort of consult around the ideas of governance and process. They’re like, “Here’s the job description that I’m putting out for a content strategist.” And they have a long list of capabilities that basically cross over every single thing that we’ve talked about today. And I’m just like, “I don’t know a single person that could do all of these jobs and do them well, especially not in 40 hours a week.”

Rachel: And I’ve also seen things where people are looking for someone because they’ll reach out to me and say, “Do you know anyone who could fit this role?” And they’ll be like ... And I’ll look at it. They’ll want someone who’s going to be running like the global content strategy and then also doing—

Kristina: Doing audits.

Rachel:  Yeah. I’m like, “Is this an entry level role? Or is this a global lead?”

Kristina: Yeah, exactly.

Rachel: They kind of want someone who is not only a unicorn in all the skills but can do anything from the most detailed stuff to the most high level stuff.

Kristina: Exactly. Exactly. I mean I come in front of rooms as like “the content strategy expert.” And I’m constantly saying to people, “Yeah, I only know enough about that thing to be dangerous.” Here are six articles and two people you should go talk to about that. Because in many ways, my role has really evolved to be, I sit right in the middle of all sort of four of those quadrants and work to connect the dots for organizations and for leadership really, to sort of ... because they’re like, “Oh, I can’t just make a decision in one of these areas without it having a ripple effect through these other areas.”

And that is a really exciting and interesting position to be in. And it sounds like actually beyond … coming back to, “we want somebody to globally lead the practice and also do the audits.” And in some ways it sounds like your role has evolved from “I’m going to sit down and work on these content models for 20, 25 hours a week” to you are really playing a more of a leader and a strategist who’s continually kind of bringing folks together and synthesizing information and needs and expectations.

Rachel: Yeah. I mean that’s sort of my ideal situation when that can happen. There’s other times it varies also by project and by what the needs are for the project. I mean right now I’m lucky enough to be on a project that I’ve been on for several years. So I have had time to build up that expertise and become the person who can shepherd that work. But there’s other projects that I’m on where it’s a more short-term thing or it’s a different kind of need and I’m doing more executing on stuff.

Kristina: Yeah, exactly. So we’re almost out of time. And I could keep talking to you for another three hours. So just coming back around to what we’ve been talking about as content strategy as a practice and being able to focus in. A lot of our listeners are either, they’re writing into say, “Oh, I’m the only one that does this work in my organization and it’s great to hear from other practitioners.”

What advice do you have for folks who are maybe just starting out in content strategy or looking for a different kind of career path in content strategy? What do you say to those folks? Just thinking about where you were thinking and hoping the field’s going to be growing over the next several years.

Rachel: I think the important thing is regardless of your title or what other people’s titles are, just look for allies. I mean some of the most growth that I’ve done and the most movement I’ve been able to affect within my company or with my client have been when I can find somebody in another discipline who sees things the way that I see and we can kind of back each other up on helping to explain what the benefits of thinking about things this way are. So whether that’s been with a developer who understands, believe it or not, there are some developers out there who really understand the authoring experience.

Kristina:  Bless their hearts.

Rachel: Yes. Or whether it’s designers, like how you can get them to sort of see how the collaboration between content and design can make for a better and more flexible system. Or whoever the other people are who seem to care about content, they don’t have to also be content strategists to be able to care about the content and help you advocate for it. And I think the more different people you can get having that perspective, a lot easier to make progress in your organization around the kind of influence you want to have over content.

Kristina: Rachel, I think we have the best job.

Rachel: I love it. Yeah. I think it’s really fun.

Kristina: That’s just great advice. Great. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It was just awesome to catch up with you. And I hope that we can reconnect in person soon.

Rachel:  Yeah. It’s great talking with you, Kristina. Definitely, let’s talk again soon.

Kristina:  Thanks, Rachel.


You’ve been listening to The Content Strategy Podcast. I’m your host Kristina Halvorson. This podcast is brought to you by ContentStrategy.com and Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy. Find out more about Brain Traffic at, of course, BrainTraffic.com. Thanks and we’ll see you next time.

About the podcast

The Content Strategy Podcast is a show for people who care about content. Join host Kristina Halvorson and guests for a show dedicated to the practice (and occasional art form) of content strategy. Listen in as they discuss hot topics in digital content and share their expert insight on making content work. Brought to you by Brain Traffic, the world’s leading content strategy agency.

Follow @BrainTraffic and @halvorson on Twitter for new episode releases.