Rob Alderson was brought into WeTransfer in 2016, when they only had a marketing team. After more than three years as the VP Content and Editor-in-Chief of WePresent, they had expanded to about 200 employees, in four cities, with a full marketing team, and a content team too. Alderson is now a full-time dad and “retired freelancer”. He’s taking some time to see what’s next for him, but is hoping to get back to a full-time editorial position. He spoke with Wonder Shuttle about his time launching WePresent and the tricky parts of getting brands into content.
So you were brought in to launch WePresent in 2016?
Yes, that’s right. I was brought in because WeTransfer from the beginning has given away 30% of its backgrounds to the creative community. They wanted to dig a bit deeper into those creatives that they were supporting, but they were also very appealingly open-minded about what that might look like. I was asked to come in, figure it out and build something that was going to showcase the kind of relationship with the creative community that WeTransfer as a service has. That is what ended up becoming WePresent, but it took some time to get there.
What do you think of the investment that companies like WeTransfer are putting into content by hiring editors?
I think it’s vital if brands want to do content that they hire editorial people. This isn’t at all a slight on PR or marketing people, it’s a massive skill that’s super important for companies. But the company and the brand is their overarching concern. It’s great to hire editors because we come with this in-built obsession with engaging people, and that’s part of our DNA as editorial people.
Having said all that, the little bit of concern I have at the moment is that maybe too many brands are trying to do content. It’s really important that brands slow down a little bit and work out, “Is this right for us, does this fit in with our overarching business goals, and are we being realistic about what content can achieve for our brand?” Content can have a great role in a brand marketing strategy, but it’s really important to be honest about its limitations.
We’ve also seen some audiences react negatively to brands getting into content. They can be skeptical if it’s not what they want or expect from the company, or they think it’s a waste of resources.
I quite often used to start talks for WeTransfer by showing a tweet that we got. At one point, we worked with Björk and it was the biggest thing we’ve ever done. Björk was our absolute dream collaborator and we put the film out on Twitter, and somebody replied and said, “Just send my f**king files, you hipsters.”
I think that was good though, and I adopted it as a bit of a motto for my team to be like, “Think about this guy.” If we’re going to take time and money and effort and people’s attention spans, we need to make sure that what we’re putting out there is worth it, because yeah, I get why people are like, “Why on Earth are you doing that?”
The flip side, which is really important, is if you do great stuff and you’re a brand, users don’t care anymore. If you make really good stuff, they’re not going to go, “Well, I quite like that Björk film, but it was done by a file transfer service. I wish it was The Guardian.”
We’ve done some analysis of Kickstarter, because they publish The Creative Independent, and it seems like there’s similarities between it and WePresent. They have different scopes, but they are both centred on creativity without pushing the brand.
What underpins both of them, and for me what underpins all branded content, is the confidence to go, “This doesn’t have to keep coming back to the brand.” I always joked that the one way we could have derailed that really beautiful FKA twigs documentary is if halfway through, she’d stop to send a file on WeTransfer. Excruciating, and again, my bosses were always confident enough to go, “You don’t need to.” They wanted us to be creative and do genuinely engaging things, and I completely agree.
I think what The Creative Independent does is slightly different, it’s slightly more cerebral and much more process-driven than some of the stuff we did. But yeah, it’s got a similar confidence to go, “This doesn’t need to keep digging up the brand,” and I think that’s my favorite kind of content.
You’re then seeing content platforms somewhere in the middle, like Dropbox’s new blog. That’s more of a mixed model of very creative community stuff and very brandy stuff, but it’s an interesting trend, and it will be interesting to see in five years time how it seems in hindsight.
As an editor, what were the immeasurable or less measurable qualities of writing that you used to determine WePresent’s success?
I always liked a certain sense of, “Wow, nobody else would do this,” either because it was a bit left field or it was very expensive. Our Eritrean music piece was an expensive piece to commission. We had to write it on the ground in Eritrea for 30 days, all told. We were trying to do things that other people just aren’t able to do in the modern world of journalism. I think we never lost sight of how lucky we were and the scope of the opportunity we had.
On the pure nitty-gritty of editing, I’m just all about structure. If you’re going to commission big, long pieces, you need to reward that attention with something that is super well-edited, in the real meaning of that word, and doesn’t have any fat on it, and feels really respectful to the reader.
Do you have any final thoughts about editing and what you hope to continue doing in the industry?
I have a slight concern about the pathways for editors over the next 10, 15 years. Are we going to be able to identify good editors? Editing and writing are quite different skills and I think we need to have mechanisms in place that will allow people with really fantastic editorial sensibility to go one of two ways at the right point in their career. I don’t think it necessarily always makes sense for someone to be a writer for 20 years and then become an editor.
Any personal favorite publications, ones that you always keep up with and really admire?
Yes, this is going to be strange. I’m a Brit, I live in a northern city about two hours north of London, and yet the magazine I subscribe to and get the most pleasure from at the moment is California Sunday Magazine. It’s super interesting stories; it’s well-selected. Like I say, I don’t live in California, but I’ll still read a 6,000 word profile of the governor there, because it’s California Sunday. But also it’s really well edited. I always feel like they’re respecting my time as a reader.
They just launched The Athletic, the sports site here in the UK. I subscribed to that and I get a huge amount of pleasure from that. I think that sports journalism in the UK became a real race to the bottom more than almost anything else, in terms of clickbait and puff pieces. The Athletic takes sports writing seriously and again, the kind of stories they select are really unusual. It’s really well edited; it’s really well written. I’ve got a selfish reason: I want sites like that to be the future of journalism, so I hope it succeeds. That’s probably why I signed up in the first place, but I’ve been more than happy with it.