In 1980, my editor, and therefore my boss, was a veteran of the news desk of the Detroit News who had recently moved to Florida, named Al Lowman. Al was a veteran newsman of the old school, which is to say he was deeply cynical, hostile to all forms of authority, could not be bought, smoked like a chimney, and had impeccable judgment about what was news. I deeply appreciated working for him and he seemed to think I was pretty good, too.
I used to rag him about his age then, which was early 60s (I was not quite yet 30). “Hey Al,” I would say, “What’s it like to be that old?”
He stared at me over his reading glasses. “If you’re very lucky, young man,” he said, “you’ll find out.” And so I have.
Al paid me many compliments in the years I worked for him, but the one I treasured most came just after I had broken a pretty big story having to do with the misdeeds of a local private ambulance service.
“You know what I like about you, kid?” he said. “You don’t go to lunch with other reporters.”
He meant to say that although reporters really liked hanging out together, they weren’t going to get any news that way. I made it a habit to lunch with cops, and nurses, and attorneys, and private investigators and all sorts of people who seemed to belong to a vast underground network. They were the people you would see at a bad car accident at 3 a.m. or a house fire, or the hospital, or at a big drug bust after dawn. After a while, I knew them and they knew me. It paid off in great news stories again and again.
Today, I don’t go to marketing conferences. I go to legal conferences, where my clients and potential clients are. I don’t hang out with other marketing experts, much as I might respect them. I hang out with lawyers, from whom I can learn something about their needs, wants, fears, objections, ambitions and more.
I would suggest that if you’re, say, an attorney serving business clients, you are better off attending the local construction industry conference than a bar association meeting. (I’m not saying those are worthless. You might well learn new legal techniques or meet another lawyer who can refer business to you. But relatively speaking there will be more prospects for you within the market you serve.) By attending that construction conference, you’re going to learn an awful lot about what makes the people in that industry tick; who are the movers and shakers; what are the industry hot buttons, and so on.
It’s fun to have lunch with people who do what you do. It’s just not very profitable.