The tyranny of ‘content’ and the return of creativity after Cannes Lions

The Promotion Fix is a​n ​exclusive biweekly column for The Drum from Samuel Scott, a global keynote marketing speaker who is a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications in the high-tech industry. Follow him @samueljscott.

In a first-season episode of the American TV drama Scorpion, the show’s crack team of techno-wizards meets a man who developed a computer program that uses an algorithm to create instant pop music hits.

Such software would be worth millions. After being saved from multiple attempts on his life by greedy music industry executives, the man thinks about his invention while playing Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You by Frankie Valli on a keyboard. He says:

“What I’ve missed the most in all the years since I gave [music] up is the harmony. You see, a machine can only copy – it can’t make it because perfection is in the tiny mistakes. Which makes it human. I was angry when I wrote this program. I didn’t want anything to do with music. But now I think I just don’t want to do anything with bad music. I don’t want to be a fake.”

And then he destroys the computer drive with a hammer.

Here in Tel Aviv, I am a little behind the latest television as our satellite provider catches up. But I thought about this episode in the context of the digital marketing craze of 'content marketing' and the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, which was scheduled to begin on June 17 after I filed this column.

'Content marketing' is supposed to be the use of marketing collateral that aims to inform (rather than sell directly) and is transmitted over mediums that businesses own (such as company blogs). In 2008, Seth Godin referred to content marketing – very inaccurately – as “the only marketing left”.

But the digital marketing industry took an existing part of marketing communications, gave it a buzzword, and then turned the tactic into a tragedy. (And not the fun Steps type of 'tragedy'.) Content marketing has become bottom-rung, direct-response advertising by another name.

As I looked at the future Cannes Lions programme and saw themes including “Creativity for Good” and “Data-Driven Creativity,” I could only hope that the marketing world will reach an inflection point after which the tyranny of content will be overthrown. It’s what I try to advocate as a marketing keynote speaker as well.

The rise of ‘content factories’

In Disrupted, the 2016 memoir by former tech journalist and Silicon Valley TV show writer Dan Lyons that describes his time at the marketing software company HubSpot, he describes the company’s blog posts in this way:

“HubSpot’s blog is already packed with low-end content, like ‘12 Tips for Doing Awesome Email Marketing’ and ‘How to Make Chrome Your Default Web Browser.’ [A marketing executive] says we need to ratchet things down even further...

"[The marketing executive] has one goal: to get leads. If our software analytics were to indicate that our best conversion rate comes from publishing a blog post that just says the word dogshit over and over again… then [we] would publish that post…

"I realise there probably is a legitimate business model to be made from churning out crappy content. But that is not something you hire the former technology editor of Newsweek to write for you.”

This model is being used at countless companies. Pump out a basic piece of content on some topic on your blog, share it on social media, and post it in online communities and news aggregators to get people to click to visit a website. Rinse and repeat in an endless cycle of craptastic spam.

As a noted in a prior column, an advertisement that educates is still an advertisement. An advertisement that appears on a company blog is still an advertisement. 'Content marketers' claim to help the world by spreading useful information, but people are increasingly sick of 'blogspam'. It’s too bad that we cannot be honest and simply call it 'advertising' – after all, one of the biggest lies in digital marketing is that advertising is supposed to be deader than the chances of Liam and Noel Gallagher appearing together at a family reunion.

Why ‘content’ became so popular

The rise of this advertising-by-another-name is a result of Hubspot’s promotion of 'inbound marketing' and 'content marketing', both of which could have arisen only in the high-tech startup world.

It is cheap. Startups must grow quickly and cheaply. To do content marketing, companies need only a free CMS such as Wordpress and someone who can write and knows industry topics and issues. 'Content farms' can also create bland, unoriginal, 1,000-word blog posts for $60 each. (I have received such pitches.) Digital marketers always want to know how to do “hacks” for “cheap” because online marketing was born during and is forever tainted by an economic recession. But cheapness rarely leads to effective campaigns.

It is trackable and scalable. The results of a piece of 'content' can be calculated (if one uses the questionable last-touch attribution model). Writers can then create more 'content' based on what 'performs' the best. The model and metrics are the exact same as in direct-response advertising. In contrast, it is impossible to calculate the exact ROI of public relations and brand advertising because those two tactics within the promotion mix are used for marketing goals other than immediate, trackable leads and sales.

It does not think about the future. Brands must think about the next five, 10, or 50 years. Startup tech companies do whatever it takes to reach an exit or have an IPO before the funding runs out. It’s why it is popular to automate email spam and publish endless blogspam. Even if 99% of the market becomes annoyed at such crass, direct-response activities, all you need is 1% of them to become customers to cross the finish line.

It is perfect for left-brained techies. Tech startup founders and those in R&D teams tend to be very left-brained and think about information and algorithms. (That’s not a bad thing – I wish I had that ability.) It’s why the startup industry has flooded the marketing world with tech terms such as '10x content', 'agile marketing' and 'MarDev'. The problems of ad tech are what happens when people think more about how to transmit ads technologically rather than how to make good ones creatively. Marketers robotise the process of content marketing outlined above with 'marketing automation'.

The tech world is trying to change marketing because it understands informational material and direct-response metrics but not right-brained creativity and beneficial results that are intangible. Marketing tactics that are not directly trackable are seen as voodoo at best or bullshit at worst, but a lot of things that are useful or important in marketing cannot be automated or quantified.

The negative side of ‘content’

On the left is a screenshot from the archive of a certain prolific writer in digital marketing. On the right is a screenshot of a feed of a popular aggregator of online marketing articles:

Content marketers use psychology to do whatever it takes to get people to click to read their posts. They think more about what words, numbers, and hashtags to include in headlines and social media posts rather than the actual content of the creative. The click is what matters because content marketing is about whatever it takes to get someone to a website – no matter how much the activity hurts the brand in the long term.

One of Marketoonist Tom Fishburne’s recent cartoons drives the point home. Everyone hates clickbait blogspam (see the bottom left-hand corner):

At best, this practice leads to marketers flooding the Internet with “crap” – one estimate projects that the content marketing market will grow to $300bn by 2019. (I was surprised at that statistic because despite the rise in blog publishing, I stopped reading most marketing blogs a long time ago because there is little that is published that is new, original, or interesting.)

At worst, it leads to posts that are solely for ad networks such as Outbrain and Taboola:

Again, it’s bottom-rung, direct-response advertising by another name.

The tyranny of content has become so widespread that the term is used to refer to almost all online marketing campaigns and collateral. And when one word means everything, it means nothing precise, useful, or good.

Creativity will always be paramount

The worst part of content marketing is that creative campaigns are entertaining, but content is boring. I remember commercials, jingles and slogans from decades ago. I barely remember the blog posts that I read yesterday.

In the above screenshot of a post archive and aggregator, the content headline formats and selected topics are all optimised and almost all the same. The same principle that the Scorpion character applied to music is being used in marketing collateral. It’s all mass-produced, cookie-cutter crap that that lacks real humanity. Just like Liberty X’s music.

In late April, I received this email from Searchmetrics:

The word 'creativity' is not mentioned once. Everyone in the industry is using data and tools to determine the best content to produce, but that practice will lead to diminishing returns.

As Wistia co-founder and chief executive Chris Savage has written [with my emphasis]:

“Today, everyone scores their leads with Marketo and A/B tests thirty different varieties of their landing page. You can’t get a competitive advantage doing that stuff anymore. You could say that as the percentage of marketers with a certain tech stack or using a certain tool approaches 100%, the competitive advantage you reap from it approaches 0.

"Using data to scale your marketing is critical. But when we all have access to the same types of data, it won’t be the data that differentiates us — it’ll be the art.

Art will make a comeback because the creative results of a person’s brain is something that no one else can replicate. While Hessie Jones of Cerebri AI argues at Marketing Insider Group that artificial intelligence is the solution to modern marketing’s problems, others rightfully disagree.

UK DJ and Radio 1 presenter Pete Tong told The Drum that he would not let AI make creative decisions for him. Paul Burke, an award-winning copywriter and novelist, laments the “lost art” of copywriting. PadSquad founder Daniel Meehan argues that ad tech should not be called “advertising” because it is not creative. Zenith head of innovation Tom Goodwin posted on Twitter that advertising affects him greatly even though he has never “engaged” with it in a way that is measurable – and that is the essence of brand advertising.

Content marketers point towards historical examples to prove its utility, but the citations need to be viewed in context. Sure, Jell-O has published some informational recipe books, but the bulk of sales has always resulted from the spending of $50m each year – based on one 2013 estimate – on brand advertising.

In terms of content marketing versus brand advertising, content marketing has always been a miniscule percentage of the promotion mix for brands. Advertising is what builds brands. It’s time to fix the promotion mix by remembering that.

The future of creativity and ‘content’

Content is dry and informative, but creatives are entertaining and memorable. I hope that this year’s Cannes Lions festival will reinforce that fact. As I wrote in a prior column on how television is not dead, creativity is best at communicating messages that people internalise.

A company’s blog is a medium that should be used with the same care and consideration that businesses apply to all external marketing channels. Just because a business can easily pump out countless informational blog posts does not mean that it should:

Digital marketers need to think beyond this question: “What should we publish on our blog?” The key is to think about integrated campaigns and not only specific channels and tactics. (If you are publishing something just to publish something to get more clicks, just stop. The internet will thank you for it.)

Channels and tactics are important. But how can modern, holistic marketers integrate all of them into creative campaigns along with the latest data and technologies? That’s the topic of a future column. The Drum’s Creative Works section might provide some ideas while we wait to see what will happen at Cannes Lions 2017.

In the meantime, whenever I am brainstorming creative ideas, I’ll just wait for the momentary bursts of inspiration that come while I’m singing Spice Girls songs in the shower.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, a global marketing keynote speaker as well as a former journalist, newspaper editor, and director of marketing and communications. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel

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