How Hating the Word ‘Content’ Made MRY’s CMO a Better Marketer

If you want pat answers, don’t go to David Berkowitz. The chief marketing officer of the agency MRY isn’t afraid to take a blunt stand that might irk some in the advertising industry.

At MRY, Berkowitz’s main responsibilities are to retain clients—like Microsoft, Sony, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Visa—and attract new ones that want to reach young consumers in a multi-platform world. Since joining MRY in 2013, he’s helped his clients win awards such as Mashable’s Digital Innovator of the Year (Coke), Digiday’s Best Location-Based Campaign (Sony), and Cannes Lions Short List (Adobe for Cyber, 2015).

When Berkowitz and I sat down for a wide-ranging interview on content marketing, one of the first things he said was that he hates the word “content.” For the rest of our discussion, he touched on the difference between content and advertising, explained the most common symptom of bad marketing, and revealed how the toughest question he ever faced in a job interview influenced his approach to thought leadership.

What is “content” and what would you replace it with?

[Content] is presumably creating any form of media that others will want to lean in and consume, all supporting a brand in some way. I know this is really nuanced. It’s really the difference between content and advertising.

Ultimately, if you’re trying to show some features [of your product], you’re going to have to pay for every impression. If Audi is running one of those ads of a car going down a highway, it’s an ad. But if on Instagram, they give photography tips for how to shoot a car, it’s entirely content marketing, even if you see the Audi logo. I happened to see this post and had to read it. Audi was teaching me how to be a better photographer.

I’ve come to appreciate that people remember where and when and how they learn something. The next time I try that kind of shot, I’ll be glad to give Audi credit for it.

How do you measure the effectiveness of content?

It depends. Ultimately, it’s having some goal for it. For MRY, what we’re trying to gauge is: Is our content reaching the right people? That’s admittedly measured informally. My boss doesn’t so much need a whole spreadsheet of how many people have seen something or any set metric. He needs to be able to go and have a client dinner and have them compliment him on the work we’re doing, or hang out with his CEO pals and hear someone say, “You guys are on fire.” We can connect the dots between new business or client retention and our content marketing.

For our clients, it’s all over the map. A lot of them, we are working with on a brand basis. We’ll look at benchmarks in terms of engagement. We may look at their performance by looking at other brands in their space and expand from there.

One brand in financial services, they originally were looking at how they compared in engagement metrics with others in the category. They did well. But then they started looking versus lifestyle brands and brands like Disney. You can’t beat a brand like Disney, but they actually got in that same league. That showed they were really relevant.

Then, you ask, “Do people who engage with them use their product more?” There are investments you can make to get an even clearer picture of that too.

What kind of investments?

You have to ask, is the content useful, interesting, or entertaining? Then it can fit in well with content marketing. Content marketing can connect to sales. It’s just not always how it’s used.

If you’re Audi, track brand favorability. Track to purchase intent. Audi has a challenge that is at least remotely related to MRY’s [challenge]. There are very few people exposed to that content who are going to be in the market for one of their products any time soon. They’re really trying to capture a big funnel so there are more people exposed to their brand and then engaging with it, telling friends about it, following Audi.

If one of those people down the road test-drives an Audi because of it, that has a huge effect. But it’s acknowledging that more than 99 percent of people exposed to the brand aren’t going to buy a car this year.

For MRY, most people in marketing on the brand side aren’t going to be responsible for choosing a creative agency. Most people are keeping the agencies they work with. We have to be playing a long game.

You can look at it strategically, on a scale of real-time versus latent. Are you trying to just get something out there that captures the buzz going on in that moment—”The Pope’s in Central Park!” which is only relevant for the 20 minutes the Pope is in Central Park—or something more enduring?

That can affect the kind of content marketing that you use. I’m writing bylined articles representing the brand that employs me. Sometimes even years later, there’s that good will that comes out of it. Someone will mention remembering an article.

So content marketing isn’t just about longform?

No. The opportunities for short content are powerful. It could be a Vine, a Snap. If it’s a 10-second video, people spending eight seconds versus two seconds is a really big deal. On Vine, if the same person is looping it 25 times, it’s probably much better for your brand than just watching it once.

There was a memorable one for Ray-Ban where young Vine stars were drawing outfits on a brick wall, and it would just come to life, and they would snatch the RayBans out of this chalk-drawn image. Let’s put it this way: I watched it long enough that I remember the brand.

What do you consider bad content?

If it’s boring and no one cares. If it’s just offensive or insensitive in some way.

The most common symptom of bad content marketing is when it’s too focused on what a marketer wants to say about their brand. I’ve heard this from influencers in particular. If a marketer wants to deal with other content creators, they have to give up some degree of control to let influencers be themselves.

If you just have this script, “Here are the five things that have to be read in this order,” no one’s going to care. Create an ad and hope enough people stay awake for it, then go on doing what you’re doing.

If people have strong personal brands, is that a talent management challenge?

In 2014, we had more than 20 people represent MRY in the press. For an agency of a few hundred people. it’s a staggering number. We’ve put a lot of trust in our people, with opportunities for bylines, posting, LinkedIn posts. One of our employees, Toni Dawkins, runs a podcast, Tuesdays With Toni. I find out what’s on the podcast usually right before we post it to social channels. That’s a lot of trust that we put in her. Down the road, I hope she’s with us, but if she leaves, we’ll have to find another Toni. I accept that it can happen.

When I see what you create, I often think of you rather than MRY. How do you balance branding yourself versus the agency?

The day I went to interview for my previous job at 360i, my future boss, [CEO] Sarah Hofstetter, asked me the toughest interview question I’ve ever been asked, basically the same question. “When you’re speaking and writing, are you representing yourself or the brand?”

This being maybe 10 years ago, and me not quite as polished, I sat frozen. She rescued me, said, “It’s okay. I’ve done that, I know it’s both.” I’ve come to appreciate that the way I can provide the most value to my employers is to have a strong brand myself.

For MRY, my CEO [Matt Britton] wrote in his book, Youth Nation, a lot of people who work for brands have more influence and exposure than the brands they work for, and he cited me having more Twitter followers than the company. He said, for MRY, that’s a huge win. Obviously it’s part of my job to support MRY.

SlideShare is a great example. I have a really great, active following on SlideShare. MRY doesn’t. It’s really hard to build over the long haul. The more I can put things out there with MRY on the title slide and MRY’s Twitter handle and contact info on the slides, the better.

Image by Sergey Nivens

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