A cautionary tale about handles on plastic doors
“Here’s some thought leadership for you: stick it up yer ar—”
So many of these essays begin with a chance encounter. We wander down the street together, stumble upon a random person or persons, and they tell us something that becomes pertinent to the essay. That person may even tease a lesson at the beginning, then reveal the ‘lesson’ some 700-words later. It’ll have a happy ending, of sorts. If it’s not happy, it’ll be at least rousing. Inspirational. Engaging. One of those words.
The problem was, that’s how these things used to work.
If I were to wander around the street today, all flâneur-like, notebook in hand, I’d find that person who was pertinent to the story and punch them in the face. As they fell to the floor with a questioning but pained look, I’d shout at them.
“It’s all your fault,” I’d spit at them.
“We can’t have genuine interactions in essays any more because of you,” I’d scream, that vein bulging in the middle of my forehead that only happens when I’m really properly angry.
“Here’s some thought leadership for you: stick it up yer arse,” I’d say.
I’d stomp away, my disappointment fading into the distance. I’d brush past some poor guy just standing there, swearing at him for nearly burning my coat with his cigarette. As I stomped away, I’d be shouting “all your fault” over and over, shaking my head.
Because it is. It’s their fault. The marketer’s fault. My fault. Thought Leadership. Copywriting. Twitter Threads. Email Newsletters that just curate other people’s things. LinkedIn posts that make you cringe so hard you turn inside out. These are all things I’ve instructed people to do in the past. Now, I don’t do that. Consider this my obituary of that marketer I used to be.
“Here lies Craig, accomplished marketer and designer. He used to advise his clients to write thought leadership think piece Twitter thread curation newsletter LinkedIn cringe, and now he’s dead. Good riddance.”
I used to innocently suggest ‘thought leadership’ to my clients because there was honesty to the tactic. A robustness in the suggestion. You, my client, know things. You don’t tell enough people that you know these things, meaning you don’t get enough of the right customers. By telling more people you know these things, you get more of the customers you want. This is correct and right and how things should be.
Even I’m doing this in this piece, right now. I’m attempting to show you that I know things in the hope that you believe that I’m good at my job. Maybe you might have the need for somebody like me in the future, and you’ll remember that random weirdo on the internet who wrote an article about how he was writing an article about showing his expertise.
The problem was, that’s how these things used to work.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the marketer I just punched in the face. Allow me to regale you with a cautionary tale.
Five years ago, somewhere, a marketer sat at his white IKEA desk and advised his client that to ‘increase his authority’ he needed to become a ‘thought leader’. Yes, all the marketer’s client did was make handles for plastic doors. Yes, it was an incredibly specific audience. Yes, that’s called a niche. Yes, some people will care. Just start writing things about handles for plastic doors, and the orders will flood in.
The problem was, it all got a bit out of hand.
The handles for plastic doors man started a YouTube channel. He made 2-minute videos where he tested various door handles on various plastic doors. He called it ‘Will it Open?’. The problem was, everyone was looking for a way to be less bored whilst they stood waiting for their thing, so they binge-watched Will it Open? The problem was, the channel became incredibly popular.
The handles for plastic doors man, the marketer’s client, was amazed. The marketer was right. Although all he did was make handles for plastic doors, he’d become a mini-celebrity in his own right. He started showing his mates down the pub his Will it Open videos. They loved them too. You know you’ve got a good business idea when even your pissed-up mates down the pub enjoy it. That’s where the true business magnate is made, after all.
So instead of making handles for plastic doors, he became a ‘content creator’ and ‘thought leader’. He stopped making handles. Stopped doing any work. The only thing he did was look at his analytics 70 times a day and wonder about how he could make his views and engagement higher.
Oh, he did another thing too. He consulted his marketer every day. His marketer would give him catchy titles for his videos like “You’ll never believe what happens when this man opens this door!” and: “The handle was the least of this man’s problems” and let’s not forget the one that went viral: “2 Doors, 1 Man”.
The problem was, no matter how hard he tried, the handles for plastic doors man couldn’t make the numbers go higher. He’d reached peak handles on plastic doors content. He should have been happy with 2 million subscribers, but that’s not what his marketer told him. He told him he could ‘grow’ if only he could ‘engage’ more.
He consulted his marketer once more. He’d need to dig into the comments, explain his backstory, engage with other leading content creators. He’d need to go on podcasts, guest-feature on other YouTube channels, and hire a team to document his day-to-day life. He’d go viral every day, his marketer told him.
So instead of making handles for plastic doors, he launched a Twitch channel. He live-streamed himself opening and closing various plastic doors whilst talking about his life. There wasn’t much for him to say: the only thing he did was live-stream himself opening and closing doors. He ended up spending all his time talking about himself and how he wanted to grow his numbers for his handles on plastic doors YouTube channel.
Just when was the last time the handles for plastic doors man made a handle for a plastic door? He couldn’t even remember. He’d got foggy with the content creation and rusty with the tools. He’d have to change that, he thought. Right after he’d grown his YouTube and Twitch channels.
The problem was, his Twitch channel didn’t grow the way he’d hoped. He got 500,000 subscribers, but it wasn’t enough. His marketer told him there was more to his ‘brand’. He was the Will it Open guy. Unlimited potential in the vertical. Game shows. Talk shows. Podcasts. Email newsletters. Online courses.
The handles for plastic doors guy twirled a handle around in his hands. He barely recognised the handle any more. Was this a Substream 456 or a Streamsub 564? Did this handle even fit on a plastic door? Was it load bearing? He’d forgotten everything. Instead of foggy, he’d got practically zero-visibility. He’d have to change that. Right after he made his online course.
He’d heard a lot about online courses. So, the handles for plastic doors guy consulted his marketer and he decided he’d make a course. The problem was, he’d forgotten how to make door handles. He couldn’t make a course about that. The only thing he did know was how to open and close plastic doors on YouTube, so what would his course be about? He looked at the numbers on the screen. 2 million subscribers on YouTube. He’d make a video course about growing a YouTube channel.
So instead of making handles for plastic doors, he launched an online course. 297 dollars. Only $99 in three interest-free payments over three months. A bargain. Unlimited growth potential. The problem was, the course wasn’t about making handles. It wasn’t even about opening and closing plastic doors. It wasn’t even about his niche. Wasn’t even in his vertical. It was about him. About him, and how he grew a YouTube following.
He went back to his marketer. He floated other ideas. The talk show was still on the table. What about a talk show about handles and doors? We could call it ‘Handling Problems’. What about a podcast where he interviewed leading experts in the plastic door industry? We could call it ‘Crossing the Threshold’. The problem was, he didn’t know anything about handles any more. Or plastic doors. Or his industry. He’d forgotten everything.
In the pursuit of easy online personal branding thought leadership passive income money, he’d forgotten why he’d started. He’d forgotten his craft. His purpose. Yeah, he only made handles for plastic doors, but he made something. People came to him because he was good at making handles for plastic doors. Now? All he could make was a clickbait YouTube thumbnail.
So, he went back to where he started. He dropped the YouTube and the Twitch and the thought leadership and even his marketer. It’d been a fun 2 years, but it was time to get back to the craft.
The marketer had nearly ruined him, and that’s why I punched him in the face.
When I stomped away at the start of this essay, I brushed past the making handles for plastic doors guy. He watched me and smiled. He looked at the poor marketer I’d punched in the face, laying on the floor. He watched me stomp away, took the last drag of his cigarette, and went back to his workshop. Just before he went back in, my presence seemed to have reminded him of something. He got his phone out of his pocket, found the YouTube app, and deleted it.
“Stick it up yer arse,” he said, and shut the door.
P.S. Paul LeCrone sent me a related video.
Fun read Craig! It's sad how people get sucked into the whole "oh shit what I have is a product, means I have an audience, means I have to market myself to death" chasm. In the past 6 months (since I started writing more online and subscribing to many blogs/newsletters) I'd see people who started off with good ideas, interesting essays, really cool stuff turn into people who would just write "oh, here's an update on my writing/editing process, here's how my schedule looks, here's my morning ritual guys" stuff over and over again. I think you and Thomas discussed this on the pod as well.
2 doors, 1 man, fucking genius. Also, it's so funny to read this essay and then also think "man, Craig does have some killer marketing ideas for this door handle guy tho." Well done on your evolution. I have very little experience with all of this but since starting a grassroots safe streets advocacy group, I've felt the llure of the Gollden Rule of "you must do social media!" and yet, I'm pulling back from it because it does take away from the work - so thank you for the hilarious and pointed reminder.