Skip to main content
Field Notes

Field Notes #56: Singles and Doubles

Field Notes #056: Singles and Doubles

You Had Me At Hello: Katzenberg’s Infamous Disney Memo

Rewind to ’91. 

Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Disney’s film realm, pens the now-infamous memo: “The World is Changing: Some Thoughts on Our Business.” 

For context, he wrote this memo after “Dick Tracy,” which sucked up an enormous amount of time, energy, and budget, and barely covered its costs.  

(Fun fact: this memo was also the inspiration for Jerry Maguire)

Historically, Disney used a “singles and doubles” philosophy, producing many smaller projects that would do reasonably well with the occasional big bet—much like our barbell content strategy. 

These movies were cost-efficient and reasonably high quality, but nothing broke the bank or commanded an inordinate amount of resources. 

Over time, this strategy transformed into a “Yes, but” philosophy, where big budget movies were justified in different ways. Specific examples from Katzenberg’s memo include:

  • “Yes, he’s expensive, but it’s a great opportunity for us.” 
  • “Yes, that’s a lot to spend on marketing, but we have too much at stake not to.”
  • “Yes, the sequel will require a big budget, but it’s a potential franchise.

The memo, I’ll warrant, is extremely long, but well worth reading. While I don’t agree with everything, I see a lot of parallels to growth, SEO, and content marketing today. 

The main point of his memo is this: 

“Because the world has changed, we need to get back to the basics. For this reason, there will not be any revolutionary new ideas presented in the following pages.” 

Linger on that phrasing for a bit…

“Because the world is changing, we need to get back to the basics.” 

You don’t hear that often on Marketing Twitter or LinkedIn today. 

Instead, you hear breathless takes that the world is changing, you’re already left behind, and therefore you need to upend your entire understanding of marketing and consumer behavior, and shift your strategy to the New Shiny Thing. 

While content marketing and SEO aren’t the same thing as the movie business, we can learn a lot from this memo, including:

  • Identifying opportunity costs & regaining focus
  • Quality versus outcomes
  • The power of a great system

Opportunity costs & the compounding power of focus

A “yes” to one thing is a “no” to something else. 

Everyone has finite time and resources, even the largest brands. During times of uncertainty, it’s even more important to focus. As Katzenberg put it, “In good times, drift can be tolerable. In bad times, it can prove fatal.” 

It’s not that big, audacious ideas are bad. They have their place in your portfolio of bets. Katzenberg noted that in the memo:

“Does this mean that we abandon big event movies altogether? Definitely not. But, we should approach them in as intelligent a manner as possible.”

When choosing to invest in a lofty, unproven initiative, however, it’s pertinent to ask, “what existing or alternative efforts will this take away from?” 

This is an opportunity cost. In addition to the direct cost of funding a loft idea, you also have to factor in the time and attention NOT spent on other propitious efforts. 

In other words, if you want to make a branded documentary, cheeky YouTube videos, or yet another podcast, account not only for the additional cost of the campaign, but also for NOT spending that money to double down on what’s already driving results for you. 

Of course, opportunity costs are especially pertinent to SEO, where results compound much like financial investments do. But this is also true of any worthwhile channel or campaign, including outbound sales development, paid acquisition loops, or your decentralized content marketing. 

Image Source

Here’s how Katzenberg put it: 

“Even if one accepts the homerun approach to movie making as valid, consider what it does to other films on the agenda—the singles and doubles…with a finite number of development, production, distribution, and marketing people, this time has to come from somewhere else and it inevitably must come from the less costly projects.” 

Summary: Consider opportunity costs in relation to continued investment in compounding channels.

Power laws, predicting success, and quality content 

In a recent Field Notes, I talked about defining an objective criteria for quality. 

You set an internal quality code for work to adhere to, which helps drive efficiency in your content operations and increases the likelihood of good outcomes for your work. 

The outcomes of content, however, can’t be predicted with 100% accuracy. 

The movie business sort of resembles venture capital—it’s a “hits business” that follows a power law distribution. A small percentage of bets drives the majority of the results.

Image Source

Your content and SEO results will likely look like this at some point as well.

Some people take away the wrong lesson from this—that you should try to reverse engineer and predict the big hits.

Try as you might, it’s hard to predict outlandish success. It’s better to build a system that allows for many shots on goal, because one is likely to be a hit.

That’s the way I treat social—I post once a day on LinkedIn. Most of it doesn’t get much traction, but occasionally, I’ll write a post that clicks and gets some virality.

In the vast majority of cases, the posts I predict will do well…don’t. And this trash tweet continues to go viral. C’est la vie. 

Summary: You probably can’t predict what the big winners will be, so build a system that allows for many shots on goal. 

Mise en Place: The Power of a Great Process

No great kitchen can reliably produce great meals without a mise en place, the establishment and environment that reduces wasted effort and energy in the kitchen and allows cooks to flourish. 

I’ve talked about the content mise en place before—a fancy phrase that means the “rituals” and “artifacts” your content team uses to produce great work consistently. In other words, content operations. 

The foundational component of a successful content program is strategy, the custom plan that gets you towards your goal. 

Mise en place is the set up that bridges the (very common and very large) gap between strategy and execution. 

When you’re running a small restaurant or content program, a single talented cook can bring you to prominence. 

However, for the scale and longevity of your program, eventually what you want is a system that allows a number of cooks to step in and produce consistently good meals. 

Your mise en place will differ depending on your team, company, and industry, but here are a few common ingredients:

  • Audience intelligence: If you’re selling complex enterprise software to CIOs and your content’s attracting industry juniors and beginners, you’ve got a problem.
  • Editorial guidelines: An objective style guide and a rock-solid criteria for good content. It’s your map in this content jungle. It’s what stops you from writing about quantum physics when your audience just wants a damn good brownie recipe.
  • Process mapping: Visually, how does a piece of content get created and distributed? You can use Miro for this, or a whiteboard. You can build in automation and Service Level Agreements (SLAs). Automate the grunt work and keep your creatives doing what they do best—creating. 

Summary: Peep Laja used to say, “If you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” When choosing between the occasional act of brilliance or a system that continually produces good work, I’ll choose the system every time. 

Want more insights like this? Connect with me on LinkedIn.

  1. The Content ‘Mise en Place’ – The full essay talking about content operations and how to achieve great quality at high scale. 
  2. How to Be Great? Just Be Good, Repeatably – Steph Smith’s wonderful essay, objectively better than my own, on consistency, inputs, and focusing on being good instead of great. 
  3. How Marketers Waste Time and Resources, and the Audacity of Big Goals with Jakub Rudnik – My podcast with Jakub Rudnik, Director of Content at ActiveCampaign. His approach, which he talks about here, focuses on the system as a whole. Particularly interesting is his approach to reducing wasted effort and shipping faster.
Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.