Perhaps for too long, doing a bit of content was paraded as a universal good, the ad equivalent of going organic. But after so many conferences, articles and agency hours, perhaps this is the year when the industry finally gets to grips with what good content looks like and whether it can create more value for all of us.
Certainly, content thinking continues to move centre stage. Long-form used to be any ad running beyond 20 words or 30 seconds. Perhaps the definitions are flexing too. This issue of Campaign separates mobile and gaming, which might have been wrapped in with content three years ago. Social media and interactivity are touched on elsewhere. Print, TV, film and online editorial all continue to be important new content opportunities.
Many of the principals for developing content - long-form development, formatting, understanding of where it will appear and co-creation - are now the norm. We all know now we can be creative with the medium as well as the message. But to grow content significantly, we need to resolve those old nuggets: ideas and money.
The former, ideas, might be more straightforward. There are more creative people engaged. Lots of ad teams are clocking it is now harder to win awards for traditional short-form work. Media owners, notably ITV, have built capable teams that can finally deliver big ideas at the heart of their businesses. Many production companies now have the obligatory content sales guy arriving soon at a meeting room near you. Clients such as Red Bull are trailblazing.
If ideas do come from anywhere then this will be the year we see more from ad agencies. Creative quality and strategic fit will vary. But agencies will have to get partnerships, otherwise risk being left behind by specialists.
For many, 2011 will be critical in resolving whether branded content can deliver big and enduring ideas in popular culture. Where are the new Michelin Guides or the branded equivalent of a show as potent as Skins? There are few, if any, hero British projects.
This problem was characterised for me recently when a producer confided he had been approached to create a Window Fitter Idol format. Despite being against the regulations and of no interest to even the most desperate media owner, it just stinks. Content ideas often lack ambition, a big idea or an appreciation of who might be enjoying it and why. Because content attention is often earned, people need to care, to be informed and entertained.
This year needs to see ideas that are so watchable they make it on to primetime television, that are so compelling they get consumers to pay for them, that travel and are such enduring formats that they are around for more than a few weeks.
This is bloody difficult in some traditional media, particularly advertiser-funded programming. One needs to work with the host, producer and have a sense of the business model before it is possible to pitch it. Now, in the feeding frenzy, every partner company seems to send a supposed specialist to reviews with a TV show idea with little appreciation of their sophistication, intricacy or whether they can ultimately be delivered. Agencies still seem to think these start with a blank sheet of paper.
But online content, particularly video content, offers new hope. Opportunities to experiment and learn will encourage the cautious. The opportunity to respond quickly to success could see small projects scaling up to big ones becoming common. But ambition is needed. It is still extraordinary to me that BMW Films launched in a pre-YouTube world. The scale of today's audiences merits those kinds of eight-figure budgets again to deliver branded content that shines out from the dross.
As platforms fragment and social media gets super social, "transmedia" storytelling becomes more important. There will undoubtedly be successes here. But I also fear ideas will be lost if an effort to tick every platform box and money that should have gone to great content will be frittered away on designing prize badges for completing impossible games played by the same few people. See 2012 Best Use of Gamification award.
Money, the second big theme, is directly dependent and equally as critical. All this investment and work must be worth more. The first battle lines have been drawn over product placement, with expected changes in March, though it doesn't look to be the boon many have campaigned so vociferously for. Some of the big categories of brands, booze and fatty foods will be excluded. Requirements around what is editorially justified will be clarified over the next period, but risk being a lot of work for little return.
More interesting will be the battle over the money. As the content space is less commoditised, everyone has been very genteel. This year will be tougher as content has to become better business. Broadcasters will feel any placement revenue belongs to them, but will want to resist these being thrown into media agency trading deals as sweeteners instead of being traded as the new value add. But feelings run equally strong at producers such as Endemol, which will now be able to broker their own product placement deals across a portfolio of their content brands. Exactly who owns that money is to be resolved, but there is a shift to go direct to the producer.
In many ways, the challenge is to evolve from branded content/entertainment 1.0 to 2.0. The opportunity in doing new content work has to be to create more value for everyone involved: more effective work, longerrunning work, campaigns that make money from consumers, are sold around the world and run forever. Lots of businesses seem to be taking on more risk with content and for less reward. Content is often pitch-winning, it makes us feel good about the comms we work on, but it has to demonstrate it can create more value for client and agency. A little less "doing and learning" and a little more "doing and earning" is a useful mantra.
Having failed to convince the rest of Europe to speak English, we are constantly balancing the relatively fixed cost of creating content against the relatively small potential audience in the UK. Big ideas continue to come to us across the Atlantic where the sums balance and the rewards are greater.
So bigger, better, longer-lasting platform ideas would be a good resolution for branded content practitioners. Perhaps the problem is the "branded" bit. Maybe we need to get better at making good content, creating our own programmes, before we better understand how to make it work for clients.
Mark Boyd is a creative director and head of content at Bartle Bogle Hegarty.