Confessions of a Former Ad Exec: There Are Not Enough Quality Content People

Over the last few years, the primary question most brands have about content marketing has stopped being “Should I do it?”

Today, the big question is “How the hell do I pull this off?” It’s an inquiry that can lead brands down a confusing road of agency partners, technology solutions, and new in-house roles. Above all, it usually leads to the realization that there’s no cookie-cutter solution.

To gain a fresh and frank perspective on the role agencies play in brands’ content marketing programs, I spoke with Baron Manett, who stepped down as senior vice president of strategy for Ariad Communications last fall to focus on teaching and to launch his own consultancy, Per Se Brand Experience.

Manett spoke freely about the agency world’s quick pivot into content, the ramifications of the Association of National Advertisers’ latest report, and how brands should really be building their in-house teams.

The last few years have every agency pivoting to content in some way—everyone is calling themselves a content agency, or has a content arm. How much do you think that’s legit?

First of all, let me take you a step back because what’s great about content is it’s not new. This is not a new thing. This isn’t really some new marketing idea that came out over the last five, 10 years. Whether we’re talking about Michelin guides, whether we’re talking about general recipes, whether we’re talking about The Furrow selling farming equipment, content has always been there.

My sense in the whole environment is that 50 percent of those [agency] folks are not good at content marketing.

What happened is that consumer audiences have grown tired of hollow promises, which more often than not will fall into the bucket of poorly designed advertising. As the interest in content has grown over the last 10 to 15 years, all of the ad agencies, PR agencies, social media agencies are increasingly trying to look for relevance and say, “Okay, we think we get this, we get this.”

My sense is that there’s two camps, and that 50 percent of [agency] folks are not good at content marketing.

I really try and counsel my colleagues to not to refer to campaigns anymore. I don’t think content and campaigns go together. The customer doesn’t think in campaigns. We try to talk about programs and things like that. I do think there are some people for whom the industry seems to be passing them by, and they may latch onto the idea of content in a quest for relevance. But, like anything else, are they able to walk the talk?

I was in a meeting the other day with some traditional advertising creative directors. They asked me a point-blank question. They said, “We don’t understand the difference between advertising and content. How should we be thinking about it?”

We need to step back and ask, “How do people make their money? How do agencies make their money?”

I said, traditionally, advertising would agree with the phrase “Make the logo bigger.” When I think about content programs, the goal is to make the logo smaller. We want to share information based on shared value with the audience. We don’t have to shout our logo if we’re providing valuable content because we know what’s important to our audience. We want to provide that value, and if we’ve done our job right, we’ll earn the attention and trust to eventually talk to you about something else.

As I’ve come into content marketing from a journalism background, I’ve seen tons of folks talk about brand publishing in terms of “the campaign.” That seems fundamentally insane, because the start is always the hardest part with publishing. It gets easier over time when you build that value, build that trust, and build an audience. It really surprises me that so many people in the advertising world still struggle to grasp this concept—especially large agencies, where brands are potentially paying a ton of money for a content strategy and a content program.

Content strategy, like any other strategy, is hard work. It’s hard work to do that work. It’s an industry that’s grown in and of itself, and there’s not enough people at the level of consistent quality. I think there are certainly some high points. There’s great content people in PR firms. There’s content divisions in media agencies.

I was a client before I went on the agency side. We need to step back and ask, “How do people make their money? How do agencies make their money?” If the media has a content division, that could be a tremendous value add. Or is that a division whose job at the end of the day is to sell more media? My point is: Are the principles aligned?

Some of them are trying to take advantage of the opportunity and saying, “You know what? If we call it content right now, it would be easier to sell.”

It’s interesting because from my observations now, when we sit around the C-suite, who is at the C-suite table?

The media agency is very often [there] because the amount being spent on media is so large now. That budget item has to go up to that level of senior management. The PR firm is often at that table because of reputation management and social media. I would suggest that in more cases now, the ad agencies have maybe taken a half-step back. The fact is, a CMO only has so many agencies he can bring on.

Some of them are doing a better job of incorporating into the network, and some of them are trying to take advantage of the opportunity and saying, “You know what? If we call it content right now, it would be easier to sell.”

Going back to what you were talking about earlier—the incentives and the purpose of the different players in this whole ecosystem. As we saw in the ANA report, there are some rebate kickbacks going on, and mixed incentives for some agencies—certainly not all. But some players may not be acting in the brand’s best interests. Do you think that brands are sometimes putting too much faith in agencies to go out there and do their content marketing, instead of being closely involved with it and protecting their own interests?

If you look over the last 10 years, and I’m thinking since 2007, there was a huge haircut in staff. A lot of people both on the client side and the agency side lost their jobs. I empathize with that because they’re doing the best they can. But if I’m down bodies, I need to outsource more work and trust my agency partners.

When you’re involved in a large agency, there’s certainly is that financial goal every quarter of the billings that you are hoping to earn from your top clients. There’s a couple ways to do that, right? The first one, and the one I prescribe to, is do the best work for the client that you can, and keep your principles intact. Do what you’re great at, and your work will stand for itself.

But I think people have different views on that. Historically, in the media side of the business, that media environment has been built around a rebate structure. We were all interested in the discussion around the ANA report, and, frankly, clients were surprised by the level that came out in that report.

We all have those stories where another agency comes in and they convince somebody that they can offer content marketing services, but then when you get in the room, they can’t. Or they’re trying to make it up as they go along.

I think it’s really a cry [for help] that we need to look at a number of different compensation options. Not every agency can go on retainer anymore. And I think the way different agencies are going to be compensated needs to be different. The skill sets are different. The client needs are different. And if we go downstream, the way media suppliers work with agency partners is probably going to change a bit too. It’s easy for me to talk about it now that I’m out of a big agency environment.

We all have those stories where another agency comes in and they convince somebody that they can offer content marketing services, but then when you get in the room, they can’t. Or they’re trying to make it up as they go along.

One thing that I’ve seen as a general trend in the industry is that the brands that are really good at content marketing have a pretty strong team in the house. They’re not just outsourcing everything. They have a strong in-house team that’s working with good partners because they have the editorial chops to sniff out any B.S. What do you think is the ideal mix for a brand as they get more serious about content?

It’s funny because, again, I see a lot of [parallels] with social media. When social media first came, nobody could get their head around it. A bunch of social media agency popped up, and then eventually a lot of marketing leaders said, “You know what? We should have a team in-house. This is something we’re going to use every day. We should have this in-house and then figure out what skill set we need to supplement with the agency partners.”

When we go into content, I think some companies are more naturally adept at building their content team. Like I think of large B2B companies like GE that are able to do that because of the depth of industry knowledge. Because of the sheer size of divisions.

But what I usually see a lot is the organization has not enabled enough transition time. Literally, I see an organization make an announcement, “Okay, we’re going to focus on content marketing. And hey, Debbie, yesterday you were the senior brand manager. Starting Monday, you’re going to be the director of content.”

These people are excited, but they’re scared. What skill set do I not know?

One last question: What do you think is the biggest mistake when it comes to content that agencies are making right now?

The mistake agencies are challenged with right now is they may have a strategy process—because every agency has some sort of process they talk to clients about, usually in some sort of sphere, or a prism, or something funky—but you’ve had process for the last 15 years for how to make better advertising, or better PR, or better media planning. And now, you’re trying to say we can make content with that same process? I would just challenge, is that thinking not flawed? Because the audiences of today and tomorrow are very very different. You have to find ways to really earn trust and referrals and word of mouth.

The agencies that are trying to replicate content marketing ideas through a process that was built for another type of advertising—I don’t think the ideas are going to be as strong. Now, there are some wonderful ad agencies that are doing amazing work in content.

I think of what Droga5 is doing. But their process really puts the customer or the audience at the center of everything that they’re thinking about, which has the same principles as content.

Again, I go back to empathy, because a lot of times we still talk about marketing challenges through the eyes of a brand in a very self-serving and selfish manner. You know what we want to do next year? We want to grow market share by 50 percent. Okay, that’s what we want? What does our customer want? What does our customer care about? And how can we be relevant in their cares? I don’t think enough people are having those conversations.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Image by Getty

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