Before he became the editor-in-chief of Independent Agent, the flagship magazine of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, Inc., Will Jones worked in factories, restaurants and hotels, and as a salesman, a delivery driver and English teacher. But his passion for writing never faded. Writing for soccer fanzines and blogs (any Arsenal fans in the house?), and later on, soccer news sites and an English-language newspaper in Brazil, Will persisted at his goal of becoming a successful writer.
In 2017, he became assistant editor for Independent Agent. Over the next three years he worked his way up to the top position of editor-in-chief, where he deftly manages the editorial side of Independent Agent as well as reader surveys and advertiser relationships. Will talked with Association Adviser about the power of the written word, where great ideas come from in his organization, and why print still matters.
You have a really interesting professional background! You were an English major before working as an inn manager, a sports writer and English teacher in Brazil, and a customer service representative for a bank before shifting over to communications work for associations. Tell us more about this winding professional path.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I got my first article published when I was 15 years old in a soccer fanzine in England, which is a magazine written and published by the fans of the team I support (Arsenal) and sold outside the stadium on match days. After writing for the fanzine for a few years, I studied English and Journalism at university but found it hard to find paid work when I graduated during the 2008 recession. The world of publishing was in a bit of flux at that time too. Newspapers, magazines and websites were trying to figure out how to switch from print to online while protecting revenue, so that didn’t help either!
As a result, I took a lot of temporary and part-time jobs. But having worked in factories, warehouses, restaurants, as a delivery driver, receptionist, assistant underwriter and door-to-door salesman, has given me an insight into different businesses and industries, which has been useful working in insurance because that’s a business that applies to all other businesses.
It was a winding path to get here but all those experiences and knockbacks have made me a more well-rounded person—and writer. I don’t think I actually got paid for a word I wrote until I was about 25. The most valuable experience was moving to Brazil in 2013 to teach English as a foreign language. I’d been working in a restaurant while interning and blogging on the side for nearly two years and needed a change. While I was there, I created a niche for myself writing about Brazil and Brazilian soccer. I also started a relatively successful blog, which I ended up stopping writing for shortly after my son was born in 2018.
What makes you believe in the power of the written word?
Good writing is everything. When media moved online, it gave everyone the power to be a writer. Whether it is the ability to post on social media, build your own website, create a blog or start an e-newsletter, the barriers to doing that were completely removed. The problem is, not everyone is a strong writer or has the attention to detail to edit their own work. However, a well-written About Us page or a carefully constructed social media post can speak volumes to whatever you’re trying to say—as long as it is well-written.
I think writing is playing an ever-increasing role in the consumer experience. Maybe it’s a mass-mailing platform or an app, or even just a subject line in an email. The opportunities to write well—with style, humor and intrigue—are everywhere and hugely important.
Why focus on a magazine?
The Big “I” has been publishing a magazine since 1903. It’s part of our identity as an association. We continue to focus on our print magazine because every time we survey our membership, they overwhelmingly tell us that they prefer to read the magazine in print. The advertising revenue gained from print is also an important part of the association’s non-dues revenue.
However, we remain committed to maintaining a strong presence online, too. We recently gave our homepage an overhaul and have been attempting to be a little more reactive to breaking news in the industry. I think both those strategies have been helping drive traffic to our site. During the pandemic, we launched the complete digital edition of the magazine and gave members the option to receive the print magazine at their home address instead of the office. We need to offer options to reach a greater audience.
Where do great ideas come from in your organization?
We’re lucky enough to work with some extremely passionate and intelligent people both within our membership and at our company partners, so we often get ideas from them. But most of the time, ideas come from within the communications team. It’s great to brainstorm and come up with good and bad ideas and have fun. Some of the best ideas are the ones that have the broadest appeal while also speaking to our members and company partners.
What are some lessons learned from your predecessors?
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great editors. Improving my editing skills and maintaining high standards wasn’t easy but looking at every article from the audience’s perspective and finding ways to improve is a good habit to have.
Commercially too, I’ve learned that we need to give our advertisers lots of love. The more ways we can keep them involved and pay them back in kind for their support, the stronger our relationships will become.
Where do you hope to take Independent Agent magazine in the next 5 years?
We’ll continue to keep our editorial fresh. Maybe we’ll swap out a new section or department for something else. I like to listen to the editorial and advertiser surveys we do to find out what people like and don’t like. I also habitually check out website traffic every morning to find out what’s working and what isn’t.
The big challenge for us is going to be how we disseminate our content online. We are 100% committed to the print magazine—it’s a flagship product for the association. But the way we communicate online needs to be constantly evolving. It’s easy to do the same thing for years and years, but I hope we can constantly improve.
In terms of your job, what keeps you up at night?
Apostrophes, hyphens, misspelling someone’s name, making a mistake on the cover—editing is a thankless and endless task sometimes. Aiming for anything less than perfection is not acceptable. But that said, writing and editing is one of those jobs where you’ll never really reach total perfection. When it’s time to sign off on an edition, sometimes you just have to turn over the pillow, let it go and go back to sleep—I’m a big believer in getting a full eight hours sleep!