By Dennis McCafferty published March 31, 2014

Building Killer Relationships: 10 Content Job Lessons from ‘The Godfather’

godfather-trust-content-marketing“I believe in America…”

With these four words, The Godfather opens with the first of countless memorable lines — a testimony to the lasting power of what’s widely acknowledged as one of the most perfectly written scripts in film history. And the people behind the movie certainly believed in good, old-fashioned American capitalism, as they collaborated upon 175 minutes of content that delivered staggering ROI: The Godfather was shot for less than $6.5 million and made more than $245 million.

Two sequels and nine Oscar wins later, cinephiles rank the first two Godfathers (both of which won Best Picture) at the most elite level of “must watch.” As in, if you catch them on TV sometime, you will stop everything you’re doing and watch. Never mind that you own them on DVR and/or Blu-ray and that you’ve already seen them 10, 15, or 20 times. You see the same relatives every Christmas, don’t you? Getting reacquainted with the Corleones every few months is another way to catch up with a different kind of “family” members — those who entertain and teach us.

Indeed, there are many takeaways sprinkled throughout those sublime scripts. And it’s not a total stretch to say that some of them might speak to the relationships those of us with a content job have with our clients and stakeholders — you can attribute much of the Corleones’ success to their superior intuition in managing outside “associates.”

Ok, I get that we’re content marketers and the Corleones imported olive oil. (That was the family business, right?) And yes, I’m well aware that the Corleones resolved problems with associates by occasionally ordering hits on them — and I’m not suggesting we go there with even the most difficult of clients and stakeholders. But throughout the films there are classic lines that convey key lessons that are readily transferable to the difficulties encountered when handling clients as part of a content job. Here are 10 of them:

1. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Lesson: You need to develop a content marketing strategy to help keep the focus of your content on what will be most helpful in connecting your brand to the target audience.

Peter Clemenza’s line — delivered just after the unfortunate Paulie is, ahem, “disposed of” — demonstrates the laser-focus mentality of the Corleones. With clients and stakeholders, it’s important to maintain this level of clarity, lest you get sidetracked by all of the “noise” they introduce that may water down the potential for effective content marketing. If you’re promoting a survey report, for example, the research department might push you to include Every. Single. Research. Detail. But, in your mind during these discussions, you’re already editing out what you know won’t help you connect to the target audience.

“This ability is powerfully instinctual — to know what’s useful, and what isn’t,” says David Germano, Vice President of Content Marketing at Cincinnati-based Magnetic Content Studios. “Content marketing is framed around what the target audience really wants. This requires unwavering focus.”

2. “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” 

Lesson: Focus on the bottom line of creating compelling content, not on winning friends or feeding egos.

Whether stakeholders or clients, in every content job, you’re likely to deal with people who are competing over ego/attention or a conflicting agenda. So filter out the personal squabbles and concentrate on the big picture. “It’s never personal about whose quote is on the top, but certain clients or stakeholders will think so,” says April Rudin, CEO/Founder of The Rudin Group, a Fort Lee, N.J.-based marketing, branding, and communications strategies firm for the financial services industry. “The #1 job is to produce content that moves the needle. It’s a slippery slope when you endeavor to please everyone.”

Of course, the “strictly business” approach also helps when you get a familiar feeling of pure panic after stakeholders or clients mark up your content drafts with “NO! NO! NO!” comments, or verbally flog you during a meeting. You may think, “What did I ever do to make them treat me so disrespectfully?” But you have to get over it.

“Clients and influential stakeholders are busy,” says Andrew Tipp, Content Strategist at Further, a UK-based online marketing and SEO agency. “They have no idea how long you spent on the project and, frankly, it doesn’t matter. They care about results, not feelings. So adapt the mindset to not take critical feedback personally and accept that it’s all about business.”

3. “I spent my whole life trying not to be careless.” 

Lesson: Be rigorous in your content’s accuracy and precision.

Attention to detail means everything, especially for highly text-driven content. If you want the respect of your clients, make sure the work you do on every content job is beyond reproach, and your content quality is infallible:

  • Run multiple fact-checks of names and titles of people, as well as companies referenced.
  • Make sure all of the “basics” — correct grammar and spelling, proper organization, active sentences, action verbs, and overall clean, clear execution — are covered.
  • Screen content for excessive “repeat” words. (At our IT-focused agency, “provide,” “deliver,” “enhance,” “allow,” and “solution” are among the likely suspects there.)
  • See to it that content is reviewed multiple times by multiple parties.
  • You should even check for consistent formatting among all your content pieces.

Anything less and your clients and stakeholders could conclude that you lack sufficient attention to detail to do the content job right. Case in point: I recently reviewed a very ambitious and slickly produced survey research report from a well-known corporation in which I observed that a variation on the word, “occasional,” was misspelled more than two dozen times (literally!) as “occassional.” Imagine the chagrin of the executive behind the report when I (gently) called this out to her.

“Content marketers can’t afford to be careless,” says Carrie Baczewski, Content Strategist for Mint Advertising, a Clinton, N.J.-based boutique agency. “An off-brand message, lapse in voice, missing call-to-action or simple typo can diminish the client’s impression of your work.”

4. “Never tell anyone outside the family what you are thinking.” 

Lesson: As a service provider, you need to be discreet and brand-focused in all your content efforts — at all times.

This also falls into the subject area of not being careless. As in not letting slip about confidential, sensitive client/stakeholder/corporate information. Here’s a basic rule of thumb to follow, whether in the office, at an event, or in a bar: Don’t disclose anything you wouldn’t want posted in an online forum with your name attached.

“As service providers, we must become trusted advisors to those who pay us for our skills and expertise,” says Keith Ecker, Content Strategist at Chicago-based Jaffe PR, a marketing/PR agency for the legal industry. “One surefire way to ruin your credibility is to leak proprietary or sensitive information beyond the confines of the relationship. Not only are there potential legal ramifications, but if word gets out that you’re a ‘snitch,’ you may find yourself ‘whacked’ with respect to a pink slip or an evaporated pool of client prospects.”

5. “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.” 

Lesson: No idea is invincible, so make sure you have a backup or two for even the most ingenious of your content marketing plans.

You may think you’ve developed the most brilliant content concept ever, after spending hours, days, or weeks on it. Yet, this product of so much intellectual perspiration could very well get instantly shot down by a client or stakeholder. So come up with at least two or three backup proposals to the one that you believe is invincible.

And, sometimes, you may be pleasantly surprised about which ideas the clients/stakeholders don’t kill.

“We had a client that ‘killed’ many viable concepts,” says Kyle Psaty, Digital and Content Strategist at Roberts Communications, a Rochester, N.Y.-based advertising, PR, and interactive marketing firm. “Then, they landed on one which was so progressive, we didn’t think at first that it would work at all. In the end, the client pushed us to deliver something more visionary.”

6. “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” 

Lesson: If you must exit a project, do so gracefully, and don’t burn any bridges unnecessarily.

You should never consider yourself as “out” of any professional association. Not after you leave a company. Not even after a client fires you. Because it’s a smaller world than you think, and there’s a good chance you’ll connect again.

“Budgets get cut,” Tipp says. “Departments get downsized. Clients find somebody cheaper. The end of a campaign or job doesn’t mean the relationship ends. We’ve ‘lost’ clients who end up coming back to us, realizing that the grass really wasn’t greener with the other agency and it’s worth paying more for quality content and practices.”

7. “Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news at once.” 

Lesson: Be transparent in all your client communications — even if you need to deliver unpleasant or disappointing news.

If there are issues with a content job or project, it’s best to tell the client/stakeholder team sooner rather than later. This way, you can work together to get it back on track, or at least salvage what you can. Perhaps the content strategy only needs a tweak here and there. Or maybe it’s time to overhaul the entire concept. Regardless of the conclusion, if you bring the clients/stakeholders in early, you’ll have a better chance of securing their commitment to the new direction.

“All programs that I handle incorporate the clients into the process,” says Elizabeth Downey, Engagement Manager at Pedowitz Group, an Alpharetta, Ga.-based sales-focused marketing consultancy. “Like Mr. Corleone, they expect to be informed ‘pronto’ when something isn’t working. Then, we can find an alternative that communicates what they’re doing more effectively, to drive toward profitable results.”

8. Fredo Corleone: “How do you say ‘banana daiquiri’?” Michael Corleone: “Banana daiquiri.” 

Lesson: Avoid shrouding your content processes and procedures in jargon, tech-speak, or vague descriptions. Direct is usually best when it comes to keeping clients in the loop on your content marketing plan.

You don’t want to over-mystify content with clients and stakeholders — you should seek to make it easy for them to grasp the various tactics you’re deploying to serve them.

“We all have our ‘special sauce,'” says Paula Crerar, Vice President of Product and Content Marketing for Brainshark Inc., a Waltham, Mass.-based provider of presentation technology and solutions for sales, marketing, and training. “But if it’s too difficult for clients and stakeholders to comprehend, or if it’s shrouded in secrecy, your interactions can suffer. With our clients, we always have a kickoff meeting for every project, to discuss the components of a creative brief, such as the intended audience, goal, deadlines, etc. For a recent video presentation, for example, we reviewed all critical steps with the client, including developing the script, storyboarding, doing a professional voice-over and completing the final presentation. Because the process is very clear, our client has greater trust in our team.”

9. “I’m going to make him an offer he won’t refuse.” 

Lesson: When a client insists on taking a position that you are certain will compromise the value and performance of content, you must counter with a convincing argument that will “right the ship.” 

(Did you honestly think I’d forget about this quote? Fat chance!!)

This quote (arguably the most iconic of many iconic lines in the trilogy, ranked #2 on the list of all-time movie quotes from the American Film Institute) translates to the power of persuasion. In The Godfather, a big-shot Hollywood studio head refuses to cast Johnny Fontane in a career-making role, until the Corleones make a rather, er, convincing case that he has no other choice (i.e., an “offer he can’t refuse”).

Granted, the Corleones’ “offer” involved doing something absolutely, positively awful with the studio head’s prized stud horse. But don’t worry. You won’t have to harm any animals when applying the same principles to client and stakeholder dealings. However, when they do dig in their heels on a position that will compromise the content, you must counter with a “can’t refuse” argument.

“Keep in mind that you’ll always work with people who are not as savvy at content marketing as you,” says Holly Pavlika, Senior Vice President of Brand Strategy for Collective Bias, a Bentonville, Ark.-based social-shopping media company. “If they’re pushing for a concept that won’t deliver, then call up samples of content that went down the same path. Show them why these efforts failed. Explain how the inclusion and omission of certain ideas and elements makes all the difference.”

10. “… and the city he invented was Las Vegas.” 

Lesson: Demonstrate your passionate commitment to the content job, and you’ll likely be rewarded with the client’s trust — and empowered to take risks.

I’ve saved my favorite quote for last, because what can be as great and scary and ego-gratifying and humbling at the same time as sitting before a blank computer screen and attempting to produce brilliance for a client or stakeholder? As is often the case, you’ll minimize the “pain” and maximize the “gain” if you immerse yourself into the client/stakeholder relationship up front. When clients and stakeholders see the immense preparation — and passion — you’re investing into the project, you’re increasing the probability of their eventual, enthusiastic buy-in. And that’s when you’ve empowered yourself to “invent” something as amazing as Las Vegas.

“You can’t create compelling content in a vacuum,” Ecker says. “You have to deconstruct the brand, understand its goals and research the attitudes and behaviors of its audience. Once you do this, you can build content that resonates with audiences and establishes a positive association with the brand. At this point, the only limits to what you create are your own imagination, your budget, and the client/stakeholder sensibilities.”

Did I forget any of your favorite lines? If so, feel free to weigh in on them to add to the discussion. Be sure to include the takeaway, especially with regard to how it relates to client/stakeholder relations. After all, this is the business we’ve chosen. And if any of us ever need any guidance, who better to serve as consiglieri than the people who follow CMI?

For more great ideas, insights, and examples for advancing your client/stakeholder relationships, read Epic Content Marketing, by Joe Pulizzi. 

Author: Dennis McCafferty

Dennis McCafferty has served as the Director of Content for W2 Communications since December 2010, responsible for a wide range of strategic content marketing-messaging efforts for tech-industry clients. Previously, he launched his own content business, DM Enterprises, and worked with clients such as IBM, Advanced Micro Devices, USAA, Nationwide, Ritz-Carlton, MasterCard, GM and many others. He also served as Senior Writer at USA WEEKEND, for which he interviewed Presidents Bush and Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Peyton Manning and Shaquille O'Neal, among others. During his time with WEEKEND, he appeared on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ESPN and numerous other outlets.

Other posts by Dennis McCafferty

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  • http://raulcolon.net/ Raul Colon

    Such a fan of the movie it was refreshing to read this list.

    Awesome job on taking a classic and making it into a lesson.

  • Mark Capaldini

    Per #3 — precision in content accuracy and precision — please correct #9. It should be, “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.” This is one of the most frequently quoted lines in cinema history. Why is it incorrectly quoted here?

  • Dennis McCafferty

    Thanks Mark for pushing accuracy and precision. I researched all the quotes … Variations on the line were used throughout the first one. My chosen version was the one that came up during the first conversation between Don Corleone and Johnny Fontane. I think your version came up in another part of the film.

    Thanks for the kind words, Raul.