Nine ways content makers are failing

In this guest posting, Mark Pollard picks out his pet peeves in the jargon-tastic world of branded entertainment

I recently caught myself asking someone to explain the term “content idea”. I didn’t ask because I believe an idea is an idea is an idea (for how to explain an idea, read here). I didn’t ask because jargon deployed to control and patronise people frustrates me. I asked because “content idea”, to this global media agency, meant “not a TV script” and I was stunned that this was the level of conversation in 2012. Everything is content.

My time in advertising agencies never led to a fetish for television commercials. What happened around them – and whether we could subvert the role of the television commercial from an end-point to a something-else-point that sat as a small piece of a bigger story unveiled elsewhere – interested me most.

I’ve watched the groundhog-day “Content is king (no, it’s not)” debates – they happen on cue every two years. And I’ve created a bunch of content – as a magazine publisher, a writer, a collaborative book compiler, and a person in this industry. To me, content is everything. So I relished the chance to lose myself in the Australasian Branded Entertainment Award submissions last weekend.

Well-produced content was table-stakes, but not all of these things were:

1. Some sort of insight and strategy

The entries that stood out hit an unspoken human truth. They did up-front work to reveal new patterns and they weren’t a matter of whim (“Our brand has a great history, we should tell it”). They also stated a clear strategy and didn’t masquerade principles as strategy (“We needed to make great content”) or half-step the intellectual wrestle.

2. A novel concept

The problem with content is that it can be so easy to do. You just pick up a video camera and hit ‘record’, right? Unfortunately, this means that people can get idea-lazy and run plays from fading playbooks. I always look for things I haven’t seen before, that come at you sideways and make complete sense when they do.

3. Different channels working differently

There was genuinely good content but making a TV show, a documentary or a web series without bringing the other channels into the story telling misses a trick. Budgets and complications often get in the way, but I wanted to see the ideas flex themselves unexpectedly through channels. Like an anaconda.

4. Story telling over time

The content of some of the submissions was simply jetted into the ether and left orphan. The submissions that stood out not only got anaconda on the channels but evolved the story over time. Aristotle would have so re-tweeted them.

5. Going beyond reality

We’ve all had conversations with clients who’ve wanted to take precedent and duplicate it – from Subservient Chicken and the Phillips “Shave Everywhere” campaign to “Will it blend? and the Gatorade “Play” project. One marketing meme that’s frustrating me right now is the reality content thing everyone is doing. It’s in ads, it’s on websites, and it’s in radio shows. The predictable gambit is this: find someone who either represents or doesn’t represent the audience, set them a challenge, and then film it and put it online. Enough. Imagination, please.

6. A sense of risk and challenge

Some categories like tourism are sexier (code for “easier”) than others. Some business have huge budgets, access to famous people and resources to make big things happen that small companies can’t. The submissions that stood out took risks regardless of size.

7. Taking responsibility for the business problem

Another pet peeve of mine is when media agencies take a budget and throw it at a media company – a publisher, a TV channel – and get them to work it out. Certain entries reeked of this whereas others connected all sorts of unusual collaborators and invested themselves in solving the problem. Speaking of problems, many of the case studies contained briefs that I’ve seen written and rewritten for years (certain food makers and tourism operators). These briefs seemed too autopilot to grab attention.

8. Following instructions

Award entries can take a long time to prepare but if you’re going to enter, please follow the instructions.

9. A meaningful attempt at metrics

Detailed and believable numbers were rare. You can’t simply state that you made content and that – over some time – the Facebook page got a ton more likes even though Facebook wasn’t part of the story telling and expect to make a compelling case for winning. As we all know, some of the brightest data scientists in the world are trying to crack how to measure this stuff properly – it’s challenging. But submissions stood out if they were specific and realistic. Qualitatively judging quantitative performance is a completely different discussion.

I’m writing this on a train from Boston to New York, sitting next to the guy who gave the Skittles rainbow its online words (www.skittles.com). As I was failing to work a good name-drop into the introduction (it had something to do with seeing Louis C.K. – the content machine – near where I live), this guy next to me says: “It’s funny how nobody uses the word ‘content’ in real life.” It’s true. And they definitely don’t use “content idea” either.

Mark Pollard is the VP of brand strategy at Big Spaceship



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