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The case for content marketing – Why today's Mad Men need to embrace the art of storytelling

In this increasing wired, interconnected world, it’s easy to get hung up on delivery, process and technology, and to miss what really engages people – that indefinable thing that is called, for want of a better word, 'content'.

Content is the stuff that makes up a marketing message, the thing that prompts people to act, change their behaviour or embrace a brand or service. It’s by far the most important component of marketing, and in many ways the most underrated.

It’s this skill, or a perceived lack of it, that gets a certain kind of Mad Man all wistful for the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when beautifully-crafted messages (either on TV, in print or on billboards) ruled the roost.

Everyone with an interest in marcomms looks back fondly to the days of O&M, DDB and CDP, and great campaigns for the likes of Volkswagen, Hovis, Guinness, Rolls-Royce and Heineken.

Now, by fairly common consent there is a greater emphasis on delivery, meeting budgets and driving costs down, basically getting things done as quickly and cheaply as possible.

The dazzling speed of technological change and disruption and the increasing realism and interconnectedness of both gaming and virtual reality, has shifted the marcomms industry’s focus onto technology and channels.

This isn’t all that surprising – after all, there are almost unlimited possibilities for getting messages out there, and gaining consumers’ attention and engagement; but I wonder if the time might not be ripe for a reinvigorated focus on content.

Now, content is a word that has been bandied about for some time, but not always that convincingly. Some of the bigger agencies with their quite understandable interest in data, digital and mobile media and strategic, consultative partnerships and ROI have been a bit behind the curve.

Because at the end of the day, this business is all about moving people – to rage, to tears, to laughter; because the message won’t get through unless you entertain, inform, educate or benefit people. This was borne out by a law firm conference I attended the other week, in which an audience poll revealed that when asked the question 'What’s more important? Digital advertising or content?' over 90 per cent plumped for content.

What does this mean? It means that people don’t like advertising (especially annoying banners and roll-overs that disrupt one’s web browsing), but they will watch stuff they find funny, or interesting, or useful. In fact they’re happy to do so. They want stories, not advertising.

Over the past couple of years there have been some interesting stirrings, particularly in the startup sector: agencies specifically geared towards creating content have been springing up.

An interesting example I came across was Kameleon, a London-based startup founded in 2008 by two guys from media giant Mindshare. The company now employs over 35 people and has done some impressive work for the likes of BA, Chivas, Sony and Volvic.

Kameleon does most of the things you’d expect a full-service agency to do: strategy, creative, media, distribution and – this is crucial, because not many people are doing it that well at the moment – evaluation.

Content and storytelling is at the heart of everything they do, and is usually based around online video –  which is not only the fastest-growing marcomms channel, but also the most effective. And it works just as well for B2B as it does for B2C.

Others, like London’s HubTV are moving from pure video production into creative and strategy, offering clients something akin to what the old full-service agencies used to offer. It’s a fascinating area, which will grow as content marketing becomes more important –  and I’m sure it won’t be long before the big boys start sniffing round many of these such companies.

None of this is actually new – content marketing is as old as advertising itself.  

As long ago as 1892, Dr August Oetker, he of baking powder fame, used to push his products by printing recipes on the back of the packaging.  In 1900 French tyre firm Michelin wanted people to use cars as much as possible (so they’d sell more tyres) and developed a travel guide that offered tips, maps and articles on places to visit, eat and stay while on the journey. Given away free, it was a sensation, and remains perhaps the most effective and famous piece of content marketing ever. 

Nowadays big retailers like M&S, John Lewis/Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and ASOS all create customer magazines (effectively content marketing) with production values, editorial quality and readerships equal to, or greater than, traditional news-stand titles.

Then there are what the Americans call 'infomercials' – perhaps most familiar here from the likes of QVC or those long-form demonstration/benefit films made by gadget firm JML and shown on late-night and daytime TV.

But by far the fastest-growing, and most important, vehicle for content marketing is online.

It started off a bit dull – white papers or e-books that you could download. But over the past decade, with ever-increasing broadband speeds and the growth of video-capable mobile devices, video has exploded. Content can be accessed any time, almost any place.

Even more important, thanks to increasingly sophisticated analytics, advertisers can learn more about who’s watching their content, where, for how long, and how often. This allows the content marketing agency to improve, tweak and refine their content to make it even more effective.

Although YouTube has by far the biggest each of any video channel, it’s not that great for lead generation, because YouTube’s real job is to generate ad click revenue for its owner Google.  But specialist platforms like Wistia are more focused on real analytics and measuring ROI.

All the great past masters of advertising – Bill Bernbach, David Ogilvy, Howard Gossage – knew that without great content, marketing could not be effective, nor (in Ogilvy’s case) did it deserve to exist.

There’s an old school of thought, dating from more than half a century ago, which held that if you were going to interrupt a person’s day with advertising, you had to do it with wit and elegance or else give them something they found useful or entertaining.

It’s a pity that this attitude has now largely died out, because today there is far too much advertising, and far too much of it is bad. Achieving 'cut through' is becoming increasingly difficult, especially as consumers and busy executives are now increasingly cynical and dismissive of marketing messages.

As I alluded earlier, people don’t want to see advertising, but they will engage with good stuff.

What is best about great content is that it just works. Everywhere. In PR, mobile, customer publishing, long-form advertising, DM… any discipline or channel would benefit from an injection of content-creation skill.

And for forward-thinking creatives, this offers the opportunity to put their craft at the very forefront of the industry once again; there is no reason for a would-be Bernbach to feel marginalised by suits, planners and data geeks ever again. And that can only be good for the whole industry.

Trawling round the net these past couple of weeks, I’ve actually been really heartened by some of the good work being done by the likes of Kameleon, Seven, Velocity, Videojug and others.

What the nascent industry (there’s even a Content Marketing Association, whose website is worth a look) now has to do is to really make sure that it gets its measurement and evaluation nailed down. The case for content marketing will then become un-ignorable and the big clients and later, the big agencies, keen to get involved in the action, will come knocking.

There is a good deal more I want to say on this subject so we’ll be returning to content in a fortnight or so’s time.

Tony Walford is a partner at Green Square, corporate finance advisors to the media and marketing sector.

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