Creative Lives — Taking content seriously with content strategist at Dare, Gemma Germains
As a content strategist at creative company, Dare, Gemma Germains spends her days spotting trends and patterns in data to make sure that the content they produce is stellar. “We’re UX-focussed content specialists doing research-driven work. I get thrills every time I say it,” she shares. Previously, Gemma ran studio Well Made with friends for over a decade before joining Dare on a contract. At the time, the company didn’t yet have a content department, so Gemma decided to build one. And she’s been there ever since. Here, Gemma tells us about the journey she took to get here; why her ego is both her biggest ally and hindrance; and tells us the skills shared by the very best content strategists.
Senior Content Strategist, Dare (2017–present)
Liverpool and London
Founding Partner, Well Made Studio (2008–2017)
BA Media & Cultural Studies, John Moores University (2000–2005)
How would you describe your job?
Strip the content out of this page and what have you got? Nothing. That’s why people need content strategists. But if you replaced it with thoughtless, unstructured content you’d still have a rubbish experience. That’s the point of content strategy.
I do a lot of research and mapping. I can spend hours trawling through data to find patterns in how content is performing. I prototype and test content. Sometimes I even do a bit of copywriting.
“It was a struggle to make [agencies] understand that content strategy isn’t writing a load of pet-food tweets.”
What does your typical working week look like?
I split my time between London, Birmingham and Liverpool – working four days in London despite living in Liverpool.
I spent years championing Liverpool as a creative city. There’s a big discourse about the skills gap in the North West but I think it’s more of an opportunity gap.
The irony is, it’s more efficient for me to work in London than to commute to Manchester or Leeds (cities with a thriving creative scene). You only realise how intense the North South divide is when you’re on the other side. The North is crying out for London’s connectivity.
There’s talent in the North, it’s apparent when you look at what Golden, Studio DBD, Music and Coop Digital are doing (there are plenty others). It’s the infrastructure that’s lacking. Liverpool and Manchester can’t build a relationship when it takes at least 90 minutes to travel between them. Creative camaraderie isn’t built on remote working.
How did you land your current job?
I ran Well Made with my two best friends, Joe and Doug, for a decade. I realised I needed to be a creator not long after. The only thing I could do well was write so I started calling myself a copywriter. That’s probably not correct because I was planning digital content from the outset. Content strategy felt like such a new discipline even as late as 2012 and it didn't feel right just giving myself a new job title.
We shut shop in 2017 because the stability we craved made us complacent. It was always better when we had something to fight against. I didn’t realise how much I’d miss it until I went freelance. There’s a level of confidence that comes with knowing someone else has got your back, and the autonomy was great. You don’t get that with freelancing. It can be incredibly lonely, and I couldn’t stand kissing up to people who took 90 days to pay me.
I tried a few agencies, but it was a struggle to make them understand that content strategy isn’t writing a load of pet-food tweets. I contracted at Dare in the autumn of 2017. The project was more challenging than I expected but the team were incredible. They didn’t have a content department, so in December I asked for a permanent contract and the opportunity to build one.
Work as part of Well Made
How collaborative is your role?
Dare’s unique for a creative tech company because we have such a big experience team. Our experience planners are a combination of creative strategy and user experience. There’s also an SEO and Data team.
Content strategists need these skills in order to do our, job but most of the time we have to do it ourselves. To have these [teams available] for every project feels a bit like Christmas.
What are the most and least enjoyable part of the job?
I love seeing the people on my team flourish. Back in January, I thought we needed a load of copywriters and that’s who I hired. A few months later we realised they all need to be content strategists. It’s amazing to see people work so hard to learn new skills.
The worst bit’s being away from my kids. I’m lucky that I’m divorced and I can share the child care. They’re 12 and 16 but I still miss them like hell. Sometimes I feel a million miles away from home.
What has been the most exciting project of the past 12 months?
The best bit has been building a new department. Dare’s had fantastic content people in the past but I wasn’t filling anyone else’s shoes with this role.
I’ve been adamant from the start that this isn’t an editorial or content marketing team. We’re UX-focussed content specialists doing research-driven work. I get thrills every time I say it.
“Every decent strategist should know how content fits into the user journey, irrespective of channel or device.”
What skills are essential to your job?
A willingness to keep learning. User behaviour is changing so rapidly at the moment.
If nothing else, every decent strategist should know how content fits into the user journey, irrespective of channel or device. It sounds a bit jargony but trying to make people think beyond the screen will be vital in the next few years.
What tools do you use most for your work?
Google docs. I’d be lost without it, even if Google does like to advertise the stuff I’m writing back at me.
Gemma with students
Gemma leading a student workshop on content strategy
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
The creative industries didn’t exist in North Wales during the early 90’s so I didn’t have a plan growing up. Honestly, I just wanted to do anything that got me into gigs for free. I stumbled into design via a tiny agency who designed album covers.
What were your first jobs?
My first job proper job was as a PR for a music promoter, working in a dingy office in Southport. Then I bummed about for a while, producing pop videos and photo shoots, sucking up to music industry execs and PRing exhibitions. It was fun but I wasn’t particularly inspired by my work; I wasn’t creating, I was organising.
I spent years trying to find my place in the industry. I’d always done some sort of creative sales, but it felt mercenary and my ego didn’t match my salary. I’m eternally grateful for working families tax credit for keeping us afloat. Most families can’t survive on creativity these days.
Was there a particular project or person that helped your development?
[Working on the album artwork for] Arctic Monkeys gave me something to brag about in the early part of my career. I’d have been lost without Joe and Doug during Well Made’s hay day because they taught me to have absolute faith in myself.
However, working at Dare is the first time I’ve had a proper line manager. After spending so many years making it up, it’s amazing to have Roz as a real mentor.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
My ego. It’s my greatest ally and biggest hindrance. I can get quite pissy when I don’t think people are taking content seriously.
"Favourite Worst Nightmare" – The Arctic Monkey's second album; cover made while Gemma was PR manager at design studio, Juno
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a content strategist?
I don’t think anyone tells their careers advisor, “I want to rewrite the web in plain English, and model content.” Content strategy is a job you stumble into after realising blogging doesn’t pay.
Head of (UX) content is now an incredibly well-paid job and tech companies are starting to realise how vital we are. But I don’t think it’s a young person’s job. You don’t see many junior content strategists.
We need people who understand how digital communications work. They need to have spent time managing websites, copywriting and doing brand communications to understand how audiences consume content.
Anyone can learn how to research and test content but the best content strategists are really passionate about the stuff that happens on the peripheries of their work.