21.09.2023

Get Mic’d – Episode 1: How To Create A Brand That Stands Out For Both You and Your Company with Nick Thompson Transcript

Brand PositioningContent MarketingPersonal BrandingThought Leadership

Below is a transcription of Get Mic’d Podcast Episode 1 Hosted by Katie Zeppieri and featuring Nicholas Thompson, CEO of The Atlantic. Listen to the full episode here.

Nicholas Thompson is the CEO of The Atlantic and the former Editor-in-Chief of Wired. Before becoming CEO, he was a contributing editor at CBS and CNN and a senior editor at The New Yorker. Nick is also the co-founder of The Atavist and is currently working on a project called Speakeasy.AI — truly someone who stands out in journalism and more. Nick is a speaker known for his insights about technology. He has also written numerous articles and a book titled “The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War” in 2009. He’s particularly known for his daily video series on LinkedIn about The Most Interesting Thing in Tech. Aside from writing, Nick also enjoys running. You can learn more about Nick and his extensive work in the field of journalism on his website. You can also connect with him on his LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Katie Zeppieri: This is Get Mic’d, a podcast about the ins and outs of what it takes to build a notable brand. I’m your host Katie Zeppieri and I’m also the Founder and Lead Publicist of The MicDrop Agency. 

In today’s episode, I chat with Nicholas Thompson. Nicholas Thompson is the CEO of The Atlantic and the former Editor-in-Chief of Wired. He is also a former contributor for CBS News, and a Co-founder of the Atavist, a national magazine award-winning company that was sold to WordPress. 

Before that Nick served as editor of NewYorker.com and as a senior editor at Wired. And if that wasn’t keeping Nick busy enough, he is currently building a social media platform called speakeasy.ai to encourage people to engage in positive and productive conversations. 

On a personal level, Nick has long been a competitive runner. In 2021, he set the American record for men 45+ in the 50k race. Right now, he is even writing a book about how the mind of a runner works. 

This was an insightful interview with Nick, where we spoke about the differences between building a personal and company brand, his daily LinkedIn video series, “The Most Interesting Thing in Tech,” and his approach to continuing to build upon the incredible history and legacy of The Atlantic as a brand. It was a great conversation. I hope you enjoy listening. 

Nicholas Thompson, welcome to Get Mic’d.

Nicholas: Thank you, Katie, how are you?

Katie: I’m doing very well. This is such a great opportunity to connect with you! And you’re certainly a man who wears many hats. And I feel like this is an understatement, just even to start us off here. You’re both an entrepreneur as well as a corporate executive. You also have a strong personal brand with over 1.6 million followers on LinkedIn. I’m wondering, how do you manage the dynamics between a company brand and building your personal brand? 

Nicholas: I focus far more on the company brand. That’s 99% of the work. And what’s useful is the personal brand and the company brand support each other in that most of what I do on social media and most of what I do in that format is talk about things that are useful to talk about for the company’s sake. I go out and I talk about what’s happening in tech, and I’m talking to people who are potential business partners, potential advertisersand potential subscribers. And I’m also putting out stories that link people to The Atlantic. 

My personal brand has always aligned with my job. I started being active on social media when I worked at The New Yorker. And then when I was the Editor of Wired, and now The Atlantic. And in all three places, having a good social media presence is useful for you and it’s useful for the company because it draws in readers and it draws people who can work with you. The way I balance it is I spend my time on the company and then the personal brand kind of follows and supports.

Katie: Was there a moment where you started thinking intentionally as in, “Okay. I’m also building a personal brand”?

Nicholas: There was a moment where I started to notice that I had accidentally stumbled into something a little bit unique. I had a little bit of a brand for a while on Twitter, which was as a person who shared interesting long-form stories. I was very committed to that. I would tag them and I’d put them out at 10 o’clock every night. And then that kind of became not really part of the Twitter culture and I stepped back from that.

On LinkedIn, at some point I started doing these daily videos where I talk about “The Most Interesting Thing in Tech.” I don’t even remember when I started but they took off and they caught on. And what’s interesting about it is I also started posting them on Twitter. It didn’t work at all there. It just happened to be a thing that worked well on LinkedIn. And so I started to do it and it started to get momentum, I would get lots of positive feedback. It was something that nobody else was doing on LinkedIn. 

I started doing it because it was fun. Because I was at Wired, it seemed like a good way to spread the message of what we were working on at Wired and what was interesting to me at the moment. And then it almost, sort of by happenstance, became a fairly important and interesting thing.

Katie: You had a really interesting entry point into journalism, I would say. It was so interesting in fact that you actually published a piece for The Washington Post that was titled, “Continental Drift.” Now there’s a story behind that, isn’t there?

Nicholas: Wow you found that. You found that story. It’s not easy to access on Google.

Katie: I did indeed! Tell us how you got there.

Nicholas: It’s interesting. I graduated college and was hyper-ambitious in college and really focused on doing well at college but had very little clue what I would do next. I had some notion of going to graduate school, playing guitar and maybe being a journalist, who knew? But when I graduated, I had probably the least well-planned career of any of my peers. That’s the summer of 1997. 

In that fall, I meet someone at a party and talk to her. I get invited to apply to be an Associate Producer at 60 Minutes, CBS. I get offered the job, I go to New York, I show up, and the top executive there says, “Who are you?” I say, “I’m the new Associate Producer.” He says, “What have you done in television?” I say, “Nothing.” And he fires me on the spot. Shakes me up. What am I doing? But it doesn’t actually shake me up as much as it would now because again, I didn’t really have a plan. This had sort of fallen into my lap. 

Then I’m confused about what to do. And one of my best friends, who was starting graduate school in nine months with my fellow college classmates, said that he was going to go traveling the world starting in Africa and he was leaving in two weeks. And I said, “Great, I’m coming with you.” I got my vaccinations. I flew to, I guess I flew to Barcelona and we travelled down to Tangier in Northern Morocco. 

The very first day, I was a guitarist, it still is one of my passions. I brought my guitar and I started playing at a train station and this guy came up and he said, “Would you like to come back to my house and play guitar with my family? It’s Ramadan, would you like to do that?” And my friend says, “This seems sketchy. I’m going on.” And I say, “Well you know what, I’ll just meet you tomorrow.” We have this other plan in Marrakech.

The guy’s name is Muhammad. He comes back, I get in the car and then he starts driving really fast, in circles, and it starts getting scary. Then takes me back to the house and locks me in a bathroom. Turns out that I’m kidnapped. 

He’s a drug dealer and he has these plans and goes through all my stuff. It’s a scary, frightening experience. It’s not life-threatening, but it’s frightening and confusing. About 24 hours later, he decides I’m useless, right? I don’t have any money with me. I’m clearly not going to help him distribute his drugs. He doesn’t think he can get any ransom, who knows what his plan is? So he sort of threw me out on the street, wherever I was, a couple of hours away from Tangiers. 

I get to the train station and make my way to find my friends and suddenly, I have kind of a crazy story. Then I’m back with my friend, meet up with a couple of other friends. We travelled through Africa and at some point, I said, “Well, I should write about this.” So I find the address of the Travel Editor of The Washington Post and I say, “Hey, I’m in Africa. These things have happened. Can I write a story?” She says, “Sure, write it, send it.” So I write it up, and they like it. And so there’s a story of a young man travelling in Africa with strange things happening to him. By the time they published it, I think I went down through Morocco, into Senegal, and Burkina Faso down into Ghana over to Togo, and flew down to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. I had traveled a lot and all kinds of crazy things had happened. I put them all in a story and there we were. 

So that was my first piece.

Katie: What a story.

Nicholas: That’s when I first got published in journalism. My first reported story.

Katie: That is very original, Nick.

Nicholas: Yeah it was a weird way to get in. When young people are like, “So how did you get started in journalism?” I’m like “Well, here’s how.”

Katie: Don’t follow in my footsteps exactly.

Nicholas: It’s not the best route. But it was funny when I got out, when I emerged from the kidnapping, they had taken $60 which is all I had on me. My friend Aaron, I remember him saying, “Well that experience cost you $60. You got a pretty great story that’s going to be worth a lot more than that to you.” I was like, “Screw you! Help me process my trauma.” He was sort of thinking ahead. He was clearly right.

Katie: To get published in The Washington Post is an incredible accomplishment and really helped set the stage, I think, for what came next and what you were then able to look towards for the future. A lot of people are really nervous about that sort of first pitch, getting that first opportunity often feels like the biggest challenge. What advice would you offer to someone in terms of a good pitch and getting a journalist to pay attention and care?

Nicholas: Yeah, so you need to find the right person. You need to make sure that you’ve actually identified the person who can make the decision. And the closer you are to that person, the more likely you are to get your pitch accepted.

So if you send me a pitch for The Atlantic, I’m not the right person. I’m the CEO. I don’t oversee editorial. The right person is presumably the Op-ed Editor, or the Culture Editor, the person who’s overseeing that. So that’s step one. 

Step two is understanding what they’re looking for. In each section, each person has a different kind of thing they’re trying to do. If you’re at Wired, if you’re pitching a story about gear it’s very different than if you’re pitching a magazine feature story. You have to identify the publication, the sectionand the person. 

And then you have to very quickly make it appear that it’s a story that’s unique that only you can tell. When you’re further in your career, the publication will trust you to write about anything. When you’re unknown, it has to be something incredibly distinct. 

If you’re a person who’s unknown, and you say, “Hey, I’d like to write about the Republican presidential candidates,” there’s no way you’re gonna get assigned that story because everybody can write about the Republican presidential candidates. It will be assigned to the person with the best track record who is trusted to write the best story. But if you say, “Hey, here’s this thing I saw, or here’s this thing I know, or here’s this thing I encountered, or here’s this thing I figured out,” you have a much better chance. 

Writing style matters a lot. In the pitch, in the proposal, the Editor will be looking at that. Every publication cares about it a ton, particularly the ones I’ve worked at where there’s a real particular voice or real particular style. 

I still remember the woman’s name, her name was K.C. Summers. I don’t think I’ve ever met her in person. But I don’t know what it was about my pitch that she liked. I don’t know what it is that caught her eye. I had been published before. I had written op-eds. I had been a sort of political activist in college, and I had written op-eds so I was comfortable writing and I had confidence in my voice. Maybe I didn’t know how hard it was to get published. I just sort of assumed if you wrote a good pitch, so I wasn’t scared. Those were back in the days of faxes and I would fax op-eds to 100 op-ed editors and see who would take it. 

Katie: Do you think that that’s part of it is having the courage to send quite a few pitches and put yourself out there multiple times to have the best chance of getting the right fit?

Nicholas: Totally. You have to repeatedly go up to bat because sometimes even if you have the perfect story and you’ve identified the perfect person to send it to, it gets caught in a filter, or they’ve already assigned a similar story to someone else, or they read it on their phone while they’re getting off the subway and it doesn’t catch them because they look at it for two seconds, not six, right? You have to try and you have to not be afraid of failure. And that’s absolutely one of the key lessons. 

One of the great things about journalism is it is considerably more meritocratic than most fields in that if you have a great story, you can get it published in a great publication immediately. If you have a great legal idea, you can’t get you can’t pass the bar immediately. You have to go to law school and take the bar exam. So every profession has sort of different barriers to entry, journalism’s are very low. You have to learn certain skills, you have to write but it is a great, great profession for energetic, ambitious young people. 

When I finished college, if you had asked me what I was likely to do, I thought maybe I’d be a musician. In my first two years after college, I worked as a musician. I co-wrote a book about foreign policy. I worked for a computer company. I tried as hard as I could to become a speechwriter for the government. I applied to probably 100 environmental organizations. I tried to become a journalist. I was totally scattered all over the place. And I applied for PhD programs in economics. 

So I’m all over the place and whichever one of those seven options had selected me, would kind of put me on the path I’m on right now. This is not the right way to operate when you’re 22 years old. It just is the way I operated. Journalism just happened to be the best match and I happened to get traction, and now 25 years later, I’m still doing it.

Katie: I think what’s interesting is that throughout your career, you haven’t just stayed in one place and you’ve always had different projects on the go even while you’re in one place. For instance, you’re the co-founder of The Atavist and that’s a multimedia magazine and software company. How did that come to be?

Nicholas: The general way it came to be is that I loved technology. I was always fascinated by tech and wrote a lot about it. And I came out of college in Silicon Valley at the moment of the tech boom. So I had familiarity and excitement about it and that partly led to me ending up getting hired at Wired. 

While I was at Wired, I edited this fascinating series of stories by a guy named Evan Ratliff. He wrote a story about how hard it is to fake your identity, fake your death, create a new identity and start over and people who tried to do that. Then we ran an experiment where he erased his identity and I served as kind of a public-private investigator. So anything that a standard private investigator would have about him, I had and I would post on Twitter and Wired readers would try to find him. It was this fabulous manhunt.

The deal was, if anybody could find him within 30 days, they would get $5,000. If he could make it 30 days, he would get $5,000. He got caught on the 29th day because he had forgotten to use Tor software and then somebody tracked his IP address and then followed his fake Twitter account in the guise of a bot. They knew because we had embedded a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle that he was in Louisiana. I had posted that he was gluten-free and so they called all the gluten-free pizzerias. I mean, it was just this amazing hunt. 

Evan and I afterwards said, well, we should start a company to do more stories like this. We should try to figure out a future of storytelling in which stories aren’t just static words on a page, they’re more than that. And so we agreed to try to do that. We brought in this third person, Jeff Robb, who had been a Digital Designer and made the webpage for a book I’d written. The three of us started doing this and right when we were in it, the iPad came out. So what began as an idea for “Let’s make a multimedia magazine” became, “Oh, we’ve built a platform for multimedia storytelling,”and we then created a software company.

We started with this dream of telling stories and we built this tool so we could tell them. y building that tool, we suddenly had great software. We had a very cool company for a long time. Evan and Jeff ran it and did all the work. I helped found it and I was a board member advisor and I continued working at Wired and then at The New Yorker during that period.

Katie: One of your most recent projects and entrepreneurial endeavours, is building a new social media platform called speakeasy.ai. That’s no small task, Nick.

Nicholas: No, it’s not a small task. It’s going fabulously. It’s wonderful. I work at The Atlantic and The Atlantic is owned by The Emerson Collective. I went through this process last summer having lunch with a friend of mine named Ian Bremmer, and we were talking about “Well, what is the biggest best thing that one could do to make democracy work better?” 

The point of The Atlantic is to publish stories that help America understand itself. We have no party or clique. We were founded by abolitionists in 1857. What would be the thing that one could do right now to further that mission? And the idea was, what if you could make people communicate better online? Instead of having digital discourse drive people to extremes and drive people to disagree with each other? What if you could do the opposite? 

I brought this idea to Raffi Krikorian, who is the CTO of The Emerson Collective and works directly for the owner. Raffi had been the VP of Engineering at Twitter and he had worked for the DNC, and been the Head of AI at Uber, and he said, “I love this.” 

So Raffi and I got together and we started building this company. We built a platform and we hired a team. We then built a sort of closed beta where we tested out, what are the mechanics that can drive people to positive conversations. What is it about the way you onboard them? What is about the way you sort conversations? What should the character limits be? Should there be a minimum, or should there be a maximum? How do we deal with trust and anonymity? 

We built all these systems trying to answer every decision in the creation of a platform with a north star of bringing people to have positive, enlightening conversations. Along the way, ChatGPT comes out and GPT4. We built some really cool AI tools—a smart composer, a method for sorting conversations—then we closed down the little beta we’re running and started to sign partnerships with all kinds of other publishers, companies, and individuals, and we’ll have some launch news in the next little while. 

Raffi is the CEO, he’s running the company. We have a great team. They’re on the fourth floor and I’m here on the third floor in The Emerson offices here in Soho. But we’re building it out and it’s exciting and ideally, you’ll hear a lot more about it in the months to come.

Katie: You’ve got a really powerful statement listed on the website when you go to speakeasy.ai: “Civil dialogue on the internet is no longer an endangered species.”

Nicholas: That’s the goal! So I’m hopeful that our software will be built out on all kinds of platforms, sites, partners, in the months to come.

Katie: There really is so much noise on the internet and so many different outlets competing for our attention. And I wonder, as the CEO of The Atlantic, how do you think about building a brand that really cuts through the noise?

Nicholas: I mean, The Atlantic has an incredible brand. A lot of publications have to put their founders in a closet or close the door, and you sort of have to kind of hide where the brand comes from, right? But our founders, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ralph Waldo Emerson, have the greatest collection of founders, we have the most wonderful beginning. We were trying to help America save itself during the Civil War. 

We have this amazing history. Over the next century and a half, you have Martin Luther King writing for the publication, Hemingway writing for the publication. You have this incredible history and this incredible archive. 

And we make mistakes. The other day I had sorted all the stories over the past week by conversion rate. There was one story which had a 28% conversion rate and had seven readers, two of whom had signed up for subscriptions. I said, “What is that? That’s crazy.” The normal conversion rate is like .01. Turns out, it’s a story about how the earth might be a hollow orb that we published in the 1870s. So we’re not always right. I don’t know why people are subscribing of the story—two of them—but it’s incredible stuff. 

We had this amazing, amazing history and it’s counter actually to the perception of media right now in a way that is healthy. We publish lots of Republicans. We’re a distinctly non—we try as hard as we can to be a non-partisan publication. We were also a publication that was exceptionally important during the pandemic and had some of the best science coverage that there was. 

We have a wonderful brand. And the goal is to just sustain that brand, make sure people understand the history and make sure we don’t do something that distracts them. If we can make people think about the whole history of The Atlantic, not just the thing we screwed up last Tuesday, we’ve done really well. 

Then the question is, how do you get more people to know about us? That’s a challenge. That’s getting out there on social media, getting as many people as you can to subscribe to the publication. And then there’s also a trade-off because our business model is based on subscriptions. To drive subscriptions, you need to restrict access to some degree to your content, which prevents your content from travelling as far as it could. So there are a whole bunch of trade-offs embedded there. 

We have a beautiful brand with a beautiful history. The principal goal is just to get people to understand the core of what we do. And it’s nice to work at a place where you really have nothing to hide, right? Where you could say, “Examine everything.” And if somebody does that, they’ll probably like you more than if they don’t.

Katie: I want to talk a little bit about business models and I think this is a really interesting topic, especially when it comes to magazines. You’ve played a key role in implementing digital paywalls at both The New Yorker and Wired leading to significant increases in digital subscriptions. What factors did you consider when you actually created those paywalls and how did you navigate that challenge?

Nicholas: There are a whole lot of factors you have to weigh and when we did it at The New Yorker, I was working for David Remnick, who’s one of my heroes. We had to model out, for instance, how tight do you want the paywall to be (because the tighter you make it, the more you will restrict readership). And we didn’t have any idea how tight you could make it. 

Secondly, with all three publications where I worked on this similar project, there’s a trade-off with advertising. And if you restrict viewers because you’ve put up a paywall, and you’ve tightened access, you reduce pageviews and reduce ad impressions and so you can hurt another part of the business. So that’s interesting. 

Then as we started to build it and as we started to develop it, you start to learn things, right? I remember one of the first learnings we had at The New Yorker was that people weren’t subscribing if they only read one category of piece. 

I think we had a paywall of four articles or five articles when I began. And if somebody read five political articles and hit the paywall, they would not subscribe. If they read a political article, a science article, a piece of fiction, a poem and a cultural essay, they would subscribe. That leads you to a bunch of editorial decisions where if that’s the case, then you should try to strengthen your weakest sections and be as broad as possible. So what you’re constantly doing is you’re constantly trying to adjust your content and adjust the way your paywall works. 

Now at The Atlantic, we’re massively more sophisticated than we were 10 years ago, or whenever I first worked at The New Yorker. Now, we’re trying to model out a much higher level of detail. So what is the propensity of the subscriber if they come in on a smartphone, from a Google referral versus a Reddit referral? What is the percentage of inventory that we’ve sold at what CPM? What percent is direct? What percent is programmatic? What day of the week is it? What is the story? 

You weigh all these different factors as best you can. We don’t weigh them all. We’re adjusting the rules based on a meeting yesterday afternoon. But you’re looking at many more factors because what you want is you want someone who’s going to subscribe to be told they have to subscribe to read the story, and somebody who is never going to subscribe—because they don’t know what The Atlantic is, they just followed a random link on Google or clicked on something on Twitter, from somebody that they have no idea who they are—they’re not going to subscribe at all, so you want them to be able to read the story. But it’s hard to figure out exactly who is who. 

That’s the magic of making a paywall work and we’ve had tremendous success at these publications and I think it’s been a big part of helping them find financial footing. Media is hard. Lots of publications are going out of business and having a really tricky time. Social media built a better advertising model than traditional media had and we kind of were out-competed. If you wanted to reach someone who liked tech in 1999, you would buy an ad in Wired. If you want to reach someone who likes tech in 2023, you will buy an ad on Google against the word tech or on Facebook against the word tech, and you will be able to much more closely target than buying on Wired. 

So the way advertising works is we’ve had to adjust completely, we’ve had to adapt to where there are far fewer ads, but still, try to bring in as much as you can, and then you have to build out other business models. So that’s been my business challenge over the last 10 years of my career.

Katie: You have the business focus, obviously, as a CEO, for The Atlantic. Now, how about from a branding perspective? Clearly, you have your marketing teams and people solely responsible for that. But how much do you think about the brand? The Atlantic as this sort of brand and concept in your day to day, and how important is that to your role?

Nicholas: It’s very important, but it’s also different from the way probably many of the listeners think about the brand, because the brand, in some ways, to some large degree, is whatever we publish that day. And the people who go on MSNBC, or who go on the radio, or who are written about, or who are out there tweeting. Because we’re this collection of journalists saying things in the world and tweeting out all these stories, the perception of the brand is both: You have this wonderful access to people. The number of people who hear the word Atlantic every day is massively higher, because they’re all these journalists with Atlantic in their bio on Twitter, and they’re off on TV. Much higher than if we were just a more narrow company and I was buying advertisements and putting up subway ads. 

The disadvantage, of course, is it’s much less controlled. So you have this free willing group of people saying all kinds of things. We’re not running any specific brand campaigns right now. We have teams of people who think about the brand, who talk about the events we need to go to, the way we need to put out our press releases and the stories we need to try to tell. But so much of our brand is just what happens every day. 

I should also add, there are huge elements of design in our brand. We have the world’s greatest designers. We have a brand bible that has just been completed that’s exactly how our font should be, exactly what the field should be when you come to the site. There are lots of ways we think about the brand and the way we present our magazine and all those surfaces. But it’s a little bit different from most other companies because there’s no CMO with a budget. There’s a lot of design work. There’s a lot of communication work. And then there are a lot of journalists out there saying lots of things. 

Katie: And somehow that all has to come together. To your point, there’s this amazing history for the magazine. There’s this legacy that’s been carried on and continued over time and somehow all of these different voices and pieces and angles and new stories somehow contribute to keeping and honouring that brand alive.

Nicholas: Absolutely. In some ways, that’s why is fun but my job also matters because I am carrying on this tradition of a really important American institution and publication. And a brand that has been built through the work of 160 years of predecessors. I have to sustain it. I have to make sure that the value they’ve built is maintained. It’s important. 

At some point, I will hand off the CEO role to somebody else and I want the brand to be incredibly strong and to really mean something. And for there to be a direct line between the early documents, the early founding statements with all those people with three-word names, who created this thing.

Katie: I want to switch to talking about your personal brand, again, for a moment, and your daily videos on LinkedIn. I look forward to “The Most Interesting Thing in Tech.” What actually interests me too, this could almost be a sub-topic of these videos, is you’re always in some new random location, Nick.

Nicholas: It’s true. I have a couple of rules for the videos. I try to do them in one take. Occasionally, it’ll be more than one take because I say something wrong or a truck will drive by. I try to do them someplace different. Occasionally, I just film in my office because I want to film in my office. But I usually film them as part of my commute. So either when I’m running into work, or when I’m running home from work, and that means that I’m somewhere between Brooklyn and Soho. I take all kinds of different routes and I pass all this beautiful stuff when I run. There’s amazing street art, sculptures, cool cars, sometimes wrecked cars. Who knows. 

There’s always something amazing. I live in New York City, so part of what I’m doing is trying to show the city. It’s like a little subplot. I feel like I wish I could give a subscription to everybody who was able to identify the exact location of wherever I am. I do that because it’s neat, it’s interesting, and it’s different. It’s also good for me, it makes me notice things more. I notice street art now in a different way from before I started doing that. 

I also travel a lot for my job. Yesterday, I was talking about Marc Andreessen’s essay on AI and I filmed it. I wanted to get a sense of the smog in DC but I also have this cool deck at our office where, if you look carefully, you can see the Pentagon in the distance in the video. The day before was the crazy smog day—I wasn’t running—and so I filmed it on Houston Street which is on my way to the subway, to give a sense of the city. I think the day before that, I filmed it in front of some cool graffiti and some cool street art. 

This morning when I was running, I didn’t have any idea so I didn’t film anything but I passed a gorgeous, one of my favourite murals, which is on Rivington Street. I noticed that I don’t know a ton about the culture of street art, but it’s this beautiful portrait of a woman and someone has added graffiti lettering around the framing of it but hasn’t crossed out any of the portrait. Which is interesting, it’s like a respectful adaption. So I thought that’d be a great place to film. So at some point, I’m gonna go to that alley on Rivington Street and film there.

I listen to tech podcasts while I run. I read the tech news during the day. It’s not really a core part of my job but it’s something I love to do. So I’m reading tech news, I’m listening to podcasts, I’m talking to people and then if I have an idea, or something strikes me as interesting, I go for it. 

So yesterday, I read Marc Andreessen’s essay and Andreessen’s essay is fascinating. I felt like people may be misinterpreting it or not thinking through it the right way or over-indexing on one side of the other. So I thought, well, this is a complicated essay, I’ll summarize it and say what I think. It was a little bit longer than normal. I have no idea what I’ll do today. I’m going to run home, maybe I’ll film it, maybe I won’t.

Katie: You are actually filming these daily. Are they not batched?

Nicholas: No, they’re daily. They’re never batched. You can tell my outfit changes every day. I don’t have multiple outfits in my backpack. I just put my wallet, my keys, my cell phone, my microphone, in my backpack and I’m running to and from work every day and recording them.

Katie: No, I love it. It’s a little bit of like a “Where’s Waldo? Where’s Nick?” Kind of thing each time. Sometimes I’ll feel like your setup, you’ll just be in sort of this kind of random spot and there’s people walking by and I’m like, oh, goodness, is there a car that’s coming closer? Where is Nick right now?

Nicholas: I mean, there’s a guy not that long ago where I was filming and I didn’t even notice it but he went pee behind the truck in the background. Like there are weird things that happen. I noticed this while I was checking the comments that afternoon. I was like, “Oh.” But that’s the city! 

I live in the greatest city in the world. I live in an amazing part of it. I cross these gorgeous bridges. I pass through these amazing neighbourhoods. My kids play soccer in Queens right on the border with Bushwick, which is the greatest street art in the city. So I pass all this cool stuff and I like having it as background.

Katie: It’s wonderful. It’s actually how I found you initially and followed you on LinkedIn. And I think it’s such a good example of you putting out consistent, regular content that people look for, and expect. It’s about the same length each time, it’s two to three minutes, usually. And it’s a great little soundbite or nugget that somebody could just capture in their day and learn something. And if they want to go explore that topic further, it kind of inspires them to do so.

I’m wondering if you’ve been able to measure how that form of content marketing, really for yourself—a personal brand content marketing—has been able to measure and track how that affects subscriptions to The Atlantic or interest in The Atlantic?

Nicholas: I haven’t tracked that. I mean, you can track traffic. We have a sort of a broad sense of traffic from LinkedIn to The Atlantic. I’ve never studied it. I haven’t done kind of a granular analysis of which ones do well. Occasionally, I’ll ask my assistant which ones have done the best because I’m trying to figure out how people are responding to different topics. I’ve never dug into those metrics. I think it must have a positive effect and certainly I can tell because when I go to conferences, people will come up and say, “I love The Atlantic,” or, “I love your videos.” 

People are clearly watching them and there’s tons of commentary on them. There are often good conversations, there’s often good feedback. Sometimes people are telling me I’m totally wrong. So they’re definitely having an effect, but I haven’t granularly measured it. They probably were more beneficial when I was at Wired when it was more directly tied to the brand. But I think it is helpful for The Atlantic too. We have wonderful tech coverage.

Katie: Yeah, it adds a face to the words, the written publication. And again, it’s just a little hint, a little nugget that you can take with you and sort of go and explore further. So I think it’s fantastic.

Nicholas: I mean, it is interesting that they only really work on LinkedIn. On Twitter, it’s too long for Twitter, nobody wants to see it on Twitter. I’ve posted on Instagram, but it’s not really right for Instagram. People aren’t there for that kind of tech information. I cross-post them on a public Facebook page but it’s really about LinkedIn. It just happens to work there.

Katie: Yeah, LinkedIn, the role of a creator is really growing on LinkedIn, I feel, and it’s such an interesting space for thought leadership, particularly for companies and clients that I’m working with within the B2B space. It’s a great way to reach people. 

Even if, say, the likes or the comments aren’t the same as what you get if you have a really well-watched video on Instagram or TikTok, per se. I find the impressions on LinkedIn to be quite high when you really get the right topic. It’s interesting, because just even having you showing up in someone’s feed, them seeing you and getting a sample of what you’re speaking about, that is building brand recognition in a really powerful way. 

Nicholas: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think it’s valuable and has the additional advantage of being fun. 

The other thing I like about it is that I spent my whole life until I started this job as an Editor. One of the great things about being a journalist, and one of the things that pulled me in and kept me there is that you learn new stuff every day. There’s a forcing mechanism. You have to write a story tomorrow so you have to know what’s going on, you have to really pay attention, you have to understand trends in the world. 

You become a CEO, and you can get a step removed from that. For instance, today is mostly about managing this sort of HR problem and figuring out where you can save costs here and how to manage this investment. I like that I set up the structure of my day so I’m not just listening to audiobooks about how to be a better CEO when I’m running, I’m listening to the tech news and I’m deep in it and partly I’m in it is because I love it and partly I’m in it is because I’m gonna be doing this video. So it’s a nice structural mechanism to keep my mind engaged in this thing I love.

Katie: I think the other lesson for listeners is that you don’t have to overthink content. I love that you try and do it in one take. I mean, you’re a busy person, you can’t be planning these in great detail. But I think just enough that you’re multitasking, you’re listening to what you need to listen to while you’re on your run, kind of thinking about what the topic is gonna be and then you do it in one go if you can. 

And just that commitment of showing up daily could sometimes be scary for people but I think we’ve seen the power. You’ve been doing this for about how many years now, Nick?

Nicholas: Five years, six years? I don’t know, a long time. I should go back. I’m pretty sure I started at Wired because I don’t think I would have done it at The New Yorker because it’s not as on-brand for The New Yorker as it is for Wired. It’s very on-brand for Wired. The Editor of Wired should have a weird tech series in front of graffiti, whereas the web editor at The New Yorker should not. So I’m sure I started at Wired. I started fairly early because I feel like I’ve been doing it for a long time but I don’t know exactly.

Katie: You mentioned running. I thought it was really interesting to learn that you run to work and you run home from work and that’s part of your daily practice. In 2021, you also set the American record in the 50k, for men aged 40 to 45. That’s a remarkable accomplishment, while you’re also leading so many other projects, and a CEO no less. I’m curious how running and that aspect, and that discipline, shaped your approach to business and life.

Nicholas: I think running is a fundamental part of my life and there are lessons from running that I apply to the way I work and there are lessons from the way I work that I apply to running. On sort of the most specific level, it’s a psychological break. I’m outside. I view his running as something close to a form of meditation. If I have any form of meditation in my life, it’s running. I play with my kids, I get the house ready, make breakfast, I run at work, I work, do my job, I run home, play with my kids, right? So it has a psychological function. 

But there are also things you learn or habits you learn from running that are super helpful to work. There’s the sense that when you run, you notice that if you just keep doing it, and if you’re deliberate about it, and if you go pretty much every day, and sometimes you push yourself hard, you just get better. And you can feel yourself getting better, and you notice yourself getting better. And there’s a sort of a level of discipline that you can then apply. 

You also learn mental practices. When you run hard, and when you race, you learn how to focus your mind, you learn how to push things to the side, you learn how to concentrate. And the same thing applies to a hard job. You learn how to stay focused, and how to concentrate. And I feel like there are ways that having an intense running life detracts from having an intense professional career, but there are also ways they build on each other. I think some of the mental skills, even without doing it consciously, that I’ve learned at work, have helped my running and my running have helped my work. 

I continue to do it. I love it, I enjoy it. But I also think it’s valuable. And then there’s some other skills you learn when running, you learn about where your maximum is, what it takes to go above your maximum, when your maximum is actually a psychological barrier, when it’s a real physical, biological barrier. Learning about that isn’t as directly applicable to work, but there are ways that it applies.

I ran in high school, and I ran a little bit in college, but wasn’t quite good enough and stopped and then took it up again seriously when I was 29. I’ve been running more or less fairly competitively, doing at least a marathon a year at a fairly intense effort ever since then and I’m just gonna keep going until I get too injured or too old.

Katie: And it’s fascinating. You’ve done several podcasts about running, specifically written about it so I encourage listeners if they’d like to learn more to go check those out. 

Nicholas: Yeah, I’m writing a book about it now. 

Katie: You’re writing a book about it now. What can you tell us about that?

Nicholas: It’s a story about my life in the sport. It’s a story about what I learned about my father through the sport. He’s introduced me to it. And then it’s portraits of characters who I’ve competed with or whose paths I’ve crossed and run, who tell us something about the human condition and how running and the self-awareness that comes with it can help us work through complex situations in life. It’s portraits of different people and stories about myself. It’s coming together pretty nicely. 

Katie: In your spare time?

Nicholas: It’s going slowly because I’m busy but I’m working on it.

Katie: When would you have time to write in a day? I have to ask that.

Nicholas: I get up pretty early in the morning and you could write then. I can write after the kids go to bed and even when I travel, I can write. There’s always time.

I’m writing a book about running that is based personally, partly on personal experience. It’s not like I’m trying to unearth the secret documents that explain why the Berlin Wall went up, right? I don’t have to be in a library, I can just be on my couch. So that makes it simpler, but it is also true that if my editors are listening now, I am aware that it’s not going as fast as they would have liked when they signed this.

Katie: I think they understand. I want to move into the MicDrop Lightning Round. I’ve got a couple of quicker questions for you here. 

Nicholas: Terrifying, let’s do it. 

Katie: It’s fun, that’s the word that you’re looking for.

Nicholas: Yes, that was the word I was missing. You’re right, Katie.

Katie: Okay, first up, I would love you to complete this sentence. To me building a notable brand means…

Nicholas: Staying authentic to yourself. Kind of like what I was saying about The Atlantic, it’s much easier to build a great brand if there’s a real story to tell that’s true.

Katie: What has been a memorable MicDrop moment for your brand? And this can be for the company, this can be personally.

Nicholas: This spring, we just won for our third year in a row, a Pulitzer and for the second year in a row, we won the highest award in our industry for General Excellence. It’s pretty awesome. When we won, they asked me for General Excellence. It was amazing.

Katie: What’s one brand that you admire and why?

Nicholas: I love Tracksmith. It’s a running brand that makes beautiful clothing and tells beautiful stories, and has grown in wonderful ways. And everything they make is great!

Katie: What are three resources you’d recommend to someone looking to build their personal or corporate brand?

Nicholas: Geez, can I ask you that question? what do you recommend? I haven’t studied brand building. 

One of the things that I did is when I started to spend time on social media, I made a list of the people who I thought had really good brands or personalities on social media and I would follow their accounts and I would watch them. I’d say “What are they doing? What are they not doing?” So I guess that social media lists are number one. Who’s doing it well? Watch them. 

The best book I’ve read on, it’s not on brand specifically, but my favourite book on business recently which has brand elements is Claire Hugh Johnson’s “Scaling People.” And The New Yorker did an amazing job of maintaining its brand, through the books it’s published, through the way it went out in the world. So I would read one of the New Yorkers’ books on things like cats or dogs, which is very carefully crafted to both be fun and be sophisticated.

Katie: Nick, thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure chatting with you.

Nicholas: Oh, it’s so much fun to talk with you. Thanks for having me on. Thanks for all these great questions. Thanks for reading through all these things about my life. I’m impressed with your level of preparation there. And finding that Washington Post article? That’s legit.

Katie: It was enjoyable to do. I feel like you’re a person who is extremely curious about life and I really admire that you chase and pursue those curiosities.

Nicholas: You’re very kind to say that. So thank you very much. It was great to talk with you here.

Katie: Thank you. Thank you for listening to Get Mic’d. If you enjoyed this episode, please be sure to subscribe to the podcast and leave us a review. We’re excited about continuing to bring more and more conversations with thought leaders on what it takes to build a notable brand. We’ll see you next time.