David Mill

40 Years of Content, Marketing and Technology – it’s in the Stars

by David Mill on August 29, 2017



Shuffling the horoscopes was always destined to cause problems ....

But it wasn’t the place of a Junior Sub-Editor on The Weekly News to challenge the instructions of the esteemed Editor.

And accessing those predictions in the dust-covered bound files of editions from years gone by was just one of the varied tasks during my “apprenticeship” on what was then Britain’s biggest-selling weekly being bought by more than 1.3 million people.

As I recall, The Weekly News then had two Scottish editions, four English editions and an Irish edition.

One Friday morning, I was pushing a few of those copies through the front doors of houses on my paper round. Then, on the following Monday - August 29th, 1977 - I stood in the office as the newspaper’s newest member of editorial staff.

That was 40 years ago today.

I was just 16, straight out of school and about to embark on an eventful journey through the world of newspapers, content, marketing and communications’ technology.

About the latter, I have experienced an evolution of publishing that has featured:

  • Hot metal printing.
  • Typewriters and cut-and-paste.
  • Direct input computing.
  • Desktop publishing.
  • Satellite printing.
  • Online newspapers.
  • Internet publishing.
  • Digital marketing.
  • Smart content and marketing automation.

Here, I share some of the story and lessons I have learned which remain useful and relevant.

√ Check everything, and then check it again

My first professional guidebook was “The Simple Subs Book”, written in 1968 by Leslie Sellers, then Production Editor of the Daily Mail.

Within it, there is a series of questions that every writer, editor and marketer should ask about a piece of content:

  • Are the facts right?
  • Are there any loose ends?
  • Is everything clear?
  • Does it flow like honey, or does it stick in the craw?
  • Does it make any unnecessary demands on the reader?
  • Can it be simplified?

Those checkboxes remain true today for anyone concerned with the creation and quality control of content.

There is also a good reason why at least five proofs (now print outs) of pages were standard in newspaper offices. It meant everything was checked and checked again by four or more people. It’s an approach that’s still to be recommended.


Of course, I learned a great deal more during my early newspaper career, often taking the headlines home, inked onto my forearms due to inadvertently leaning on the typeset “stone” (an action which would have resulted in a verbal ear-bashing at the very least elsewhere when editors were forbidden from touching the type).

 Cast off excessive verbosity

In those days, newspaper pages were designed on paper, and the sub-editor's job was to:

  • Measure the space allocated for an article (in column inches).
  • Calculate the number of words required to fill the space (using a formula based on the font and type size).
  • Write or edit the content to fill the space (frequently manually checking the word count).

The last point was called “casting off”. Today, content is edited on screen, making the process more accurate if not easier.

What remains the same is that, almost always, less is more and every effort should be made to make your content as tight and disciplined as possible.

As William Strunk Jr wrote: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

This is from the excellent book “Elements of Style”, first published in 1959!

And there were many new words for my technical vocabulary … chase, compositors, upmakers, stereotypers, baulk, mangle, matts, galleys, ems and ens …

Content learnings

The cover of Allen Hutt’s “Newspaper Design” shows men at work in a historic caseroom. The practices have changed, but many of the rules remain relevant.

I also benefitted from other disciplines enforced by the limits of the technology (for example, no stretching of headlines to fit spaces) and highly experienced colleagues who rarely allowed standards to slip (for example, another lesson … “Don’t express opinions – allow readers to draw their own views from the information you present.”).

The typewriters were still evident in the next stage of my journey but the days of hot metal had been left behind at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail when I joined the Features department in 1983.


They were Scotland’s best-selling newspapers - regularly averaging 750,000 copies a day – and the manner in which they were produced was revolutionary.

At one time, the printing plant was the largest of its kind in the world. And the Daily Record was the first national newspaper to be put together with the help of computers and the first to print full-colour images on the run.

Gone was the caseroom of old and its acrid tang of hot metal. The compositors now worked on sloping tables, cutting and pasting photographic copies (bromides) of text and images on a backing sheet in the positions marked on the journalists’ layouts.

Not only were their scalpels sharpened to slice around the headlines, many a sub-editor’s tie was shortened for fun or punishment.

In these first few years working on the Daily Record (and an extra six-hour Saturday shift on the Sunday Mail which paid more than many readers earned in a week) I learned the craft of professional production journalism and newspaper layout; or words and shapes as we called them.

 Inverted pyramid style of writing

Good content for newspapers – and marketing – uses the inverted pyramid style of writing:

  • Starting the story with the conclusion.
  • Following with the most important information.
  • Ending with the background.

It is also one of the most effective approaches to marketing copy because the reader (the one who skims and scans on the web) can be hooked by the introduction and the key information at the beginning.

This is opposite to the approach that is often taken, for example, with academic work, which is usually written in the more traditional pyramid style with conclusions coming last.

Inverted pyramid style of writing

I also learned a thing or two about the newspaper culture and could tell you the stories of mud wrestling, blackmail and the pub landlord, how a VW camper van ended up in the foyer of the Odeon, why one night editor swung on the fan, long lunches with malt whisky puddings, and those “nights of shame”. But they are for another time!

 Bullets, sub-heads and emphasis

It’s said that key words and phrases emphasised in bullet points and sub-heads (with H2 formatting) still influence ranking in Google’s search results.  

And, while that’s as good a reason as any to use them in your content marketing material, they are essential elements when formatting online content to:

  • Make it more readable.
  • Highlight important points.
  • Guide the reader through the story.

That is also why they pre-date the search engine algorithms by a long chalk and, along with indented paragraphs, bold text and other effects were used throughout the columns of newspapers more than 30 years ago.

Later, I had the unforgettable experience of an audience with the mercurial Robert Maxwell, now infamous for jumping off the side of his yacht after plundering Mirror Group’s pension funds. “I’m here to meet the Editor of The Glaswegian,” he bellowed before enveloping me in a suffocating bear hug.

But, in 1985, there were no niceties. Just razor wire around part of the office perimeter, a letter telling me that I – along with every other journalist – was sacked for taking industrial action (later rescinded) and the threat of publishing the Daily Mirror in Scotland masquerading as the Record.

Strewth, I thought and, within months, was heading down under to Australia’s “treasure island” to work on The Mercury, in Hobart, Tasmania.


The Mercury was a broadsheet newspaper in style and size and, once again, there was a step forward in the evolution of newspaper production. Journalists there had already swapped the typewriters in favour of direct input terminals.

As it happened, at the same time in 1986, there was an Australian introducing similar technology to the UK, as Rupert Murdoch set about breaking the print unions at what became known as Fortress Wapping.

For my part, I started in News before engineering a move to Features, which was always my preference. I wrote and edited long – sometimes very long –  pieces of content on everything from the history of Tasmanian literature to the political landscape.

 Explanatory material and house style

For some reason, I always remember a memo posted on the Mercury’s noticeboard: “When interpolating explanatory material, please use square brackets.”

This was a matter of house style and following it was an absolute requirement.

In fact, house style is essential if uniformity and consistency are to be maintained in content produced for your business.

Few, if any, smaller businesses will go to the bother of creating a comprehensive guide. However, you may wish to refer to those of the UK Government’s Digital Service or the Guardian and Observer.

Also, anyone writing or editing on your behalf should have a list of terms and styles to be applied consistently and, where possible, edited within existing material.

Even small items like “e-mail” on one page and “email” on another can make a difference to your credibility.

In addition, there is no place for jargon, unless you are certain the terminology is part of your customers’ vocabulary. It is common for businesses to use in-house phrases; forgetting the correct language from the perspective of the prospect.

After serving my time in the former penal colony, I declined an offer to join the Adelaide Advertiser and returned to the UK. I then had an early opportunity to explore a variety of house styles and forms of publishing technology, working for some time on The Sun (News & Features), Evening News (Features), Daily Record (Sport) and Sunday Mail (News).

All were going through the growing pains of the switch to different direct input editorial systems. The Evening News was the oddest as it struggled to shrug off the old ways within the ancient Scotsman offices in North Bridge, Edinburgh.

Among the weathered desks, creaky chairs, discoloured windows and vintage radiators, computer screens peaked out; mostly enveloped by growing piles of paper. I was never sure if this muddle was a deliberate attempt to resist the technological revolution, but I politely declined when offered the combined role of Assistant Features Editor and Systems Editor.

Later, around 2000, I was commissioned to provide editorial production and content consultancy services for Scotsman.com. This was a web-publishing portal being developed at the spanking new, high-tech offices near the Scottish Parliament building in Holyrood. How things had changed over a relatively short period.

Rather than the role on the Evening News, I accepted an offer to join the Evening Times, in Glasgow, as Features Chief Sub-Editor. The Times was a gritty, campaigning and thoroughly professional newspaper and the period I worked on the publication helped to further hone my skills, particularly with page layout and technology.

About the latter, the Times had an Atex system offering WYSIWYG page layout capabilities that were cutting-edge for its time although primitive by today’s standards.

 Be creative and challenge the norm

It is easy to produce content that is just good enough and fit for purpose. However, whether you are a designer, layout artist or copywriter, I recommend often having at least two versions (even if only as draft ideas).

One should differ from the norm and push boundaries in style and approach. It should express your creativity.

Quite often, the “edgy” version won’t make the cut (perhaps because it’s too adventurous or the critics lack imagination) but the effort is worthwhile for when it does progress and to develop your creative repertoire.

A big step in my professional development (content and technology) came next. The afore-mentioned Robert Maxwell had decided to publish a UK-wide set of editorially-led free newspapers and the flagship – The Glaswegian – was to be launched in Glasgow.

And I was offered the role as its first Editor.


As well as becoming the UK’s most widely-distributed free weekly newspaper (reaching more than 170,000 homes) The Glaswegian was the first to be published using Apple Macs (and QuarkXPress page make-up software).

Not only did my team and I become the pioneers of newspaper desktop publishing at the time, but we were also responsible for numerous remarkable exclusive articles, campaigns and layout advances.

I also won many national awards including Editorial Excellence as well as Best Design and the main honour of UK Newspaper of the Year.

 Write for your reader / customer / user

This is another early lesson worth sharing. Your readers (or customers / users) are not particularly interested in you. And, if your content keeps using “we”, “our” or “us”, you’ve most likely got it wrong.

Rather, you should reflect the audience’s interests, needs, wants, and pain points. This is true of a good newspaper story or a blog post aimed at generating business leads.

The first editorial team on The Glaswegian was mostly made up of graduates of Napier University’s journalism degree course. Together, we challenged the traditional methods and experimented with new ways of producing content and newspapers.

As far as I’m aware, all but one has gone onto enjoying excellent careers, from national newspaper executives to the media spokesman for the Catholic Church.

The Glaswegian was a great editorial success and was enthusiastically received by its readers. As time passed, it was also drifting towards being a commercial failure due to the imbalance of space for advertising.

As I increasingly surrendered column inches in favour of display and classified ads, I decided the time was right to return to “real newspapers”, once again joining the editorial staff of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail.

David Mill - Content Is King

Here I am circa 1991 designing the cover of a weekend supplement. The Mac was a IIfx which then cost around $10,000.

The timing was good as the parent newspapers – along with other Mirror Group titles in London – were about to also go through the desktop publishing revolution.

And, as Production Editor from 1992 to 1994, I was tasked with spearheading the introduction of “new media” in Scotland while also being responsible for ensuring the papers successfully published seven days a week.

So, I led the training and introduction of the desktop publishing systems and digital content gathering including news desk, picture desk, news, sport and features production, art department, remote offices and administration staff.


And the papers kept publishing … even when faced with the further challenge of switching to satellite printing.

 Never say (or think) something is “simple”

A psychologist was commissioned by the Daily Record and Sunday Mail to, amongst other things, assess my suitability to lead the staff training. I  appeared to pass that test, although was adjudged to have a strong tendency towards "risk-taking" which was “counter-balanced by other personal attributes”.

Anyway, his one piece of advice was never to say something was “simple” as it may not be to others.

That made sense during the many hours that followed painstakingly teaching new skills to colleagues, so they kept their jobs never mind performed well within them.

It also applies to many forms of written content, when considering what readers know or understand.

It was probably that period which opened my eyes the most to the power of electronic publishing.

For example, it had previously taken a large team to produce the content and pages on the night of a General Election. In 1983, that team became just me on an Apple Mac supported by a single programmer.

Then came the Internet …

My exposure to online publishing began when the then Chief Executive of Mirror Group wanted to launch a new middle-market newspaper, code-named Newsday.

Its first copies were to be created in secret and then published in Scotland before a proposed national launch. And I was enlisted to create a design for the newspaper, edit the first drafts and build a production platform.

But there was a problem – the project was so secret I couldn’t communicate with my colleagues at the Daily Record and Sunday Mail. So I had no content in the hideout that had been found for me and other newspaper executives spirited from London.

 Passing the AIDAS test

 From content marketing to social media, effective material should pass the AIDAS test . . .

grabbing  Attention
strengthening  Interest
stimulating   Desire
encouraging    Action
delivering        Satisfaction

I had heard of CompuServe, and it proved to be the solution for my lack of material. I opened an account, sourced a modem (crawling along at 9.6 kbps) and was able to download content and photographs from other newspaper archives for use within the draft pages.

Unfortunately, a distracting newspaper price war then broke out and, as a result, Newsday never saw the light of day. 

But my eyes had been opened by the CompuServe experience and, after persuading others of the potential offered by this thing called the Internet, I was once again hidden away on a special project.


This time, I taught myself HTML, designed and built a Daily Record and Sunday Mail website and launched it in 1994 as the UK’s first online tabloid (only the Electronic Telegraph pipped us to the post as the first UK newspaper online).

And I had a new job title: Online Editor. Some of my colleagues at the time cautioned me. “It’s like CB Radio,” they said, “a passing fad.”

But I thought differently and so did others who assisted my passage to London where I became Group Online Editor of Mirror Group.

From those lofty floors in Canary Wharf, the first electronic editions of Mirror Group’s titles began to appear, starting with The Sporting Life, The People and The Independent.

However, my own belief was that Mirror Group should not simply repurpose print content for publication online. Rather, I believed it should also take selected content from its various channels and create a new online brand, which I labelled MegaNet.

Mirror Group Newspapers - MegaNet

Original MegaNet proposal – a concept before its time.

This would, according to my then future-thinking plan, have existing content edited specifically for the web and custom content created for the online readership. And it was a step ahead of the information portals that were to follow.

 Don’t shovel print content onto the web

As I’ve commented before, shovelling the content of newspapers onto the Internet is wrong on so many fronts.

Giving your content away for free in a format that is not suitable and doesn’t consider the preferences or interests of your target market – it just makes no sense!

The same is true of repurposing other content from print to online. Copy length, pointers and links, typographic styles, interaction – these are among the items that require alternative treatment.

When we write for print, we expect the reader to closely follow our copy from start to finish, following the logical path of our presentation.

However, the online reader tends to skim and scan content. In addition, they will most often jump from item to item, page to page.

The online content producer and marketer, therefore, has to ensure:

  • Key quality content is quickly and easily consumed.
  • The most important information is near the
  • Material is organised in an easy-to-follow and intuitive structure.


  • Enhance the customers’ experience.
  • Keep them on-
  • Successfully gain the desired actions.
  • Deliver the objectives. 

My MegaNet vision hit the buffers when something called AOL came along.

AOL had few content sources when it launched in the UK and I found myself party to an agreement which would see my team change focus – to become key content providers for the online service.

There was no content management system in those days. This was raw cut- and-paste from the desktop publishing system into the AOL templates, on-the-fly editing and through-the-night working.

Great early experience of preparing content for online readers in a certain form but a relentless effort which also distracted attention from the larger opportunities of the Internet.

 Developing content for personas

When a potential customer enters your business premises, I’m sure you don’t regard them as just any Tom, Dick or Harry. Rather, you want to recognise them as an individual, with particular needs and wants.

You should take the same approach when developing your content marketing so you say the right thing to the right person.

In the 5th edition of “The New Rules of Marketing and PR”, David Meerman Scott writes: “Successful online marketing and PR efforts work because they start by identifying one or more buyer personas to target, so you need to make buyer personas a part of your planning process”.


It’s about creating pictures of your target customers. For example:

  • What are their expectations / goals?
  • What do they know already?
  • What tone and style of language do they use?
  • What phrases do they use?
  • What do you seek or expect from them?
  • What do you want to give them?
  • Age, role, education, challenges, backstory etc?

If you are focused on business-to-business, you might give names and roles or company positions to your target customers. As part of this persona building, you can have actual pictures by seeking images that look like your customers.

You can then print the pictures and have them looking back at you as you develop your plans and content.

My Mirror Group experience led to another Internet opportunity. Scotland On Line came calling and tempted me with a great challenge – to lead the further development of the online Gateway to Scotland and establish it as the “definitive Internet source for all things Scottish”.


At that time, Scotland On Line was the joint initiative of ScottishTelecom and D.C. Thomson (my original employer and more famously publisher of The Sunday Post and The Beano).

During my two years or so as Head of Publishing and Content, my team and I increased page views by some 700 per cent to more than 4 million per month.

Scottish news, sport, football, tartans, travel … even a web cam on Loch Ness for those global monster spotters. It was a great opportunity to develop and present content ideally suited to the online readership.

Scotland On Line

One of the email newsletters also helped us win a national new media award ahead of entries from the BBC and The Guardian.

I also led the quality control, design, content, e-commerce development and digital marketing of numerous prestigious websites for organisations in the private and public sectors.

However, in 1999, having been there, done that and had the T-shirts printed, I decided to leave Scotland On Line to its own devices and venture into the more commercial world of content and marketing.

√ The right approach to email marketing

Email marketing is still alive and kicking and is set to become even stronger when new data protection regulations come into force in 2018. I say stronger because the emphasis is on consent and permission-based messages always gain better response rates.

I recently presented a slide I first used 12 years ago. It said email marketing is about:

  • Saying the right thing.
  • To the right person.
  • At the right time.
  • In the right way.
  • To get the right result.

Not only is that still true, but it also applies to most other forms of inbound marketing and is now enhanced by tools like HubSpot which offer personalisation and targeting.

I then established a digital marketing agency. Called MediaCo, it grew into a specialist provider of digital and content strategies.


The key components of the services were:

As with most aspects of digital marketing, each was supported with full analysis, measurement and reporting.

The MediaCo period combined everything that had gone before with significant new developments in content marketing and publishing, digital marketing, search engine optimisation (SEO) and the latest technologies.

It was during this time that Google first emerged; quickly replacing AltaVista, Lycos, Excite and eventually Yahoo! as the one-stop-shop for search. We also had to make some adjustments as content marketers, so our material appealed to search engine robots as well as customers.

 Steps to success with search engine optimisation (SEO)

Over the years, people have used various ploys to try to fool search engines into boosting their visibility in the results pages. They would have been better directing their energy towards the one method which has always been successful … producing good, relevant content.

The four essential steps for successful SEO are:

  1. Determine the purpose of the content (most often to raise awareness and provide information about a product or service).
  2. Identify the most relevant key phrases (common sense will usually prevail, but there are SEO tools available for this purpose, too).
  3. Create the content - writing, editing and formatting it well for your audience, naturally weaving in the key phrases.
  4. Publish the material and generate links to it internally and from relevant third-party sites / channels.

The common denominator is always quality content. From SEO to email marketing to social media activity, it is the written word which has the strongest influence; of course, complemented by excellent design and graphics.

This was acknowledged during my MediaCo period when I was invited by the publisher Elsevier to author a book for their E-Marketing Essentials series. Titled “Content is King – Writing and Editing Online”, it is a guidebook for writers, editors and marketers. I am currently preparing content for an updated edition.

Content is King - book by David Mill

 The power of long content and blogs

Blogs have proven to be an effective approach for organisations to share their knowledge and promote products and services.

However, they are often even more effective when used to support other pieces of longer, static content.

Here, you create a significant (longer) content asset that is structured to cover several aspects of a relevant topic, rather like a book with multiple chapters.

Due to its nature, this asset is more evergreen (will remain useful and interesting for a long period) and will have a fixed place within the information architecture of your website.

You then create unique blog posts that focus on parts of the larger asset and act as signposts into it.

By following this approach, you:

  • Publish blog posts that have standalone value and also lead the audience into deeper, informative content.
  • Add depth to the valuable, static content on your website.
  • Gain SEO benefits delivered by the blogs and longer assets.

As content marketers, new opportunities and channels are constantly appearing to allow us to develop material in interesting ways. For example, social media snippets and posts allow us to produce short, sharp content that engages with people and encourages them to share.

I recall proofreading an article and using the printer’s mark for insert space “#” in various places.

When a younger colleague reviewed my changes, she looked confused and asked me what was meant by all the social hashtags! I realised then how some things had changed.

 How to create effective social media posts

There is no one-size-fits-all for social media posts. Here is some guidance for three of the most popular channels. 

  • LinkedIn
    Be up-to-date, informative, relevant and grab attention. Tailor your posts to your target audience.
  • Facebook
    Be engaging and interesting. Bear in mind that, if you can inspire and excite, your posts are more likely to be shared.
  • Twitter
    Use questions, facts and figures to engage your audience. Provide a clear call to action.

In 2015, I embarked on another adventure; touring Europe on a motorcycle. And it was during this trip that I concluded my business with MediaCo … aptly perhaps from the top of the Stelvio Pass, the highest paved mountain pass in Italy’s Eastern Alps with 60 hairpins on the way to the summit.

David Mill

Pondering the future from the top of the Stelvio Pass.

The twists and turns of life continued and, following a circuitous route that included a period as Director of Content and Marketing of the “steelecht” agency based by Frankfurt, in Germany, last year I happily grasped the offer to join the marketing agency Cognition, where I am currently Director of Content.


Cognition enables businesses to achieve commercial value from marketing investment. It does this through Dual Process Marketing (DPM) – a proprietary methodology developed over almost 20 years that blends marketing, research and psychology.

DPM is evident within all the services delivered by Cognition, from end-to-end content marketing to goal-driven web design and development.

 Phases of the content marketing cycle

Content Marketing Cycle

The key phases of the content marketing cycle are:

  • Discover
    Research and analysis.
  • Plan
    Themes, topics and scheduling.
  • Create
    Production of the material.
  • Publish
    Publication of the content on the selected channels.
  • Promote
    Make customers aware.
  • Review
    Use measurement and reporting tools to assess the value of the content.
  • Repeat
    Do it all over again making use of the learnings; most often returning directly to the Plan stage.

Also, Cognition is a HubSpot Platinum Agency Partner, using the inbound marketing and sales methodology and software to help clients achieve their business objectives.

Much of this activity centres round sophisticated technology – including the delivery of “smart content” – and automatic customisation of messages for particular individuals or groups of prospects during the various stages of their customer journey.

Working across the full range of channels and disciplines, it brings content, marketing and technology bang up to date.

 Getting smart with content

Smart content is material that is intelligently personalised to your customer’s needs. You can deliver content specifically tailored to where a prospect is in the buying process, or content targeted to people the very first time they visit.

Smart content lets you target content based on anything you know about your contacts.

It is delivered through sophisticated tools such as HubSpot and research has shown it drastically improves the performance of your website and the engagement of your visitors.

For example, a study of more than 93,000 calls-to-action revealed that those targeted to the user performed 42% better than those that were generic.

Communication devices

Some of my “communication devices” … Olivetti Lettera 33 typewriter, PowerBook 180c (Apple’s first colour portable computer) iPhone and iPad.

Going back in 1977 … there was no smart content. One of my tasks was to make a photocopy of the horoscopes from an older edition, cut them up and stick them randomly on a sheet of paper. They were then marked up for typesetting and published under the various signs of the Zodiac.

The problem that occurred was the publication of one that said, “anyone with a birthday will …” in a week when no-one under that sign could have been celebrating due to the shuffling of the predictions!

A small thing, you might think. But a large noise when you have more than three million readers. Today, The Weekly News has a circulation of around 30,000. Maybe its decline was written in the stars?

It seems 40 years is a long time in newspapers. Yet, for me, it has passed in a flash through the world so far of content, marketing and communications technology.

As it happens, today is also the eve of another anniversary for me - my 1st with Cognition.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow and the days after. More to follow …

Talk to us today about how we can help you generate increased awareness, demand and sales.

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David Mill

This post was written by David Mill

David Mill is Cognition's Director of Content.