Can an in-house content division boss a network of natives?
A view from Matthew Kershaw

Can an in-house content division boss a network of natives?

Unilever's plan to bring content creation in-house is certainly interesting move, writes the managing director of content at Iris.

The company has previously experimented with content offerings such as All Things Hair and their more recent tie-up with Vice, Broadly, but nothing as bold and as close to the 100VE mothership.

You can see what it was thinking. Traditional media like TV and print is haemorrhaging younger audiences. Meanwhile in digital channels the game is getting harder and harder to play with consumer resistance on the rise in the form of ad-blocking as well as an ever proliferating suite of media channels, all with their own peculiarities and issues. Not to mention a lack of transparency where the game-keeper and the poacher often the same person.

So, stop being disintermediated, become a content producer, find an audience, own the world. Simple.

Trouble is, "in-house" is a dangerous phrase/idea whether you’re a client or an agency. Content is, by its very nature an audience-centric form, you have to be part the culture that you are trying to contribute to.

What’s special about the creators on the other side of the fence – the creators, journalists, influencers, film-makers, videographers, vloggers, podcasters, writers, publishers and video game makers – is that they are all natives to the interest worlds and passion points they operate in, living and breathing the subject matter and the audience.

So while it’s laudable to think that Unilever will be able to do this in-house, there are three issues that stand in the way:

1. Environment

The high-vaulted atrium at 100 Victoria Embankment, redeveloped in 2009 is an impressive monument to many things: modernity, multinational scale, sustainability, biodiversity, and even accessibility. What it’s not is an edgy, creative, youthful environment full of the messy energy that content creation draws on.

And like most client offices, it discourages interaction with the outside world with onerous security provisions. If the rise of creative co-working spaces has blurred the boundaries between work and play, your office and my office, 100 Victoria Embankment draws the line very firmly. "You’re in our office."

2. The pressure to sell

Client organisations are built to sell things. They have to be. It's how Unilever has ended up with 15 brands whose annual sales are more than €1bn, which is amazing. But the drive to sell does not always quality content make. People want good quality content that comes from their world, not a brand world. They like it because it doesn’t feel like marketing.

Rather than brand-out, story-telling has to be audience-centric. Will this team be able to resist that enormous pressure?

3. Recruitment

The kind of people who produce this kind of stuff don’t necessarily want to work at a client organisation. They don’t even necessarily want to work at an agency. They’re asking themselves, "is this the place I’m going to make the content that will define my career?".

We believe the answer lies in a network of natives who exist and operate within the weird and wonderful worlds we’re creating content for. You can only produce properly authentic, credible content by being deeply immersed in the world you’re creating for and the story you’re telling.

And while even they struggle to nail it much of the time, having them as part of your network has got to be a condition of success.

Consumer credibility radars have never been so sensitive. As their thumbs hover over that article in the feed, they face a split-second decision to make the emotional and time commitment of diving into it. Anything that smells remotely like a shill and their thumb will keep on swiping down the list to something that doesn’t.

While closer proximity to the mothership may give Unilever tighter control over cost, it won’t necessarily give them the kind of thumstoppability they’re looking for.

Matthew Kershaw is the managing director of content at Iris.