Content Conversations: MediaCom Beyond Advertising’s Tom Curtis

Tom Curtis is managing partner and head of MediaCom Beyond Advertising. Often labelled as MediaCom’s content marketing division – a tag that Curtis dismisses as too narrow – MediaCom Beyond Advertising launched all the way back in 2009 to focus on what the agency then called non-traditional marketing activities such as content creation. It has since ridden the wave of ‘content’ and content marketing growth as brands seek more meaningful engagement with consumers than traditional advertising.

Curtis’ favourite song is Roygbiv by Boards of Canada, while the film Silent Running makes him cry. Collective Content had a chat with Curtis about what content marketing really is, where it sits in an evolving marketing landscape of changing tech and media consumption, and the key trends we should expect over the next few years.

 

Q: ‘Content’ is something that media agencies have always done to some extent but what’s changed now in the context of the growth of content marketing?

 A: Content has obviously been around a long time and some people are using the word ‘content’ as an excuse to try and claim they are doing something new that they have been doing anyway, or trying to present something new to clients and brands. I think the name ‘content marketing’ is fine, as is ‘branded content’, as are lots of other different words being used, but it’s a bit of a side issue. The point about ‘content’ is that I’m not massively convinced it is content that is pushing the agenda towards full-service agencies again. It’s about data and better targeting of people. Using data to brilliantly target people is something we clearly do but there’s not been enough of the industry pushing towards using that data to actually work out what the message needs to be. That’s the biggest driver.

Q: How do you see this content and/or data-driven marketing landscape evolving over the next couple of years?

 A: A lot of agencies are obviously claiming they are bringing creative and media closer together. I don’t know how much of an impact we’re going to see from that for some time. I think there’s a lot of talk about it but I don’t believe that full integration is yet happening. But I do think it should happen quicker, absolutely. I don’t think the industry has changed significantly because of ‘content marketing’. It’s evolving because of the changing nature of the way people consume media. Certainly many organisations within the industry have used the term ‘content marketing’ to justify or announce new roles, new focuses and, in some cases, new structures. Inevitably some new ‘content’ agencies have launched themselves claiming others can’t do ‘content’ but they can. In some cases their point is valid, because many creative agencies have been slow to adopt data and many media agencies have been slow to improve their creative output. Of course the next stage for the industry will be further consolidation and further bringing together creative and media.

Q: How are client needs changing? How have you seen that conversation change in the context of content marketing?

 A: There’s absolutely no doubt the media landscape is changing and clients are inevitably having to adapt accordingly. I don’t think there have been as fundamental shifts as you’d think if you were to go a conference when you hear people going on about ad blocking and various other threats. Of course, most clients’ businesses and needs have changed hugely over the past few years, even decades. We have to service them differently. We have to help them navigate a world of data and tech that a decade ago nobody could have imagined. We have to advise on how to react to disruptive new competitors.

However, the one fundamental thing that hasn’t changed is the job we do for them – help them grow their business. Every decision we make needs to go back to that core objective. But one thing’s for sure – it’s certainly become quite tiresome over the past few years sitting in conferences listening to people debate the definition of content. Although in fairness I’d rather listen to people debate the word ‘content’ than the phrase ‘native advertising’, which I dislike very much. The industry took years trying to define it but, even still, the very nature of the term sounds like we trying to hide something – in other words making advertising not look like advertising.

Using data to brilliantly target people is something we clearly do but there’s not been enough of the industry pushing towards using that data to actually work out what the message needs to be.

Q: Are you saying ‘content marketing’ has been over-hyped?

 A: No, I’m not saying that. These threats are real but ultimately the overall challenge hasn’t changed, which is basically creating great quality content that people are going to care about, and therefore care about the brand. We still know that TV delivers massive scale. Yes it’s on the decline as are lots of traditional media but I think ultimately what clients are requesting from us hasn’t dramatically changed. You don’t want to jump into new tech willy-nilly just because it’s new tech but we need to maintain a foothold in the future and we need to make sure we are offering clients new solutions and we obviously need to have a point of view on it. We need to know if it’s the right time to do something about it.

Q: Can you give us some insight into the set-up and approach to content at MediaCom Beyond Advertising? What particular skills and expertise are important to a unit such as this?

 A: We don’t consider MediaCom Beyond Advertising to be the content marketing team within MediaCom. Unlike much of the industry, MediaCom considers everything to be content – including traditional advertising. So MediaCom Beyond Advertising differentiates itself from the rest of the agency by being the content execution team. We are positioned around three core areas – creative, production and organic distribution of content.

So within the team we have a large variety of different people with different skill sets. We obviously have creatives but we have production experts, people producing all sorts of stuff from original content to partnership content. Original content might be TV idents or banner advertising or online video. Partnership content is obviously a big growth area in the industry. Then within our distribution team we have editorial, we have writers, we have social engagement experts and community management. We have a very good influencer marketing team, which is a big growth area within the industry and within MediaCom Beyond Advertising. And then also a very robust SEO team. One thing I have real ambition towards is really multi-skilled integrated producers who every time there is a new thing that comes along we shouldn’t necessarily have to create a new team for it, we should have people who can focus on that as part of their wider understanding of media.

Q: You mentioned the growth in influencer marketing, which was also highlighted in the Content Marketing Association’s annual report. What’s your approach to this and what’s your take on it?

 A: Influencer marketing is all about endorsement, and endorsement has been around for a long time. We are basically working with a new wave of people. There are very interesting times with it. One of those is obviously about creative control. We are constantly having to educate clients and other stakeholders in how to work with these influencers because they ultimately have their own take on what their audience wants, which might not always be exactly what the brand wants. That’s one of the most interesting challenges we have with it. There’s going to be a continued question being asked within the industry around that creative control and whether it’s okay to allow people to have more creative freedom over what they say about your brand. There’s a lot to be said for not treating every piece of content as a standalone piece of content. It’s important to consider the entire comms system. If an influencer produces a brilliant piece of engaging content that their audience loves but the brand isn’t as prominent in it as the client might want, that’s okay providing we connect it clearly to another piece of content within the system that is more effective at driving towards a sale.

Q: What do you see as the key elements of successful content marketing today?

 A: Having a framework is important. As are the three I’s – inspire, involve and inform. Having an understanding of what the content is designed to do is critical. Going into it understanding what the audience is into is very important. Understanding what the objectives are is vital. If you don’t have objectives and if you are going into it just because you think you should be doing content then you probably shouldn’t be. And then knowing how you are going to measure against the objective.

If you don’t have objectives and if you are going into it just because you think you should be doing content then you probably shouldn’t be.

Q: With reference to measurement and data, presumably clients are asking more questions about return on investment (ROI) around content marketing?

 A: Clients are rightly asking more and more questions around measurement and ROI. The industry has slipped dangerously into a place where it is kind of satisfied that trading metrics are a measure of success. What I mean by that is the number of people who have viewed your content. You can pay for people to view your content so when you see the awards entries and ‘x’ million people saw our video, well that’s not a measurement of success. We look very clearly at the inputs, being those media trading metrics at the start. Then you’ve got your outputs from that, which might be shares, it might be view-throughs, it might be subscribers. But then the most important thing is obviously outcomes, which is the business result for the client, such as sales, especially if they are long-term sales which is the inevitable outcome often of branded content, which isn’t quite as response-focused as response media.

Q: Where do you see the biggest areas of growth in content marketing and what trends in types of content and tech to you see over the next year or two?

 A: The growth in this area is going to be from the acknowledgement that we shouldn’t silo it off as a separate discipline. I think people need to understand that if brands are going to brief their agencies to do some content, content marketing, branded content, whatever it might be, then they are almost inevitably going to end up with a siloed response. And that is not going to be as joined up with the rest of the comms plan as it should be. The big change is going to be the greater integration of conversations and solutions. So, people ignoring the fact that it’s content marketing or branded content and basically just coming up with brilliant big ideas that are going to inform the entire comms system.

In terms of specific tech, I expect to see more brands investing in live video and also in virtual reality and augmented reality. However, I still believe that these things, certainly for the time being, are going to be a fairly niche solution. But obviously we need to keep a very close eye on it and we need to ensure that we’re offering clients big future-proof solutions on that. One of the more interesting things in the more immediate future is around ‘shoppable’ and how we create content that leans closer to the transaction. For example, online video where you can click in and purchase clothes people are wearing or the products people are using. There’s quite a lot of interesting tech around this now and that’s something I think will be a really important part of the near future of communication. And obviously mobile is massively important. I still don’t think enough people are creating video content that is adapted to the mobile experience – so creating video with sound off by default, for example. There are too many people still sticking TV ads on and it’s kind of ludicrous.

 

Advertiser-funded programming’s big opportunity

There is also an interesting point about advertiser-funded programming (AFP) on TV, which most people would bracket within branded content or content marketing. In the UK there is a big opportunity with AFP and we should embrace it more. We did a TV show for Skoda, called Tour de Celeb on Channel 5, before Christmas, which was very successful in terms of viewing figures. There’s a point here that people go on about content marketing and branded content being something that people choose to watch as opposed to get interrupted by, and surely therefore AFP fits absolutely within that. Yet producing AFPs has been historically very difficult to get off the ground in the UK across the terrestrial channels because the commissioning teams and the commercial teams often haven’t brought joined up solutions to agencies and brands. I just think that, yes, we don’t want to be putting rubbish on telly but if we all agree that the way people are consuming media is changing then surely there should be more of a focus on this type of model. The Skoda Tour de Celeb show was good proper decent telly. It was marrying a brilliant idea that the commissioners were into and the very long process to get a client on board – and to sell it at the highest level it takes a lot of work. But it was a genuinely good treatment, the idea of putting celebrities on bikes and getting them to do a stage of the Tour de France is almost a logical progression of celebrity shows, particularly given the popularity of cycling in the UK. It was just a very good idea and of course all good AFP, just like all good content, ultimately comes from brilliant ideas.

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