Shop Talk: Godfather Of Branded Podcasts Steve Pratt On The Power Of ‘Earned Attention’

If a company started its own podcast… would anyone listen? Today the answer is obvious, with branded podcasts as ubiquitous as blogs and newsletters. But back in 2014, no one really knew — except Steve Pratt.

Back then, Steve was looking for a way to help brands break the chains of conventional marketing. How, wondered the former journalist, TV producer and digital strategist, could you get people’s attention without turning them off?

Taking lessons learned from his years working in television, at AOL and then the Canadian Broadcasting Company – where he ran an innovation lab – Steve realized that the answer lay in brands becoming their own media companies. Along with some friends and partners, in 2014 he established Pacific Content, a Vancouver-based startup dedicated to helping companies set up their own podcasts.

Steve’s bet paid off. In his eight years with Pacific Content – including three following its purchase by Rogers Media – he worked with Slack, Ford, BMW, Facebook, Shopify, Dell, Charles Schwab, Morgan Stanley, The New York Times and CBS, among others.

Steve has since turned his attention to consultancy work and writing. In his new book Earn It: Unconventional Strategies for Brave Marketers (pub. date Oct. 2024) he distills much of what he learned as a brand strategist into actionable methods companies and leaders can use to earn, rather than seize, attention.

We talked to Steve about how thought leaders can break out of the box of conventional marketing and get their message out in an increasingly attention-demanding environment.

The Helm: One of the points you make in your book is that everything is geared towards interruption rather than earning attention.

Steve Pratt: A lot of this stuff is second nature to people who come from a media or journalism background. But it is not second nature necessarily for certain marketers. It’s about being an audience first and thinking about how to create something that is going to be valued by the people on the other end. It feels like such an obvious statement but if you actually want to get people’s attention you need to earn it.

The Helm: Now you’re speaking our language — delivering value to an audience is what thought leadership is all about.

SP: We were a podcasting company in some ways, but in the big picture we were a company that expressed marketing and thought leadership through podcasting. A lot of the strategy work was around figuring out collaboratively with really smart clients around what their desired business outcome was and what was a really generous way to create value for their audience.

A podcast is a great way to do that because it’s a long-form medium. You can actually have some meat on the bone and explore things and if you do a really good job of it people will spend a lot of time with you. On average, people listened to 95% of a 3o-minute episode. That’s an average of 25-to-30-minutes with your company’s message in their ears. Podcasts are a really, really powerful medium for connection and building customer relationships. From a thought leadership perspective, they couldn’t be a better strategy to explore.

The Helm: How did you apply thought leadership tools yourself to position Pacific Content as a leader in the podcasting space, especially back then?

SP: It was not only early to establish a podcasting company, but it was also a podcast company that specialized solely in working with brands and helping them learn how to build their own audiences and make shows that people wanted to listen to. We had to educate people on how to do it properly. And it’s funny, I think there was a lot of hesitation in putting too much effort into marketing ourselves since we were a services company that’s busy making content for other people. It’s like the cobbler whose kids don’t have shoes.

Eventually my colleague Dan Misener and I said, “We’re going to commit for a year together to write a newsletter every single week. And we’ll alternate and cover for each other when we’re on vacation.” We knew that people were out there searching for information about how to make good podcast as a brand and what the best practices are and how to measure it and how to make good shows.We strongly believed that if we gave away that information for free and shared all of our best practices that people would find us and see our name over and over and over again while they were researching, and they would reach out and contact us. It was the single best decision we made for growing the company – to just give away all of the stuff we knew for free.

The Helm: How can a thought leader zero in on the knowledge that will be most valuable to their audience and differentiate them from the competition?

SP: If we look at the podcast example, it was a very narrow area of expertise. We’re big nerds in podcasting and again in brand marketing. We looked at how to combine those two things. That was an unusual pairing, where we were the only people who were knowledgeable about it. If people are thinking about where their thought leadership should be, then they should ask, “What are the things that I know, or what are the unusual intersections that I have?”

No one is sitting at home waiting for the next thought leader to publish a newsletter. In fact, most people are probably dreading it. You have to be really, really great at something to find an audience that wants to opt-in. A lot of people think that volume is the way to win but it’s not. It’s a case of doing the opposite of what’s expected. And it goes back to finding a smaller area rather than a larger area, and figuring out who you are trying to reach and how to create value for them.

Who are the people who are not being served? Super-serve and double down on a smaller audience and you’re going to become the best in the world at connecting with that audience.

The Helm would like to thank Steve for sharing his time with us. Be sure to check out his bi-weekly newsletters The Creativity Business and The Creativity Guild, where he writes about progressive marketing and embracing creativity in middle age, respectively. Follow Steve at, as well as on LinkedIn, Twitter/X and Instagram.

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