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Which way does water flow?

If it seems like a trick question, it’s not.

Water flows downhill. Every time. No exceptions.

And yet there are always people who occasionally want to see water flow uphill.

Many years ago, I was running a small (at the time) one-man production shop at a major university when I was asked to produce a piece of video content for the student recruitment website. I was brought alone into a room with four managers and told that the assignment was to create a “year in review” with specific shots of a young freshman experiencing all the various activities and seasons of a typical year on campus.

There was only one problem: the conversation was happening in June, and the video was due in August.

The four managers unfurled rolls of paper containing storyboard sketches. They had a very specific list of things that needed to be featured.

Football games.

Campus picnics.

Field trips.

Trail hiking.

Snow skiing.

Crowds of people on campus.

“Wait.” I said. “You want me to film a ‘year in review’…in two months?”

“Yes.”

“Um….” I tried to let the reality of the situation sink in. It wasn’t working.

“Is that a problem?”

“Well, it’s late June. And there are twelve months in a year…”

Blank expressions turned to mild annoyance. “Is there a reason you are unwilling to comply with this request?”

Try as I might, I could not convince the room of experienced and oh-so-wise managers that you need to shoot the footage before you can use the footage. When I pressed the issue further, I got the most condescending response possible.

“Oh you just don’t get it. We only need a snippet of each event – not hours and hours of footage. It shouldn’t be too hard for you to find just a snippet.”

What the heck is a “snippet” anyway?

Try as I might, I could not convince the room of managers that it doesn’t matter if you need two seconds of footage or two hours: the footage has to exist before you can use it. Water flows downhill. You can’t make it flow uphill. You have to source the assets before you can use them.

When you build your marketing plan, think in terms of a supply chain. The assets (text, photos, videos) have to be sourced at the beginning. Then you can edit them. Finally, you can distribute them. The materials you produce start upstream and flow downstream. And you can never violate that rule by asking your team to produce content from assets that don’t exist yet.

As you grow your team’s capabilities, think about what is coming “downstream” of where you are now. Want to produce a slick new student recruitment viewbook? Shoot the photos 8-12 months ahead of time to capture your campus in the right seasons. Want to have high-quality copy in your brochure? Hire a writer with the skills to do it well, and provide them with the lead time to do the proper research ahead of the deadline.

Water flows downhill.

Every time.

All the time.

If you remember that, everything in marketing gets a whole lot easier.