Agency Vs. Publisher Smackdown: Who Will Win The Battle To Create Content For Brands?
Creative agencies and publishers each contend they're best positioned to create content on advertisers' behalfs. Columnist Peter Minnium of the IAB recaps the arguments on both sides presented by four industry players.
It has been posited that, in the future, the best advertising content will be created by publishers, not agencies or brands. After all, the argument goes, publishers have proven themselves expert in creating content that works on their home turfs and beyond.
Does this mean that agencies will lose their role as the primary content creators for brands?
This is more than an academic question; some estimates project content advertising (including native advertising) to grow to more than $12 billion over the next four years, a 300+% increase. There is real gold in them there hills.
I had the pleasure of moderating a debate on this very topic recently with four leading industry lights, two from agencies and two from publishers, none of whom pulled any punches.
- Bringing the perspective of a storied publisher, Troy Young, President, Hearst Digital Media, made the case for content publishers.
- Representing brand creative agencies, Rosemarie Ryan, Co-Founder & Co-CEO, co:collective, joined the fray.
- Eric Harris, Chief Business Operations Officer of BuzzFeed, lent the perspective of new-breed content platforms.
- And finally, Scott Donaton, Chief Content Officer of DigitasLBi, led the charge for the digital agency point of view.
Each debater was given the mandate to show that the best advertising content of the future will come from publishers, or, alternatively, that agencies will prevail as the masters of the genre, despite publisher encroachment.
Herewith, I have recounted the best verbal punches from that debate, edited for length and to fit this form.
Digital Agencies Don’t Treat Brand Content As A Second-Class Citizen Like Publishers Do: Scott Donaton
“Old Navy clothing makes you look like a tacky murderer.” “Snickers only satisfies you for 8 minutes then makes you hate yourself for the rest of the day.” “Native advertising is not trickery; it’s publishers sharing storytelling tools, and that’s not bullshit; it’s repurposed bovine waste.”
If any of these statements sound familiar, you are probably one of the millions of people who watched John Oliver’s 11-minute takedown of native advertising on his Last Week Tonight show or on YouTube. Those quotes are from that piece.
It was a parody, sure. But it clearly struck a nerve with many journalists and media insiders, who labeled it as brilliant.
It also expressed a barely disguised belief that many media publishers still hold: that branded content is a second-class citizen.
And that is just one of the reasons that agencies such as DigitasLBi are better suited than publishers to produce content for brands. We believe brands have stories worth sharing and that those stories add value to, rather than corrupt the integrity of, a consumer’s experience.
It’s increasingly clear that audiences don’t care as much about the source of the material they consume as they do about its value.
They care whether that piece of information or entertainment is worthy of their time. And there’s little doubt that the quality of brand storytelling created by agencies is beginning to equal that of other forms of content.
Content Publishers Have Proven Toolkits To Engage Content-Hungry Consumers: Troy Young
Members of a new generation are changing the game for everyone. The image above represents their phone.
This is how they get content and advertising now. Their friends are in front; they pay great attention to them. A little further back is their mom. Next to her may be a brand like Apple.
Shunted off to the back are most brands, like their insurance company or their shampoo — dying to get their attention.
But brands no longer have a systematic way to get it. They need an insider to drag them to the front. Like never before, publishers are uniquely equipped to pull brands forward.
Why? It’s not because publishers know brands better than agencies do. But today, the audience is the boss. Publishers know the audience better than anyone because we play with them a hundred times a day, because we know what they love and what they hate.
And because we have their trust — trust built for decades in the case of Hearst, with global brands like Esquire, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and Car and Driver.
The publishing industry is finally living up to its potential as a marketing partner — by putting the tools and expertise that have built our brands to work for our clients’ brands.
The future is not about polished diamonds sent through controlled pipes. Now, winning is about how you manage the audience, how you are fascinating day after day, and how you take chances and evolve.
It requires an innate connection between content, platforms, and data. Modern publishers do this extremely well every day.
Those publishers that learn how to apply that same toolkit for brands will define the next generation of marketing.
Brand Advertising Agencies’ Proven Experience With Brand Content Dwarfs Publishers’: Rosemary Ryan
Great advertising and great branded content are actually two sides of the same coin. The approach to creating them for brands has been the domain of the advertising agencies for a very, very long time, and they remain uniquely qualified to lead content creation for brands.
Agencies start with the brand story. We appreciate the need to know the audience, but unless you understand the brand, unless you know thyself, it’s really hard to authentically connect with that audience.
Understanding what your brand story is and bringing that to life is absolutely essential, and it doesn’t start with a piece of content. It starts with a huge amount of work with clients to really get at the essence of what that story is.
Only then do agencies put pen to paper. We start creating magic in the form of a compelling idea. This is the second key difference between agencies and publishers: agencies are idea-led, not media-led. They don’t really care about the medium; they care about the idea. Great ideas have ways of breaking out of any traditional medium.
Brand agencies are not in the business of building audiences. Great content — branded content and advertising — has always been in the business of building advocates and building fans, of giving people something that they can take and make their own.
The oft-repeated mantra at the J. Walter Thompson agency is spot on: “Don’t interrupt what people are interested in, but be what people are interested in.”
Great advertising and great content does just that, and great agencies know how to make that kind of authentic connection. Agencies have been doing this successfully for eons and remain today uniquely qualified to lead content creation for brands.
Content Platforms’ “Content Stacks” Marry Technology And Story To Rule The Day: Eric Harris
When Buzzfeed started in 2006, it was really an R&D lab, a technology lab trying to experiment with and learn how things spread on the web.
Today, Buzzfeed is a media company with 250 reporters, but it is still very reliant on (and continues to develop) the same full tech stack for everything it does.
It has its own CMS, analytics, tools, dashboards, and data science team — and can use technology to measure it all. Buzzfeed is constantly looking at data to learn what works and what doesn’t, and applying this data to everything.
The company is still very much like an R&D lab, constantly experimenting with technology and creative capabilities to identify areas that others haven’t identified, such as with Buzzfeed Motion Pictures, the fastest growing area. This is a great place for brands to experiment and learn.
Having that DNA of a lab to learn how things spread on the web, the platform, the technology, the full data stack, expertise in social and sharing, and a really kick-ass creative team of storytellers makes content platforms like Buzzfeed best positioned to create engaging content for brands into the future.
An Unsettled Debate, But A Clear Winner
Despite a spirited debate and myriad cogent points made, the question of who is best suited to create content for brands remains unanswered.
One thing is certain, however: Brand marketers are the real winners of this debate, as the best and brightest from across the digital ecosystem strive to outdo one another creating compelling brand content designed to enrapture consumers.