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Marvel's marketing: Setting itself as a competitor rather than partner to agencies is a less than super strategy

“Why would you go to another agency to help you use Spider Man?” So said Dan Buckley of Marvel, in a Wall Street Journal article about the entertainment company’s brand partnerships. Mr. Buckley also called Marvel’s Custom Solutions unit “a niche agency”.

It was either a poor choice of words or it’s a less-than-super way for Marvel to go to market, positioning the Disney unit as a competitor rather than a partner to agencies.

In the past year, just about every media company that didn’t already have a brand studio—a unit dedicated to developing custom content for sponsors—has created one. The list includes CNN, Conde Nast, The New York Times, iHeartMedia, AOL, Maker Studios, Kin Community, Buzzfeed and many others.

It’s a welcome development. As someone who has been producing content for brands from the agency side for the last six years, these studios aren’t viewed as competitors—although they’re sometimes positioned that way in press coverage. Instead they represent an opportunity for agencies and brands to deepen ties with media owners, moving the relationship beyond the transactional to something approaching true partnership.

Many of these brand studios are led by and stocked with veteran storytellers: journalists, documentarians, filmmakers, photographers, producers and branded-content specialists. We speak the same language. Which means our buyers and their sellers can do what they do best, and those of us who develop original content on each side of the table can do what we do best.

It’s a true and rare case where the agency, media partner and, above all, client come out ahead. By combining data-driven insights with audience knowledge, storytelling chops, distribution know-how and measurement, we have a greater opportunity to create content audiences will seek out and share.

That doesn’t mean brands won’t sometimes work directly with media owners outside of agency relationships. That’s always happened and always will, and there’s no need for agencies to feel defensive about it. But when a media partner seems to go out of its way to position itself as a competitor – as seems to be the case with Marvel’s “why would you go to another agency” comment – it’s kind of baffling.

Why would Marvel want an agency involved in a program when it can work directly with clients? A few things come to mind:

· We have a deep understanding of our clients’ brands and business objectives, while media partners have a deep understanding of their own audiences and assets.

· We help brands build out comprehensive marketing programs and content ecosystems while media companies offer a closed-circuit environment that often represents just one part of a larger puzzle.

· We help brands pick the right partners, develop the right stories and maximize their investments.

· We work with many brands across many categories, meaning a successful program with one partner can create the trust and confidence that will lead us to expand those relationships to include multiple clients.

Marvel is a great company with terrific assets, and it has developed cool custom content for brands. I was involved with one of those programs, involving Spider Man, no less. Several agencies, along with the client and Marvel were part of the partnership, and it was better for it, resulting in a truly successful integrated program where each partner contributed expertise the others didn’t have.

That’s the spirit we want to see from media companies that wish to truly be viewed as brand partners and not comic-book villains.

Scott Donaton is chief content officer at DigitasLBi

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