On snobbery about content marketing and the John Lewis ad

Every so often there’s a backlash against ‘content’. It’s kind of boring because it’s not content’s fault.

Content is just content, it’s what fills the space.

It’s up to strategists, creatives, writers, film-makers to make it good.  And then of course, ‘good’ is subjective.

In the last couple of weeks, a new backlash has been gathering apace.

For example, Brent Smart of Saatchi in NYC said in the Drum

I hate the word ‘content’. It’s an excuse to make any old crap that we think the world needs, but in most cases the world doesn’t need more content. Just because you could make it doesn’t mean you should make it.

Most content is pollution. It’s a waste of people’s time; it’s interruption. And even though we have said we have moved from the interruption model, we are still trying to attract people, we’re just interrupting them in new and cunning ways. It’s still interrupting. It’s not stuff that is worthy of people’s time. Great content is, but most of it is shit.

P&G is not competing with Unilever, General Mills is not competing with Kellogg’s, and Wallmart is not competing with Target. We are competing with culture for people’s time and most of the stuff in culture is way more entertaining and useful than advertising. Advertising at its best can get into culture in many forms but at its worst it’s not even close. I hate that word!

And Richard Huntington also likened it to guano, saying:

And then all of a sudden, though I’m not entirely sure when, people started to use the word ‘content’ to mean something entirely different. They actually started to use it as a synonym for culture, for film and music and art and literature and photography and poetry. Anything that could be rendered in digital form, whatever its original name, now became content, just plain content. Even the BBC started to talk about cutting edge comedy, first run British drama or moments of sporting genius as mere ‘content’. In a staggering act of philistinism the infinite universe of culture was reduced to a limp and lifeless two-syllable label.

And then marketing got in on the act and clients decided that what they really wanted was ‘content’ and agencies started thinking that its would be a good idea to make it for them. Particularly those agencies that had been alienated by the quality standards implied by the monikers of film, drama, comedy and general awesomeness. If everything was simply content, to be ordered up by the yard or pound and in which quality was of no consequence then anyone could turn their hand to cranking out the stuff.

This is all true.  You can’t call Blackadder, Das Kapital or Match of the Day content. It’s sacreligious.  These things are not the same as the content we develop for marketing purposes.

There is a lot of crap content out there.   It’s written, repurposed, used as a filler.  Someone in the marketing team says, we need a page on our site about hammocks because our competitor has one, so one gets hurriedly written.  Someone in the digital marketing team says, we need more keywords in here, render this article dull please.  Someone at the agency says it would be good to make a video series.  Because they want to make a video series.

The crap is so voluminous, it’s giving good content – sorry Richard – good articles, films, podcasts, tools, quizzes, lists (I like lists) – it’s giving all the good stuff a bad name.  This is Huntington’s point.  I wholeheartedly agree.  And I feel dead inside when you hear ‘content’ in everyday parlance, when the BBC refers to it, when my mum says she’s trying to define what will be the most effective content of a get well soon card.  Actually she doesn’t do that.

The trouble is that many of us are engaged in developing content strategies and content marketing strategies because the good ones work.  And there can’t not be content (sorry, articles, films, podcasts, tools, lists, etc.)  When they are well planned, joined up stories across different channels, on and offline, they really do engage audiences and build brands, drive consumers towards conversion points and build links and so on.

So everyone’s in violent agreement that there’s a lot of dross out there on the internet, but there are good articles, films etc etc.  So what is the problem, really?

I think (and you can shoot me down, argue with me, diss me, whatever) that there’s a lot of snobbery around ‘marketing’.

I’ve come across this a few times.  Marketing is a dirty word.  It’s cold, it’s calculating, it’s exploitative, it’s invasive.  (As well as a backlash against content, there’s also a backlash against data.  I’ll write about that in my next installment.)

Marketing thinks it can compete with culture.  That there are cases where consumers will prefer marketing content to the stuff that they choose to read/watch/play/do.  I say bullshit, there’s marketing content out there that serves a useful or entertaining purpose, but the rest of it is there to do its job.  And marketing should get over itself.

There are marketers out there who don’t think they are marketers.  They believe they have a higher purpose, they believe they are changing lives, improving lives.  With their films, their widgets, their tools, their whatevers.  I’m not sure how they would label themselves but if they have a target of any kind, they are marketers, whether they like it or not.

Someone said recently that you couldn’t call the new John Lewis ad ‘content’.  It is too high quality a film, a form of storytelling.  It makes people cry.  This is a form of marketing that is held up so high that there have been rhapsodies written about it all over the industry, particularly since it is linked to the Age UK charity.  Alternatively, you could see it as the cynical commodification of loneliness to sell more stuff.

Everyone who watches it on YouTube – 11 million views so far, wow, will watch it once or twice and then forget about it, move on to the next thing. Does this change culture or does this make other advertising agencies jealous?  Is it even content, or is it just an ad?

Good marketers – and alongside this the good forms of content – create good experiences for consumers.  They don’t clutter the experience with the unnecessary, they provide useful, beautiful, entertaining routes in to the things consumers are searching for, either actively or passively.

Good marketers – and good content (and IMO the John Lewis ad is way up there, cynical marketing ploy notwithstanding) – make the web a better place to hang out, to do business, to plan your life, to buy stuff.

Good marketers create content to build stories and experiences around insight, real human insight from a variety of sources.  Personally I prefer qual, talking to real people in real life and understanding their true motivations, what will move them emotionally.  Thinking about how to weave that emotion into the brand story.  But it’s always important to back that up with data, since we all have targets we need to meet.

I need to stop writing now.  Suffice to say, I will be happy when the content backlash calms down a bit, and we can all go back to planning necessary pages, articles, films, tools, widgets, and whatever for our clients, supporting their consumers as they navigate their way to the answers that suit them.

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