Was Bill Gates ahead of his time when he declared in 1996 that "content is king"? Adland certainly seems to have thought so. How else do you explain why an industry obsessed with the "next big thing" has only just seen that the Microsoft founder may have been on to something.
But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Eighteen years ago, it was inconceivable that digital would shape the world the way it has or that social networks would deliver content on an industrial scale. Today, Gates’ foresight is borne out by content’s power to draw in leads and drive sales. So it is no surprise that agencies with declining above-the-line budgets are jumping on the content bandwagon.
Last week, The & Partnership became the latest UK agency group to launch a content division – just three weeks after Wunderman set up a content studio and two months after AnalogFolk created an editorial department. But we wait to see whether clients will warm to these initiatives or view them as a cynical attempt to tap new revenue streams while diluting their ability to deliver the big creative ideas.
Rod McLeod, marketing director, Volkswagen UK
"I can see why agencies are doing this because, for clients such as us, content has become so much more important. And not just at the pre-purchase stage but also in the retailer environment. That’s because we have so much technology to talk about, much of it hidden, and it’s not easy to explain to customers. The skill lies in creating content in a way that maintains the production values associated with your brand but without the cost of a big TV campaign. Agencies are the right people to create content for brands because they understand them. The question is whether they can keep their cost base at the right level."
Matt McDowell, European marketing director, Toshiba
"Pressures are growing from clients for relevant social network content because we have reached a stage where we are having to react almost hourly to our customers. And there is a particularly high demand for interesting editorial that will not only interest people but provide links to our websites. At Toshiba, we are starting to work on our global content but we are doing this with media owners and other specialists rather than agencies. While I sympathise with agencies forced to look for new revenue sources, I think they will have difficulty because the skills needed to provide content and those for above-the-line advertising are different."
Matt Law, managing director, AnalogFolk
"Clients are bound to be cynical that agencies can do what they claim when it comes to content. But it makes sense for networks to offer it as they look to hit targets while using spare film-production capability as budgets go down and fewer TV commercials get made. Clients don’t really know where to go for content right now. One problem is that ‘content’ has become a catch-all phrase for so many different things – from commercials that are almost TV-quality to editorial for websites. But agencies will become expert at it and, like digital, content will become an integral part of what they do."
Debbie Morrison, director of consultancy and best practice, ISBA
"Content is a big mystery among clients – so much so, that we only have to whisper the word and they come running to us for help. What’s more, the ‘content’ hub is the most-visited part of our website. While big companies such as Unilever, Coca-Cola and Barclays have become leaders in content, others are unsure about the skills needed and whether they have them in-house. But they are also sceptical that their creative agencies are agile or cost-effective enough to do it for them. However, it is good that agencies are reacting to the demand because their businesses have to evolve."