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Agencies Are Losing The Content Marketing Revolution

content marketingI’m hot off of perhaps the busiest four weeks of my career – traveling to a dozen cities, across three continents and speaking at no less than half a dozen conferences. The events ranged from traditional content management meetups such as the Intelligent Content Conference in San Jose, to big agency focused events such as the Association of National Advertisers in San Francisco, the Branded Content Conference in Toronto, user events such as Adobe Summit in Salt Lake City and then Content Marketing World in Sydney and Content Marketing Asia in Singapore.

And if I were to sum up in one word the buzz at all of them (this won’t surprise any of you) it’s “content,” and its strategic implications for marketing. But, perhaps most surprisingly, the one thing that continues to baffle me is how most digital/advertising agencies/consultancies (pick your adjective and noun) are still so slow on the uptake of content marketing and its disruption on the traditional campaign-based approach.

Re-Boot Publishers and Production Companies

I’m certainly not the only one to observe this. A Custom Content Council survey, noted that brand spending on content increased almost 14% in 2013, but that agencies aren’t thriving in this trend. (So, yeah, the Council has a vested interest in airing that number – content marketing irony duly noted.)

But as Adweek noted last year, content marketing and native advertising “isn’t just the latest buzzword; it’s the latest example of how advertisers are bypassing media agencies and having publishers create ad-oriented content for them.

Out of the ashes of old business models, traditional publishers have discovered an entirely new way to go to market. Scores of publishers are launching their own content marketing strategy and content execution services.  Most notably, The Wall Street Journal has recently launched its own studio where it will help “market-leading brands develop even deeper relationships with their clients.” And, not to be outdone, The Guardian has launched Guardian Labs, its own content marketing agency, where it will “specialize in telling brand stories.” There is no doubt that these publishing companies will take business away from agencies.

Additionally, independent production companies have struck a vein of gold coming out of brands looking to create long form narrative content that is either supplementing, or in some cases replacing, traditional advertising multimedia.

Consider the company Gifted Youth, a Los Angeles based production company that was born out of the success of the site Funny or Die. The company was created after the demand for custom content became simply too much for the media company to meet. As its founder Chris Bruss said at its launch “before we even had a Web site or a logo, a couple of jobs came our way.”  Even the talent agency giant CAA is getting into the game, with the launch of its production studio, CAA Marketing, and the award-winning work it’s doing for Chipotle.

Now, many of these production companies are  themselves spin-offs from agencies, and still make much of their revenue from executing agency born ideas.  I can tell you this was definitely the case at the Branded Content Conference that I attended in Toronto. However, I can also tell you that every one of the ten business cards I received after my talk covering Getting Beyond Analytics – Measuring Meaning For Content Marketing were from those very same production companies looking to expand their offerings into strategic planning and measurement services. Any agency that thinks their production company won’t go around them to develop direct brand relationships is simply naïve. It’s already happening.

Strategy & Planning Is Still The Key

Admittedly there are agencies that are truly getting ahead of this (Mindshare and  Edelman come leaping to mind). But time and again (and even at the conferences I attended over the last month) “content” is presented as either supplemental to a paid strategy  (e.g. see behind the scenes of a TV ad campaign) or is presented as a more clever way to do direct marketing/advertising (e.g. a highly branded produced video distributed through digital channels) created with some sort of virality in mind.

Long-term content as a strategic approach that is infused into the overall marketing and advertising strategy is still oddly missing from most agency offerings. This is mostly because the content marketing strategy and planning is still not core to the methodology.

Content is seen only at the highest brand level, or only at the direct model (e.g. nurturing) level, or only at the loyalty level.  In many cases, it therefore perpetuates the siloed nature of content being produced by the brand.  One agency produces branded content, another the thought leadership for lead nurturing, and yet another content for the customer loyalty program.  Is it any wonder that so many brands are looking at content marketing production as something they can get from publishers, production studios, or freelancers?  There’s simply no holistic customer journey strategy or plan behind it at all.

Now, it may be that the more holistic content-as-marketing-strategy will ultimately be best served in-house. And, I’m certainly seeing and advising on this as well – with more and more brands (even B2B) doing what Kraft has done – creating an internal content model to handle strategy.

However, that’s a long road for most companies – and one that may never be tread by some. So, agencies had better start thinking about content as a holistic strategy, and one that can be delivered to facilitate the entirety of the customer journey. It may be that today they are only losing the content production for a single segment of that journey. But whether it’s a publisher, a production company, an agency, or the brands building it themselves – someone is going to figure this out. And when they do, it will be much more than just the production of clever videos, tweets, and whitepapers at stake.

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