What we talk about when we talk about Content
When we talk about content

Advertising used to be relatively simple. It was about selling. But today’s sophisticated consumers need something more substantial than a persuasive pitch and a memorable jingle. They’re looking for useful, entertaining, enlightening information: the stories that help them live their lives better, and help them build long-term relationships with the brands in their lives. Here,veteran journalist Simon Dumenco and Ogilvy & Mather’s Chief Creative Officer, Steve Simpson discuss branded content’s past, present and future.



Simon Dumenco

In the print world, people used to talk a lot about the separation of “church and state”—editorial and advertising. I guess they still do. But with the rise of so-called “branded content,” and every old-school media company having to play ball, the idea of church and state seems sort of quaint.

I confess to always having mixed feelings about what gets to be called “editorial,” even when I was strictly on the “church” side of the divide. Like when I was an editor at New York magazine, I remember riding the subway and watching a woman paging through her copy of Condé Nast’s Lucky. I could see that she was methodically Post-it Note-ing her Lucky, sometimes tagging editorial pages, sometimes tagging ad pages.

That was a real eye-opener. To this woman—apologies to Gertrude Stein—a cute outfit was a cute outfit. Obviously, the church-and-state divide is still important. Advertisers shouldn’t be able to buy their way into getting positive editorial coverage. But to this woman, and to millions of consumers, consuming content is research for consuming products. And if an ad is as compelling as, or more compelling than, editorial, so be it. All the world’s a catalog.

At the same time, we’ve gone from a world of traditional ads and old-school advertorials—those “Special Advertising Sections” that often feel like sorry ghettos, with bad design, bad typefaces, bad writing, bad stock photos—to a brave new world where advertisers are producing branded content that competes with what the “churches” produce. So now, more than ever, marketers have to think like editors.

Steve Simpson

Simon, if you traveled back in time—no, farther back to when I was in college—you would have been even more dismayed to see how I took as much pleasure in a page of ad copy for the Bad Hemingway Contest for Harry’s Bar & American Grill as I did in a John Updike story in The New Yorker. (I am not proud of this, and I didn’t know then that I would wind up in advertising. I still entertained ideas of a career involving diplomacy, dead drops, regular tennis and indestructible automobiles.)

But that is not exactly your point. My point is that the Bad Hemingway copy was still copy—it was freely, forthrightly, exuberantly ad copy—and it pretended to be nothing else; it did not interfere with or imitate or corrupt Mr. Updike’s miraculous prose.

So I think we agree: The worst possible posture for branded content is to masquerade as something it is not. Ambiguity—or, worse, deception—is a bad starting point for a brand to begin a conversation with its audience. And it hardly seems necessary!

Simon, from the examples we have both cited, it’s obvious we share a common love of print, and a long experience with it. But the hoary print example of branded content you cite—the advertorial—is almost cheating. Has there ever been a lamer thing? “Special Advertising Section” is code for “Gentle Reader! Do Not Read!”

Simon Dumenco

So true, Steve.  It almost felt like an unintentional, accidental kindness: that magazines were clearly labeling these ugly, intrusive “Special Advertising Sections” so readers would know to skip over them as quickly as possible. Thank you for being as repulsed as I was.

But what else, in the history of advertising-as-content, actually attracted you—won you over? Besides the Bad Hemingway Contest?

Steve Simpson

To answer that, I’d like to cheat in my own way, and go to the examples that give me comfort and seem to me to point the way. When you wonder where to go next, ask yourself: “What would Charles and Ray Eames do?”

The Powers of Ten film. The Mathematica exhibit, the multimedia installation at the 1964 World’s Fair. These are examples of branded content, long before the term existed. The IBM branding was overt, unapologetic and graceful—indeed, the entire structure of the World’s Fair theater-in-the-round replicated the famous IBM Selectric typewriter ball. And, interestingly, the content was presented as aservice: as a way of educating schoolchildren and the wider public about concepts in mathematics, science and computing.

We can’t claim parity with the Eames work, but we will acknowledge a debt of inspiration when we set out to create A Boy And His Atom, a movie made out of atoms—magnified over 100 million times, at temperatures of near absolute zero (minus 268 degrees Celsius) for stability.

IBM Research had made a breakthrough of the greatest importance. Its scientists had managed to store one bit of data in just 12 atoms, instead of in the current best standard of 1 million atoms. The news had caused a sensation in specialist circles, but not beyond. Our movie carried the news, and the importance of the issue, far beyond the readers of Physical Review or Science; indeed, the little movie garnered a million views on YouTube in less than 24 hours. And in the end, we helped IBM create a global science class.

This seems a long way from “Special Advertising Sections.” It seems to signal what branded content can do if it’s more interested in saying something than in selling something.

Simon Dumenco

A Boy And His Atom works because it’s brilliant content based on brilliant research—a really engaging, accessible interpretation of some otherwise rather forbiddingly heady science. It gets to the heart and soul of what ibm Research is up to.

But what about marketers that don’t have Nobel Prize winners on the payroll—that aren’t doing, you know, secretly fascinating things? I’m sort of asking a rhetorical question, because I think the core problem with a lot of the old-school print “Special Advertising Section” inserts, other than the crummy aesthetics, was that some marketers thought their content was more interesting than it actually was. And that sort of self-delusion can certainly recur, circa 2013, with certain brands that think they mustdo “content marketing.”

Steve Simpson

If you can’t be brilliant, be useful. It’s good advice, and I sure try to follow it.

Of course, it’s true that there are only so many brands in the world that people care to hear from in a regular way. It’s also true that R&D divisions of companies are likely to be as hell-bent on producing softer toilet tissue as on outrunning Moore’s Law—so flinging open the laboratory doors is not always an alluring prospect.

Just for example, a toilet-tissue brand went the useful route and created an app that lists the locations of public toilets and rates their cleanliness on a sliding scale. One imagines this app meets a need—and a rather urgent one in some cases—and the brand gathers its due in gratitude.

This utilitarian approach to branded content seems to me to skirt the church-and-state,  conflict-of-interest issues we began this discussion with. The content is ok, as long as it’s useful. It’s marketing, yes—but it’s a service first. This might be a kind of progress after all.

Simon Dumenco

From nanotechnology to potty time! I appreciate this nice little high/low tour of content marketing, Steve. All of this just underscores a sense that the branded marketing revolution, such as it is, is hugely dependent on the rise of new media ecosystems, particularly social media.

Traditional media companies used to have monopolies on media real estate—print ad pages, broadcast airtime—which is why branded content had to live off to the side in “Special Advertising Sections,” or in late-night slots on TV, if you think of the infomercial as a form of content marketing, which I do. (Is the late Billy Mays the patron saint of broadcast content marketing?)

Now, of course, we’ve got YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, the iTunes App Store and other sources serving not only as independent content platforms—as alternate delivery systems to traditional media—but as incredibly robust promotional mechanisms for content, thanks to the miracle of the social-media share.

Steve Simpson

Simon, we’re going to look back at this conversation in a few years and grimace. How many of these platforms will be gone, outdated, subsumed? Will Pinterest become just another campy reference point, like the Commodore 64? Will the iTunes App Store seem absurdly primitive and kind of Soviet? I’m only too aware that our best efforts in these pioneer days of sharing everything will appear pitiable to people who will do an immeasurably better job of it five years from now, or three.

Simon Dumenco

You know, I’m already looking back on this conversation and grimacing. Because now I’m wondering how the hell we’re supposed to get through the next five or three years (or months or days or minutes) if we’re aware, as we should be, that the currently dominant tech platforms are likely to be as fleeting—i.e., doomed—as tech history suggests they’ll be.

Steve Simpson

Knowing you know nothing, knowing there’s no right way—no established canon or modus operandi—for the unbeaten creative spirit, these are gravy days. You can get it wrong, but at least you can’t get it right.

And, of course, I’d like the sellers of the vaunted metrics to become less like Twain’s fly-by-night Shakespearean players and fake Dauphins of France, and really show us what they’ve got, and how they got to what they’ve got. We, unfortunately, see bad behavior and old agendas wrapped up in new and dodgy data. You see rooms full of people poised slightly forward in Aeron chairs—uneasy, mouths slightly parted, leaning toward a question but ultimately remaining mute—because before they can protest, there’s yet another, more visually creative data display, slapping the holy bravery out of them. That was a fun rant. (And this from someone who loves, loves, loves data.) But to pretend that math is Truth, and to obscure the art of selection—which is known as storytelling, whose narrators are notoriously unreliable—is to be a child, or a liar.

Oh…that was another rant. My apologies.


Simon Dumenco

Steve, I’ve crunched the numbers, and the data suggests that you’re not really sorry. So I reject your apologies. But let’s leave the poor metric geeks alone for a moment and swerve back to “content”—and the art of making damn good media, branded or otherwise.

The other thing I wanted to say, just to return to “If you can’t be brilliant, be useful”—that insight makes me think of Ogilvy’s work for Dove, which is both brilliant and useful. Camera Shy works as a perfect, touching short film, but it’s also useful, in that it’s incredibly thought-provoking and furthers Dove’s efforts as a brand to prompt serious conversations about women’s self-esteem and our cultural notions of beauty.

And then on top of being brilliant and useful, it’s also entertaining. So perhaps the real marching orders here, for content marketers, are: be brilliant and/or useful and/or entertaining.

Which maybe brings us full circle—and further blurs all these outdated boundaries we’ve been talking about—because the best advertising has always been entertaining, whether it’s an unforgettable tv spot or a memorable print ad or an immersive bit of newfangled “content marketing.” In whatever form, the best advertising rewards you for having briefly given your attention to it.

Steve Simpson

With branded content, the costs to experiment are low, and the best clients and brands are game. And I wish I didn’t have to admit this, but it’s the sorry, sad truth: sometimes, it’s actually the clients and the brands that have to push their agency partners to experiment. It’s finally arrived: the great playground of invention we always said we wanted. It satisfies the ambitions of craft and commerce.

And yet, how often do we see this experimentation make our creaking agency model sputter and smoke? After all, it clashes with our usual “scopes of work,” timelines, estimates. It interferes with habits, sleep, digestion.But smart people and smart agencies are adapting. And if you and I would like this adaptation to happen faster, I would say this: nothing will speed the change like creating more of the work that people want more of.

In a way, branded content is the newest thing, and it’s also the oldest thing. Newest, for all the reasons we’ve spilled so much ink discussing. And oldest, because it puts us back on the spot— back at the beginning of figuring out and making things. And it reminds us why we do what we do in the first place.

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