A view from Sue Unerman

You call it advertising, I call it content

Why has the term "content" roused such fury among some in our industry?

At Time Inc UK’s recent Campaign summit exploring the future of content, there was quite an argument about the term "content" itself. Some said it was yet another way of complicating matters and asked what its exact definition was. Others wondered if this was anything new – if you have an inspirational advertising idea for the brand and amplify that, then what else do you need?

Is content "just embarrassed advertising" (overheard recently)? Clients just want to grow their brands and sell more product. Who cares what the techniques are called?

Advertising is essentially a push medium. Some ads attract such attention that they are shared, but this is not most ads. My point of view is that we must communicate with a wider set of tools than just advertising alone these days and there is a range of media techniques required for most brands that are about sharing and dialogue first.

In the great days of entertaining advertising in the last century, sometimes a great ad was, indeed, all you needed. As this century dawned, we entered the age of dialogue. Driven by the growth of the internet and the birth of social media, first on PCs and subsequently on smartphones, how a brand communicates with its target consumers and what people in general say about that brand are as important as what the brand says about itself in an ad.

Advertising is too small a word for the business we are in. Brand content covers more of the communications than just ads. An ad is an ad. A brilliant unpaid Tweet on behalf of the brand that goes viral is not, strictly speaking, an ad – but it is brand content and communicates the brand idea and delivers against campaign objectives, including driving visits to a website. Just consider the superb and spontaneous VisitEngland Tweet when England came out of Euro 2012: "England lose on penalties. For more on our culture and traditions go to visitengland.com ;)."

I once sat (briefly) on the IPA’s Value of Advertising Group. It is, of course, not only advertising that drives value for brands. Owned and earned media also do this, from social to PR to events to native to SEO. I advocated changing the name of the committee to Value of Communications. Everyone else in the group considered it a given that all practitioners in the industry understand implicitly that the term "advertising" encompasses all forms of brand communications (paid, owned and earned). I don’t believe this is the case and the very name of the IPA rather excludes much of what we know is of value to brands.

All advertising is brand content in a certain established – usually paid-for – format. But not all brand content is advertising.

We endeavour to communicate using good brand content, of course – by which I mean brand content that delivers against the client’s objectives. Good advertising is one technique by which to deliver that. Other forms of brand content are increasingly gaining accountability and share of mind. Is it too loose a term as critics claim? Maybe, but I can’t think of a better one at the moment. If we can come up with a better term, it may help to break down some of the silos that can slow progress.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom