Content Strategists of the World: Kerry-Anne Gilowey

Rachel Lovinger   October 7, 2012

Nearly three years ago I wrote a short post about why I was excited about the first international CS Forum, scheduled to be held in Paris that spring. Kerry-Anne Gilowey, a content strategist in South Africa, read the post and commented that it helped cement her decision to attend the event. Now, in just a few weeks, she’ll be hosting the third CS Forum in Cape Town. So it seems only natural to profile her for our “Content Strategists of the World” series.

Her background

Kerry-Anne studied English & linguistics, with the goal of become a translator. She did that for a while, and later found herself working in ad copywriting before moving on to web copywriting. In addition to writing, though, she has always been drawn to the more technical aspects of web work. She was interested in usability and HCI (human-computer interaction), and had taken  programming courses in University. As she brought more of that kind of thinking to her writing assignments, she became increasingly frustrated with her professional identity of “copywriter,” and with being brought in at the very  end of a project just to fill in the words.

How she learned of Content Strategy

Around 2007 she started looking for something to add to her business card that would more accurately reflect what she had to offer. She had been getting briefs for content creation work and instead of just writing copy, she found herself revising the briefs to show her clients what they should really be doing. She was consulting on strategy and design, as well as their approach to copy.

So she came up with a few terms and started Googling them to see what they mean in the wider industry. She tried out “web strategist,” “information architect” and “content manager,” but the results she found for “content strategist” made her think “This is it! This is the thing!” She realized that there was more to it than what she had been doing, but it got her a lot closer to where she felt she needed to be.

Kerry-Anne remembers reading a comment that said “discovering the content strategy community was like finding out that that indie, underground band that I loved actually had other fans.” It was like that for her too. And she still gets that sense sometimes, when she reads things by others and thinks, “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel about this thing too!” She loves that people are having similar experiences and ideas, tackling the same problems and coming to the same independent conclusions, despite working in different contexts and different places all over the world.

The idea behind August Sun Projects

Kerry- Anne founded August Sun Projects in 2002, though she operated independently until 2009 when she started expanding the practice. Until March of this year, she was running it as a six-person agency. They were set up to do a mix of content strategy work and content development.

But, content strategy is not very well understood in South Africa, and perhaps the market wasn’t quite ready for a content agency of this type. Instead of being directly engaged by clients, they were often subcontracted by other agencies. Most of their work focused on downstream content creation and they weren’t able to help their clients understand the real source of the problems they were trying to solve.

So this year she’s gone back to being an independent consultant. This gives her the opportunity to get involved with her clients in a deeper way. She finds it easier to explain what she can do for them as an individual (rather than trying to convince them to bring in a whole team) and she tends to be brought into projects earlier. Plus, it’s exposing her to a wider range of projects.

Her work

Kerry-Anne helps her clients solve content problems from messaging strategies to content structure, and various things in between.  Sometimes she does work that isn’t specifically content strategy – a customer experience, personas – but she always looks at it through a content strategy lens and considers what the implications would be for content creators.

To her, the big picture work that she does is the true content strategy – the people, processes, and figuring out how a content plan is going to be implemented within an organization. She considers the more detailed work that she does – like content auditing, content structure, migration, and taxonomy – to be more in the realm of Information Architecture. (This is a view I’ve observed in the UK as well, but while the lines are also blurry in the US, most IAs I’ve worked with don’t get that involved in this level of detailed content work). But since IAs are also pretty scarce in South Africa, she hasn’t actually had the chance to work with any.

Kerry-Anne looks forward to someday collaborating with IAs, and having the opportunity to negotiate these responsibilities. She would also love to work on some bigger projects, maybe some government sites, where it’s often very hard to find things. She particularly loves working on sites where she can make a difference. But mainly, she wants to be able to consult on aspects of the project and help organizations to the point where they don’t need her input any more.

Practicing Content Strategy in South Africa

Kerry-Anne guesses that very few people in South Africa know what Content Strategy is. When she added it to her business card in early 2008, people looked at it and thought “Huh?” But they also make the assumption that they do (or should) know what it means, because they recognize the individual words. So they make up their own meaning for it – usually something to do with updating Facebook pages and Twitter accounts all day.

Another challenge: in South Africa (as elsewhere) the web industry is focused on innovation. So, as she puts it, “creativity and ideas are applauded and awarded, but getting the basics right is not.” It’s hard to get people excited about the unsexy parts. They love big ideas but are weaker when it comes to implementation. Content strategy tends to fall into that “implementation” category, and though there are many of us (including Kerry-Anne) who do find it kind of sexy, there are many who don’t. (In that respect, I think the attitudes in South Africa are pretty consistent with most of the rest of the world.)

If anything, South African companies are willing to invest in SEO and social media (Facebook is taking off in a big way), but they do it in isolation, rather than looking at how these factors fit into the bigger content ecosystem.

Where you’ll hear from her next

As I mentioned, in a couple weeks Kerry-Anne will be hosting CS Forum 2012 in her home town. She’s excited to see the content strategy friends that she’s met all over the world, and she’s also thrilled to be opening this world to the people that she works with and other people in her field and adjacent disciplines.

She’ll be starting a content strategy podcast shortly after CS Forum, as part of the AirBourne network. She’s also planning to do more writing and publishing – look for her to start a blog soon (a link will be available on her site August Sun Projects), and in other publications in our field. In March 2013 you can see her speak at Confab London. And other international speaking engagements are sure to follow.

In the meantime, follow her on Twitter (@kerry-anne) for updates on all of the above, plus her day-to-day thoughts on content strategy, playing drums & guitar, belly-dancing, cat-snuggling, drinking whiskey, travelling, admiring Pearl Jam, having ADHD, knitting, and surviving hip replacement surgery.

On top of everything else, she’s a drummer! (photo by Paul Gilowey)

What she’d like you to know about Content Strategy

  • There’s a misconception that people have about content professionals, they think we’re going to want to fill their sites up with lots of content. “That’s not at all what we want to do. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. We want to simplify it.” It’s about doing more with what you have.
  • “It isn’t just about marketing. It cuts across an entire organization. You’ve got content everywhere, and we need to look at all of it.”
  • It is unsexy, and that’s a good thing. It’s about getting the fundamentals right, not selling people a fantastic idea that they don’t have the budget to implement. There are those of us who do get ridiculously excited about this unsexy stuff (content audits and spreadsheets) and we want to help organizations make their content work for them.
  • It’s a collaborative effort. “It’s not something I can just come in and do for you and then walk away.” We need to speak to the people in the organizations we’re working with, to understand their issues and needs, so we can come up with an optimal strategy for the organization.

What she’d like you to know about South Africa

  • There are no lions and elephants walking around in the streets – there may still be people out there who believe that.
  • Despite technically being a “third world” country, it’s a lot more “first world” than people think. The infrastructure is there. But there is a big disparity between rich and poor. Unfortunately, it will probably take many generations for that to go away.
  • There’s a massive focus on innovation and quite a strong startup culture. A few businesses even have offices in both Cape Town and San Francisco. That’s quite a commute!
  • It’s awesome to live in a city, (Cape Town) that has a mountain and a beach next to each other.
  • As in all of Africa, mobile is huge in South Africa. “Mobile penetration is well over 100%” (in other words, people have multiple handsets). But a lot of people are still on feature phones, not smart phones, so you can’t assume that people can just jump on the web. It’s still very SMS focused.
  • South Africa is diverse – in every way. Ethnicity, culture, landscape, fauna, flora, and so on. There’s no one single South  African culture. It’s an opportunity, but it’s also challenging – especially for people who aren’t used to that level of diversity – to understand the pockets of culture. The day Kerry-Anne spoke with me for this profile was Heritage Day, but she told me that it’s become known as National Braai Day (braai is the South African word for barbecue), because cooking meat over a fire is the one thing that all South Africans have in common.

Content Strategists of the World: Ilona Hiila & Ida Hakola

Rachel Lovinger   March 27, 2012

Ilona Hiila (left) and Ida Hakola, of Vapa Media (photos by Jason Scott)

The Breakdown: Welcome to the first in a series of posts on “Content Strategists of the World.” Most of the Content Strategists we know are operating in North America or the UK. Since my personal resolution for this year was “to think about content strategy more globally,” I thought it would be interesting to share profiles of people who are practicing CS in the wider world.

In this first installment, we profiled Ilona Hiila & Ida Hakola, founders of Vapa Media in Helsinki, Finland. I met them in February when they hosted Sisältöstrategiaseminaari 2012 (in English: “Content Strategy Seminar 2012”). It was the first ever Content Strategy event in Finland, and it was co-organized by the University of Finland.

Their background

Ida and Ilona met in University, where they studied communications and journalism. Since then, they have each held various jobs in media, including in the newsroom of a newspaper, custom publishing, and broadcast media. But they also both worked in PR and communications. This is unusual for Finland, where most writerly people choose to go either into media or marketing, but not both. They both chose not to choose.

The idea behind Vapa Media

They also share a fondness for travel. While traveling in South America they started thinking about starting a company together. They shared the perspective that PR messages weren’t working, and talked about how things could be done differently. Since they also had a background in journalism they thought, “What if we bring the laws of journalism to marketing content?”

About two years ago the timing worked out and they started Vapa Media. In Finnish “vapa” means “rod” – as in fishing rod. Their word for the Web is the same word they use for “fishing net” (and of course, we’ve been known to refer to it as “The Net” in English too). That brings to mind a sort of passive way of capturing an audience’s attention, while the rod – a much more directed and active way of catching fish – is a better representation of their philosophy.

How they learned of Content Strategy

They had already publicly presented Vapa Media, they were looking for an office space and they were doing some industry research. They found Kristina Halvorson’s book (Content Strategy for the Web), my own Nimble report, and other publications. They started following Content Strategy discussions online and they were relieved to discover that other people were tackling the same issues.

The concept of Content Strategy was unknown in Finland, where it’s called “Sisältöstrategia” (a challenging word even for Finnish people!) No one was using the word until Ida and Ilona started writing about it and organizing local events, and no other agencies were working with content this way. The experience that galvanized it all for them was attending Content Strategy Forum in London in September 2011, and confirming that this is something that people actually do. “Are we crazy that we think this way?” Ilona had been asking herself. “In London we realized ‘No, we’re not. This is important.’”

Their work

Vapa Media produces content, but they also do web strategy. Ida & Ilona help companies figure out what they should be saying and employ journalists to create high quality content that aligns with their client’s business goals. They also do design and wireframing to support their concepts.  Vapa operates somewhere between digital agencies and communications/PR agencies. They also work with a wide range of clients, mainly B2C and some NGOE. They’d like to work with more B2B clients, but in Finland many of those companies aren’t yet convinced that they need a strong, content-driven online presence.

Practicing Content Strategy in Finland

What makes practicing CS in Finland particularly interesting or challenging?

  • Language. Without hesitation, Ida and Ilona both mentioned that you can’t outsource content production in Finland because so few people outside the country speak Finnish.
  • Technology. The country is very tech focused, with a strong startup culture. This can be both a challenge and an opportunity. Sometimes tech drives decisions more than content considerations and clients fall into the trap of thinking the technology will solve everything. They’re willing to invest more on trying the latest thing than on developing a strategy.
  • Experimental. The positive side of this strong interest in technology is that Finnish people and companies are open to trying new things.

Where we’ll hear from them next

On February 8th, the day of the seminar, they published a trend report called Hiljainen Signaali (“Silent Signal”) that “discusses the digital revolution and the multiplicity of consequences it has for the lives of companies, consumers and media.” It’s available in Finnish and English.

This coming fall they’ll be publishing the first Finnish book on digital content and Content Strategy. The title is still to be determined, but it will be published by Sanoma Pro, a division major European media company, Sonoma Group. Look for it in late August/early September.

The founders of Vapa Media are continuously trying to set an example for thought leadership and entrepreneurship. So you can also read more from them on a daily basis on their website (some of the posts are even in English), Facebook, or Twitter (@VapaMedia, @idahakola, and @IlonaHiila).

What they’d like you to know about Content Strategy

  • Ida: “It’s, in the end, quite concrete. Although the word might sound like consultant bullshit at first, pardon my French, it’s actually a very useful tool for gaining insight into a company’s web content and the content the audience creates. I was very pleased to know that there are actually processes, really material things that are considered. It’s like a guidebook to yourself of yourself.”
  • Ilona [To all communicators, marketers, or brand managers]: “Content Strategy will make your life easier.”
  • Ida [For executives who have struggled with the pain of publishing online]: “This actually supports your ideas and your business strategy.”
  • Ilona: “Content  strategy is something that takes their hand and says ‘It’s ok. You’re going to make it.’”

What they’d like you to know about Finland

  • Ilona: “We are the center of Scandinavia. We have two languages – Finnish and Swedish. So if companies want to invade Scandinavia, Finland could be a good base for that.”
  • Ida: “Finland has a lot of technological potential. Now that we’ve started to spread the word about content meeting technology, I think we can create something big.”
  • Ilona: “Third thing: There are no polar bears in Helsinki.”
  • Ida: “Nor penguins.”
  • Ida: “Good saunas.”

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