sparkbeat-logoThis is my last post as editor of Sparksheet. With four and a half years, 561 posts, 31 industry awards (we’re up for 7 more next month!) and 129 contributor relationships under my belt, I’m moving on to join the startup world.

From the very beginning the folks at Spafax understood that the only way Sparksheet would work as an incubator/showcase of the agency’s creativity, innovation and thought leadership was for it to stand on its own as an independent media brand. I’ll always be grateful to them for entrusting me with the resources and autonomy to build Sparksheet from an upstart marketing blog into a truly global multiplatform magazine.

One of the highlights of my tenure was jetsetting (or, is that transuming?) all over the world in search of stories. Flipping through the “Weather” app on my iPhone, I see that I’ve travelled to Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Frankfurt, Sicily, Havana, Seattle, New York, Boston, Austin, Lisbon, Toronto, Los Angeles and Athens (stay tuned for my feature on Greece next month). And that’s not counting vacations.

I always came back from these adventures filled with insights and lessons from media and marketing professionals I’ve met along the way, and so I thought I’d sign off by sharing five key lessons I’ve learned from editing Sparksheet for the better part of five years.

Celebrating Sparksheet's first year.

Celebrating Sparksheet’s first anniversary.

Quality and credibility go hand in hand

When we launched Sparksheet in June 2009, we had a few obstacles to surmount. First, there was no budget for contributors. Second, no one had heard of us (and we didn’t have much content to stand on). And third, we feared that most would dismiss us as yet another corporate blog masquerading as media.

In the very beginning I had to call in some favours, hassling my colleagues and roping in a few thought leader friends for contributions. But pretty soon, I had people telling me they’d be honoured to write for Sparksheet, and I eventually found myself in a position where I was turning away more people than I was approaching.

It’s simply not true that if you build it, they will come. But if you build a platform based on the highest editorial and design standards you will establish your credibility very quickly. People recognize quality, and they want to be a part of it.

I always approached Sparksheet as the independent, award-winning editorial publication it became. That meant maintaining an editorial calendar, setting deadlines (and holding people to them) and engaging with every think piece as if it were my own.

Turns out that if you treat people, their work and their time with respect, they will not only respect you, they will go to bat for you. That’s not just a recipe for good content; it’s the basis of good marketing.

The 2009 iteration of the Sparksheet homepage.

The 2009 iteration of the Sparksheet homepage.

Relationships are everything

Sparksheet has always been about people. Our very first post, written by my coastal colleague Al St. Germain, was all about navigating the client-agency relationship.

Since then, we’ve covered how airlines and other brands are using social media to engage with customers as human beings, how face-to-face events are making the digital world a more intimate place, and how consumers in emerging markets are changing the culture of marketing.

As editor, I’ve always relied on personal relationships to power Sparksheet with content and conversations. Some of these relationships were forged over Twitter or email, some at conferences or in meetings with colleagues around the world.

But in each case, friendliness led to friendship, which led to collaboration, great content and, eventually, the sort of influence and advocacy that brands dream about.

At APEX Expo 2013, we turned people, like Spafax's own Al St. Germain, into content, and built lasting relationships as a result.

At APEX Expo 2013, we turned people, like Spafax’s own Al St. Germain, into content.

Don’t be afraid to fail

“Fail fast” has become a mantra in the startup world but you don’t hear it enough in media circles, where successes are trumpeted and setbacks are quickly buried.

We’re tried a lot of different things over the years at Sparksheet, including e-books, podcasts, live video, custom content for events, weekly link roundups, a cartoon series and other short-lived projects I’m forgetting about.

Some things we just didn’t have the resources or energy to sustain, others just flat out didn’t work. Maybe some will take off after I’m gone.

Innovation is Sparksheet’s raison d’etre. If we weren’t constantly evolving and experimenting with new platforms, channels and content we might as well have packed it in years ago. But as proud as I am of what worked, I’m also proud of what didn’t – and that we weren’t too proud to let some things go.

The cartoon Sparksauce was limited to one edition. We still thought it was pretty funny.

The cartoon Sparksauce was limited to one edition. We still thought it was pretty funny.

Journalism and entrepreneurship are converging

I started editing Sparksheet fresh out of journalism school, after a short stint in Washington covering the 2008 U.S. election and financial crisis. I had my reservations about taking a job outside of the traditional journalism world, about working for a content agency instead of a news agency.

But I soon discovered what became part of our editorial mission – that “we are living in a world where media outlets are becoming more like brands and brands are becoming more like media.” I thought that was pretty clever when I wrote it, but it already sounds quaint.

Many of the so-called traditional media types I’ve interviewed over the years have since gone on to join startups or reinvent themselves as brand consultants. One of our most popular posts was my Q&A with Blake Eskin, who in 2010 was the web editor of The New Yorker.

He went on to help launch 29th Street Publishing, a startup that creates magazines for tablets (the iPad was only a month old when our Q&A was published). Meanwhile, Matt Gibbs, who was Playboy’s social media director when I interviewed  him in 2011, is now the co-founder of video crowdsourcing engine SparkReel (and a Sparksheet contributor!).

As our friend – and another entrepreneurial journalist – Craig Silverman wrote in May, journalists and content marketers have a lot to learn from each other. And I’m not even sure what the difference is between “brands” and “media” anymore, are you?

Sparksheet's first feature focused on the business of brands in Cuba.

Sparksheet’s first feature explored branded entertainment in Cuba.

Content marketing has gotten complicated

Seamus, Sparksheet's dog-in-residence, keeping watch over the Sparksheet banner.

Seamus, Sparksheet’s dog-in-residence, keeping watch over the Sparksheet banner.

In the past few months I’ve spoken to three of the most disruptive players in the content marketing space – Shane Smith, co-founder of freelancer network Contently (stay tuned for our Q&A in the coming weeks), Shafqat Islam, CEO of content syndication service NewsCred, and Jon Steinberg, the president of new media juggernaut BuzzFeed.

The first two companies didn’t even exist in their current incarnations when Sparksheet was launched, while BuzzFeed has evolved from the poster child for “listicles” about cats to the standard bearer for what people are now calling “native advertising.”

In just four and a half years we’ve seen content marketing go from being a B2B niche with a handful of aspiring thought leaders to the apparent saviour of media, marketing and the planet.

What this means is that the content ecosystem is no longer just about clients and agencies but about the complex, symbiotic relationship between brands, agencies, startups, publishers, freelancers, consultants and, of course, the people formerly known as the audience. Once again, things have gotten complicated.

So thank you for your readership and contributions throughout the years. Special thanks to my bosses, Raymond Girard and Arjun Basu, for their support and trust, to my editorial assistant, Sophie Woodrooffe, for her hard work and dedication, and to our design guru, Charles Lim, for his responsive eye and breakfast-for-lunch companionship.

Keep the good ideas coming,

–Dan Levy, Editor