Head to head: content is king?

We pit two industry heavyweights against each other in a debate on a contentious topic. The first round sees Tangible Media chief executive John Baker taking on Barnes Catmur & Friends Dentsu executive creative director Paul Catmur.

Yea (Baker)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1.

For something to be over-hyped, it must be a short-term trend. Content marketing is the parent of all marketing, perhaps the god of all marketing and as such cannot possibly be over-hyped.    

The bible, along with other religious texts like The Sutra, The Quran, The Hadith, The Vedas, and The Tanach, Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash can all be viewed as long-form marketing aimed at connecting deeply at an emotional level to drive very specific human behaviour. The spread of religious beliefs and the ongoing success of organised religion globally can be attributed to highly successful content marketing campaigns over thousands of years. Indeed, the foundation of Judaeo-Christian ethics, The Ten Commandments, is the original listicle.

More recently, there has been an amplified conversation globally on this thing called content marketing and as is often the case with the any narrative led by the exclusive digital brethren, the assumption is that this is a form of marketing that is largely a digital phenomenon that did not exist prior to 1991. Bollocks. 

David Ogilvy understood the power of brilliant narrative. He is considered by many to be the father of modern day advertising, in 1962 being described by Time Magazine as “the most sought-after wizard in today’s advertising industry”. Ogilvy had a fundamental belief that the job of advertising was to inform and inspire consumer purchase.   

“I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative’. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.” 

In many respects, Ogilvy’s approach to advertising is closer to that of contemporary content marketing than it is to contemporary advertising. The need to create authentic and relevant storytelling seems to have been lost once television became the dominant advertising medium in the 1960s and 1970s. Creative energies were re-deployed to achieving cut-through in an entertainment based environment, truth became secondary as the fantasy narrative became dominant in a shallow world based on 30 seconds. I’d argue that if anything has become over-hyped it is the TVC. 

Today, much of the advertising I see, across all mediums, appears to be based on short-term campaign thinking and gimmicks. Ideas designed to attract maximum attention in a disruptive and often shallow way to satisfy immediate sales goals. It is no wonder consumers are switching off. If anything, the renaissance of content marketing is about marketers reverting back to the very origins of advertising, where the agenda was meaningful, long-term and real communication with consumers based on the fundamental features of a good or service and brands stood for something real. Over-hyped? I don’t think so.

Nay (Catmur)

Content is an enormous pile of sludge, but what she does when she sees the diamonds will melt your heart!

I have nothing against content per se; it would be a bit hypocritical when this article is adding to the mound of it. My issue is with those who: 1) See content as a cheap way of building a brand because you can avoid spending anything on media; 2) Seem unconcerned about exactly what content is produced, as long as something is produced (people talk a lot about insisting that you use ‘high quality content’ but there’s very little evidence that those people have the faintest idea how to produce that ‘high quality content’).

Sturgeon’s Law suggests that 90 percent of any art form produced is crap. Describing content as an art form of which only 90 percent is crap is pretty generous but it’s a start. Sturgeon’s original point was that although 90 percent of any genre may be rubbish it doesn’t mean that the whole genre is completely worthless, and of course the same goes for content.

With over 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every second (it’s actually every minute but I was checking to see if you were awake) the vast majority of content will never be seen by anybody outside the content producer’s immediate family. Naturally, clients will hope and pray that their content will be one of the miniscule number of pieces that goes viral, but hope is not really a valid marketing strategy. 

The reason for this false faith in the powers of all things content stems, like many business misconceptions, from survivorship bias: i.e. mistakenly judging content’s overall worth based on the tiny proportion of success stories while ignoring the infinitely long tail of wastage that dies alone and unloved.

For example, Volvo’s Van Damme stunt is a spectacular clip that people are happy to watch purely for entertainment. And Red Bull’s filming and seeding of adventure sports content works brilliantly for them. The populist appeal of death-defying (or occasionally not) sports has been known since before the Coliseum was built, but these examples are the exception, not the rule. Unfortunately, it still needs pointing out to some that because a Nike football clip goes around the world in seconds doesn’t mean that people will be similarly enthralled by an ex Shortland Street actor talking about cleaning body fats from their shower, shot on an iPhone.

While paid advertising (whether online or not) is a subset of content, it has the advantage that it’s harder to avoid. So while under Sturgeon’s Law 90 percent of advertising is also rubbish, running a crap video with enough media grunt behind it can still shift a lot of stuff. Just ask Harvey Norman. We all know it’s getting easier for consumers to avoid advertising should they wish, but it doesn’t mean that churning out pictures of baked beans on Instagram is the solution. And however cheap it may be to produce, if nobody watches it’s still a waste of time, money and server space. While content can be a good way to enrich a brand, don’t give it the responsibility of growing it.

Relevant, entertaining content is what we want and by coincidence I saw a great example this weekend. My Facebook feed had a clip of an osprey battling against a trout in superslow motion. Not everyone’s idea of YouTube excitement perhaps, but it was well targeted to me. At the end it encouraged me to check out the rest of the Highlands BBC programme. Maybe that’s what content should be about: a short, well-made piece of film that entertains you while giving you a slice of the brand story. Hang on, that sounds awfully familiar…

Who do you agree with, Baker or Catmur? Let us know in the survey below:

  • This article first appeared in the media edition of NZ Marketing magazine. 

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