God only knows: how the BBC pushed the boundaries of content marketing

Neil Caldicott, director of marketing and audiences for radio at BBC Music, reveals the secrets behind the BBC Music's marketing triumph

BBC: investing in content marketing
BBC: investing in content marketing

"We don’t do ads at the BBC," quips Neil Caldicott, director of marketing and audiences for radio at BBC music. Certainly, if BBC Music’s epic re-working of God Only Knows is anything to go by if the corporation did do ads they would be among the most lavish in the world. With a cast spanning from Elton John and One Direction to opera star Danielle De Niese, the re-worked music video is a tour de force of musical talent, brought to life by the deft hand of Sam Walker, executive creative director at Karmarama.

The world is a very different place to how it was 17 years ago. The amount of post-production wizardry at our disposal now just wasn’t around then

"I think the very best marketing in the world isn’t art as it has to do a job for an organisation, but it’s the stuff that transcends the everyday; it has a sense of magic. It brings a bit of joy," explains Caldicott.  

The video, which was two years in the making, is more than a simple marketing campaign for BBC Music; it is a significant investment of time, money and creative commitment. But perhaps more importantly, it is a sign of the significant ambition of BBC Music and its marketing team. "A year ago Tony Hall [director general of the BBC] said he wanted BBC Music to stand up as a brand alongside news and sport and we have stood up to that ambition to boost the BBC’s reputation for music," says Caldicott.

It is not the first time the BBC has leant on an all-star cast to deliver a marketing message. The media landscape may have changed irrevocably – but the strategy harks to the past as much as the future. The corporation's stellar revamp of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’ took place 17 years ago. However, according to Caldicott, very little time was spent thinking about replicating that success. "The world is a very different place to how it was 17 years ago. The amount of post-production wizardry at our disposal now just wasn’t around then. While social media enabled us to use the talent in the film as ambassadors."

Of course, the campaign was boosted by something commercial brands can only dream of; exposure across all BBC channels. However, it is clear the content will live beyond the defines of any single screen or channel. "TV still delivers fantastic reach but the longevity of this campaign will live out on You Tube and Facebook," explains Caldicott.

While not any given brand can benefit from the phenomenal marketing platform and contacts book that comes hand in hand with the BBC, like the best creative pursuits it was accompanied by a myriad of challenges. With this in mind, here is what marketers can learn from the campaign:

  • 1 Direction
  • Brian Wilson
  • Brian Wilson
  • Chrissie Hynde
  • Dave Grohl
  • Elton John
  • Jamie Cullem
  • Kylie Minogue
  • Kylie Minogue
  • Paloma Faith
  • Phareel
  • Phareel
  • Sande
  • slideshow
  • Stevie Wonder
1 Direction1 Brian Wilson2 Brian Wilson 3 Chrissie Hynde4 Dave Grohl5 Elton John6 Jamie Cullem 7 Kylie Minogue8 Kylie Minogue9 Paloma Faith10 Phareel11 Phareel 12 Sande13 Stevie Wonder  14 Stevie Wonder 15

1. Don’t be too proud to ask the experts

In the age of content marketing where ‘content’ has become a one-size fits all answer to any given marketing problem, ‘content’ risks becoming an amorphous mass; an answer to a marketing question that is yet to be posed. A skill that it is all too often assumed every marketer can simply turn their hand to, regardless of the limits of their own experience.

"For a project like this you have to look at it as more than a marketing campaign. For a creative organisation with a strong editorial base it was a piece of content and we used that editorial skill," comments Caldicott. This included leaning on the knowledge and contact books of Jeff Smith, head of Radio 2, and George Ergatoudis, head of Radio 1.

2. Creativity means losing control

Ultimately with such a roster of musicians there was something of a balancing act in maintaining the BBC’s own creative vision with the views of each individual musician. This meant taking a fluid approach to the project was crucial. "This was not a campaign where we felt in control all of the time. It was a constant act of three-dimensional chess. The biggest learning from that is you need to give artists their creative space," explains Caldicott. 

3. Leave your ego at the door

In line with this approach success was dependent on leaving egos out of it and respecting each individual artist. While the wonders of CGI and editing meant that not all the egos (or the 'talent' as they are also known) were in the room at one time, there was a nonetheless delicate balance to maintain, As Caldicott says: "When you work with this level and calibre of artist you have to take their views into account. This has very much been the result of working with artists and with their labels."

4. Embrace collaboration

Advertising is an industry that has been built upon the cult of personality. Many a marketing director has successfully built their profiles upon the creative work of others. But in the drive to take ownership of major projects, marketers are at risk of creative self-destruction. "Don’t take a project like this all on your own shoulders or you will get subsumed by details," warns Caldicott, who credits the contribution of fellow BBC marketers Claire Jullien and Rhion Leadbitter as crucial to the project's success.

5. Don’t let your critics hold you back

You could envisage the headlines before the content had ever seen the light of day: ‘God only knows how much the BBC spent on its corporate video.’ As Adam Sherwin exuberantly declared in The Independent: "With its message, that the BBC ‘owns’ the entire musical waterfront and license- fee payers would do well to remember that, it is the kind of propaganda film an autocratic regime sensing that its legitimacy is crumbling might produce."

In many respects marketers at the BBC would be forgiven for sitting on their hands, or at the very most twiddling their thumbs while steadfastly maintaining the status quo. Instead the team was supremely ambitious in scope, scale and vision for the project.

"Music says something very fundamental about who we are and we really built on that; it is a unique platform," explains Caldicott. Here is a campaign that succeeds because the end result is greater than its composite parts. The idea, and the creative endeavor it demanded, transcends the realms of a traditional celebrity campaign and that in itself should be applauded.

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