By Pamela Muldoon published May 14, 2015

How a One-Room Schoolhouse Student Ended Up Creating a New Era of Marketing


Carla Johnson came from a science family so she studied electrical engineering. After two years, she opted to become a history major and learned the value of storytelling – a skill that has taken her far in her career.

In this episode of The Pivot, Todd Wheatland sits down with Carla to learn more about her journey and why she co-authored Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing with Robert Rose, released in March by the Content Marketing Institute.

Listen to Todd’s full interview with Carla Johnson here:

(CMWorld Executive Forum, March 2015, San Francisco, CA; Length: 27:39)

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What may surprise you

  • Carla was the fourth generation on her family’s farm in Laurel, Nebraska, 40 miles east of Sioux City, Iowa. She is the youngest of five.
  • For her elementary school years, she attended a one-room schoolhouse. When Carla was in sixth-grade, there were five students (two in sixth, two in fifth, and a half-day kindergartner). Her high school graduating class had 33 people.
  • After stopping electrical engineering studies, she worked full time and went to school part time, studying history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. In total, she took nine years to earn her bachelor’s degree.
  • She earned her master’s degree in history in hopes of becoming a college professor.
  • Early in their marriage, Carla and her husband, Ron, quit their jobs and spent a year traveling throughout South America. They now have three children between the ages of 8 and 12, and live in Denver.

Carla’s pivot

As a marketer for a Denver-based telecommunication firm, Carla struggled to find agencies with which she could work that would produce the quality of work for which the company was paying. She thought “if these people can make it, I’m pretty sure I could do it.” In 2001, she ventured out on her own.

As Carla hung up her own shingle, she followed a single mantra – she wouldn’t work for companies or people that she didn’t really like. In the first six or seven years of the business, she focused most of her time on writing, especially in the technology field. Knowing the engineers’ language and audience, she gained credibility and drew out of the engineers the necessary details to be able to tell an effective story.

But Carla’s writing style didn’t start with the words – she always had to know why and would ask questions to ensure the content fit what the company and the audience needed. That process led to a natural evolution from content production into consulting and speaking about here’s how it can work and, here’s what you really need to achieve that. Now she spends a lot of time with teams talking about how modern marketing should look, how marketing should function in a changing environment, how to build credibility, and how to have a seat at the table.

A lesson in books

Carla’s master’s thesis on the historic architecture of a railroad station became her first book, Union Pacific and Omaha Union Station. Since then, she’s written several books on an organization’s history, including the first-ever corporate story of Western Union. Carla says once she completed the Western Union book, she had the process and framework to make the next books easier to complete.

The writing process for Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was different than for her earlier books, as she co-authored it with Robert Rose and the two synthesized what they saw happening with brands to envision the seventh era. Two years ago, they outlined the book, and a year ago, opted to move more quickly to get the book out the door and into the hands of marketers. In that time, its premise evolved.

Storytelling is still a very, very big component, but we could see it was starting to shift. It wasn’t just storytelling, it was more how do you bring those stories to life and truly create experiences for customers, because that’s what drives loyalty, and then how do you actually do that within an organization, with a framework that is something that people can look to and have as a guide.

For a full list of The Pivot archives, go to the main The Pivot: Marketing Backstories page.

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Cover image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Pamela Muldoon

Pamela Muldoon is the Podcast Network Director for the CMI Podcast Network. In her role with CMI, she assists the podcast hosts with the development, production, distribution and promotion of their shows. Pamela is a veteran podcaster who can be heard on the CMI Podcast Network with her latest show "Content Marketing NEXT". To date, she has interviewed over 200 business and marketing professionals as part of her podcast formats. She is also a professional VoiceOver talent specializing in commercial, narration, eLearning, and promo projects. Learn more at or Follow her on Twitter @pamelamuldoon.

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