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'Content' is a terrible term. Please stop using it.

By John Long, Group creative director

Ogilvy & Mather


Opinion article

May 8, 2018 | 5 min read

There, I said it. I’m with Cindy Gallop on this.

Just say no to 'content'?

Why do I hate the word ‘content’ so much? I’m a writer by trade so I tend to obsess about the words we use and what they mean. And the main reason I hate the word ‘content’ is it’s absurdly vague.

Is it a tweet from Arby’s or The Iliad?

Is it an Instagram photo of a vape pen or The Godfather?

Yes, yes, yes — and yes!

But aside from the imprecision, I think using word ‘content’ to describe anything agencies make is bad for business. Here’s why.

Let’s start with Mr. Webster.


noun con·tent \ ˈkän-ˌtent \

a : something contained —usually used in plural

  • the jar's contents
  • the drawer's contents

b : the topics or matter treated in a written work

  • table of contents

c : the principal substance (such as written matter, illustrations, or music) offered by a website

So the primary definition of the word makes the container the thing that matters — not the thing itself. That makes sense. Usually, we have some idea, based on the container, what the stuff is. The thief was there for the contents of that safe, and he wasn’t leaving without it. We know from that context that there are valuables in the safe. We have some idea what a desk drawer or dresser drawer contains. And so on.

The second definition is specific to something that’s written, and also note it’s not the main thing — it is ‘topics’ or a précis. And it has nothing to do with images, photography or moving pictures.

And there, lurking at the end of the third, lies the heart of the problem.

“The principal substance offered by a website.

And that’s the first thing everyone should remember about the word ‘content’ — it’s a website term that was probably initially used by programmers to generically describe the stuff that wasn’t code, i.e., the stuff that was mere ‘fluff’ to them. Like, say, The Iliad.

Again, worth repeating: ‘content’ was originally a website term.

So why is there a thing called ‘social content’? Why are we referring to short films we write and produce as ‘video content’? Not to pick on this guy, but what the hell is ‘advertising content’? David Ogilvy just turned over in his grave.

And that’s an even bigger problem. We’ve taken a term for websites and sprinkled it around on pretty much everything. Like a virus, it’s spread — and by definition, it cheapens everything we do. Because the word ‘content’ is just about as appealing 'principal substance' or 'filler' or 'Soylent.' It sounds like disposable stuff that appears by happenstance, like plaque or lint.

Ask yourself.

Does it sound like it requires training and talent to create ‘content’?

Does it sound enjoyable or interesting to consume ‘content’?

Would you call anything worth paying attention to, let alone paying for, ‘content’?

OK, so what should we call this stuff? I say, call it whatever it is.

I realize everyone hates the word ‘advertising’ today, but it sure beats the hell out of ‘content’. But if you’re making social media, call it that. Or to be more precise, social campaigns, social videos and social posts. If you’re making short films, call them that. Copy for a website isn’t ‘content’ — it’s website copy. Pictures are photography, images, photographs or illustrations. Podcasts are podcasts. Same goes for editorial, feature articles, white papers, brochures and packaging copy.

See how easy that is?

Let’s delegate ‘content’ to stuff amateurs make — the kind that’s ‘user-generated.’ I’m fine with that. I’m also mostly okay with using the term in the context of strategy (though I don’t think it’s great).

Just stop calling what agencies work very hard to create and produce 'content.'

John Long is group creative director at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. Read his last post on the 5 questions every digital marketer should ask themselves.


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Ogilvy & Mather

Ogilvy & Mather is a New York City-based advertising, marketing and public relations agency. It started as a London advertising agency founded in 1850...

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