The future of content marketing is rooted in the past

Last year, Hamburger Helper released a rap album for April Fool's Day, a piece of branded content that was widely praised

It’s daunting to predict the future; I always get it kind of sort of half right.

Let me explain.

During my career, I’ve been fortunate to be connected to a number of firsts. I was part of a team that sold one of the first one-gallon plastic paint cans in the U.S. I worked for a startup that became one of the first HMOs in the country. I was part of teams that created the first banners on the Web and the first tablet magazine apps.

At every career stop, I believed that I was changing the world for the better. While many people have gotten rich from plastic paint cans, HMOs, banners and apps, the people I thought might benefit most, the environmentalists, doctors, patients, publishers, consumers, and advertisers, have mostly lost out.

Still, amidst all the “failures” of my past predictions, I have already seen signs that content marketing is going to be a force for good in the world, and for CMOs. To make my case, I need to carry you back in time...

One message. One brand.

In the 1980s, as I searched for my first job as an ad copywriter in Boston, a wonderful creative director named Steve Cosmopulos agreed to look at my portfolio. One of the original founders of Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos, Steve had already established himself as an advertising legend. A kind man, Steve would give his time generously to aspiring creatives, as long as you were willing to visit him between 5:30 and 6 a.m.

“Your book is awful,” Steve told me. “Let me show you why.”

He walked across his office and picked up three one-foot-long pieces of plywood. One had about 30 or 40 nails protruding from it. The other had one nail. The third had no nails. “This is your campaigns,” he told me as he set down the board with all the nails so that they faced the ceiling. “This is your customer,” he said, holding the nail-less board in the air over his head. With that he brought nail-less plywood crashing down on the upward-facing nails. I jumped out of my skin. He held the nail-less plywood in front of my face and said, “See that? None of the nails penetrated!”

He swept the many-nailed piece of plywood to the floor and replaced it on his desk with the plywood that had one nail, so that the single nail faced the ceiling. He brought the nail-less plywood crashing down on the single nail, which penetrated cleanly. “You see?” he practically shouted, “ONE POINT is all that can penetrate a consumer’s mind. Every campaign you create has to focus on one point, or you’ll never get through.”

You know what? He was right. Back then we knew that AVIS tried harder and Hertz put us in the driver’s seat, but BMW—now that was the ultimate driving machine! We never left home without our American Express cards in our hands, and we knew we were in good hands with Allstate.

Visine got the red out.

We all loved New York.

And Bo knew.

How specialization ruined marketing

I finally did land my first job doing radio, TV, and print for a few years. Then direct response advertising began its boom, and I joined an agency to learn that skill. We were the direct response agency of record for AT&T and American Express and other large brands. I don’t recall every meeting with the agencies doing “general” radio and TV. Our work focused on different messages that generated “below-the-line” conversions rather than “above-the-line” awareness. In the absence of partnership with those other agencies, we crafted our own messages, driving more nails into each brand’s messaging board.

In 1994, I joined one of the first digital shops, again working on AT&T and other national brands. We were never encouraged to meet with either the TV shops or the direct marketing shops. So, we created new messages, hammering more nails into the board.

Around the turn of the century, email marketing exploded, and specialists arose to handle that. More nails.

In 2007, the iPhone launched. At first, it made things worse for brands. Social media agencies and app developers sprouted everywhere, and messaging fractured even more. After 20 years of increasing specialization, marketing has come to resemble that many-nailed board in Steve Cosmopulos’s office.

Then something really good happened.

Marketing returns to its roots

In 2013, the tide turned. That’s the year most consumers began spending most of their time on mobile screens.

While popular wisdom told us that consumers with their noses in their phones were wasting time, they weren’t. They were getting directions, finding restaurants, sharing photos, sending emails, summoning cars, rating service providers—in short, getting things done. The last thing busy people needed were ads, which is why banner ads became nearly irrelevant in 2013.

It’s also why most consumers were out of reach of most brands most of the time.

To regain consumer attention, nearly all marketers flocked to the one thing consumers paid attention to on mobile: content. But not just any content—authentic content that answered the consumer’s need to be entertained, enlightened, inspired, or educated.

Content that asked, “How can I help you?” rather than, “What can I sell you?”

Helping people solve problems. Isn’t that the essence of every Marketing 101 textbook? Marketing had returned to its roots.

What’s your story?

Because storytelling is the heart of all great content marketing, every content strategy project should begin with the question, “What’s our story?” Every CMO should be able to answer it, as should everyone responsible for telling any aspect of a brand’s story, whether they are at the top of the funnel, the middle of the funnel, or the bottom.

The strongest pushback I get to that belief is that brands have many stories to tell. That is true. What’s important is that every story a brand tells be connected by a single moral—a single nail that ties every story together in a way that makes it easy for consumers to understand what a brand stands for, and what problem the brand can help them solve.

Perhaps the question ought to be, “What is the moral to your story?” If your moral does not include some form of “We can help X accomplish Y,” get back to the drawing board.

It’s not easy to break down silos that have been nearly 25 years in the making, but it’s worth it to have every dollar you spend, and every single piece of communication add up to one single-minded belief in the mind of your consumer that you can help.

Joe McCambley is SVP-content marketing at Seattle-based agency Pop. He tweets @jmccambley1

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Joe McCambley

Joe McCambley is SVP-content marketing at Seattle-based agency Pop

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