“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
I’ve spent considerable time thinking about branding and online reputations lately. I’ve felt like there are more public incarnations of myself in the last decade than in 30+ years of David Bowie.
Ten years ago, I worked as a newspaper editor in a small town. I represented my company speaking in front of civic groups like the Civitans and the Kiwanis, very much committed to presenting a friendly, caring face to the community so these people would trust me enough to send in news tips, advertise, and write checks for that all-important subscription.
Then one day I got a phone call from a guy whose company launched a web startup and wanted to buy the domain of a website I created to eliminate it as competition. Long story short, I got a job for an online magazine – the content of which was a departure from the school board meetings and human interest stories I covered at the newspaper.
Considering I got a $20,000/year pay raise and worked from home, it seemed like a no-brainer, but I’d later find a steep cost to leaving the corporate world to work for a small start-up where things were so casual, even the boss would forward dirty jokes in his emails.
The male-centric website focused on lifestyle and entertainment. Before long, I found myself interviewing people like Hayden Panettiere and Dane Cook, covering events like the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, and producing weekly features of up and coming models in seductive, non-nude photos.
I can’t stress enough how tame the content was compared to what else you’d find online. You can imagine something in the vein of Maxim magazine at its peak. It was publishing, the same as any content aiming to attract as many eyes as possible. I had strayed far from the typical reading in small town Alabama, yet I always maintained the philosophy that I didn’t want to make anything that I’d be embarrassed to explain to my pastor, a judge or my momma.
Working for this website, I had my first visceral experiences with branding and online reputations.
The business model centered on generating paid advertising impressions, so my job included finding creative ways to get us on the first page of search results, get visitors sharing our content, returning regularly, and clicking on as many pages as possible before we lost them.
It did not take long to realize that the name my predecessors had given the online magazine, “Xposed”, suggested it was a porn site. Advertisers didn’t even bother to take a look once they read the name. So we rebranded as “Savvy”, which cost the boss about $10,000 just to lease that .com, plus a storage room full of obsolete Xposed-branded schwag. We also toned down the testosterone, making the website more unisex and producing photo features that remained sexy, but in a fashion aesthetic that females found appealing. The reinvention paid off, and soon we gave Maxim and Askmen a run for their money.
The young women who we paid to model for the photo shoots when they were 18 or 19 would occasionally reappear, years later, asking if we could take down their photos since they were graduating from college. Google had existed previously, but people only started to realize around 2005 that online magazines weren’t like paper magazines – the content would live forever rather than fading out of circulation.
I had the difficult chore of reminding models they had signed model releases and cashed our checks. We couldn’t really take articles down because a good number of page views came from the archives. I began advising newer girls to use only their first and middle name or an alias — a sensible precaution anyway because of online stalkers and such.
I also dealt with web piracy. Other websites would steal our content and present it as if they had been the ones paying to create it. Some of these included fake web pages intended to game SEO with reciprocal links back to other websites, as well as porn sites that used the girl next door wholesomeness of our models to lure guys into their sleazy websites. One girl even had a photo stolen and reportedly misused in a banner atop a Vegas cab to pitch an escort. I don’t know which of us was more livid.
If my life were a made-for-TV movie, that scene would have foreshadowed peril ahead. Instead, I didn’t want to live beyond the moment while enjoying my dream job. The entire time, I thought I was amassing great clips for my portfolio to show future employers what I was capable of doing.
The website became so successful that a competitor came calling after failed merger talks. They lured me away with the prospect of jumping from the web-only to web combined with broadcast media. The channel appealed to the same demographic that Xposed initially did: males, 18-39. It mixed sports programming and reality TV with late-night shows featuring pretty girls. Again, nothing beyond the PG-13 stuff in any episode of “Baywatch,” but this still presented something of a stigma in attracting advertisers. It’s enough to make me believe that women are not only the primary shoppers in most homes; their husbands must not have much of a say in any of their purchases if advertisers run in terror from the hint of a string bikini.
I was tasked with reaching out to niche viewer ships of programs like roller derby and extreme skiing so we could go to advertisers with those eyeballs squarely in our corner. The channel transitioned into something more family-oriented, aimed at a general audience rather than just those men initially targeted. For longtime viewers, I’m sure the change was jarring to say the least.
I did my job marketing the channel so well that my employers sold it to a bigger fish.
I found myself suddenly unemployed in the most brutal job market since the Great Depression. Recruiters shared something with those ad buyers who lacked any interest in looking beyond a cheesy-sounding website name: They dismissed me in the pre-screening stage, not on the basis of my skills or experience, but rather, on the results of Googling my name, which typically produced at least one photo of a scantily clad model. Taken out of context, it no doubt hurt my online reputation, even though I had done nothing more than work really hard to create tasteful, entertaining content that was admittedly a bit cheeky.
I set out to re-brand myself, enrolling in graduate school and returning to freelance producing a wide range of visual content for publications focusing on such areas as tourism and manufacturing. It was critical to show prospective employers that I wasn’t just some one-trick pony fixated on beautiful women. Had I been a lesser disciplined man, I could have used those jobs as my own personal dating service, but I never wanted to give my wife a reason not to trust me.
Unfortunately, in the fall of 2010, she sat me down in our living room and told me she’d become distant because she realized that after 15 years together, she had fallen out of love with me. Having totally invested in my role as a husband and father, I was crushed when she handed me the divorce papers. My ego and identity instantly shattered. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be anymore, personally or professionally. I only knew that I still had my little girl and needed to keep it together for her sake.
It required great reserve to avoid going on Facebook to talk about my ex or whine about my situation. I didn’t want to gain an online reputation for being an emotional train wreck on top of anything else. Those meltdowns are like gawking at an accident on the road: you hate to see it, but you just have to look.
I’m proud to say I took the high road. The great lesson from that time period of my life, which I have fortunately recovered from, was the knowledge that strategic communication is as much about what you DON’T say as what you DO.
The one positive in divorce is gaining the opportunity to reinvent one’s self. I opted against the obligatory motorcycle, tattoos, and scruffy beard. I remain simply me, slightly weathered by a rough patch of life.
The people who know me in everyday life – the folks I’ve known since kindergarten and go to church with – they recognize I am a decent, upstanding guy who commits to excellence and professionalism. I’m also a loving father who lives in a small town because I made it a priority to be a meaningful presence in my daughter’s life rather than just some guy she sees on occasion. There’s nothing wrong with dads who don’t share custody with their exes, but for me, I couldn’t stand the idea of not spending as much time with her as possible.
Your values – the things you consider important to who you are – these are the bricks of your brand, the foundation of your reputation. Devotion to family and doing quality work drive my values. It is 2013, and I am a phoenix rising from the ashes of personal and professional crisis. The past is gone. I’m charging ahead audaciously into the future with excitement and a devotion to realizing the next level of me.
You know, there’s a lot more to me than meets the eye.
Because people are more than the sum of a Google search.