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Lessons for the skippable world

Lazar Dzamic

Issue 47 | June 2018

As the demise of advertising as we know it is hotly debated, one paradigm is often flagged up as the possible candidate for its replacement: Content. In July this year, a book I co-wrote with Justin Kirby will be out, on exactly that phenomenon. It's our contribution to the neglected question of 'Why Content?' – its philosophy, not the 'how to' manual.

In the process of writing it – and interviewing more than 60 leading industry names - we have realised that the future of branding is, indeed, much more complex than we thought. Here are our key conclusions.

The 'Why' is becoming more important than the 'How'

To quote Simon Sinek, and Dave Packard before him, starting with the above question of 'Why,' much of the 'How' of Content could be answered too. We are convinced now that Content should be an ethos and a way of thinking, a broader view of the ways to earn consumer attention in the attention-scarce world. It doesn't seem to us an isolated discipline anymore, something that should be placed in its own department. It should not be tactical, maybe not even a strategy, but a philosophy that should fuel everything an organisation does at all points where it touches the consumer.

It's not yet a replacement for advertising, but it could make it better. Certainly, it should not be a set of quick and dirty tactics, as it is often the way today.

Content is a symptom of the evolution of marketing

It reflects deep and wide evolutionary trends in the industry and, as such, it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to define beyond glibness. Any attempt, bar one, reduces its scope and is detrimental to its potential. That's why we adopted the capital 'C' to denote the principle, as opposed to delivery.

The exception is focused on customer experience: most of those we talked to agree that good Content has to earn the attention of the audience. It's pull, not push. It provides a good Value Exchange, it's empathic.

What we see today is a transitional, 'liminal' phase, an evolutionary stepping stone and a 'placeholder' towards a more widely adopted approach – whatever the name - to base more of the brand-building efforts on deserved 'opt-in impressions.' Money follows attention - which is increasingly more difficult to merely buy.

Experience and Purpose could be answers to the attention deficit

The set of forces driving the media, marketing and agency landscape transformation is too fundamental to be easily dismissed. Digital, as an almighty commoditisation force of everything, has reiterated the need for relevance and experience to fight the attention scarcity and the explosion of 'skippability.'

Brands should think 'less about how to avoid being tuned out but how to get chosen.' Focus on experience and purpose may be the answers. The mindset of 'designing for time and place' moves things away from just communication – just 'messaging' - and into product and service delivery too. It has empathy – a much used and needed but also much abused word - at its heart.

The shackles of formats and product categories, even business categories, then start to break. Creating an Enterprise Experience Business turns things upside-down: marketing becomes a profit centre, Content becomes a business model.

It is an opportunity for the more enlightened CMOs to start gaining a wider remit in their companies again, beyond the current role of the 'colouring-in department.'

Content could be the bedrock of 'cultural branding'

Purpose, experience, values and authenticity are nothing more than cultural constructs. 'Connecting with people is a social exercise that is conducted through the messy, murky construct called culture.'

In a world where attention and trust have to be earned, cultural resonance matters. Content, looked through the cultural lens, becomes a potentially powerful expression of the organisational purpose and culture. It helps both consumers and employees align their values with the organisation's. For consumers, it provides a meaningful platform for making the brand part of their personal cultural repertoire and a means of self-expression: I like that, I AM like that.

Similar mantra works for employees too: I value that, I AM like that.

Customer Journey is now everyone's game

Content can't play a role everywhere. Customer journey is Content journey. It's the only real candidate, based on what we've seen, for the overall digital 'archetype', above and beyond the atomised delivery formats and discipline boxes. The good, old funnel is far from dead, but is now also much more detailed and real-time: consisting of a myriad of everyday touch-points where consumers look for things related to what they need.

These Moments That Matter (MTMs), in Google parlance, are small units of context where great content could be delivered. It encompasses everything from SEO and shopper marketing to all the steps that are currently owned by CRM. And it's now everyone's game. Focus on delivering meaningful and emotional relevance could be a unifying factor that heals the current rift between the parts of the funnel.

New theory of 'agency product' is needed to heal the current binary divide

There is a rift in the agency industry, a binary equation of a sort driven by the existing business models and cultures of specialisation. It has various descriptions, all relating to the divide between the so-called 'deep branding' and the 'touchpoint optimisation' paradigms. The former is often referred to as 'brand,' 'emotional,' 'creative,' 'Big Idea' or 'right brain,' as opposed to the latter of 'promotional,' 'programmatic,' 'platform,' 'performance' and 'left brain.' We think this is deeply wrong and reflects the industry in its initial stages of confusion while trying to answer to the digital challenge.

A new kind of consolidation is already taking place, largely driven by media and PR agencies on one side and by more nimble consultancies on the other. They realise there is a new place of 'insertion' between clients and the traditional creative agencies, powered by the combined understanding of data, technology and consumers' consumption of media. Various new recipes are being tried out, from merging 'stories & systems' and borrowing skills from publishers and Hollywood to enhancing the traditional 'two-atom' creative team with creative technologists and data scientists.

We believe that there may be another way to think about it. We call it Empathic Utility (EU), as it contains two of the most powerful ingredients of every experience: Emotional Resonance and Intent Utility. They are not either/or; EU should be the charge of every MTM. What is useful, doesn't have to be boring; what is emotional doesn't have to be expensive. YouTubers have shown that convincingly. It is a way for open-minded agencies to heal the rift, even within the current business models.

Data is still an unfulfilled promise

It's the hype of the promise that, again, spoils it. Data was supposed to power great Content ideas, support optimization pre- and post-deployment and pinpoint targeting contextually. That promise is still unfulfilled. Large data sets are difficult to be processed, as they are mostly private, anonymised or just not very useful; legal challenges abound; cheaper and easier alternatives are often equally, or more, effective. Programmatic has so far been marred in controversies depicting it as a gargantuan waste-generator.

To add insult to injury, Big Data have turned out to have their own sort of narrow-mindedness. In the rush to get the newest shiny promise of 'Big' automatic efficiency, the industry has forgotten to maintain the Rich and the Thick data insight sources – the qualitative ethnographic insights that often provide the answer to the 'Why?' of consumer behaviour, not just the 'What?'. It is leading to the creation of the ever more efficient 'robots for picking fruit', while forgetting to water the brand tree via emotions and empathy to keep it growing.

The syndrome of 'Content myopia' is real –and dangerous!

Content is not just a symptom, but a syndrome as well, in itself another unfulfilled promise of a more experiential and purposeful way to do branding. Warnings and criticisms about the current state of Content thought and practice are, we believe,largely justified.

After all, the fact that only one in 20 pieces of Content shows any impact, and that 5% of it produces 90% of all engagement is sobering. Theodore Sturgeon's dictum that 90% of everything is crud applies here too, not helped by the fact that in but one year the industry had pumped out three times more stuff than in the previous one! Content, overall, doesn't work – falling into the same silo trap as the very thing it was supposed to be a better alternative to: bad advertising.

Part of the problem is hype. Touted as the new answer to everything in marketing, it lost the perspective of currently being only a tiny fraction of a small slice of marketing communications, in itself a small slice of marketing. The other problem is infatuation with 'shiny new delivery systems,' 'martech' that has made it possible to create and publish something with increased speed and efficiency, without stopping to ask why.

Those 'lorries' for carrying content are vastly contributing to the media clutter they were supposed to be the solution for – and to increasingly turning Content into a 'C-word.'

Ethical challenges with Content and modern mediaare growing

Sometimes it feels there is a whole industrial complex bent on deceiving the public. Opacity of algorithmical 'weapons of math destruction,' dodgy data practices, 'Dark UI' manipulations and the in-built addictiveness of modern platforms, the erosion of walls between editorial and advertising – all of this is contributing to the perception that all marketing is going 'black ops' in a relentless 'race to the bottom of the brainstem.'

Paradoxically, it is predominantly the very benefits of Content for marketers that are deemed to be its dangers: the fact that it doesn't look like just any old advertising and that it could be wickedly engaging when done well. The breakdown happens when we as consumers and, even more important, citizens, lose control. One of the most serious accusations of marketing today is that it is becoming a surveillance business.

And then there's trivialisation of our lives. In the West, at least for now, Orwell is largely placed aside. We don't have to fear information starvation and state-imposed isolation. On the contrary, we need to fear the Huxlean 'Brave New World'. The information glut and pandering to our basic impulses and opinions. No one has to ban any books, as very few are actually read; no one has to hide the truth from us, as we are drowning in a sea of irrelevance; we are not controlled by inflicting pain to us, but by inflicting pleasure. Brands have always understood 'man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'

How the industry is going to respond to these challenges will define the way we are going to live in the near future.

New immersive spaces could be 'Content-only'paradigm-changers

What may help answer the above collective challenges is the arrival of the new immersive environments such as AR and VR and intelligent virtual assistants powered by ML and AI. Highly emotionally charged, empathetic and visceral, they are not kind to the crass advertising interruptions of the old. Some of them, such as virtual assistants, are not even created to be interrupted by brands, or at least we don't have plausible models for that yet. It's permission marketing on nuclear power.

In this world 'without edges' that will fully immerse us, Content could mean something completely different from the largely textual and film-based deliverables of the moment. Content can, and will, become part of our environment, embedded into our visual field and inseparable from reality. Story-telling will not be enough anymore; 'story-doing' and 'story-living' will become the norm.

It may turn out the new reality will provide the key ingredients for the final victory of invitation versus interruption.

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