By Seb Joseph, News editor

October 7, 2015 | 7 min read

Vice Media has a bugbear; the marketing industry is confusing content with advertising to such an extent that many brands think the C-word is an ad with more media buy behind it. Head of innovation Mark Adams reveals how the $4bn, 21-year old publisher is embracing the tension of new media to show that there is no algorithm for content success.

Accept that with millennials there is no trust. It has to be earned

Millennials have grown up at a time where they were told one thing and shown another, said Adams. Climate change denial, the financial meltdown in 2008, old media was seen as the harbinger and the bringer of lies. “At best traditional media seems irrelevant,” he continued and “at worst it seems like it’s part of a vanguard that can’t get away with what its been getting away with for too long”.

Vice plays in the middle of this shift, embracing classic programming but also mindful of the tension of new media to craft content that rings true with readers and viewers. “If you’re not open and transparent, you’ll be torn pieces,” warned Adams.

At a time when people can watch their favourite shows on Netflix without seeing an ad and block ads appearing on their smartphones, marketers need to go native to create better advertising that’s ultimately trusted by millennials. It chimes with how Vice works with advertisers; its pitch predicated on the 11 communities (rather than ad formats) it has built, with the most recent additions being women and sport. “We talk about these platforms [like Facebook and YouTube] as if they were new but they already do exactly what they were designed to do now,” said Adams. “Unless brands figure out away to actually understand the communities actually existing on these platforms then [content] will never work.”

An engaged community can be as potent as any media buy

One of the reasons Vice has built 11 different passion point led communities is because they all become dispensers to feed campaign content into. “If you don’t have anybody early adopting your content and sharing it for you then you’re going to have a big problem,” said Adams. He revealed how (surprisingly) there “isn’t a lot of media spend” behind the branded content on Vice because “our communities are our media buy”.

Many advertisers are tackling content creation with their agencies like they would a TV ad, where a big part of the strategy is reliant on buying scale. “Content without a community can never be productive,” urged Adams. “I’m not saying reach isn’t important. It’s key when you’re talking about advertising but content can’t be an ad with more media buy behind it. It has to make a deposit not a withdrawal into a community conversation that people then go on to share.”

So how does a marketer go about identifying a busting community capable of exponentially amplifying their messages? Unsurprisingly, Adams thinks publishers like Vice and the insights they have into their audiences are key. “Media agencies can do amazing things but advertisers need to work with someone like us in order to get that initial early adopter curve of anyone who’s going to truly care about that campaign,” he continued.

“A campaign should be designed with somebody who really understands content and doesn’t just think about obsessively about CPMs and the efficiency of reach because this will not be the future model.”

There is no algorithm for content success

Brands should be trying to lead culture not follow it, believes Adams. And so those marketers that immerse their content strategies in data will struggle to come up with something beyond the trivial.

“We think that following the data will lead you to ‘follow culture’. Just because people want a cat dressed as a pirate on a skateboard doesn’t mean that’s what they ought to want,” he claimed. “If you want to ‘lead culture’ you have to form deep communities around serious passion points and you have to lead those people to see things in an incredible new way."

Vice’s peers like Buzzfeed have built their businesses on an aptitude for turning data into popular content. However, the former punk title has rejected the idea, refusing to follow the data out of fear that whatever the consequence it will be similar to something else and so won’t get noticed by a younger audience more likely to ignore branded posts that don’t immediately move them.

“If we’re saying that social networks are going to introduce some form of downvoting or dislike button. And if we’re saying that it’s going to be harder to get reach through ads because of ad blockers then we’re going to have to find more native ways to talk to people,” said Adams.

“That’s a much bigger challenge than trying to decipher what media consumption habits are popular and then algorithmically serving those same media consumption habits back to those people until they’re over one phase and on to the next that’s cats playing keyboards.”

Don’t obsess about channels and how they work

Millennials have grown up during the advent of digital disruption, witnessing the proliferation of social media and smartphones into day-to-day lives. “I’m guilty along with others of getting obsessed with how these channels work but while they might have incredible data feedback loops, ultimately they’re just connecting us to each other."

However, there is a second wave of companies emerging to put the emphasis back on the content. The valuations of publishers like Netflix, HBO and Vice highlights that those making the content that enriches the networks of Facebook and Google is where the stronger value lies now. For Vice, its plan is to have its content on every screen. It wants to make films that people would pay to see in the cinema but also to host more documentaries on YouTube that would inevitably be ad-funded.

“We’re starting to realise that we’re only as good as the content that nourishes the eco-system we’ve created,” admitted Adams. “For nearly ten years we’ve been obsessed as a society about these channels or ‘pipes’ but no one’s really questioned what we’re putting down them.”

Customers will pay for content….if it’s good enough

The subscription economy has given rise to publishing models that are pushing media companies to think like disruptors. It’s sparked renewed efforts from the likes of Netflix and Amazon to challenge the common-held belief that consumers won’t pay for digital content. And while Vice has no plans to erect a pay wall yet, Adams believes the subscription economy is helping to transform how people (and consequently advertisers) appreciate premium content.

“We don’t have plans to do anything dramatic but if we decided to do something that was not ad-funded then we’d probably back ourselves to do that,” he added. “The key is to be on the side of the consumer and not commodify the content so that people can get that anywhere with the same tone of voice and the same perspective. That’s the lesson for marketers because brand communications will also suffer from shallow commoditisation where one brand position feels a lot like the next one."

Mark Adams will be going into more detail about the above and more at this year’s ad:tech London event which takes place next week (13-14 October)

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