‘There’s a Space Race Here’: Steve Rubel on How Agencies Can Survive in a Content-Driven World

Steve Rubel’s job sounds fun, but it’s certainly not easy: As the chief content strategist at Edelman, he’s tasked with studying the media and marketing landscape relentlessly and advising his mega-agency and its clients on how to stay ahead of the curve.

For obvious reasons, content marketing has been on Rubel’s mind a lot in recent years. Its rise has been one of the most fundamental shifts the industry has seen in some time.

Why should brands do content marketing?

You see, not all brands should do it. There are brands that can and should do it, and go it alone. Then there are brands that should consider about aligning with others to do that for different reasons.

Let me start with the first. Not all brands should do it because they should first of all consider their ability to compete with everything else that’s competing for a consumer or a stakeholder’s attention. If they feel that they don’t have something to say that is relevant to even a small audience, [something] that will connect with them on a regular basis time and again then, then they ought to reconsider other options.

Do you think there’s a particular type of brand that’s set up particularly well to have something to say to an audience?

There are ones that are organized really well for it and have the infrastructure. I think it’s also the brands that are in high-interest categories, or are themselves high-interest brands, or are prepared to make an investment to connect to those high-interest topics.

I would argue, for example, that Red Bull is a high-interest brand. They became one when they started this process. They became one because they invested a lot of firepower and effort to connect to topics that would be high-interest, or are able to create things that are high-interest. Not everybody has that luxury. Unless you’re prepared to spend, not everybody should be doing it unless they feel like they could be high-interest.

It doesn’t need to be high-interest meaning a large audience. It could be high-interest to 100 people, if that’s the 100 people that you care about. I think that if you feel like you’re not going to be able to connect with that in a compelling way then it may not be for everybody.

Say a brand is at the point where they say, “This is something we want to get into. We want to figure out how to do this.” What advice would you give a brand who has those kind of aspirations?

Let’s just assume that you are not super high-interest—like if you’re a technology company and you’re making something a lot of people use and they want to know how to get more out of it, then I think you’re a high-interest brand. But if you’re not a high-interest brand, what you need to ask yourself is: “What broader interest graph can I connect my brand to, credibly, that is going to allow me to play in a larger space than if I just stick to [stories] that are very product or company centric?”

Do you think that there’s some brands in certain industries that are better set up to do that? For example, you mentioned if you’re a high-tech company you probably have knowledge or a product that’s particularly intriguing to people. Take GoPro, for instance.

That’s a perfect example. They’re connecting to bigger things. They’re connecting to the outdoors, they’re connecting to adventure, they’re connecting to sports. Too often brands think of their competition as their business competition in this space. The reality is they have to think about every minute that’s spent with another piece of content, and think, “How are we going to steal that minute away from that entity?”

The competition isn’t just, say, Samsung versus Apple or Unilever versus P&G. The competition is for every minute of that stakeholder’s time. How do we create something that’s going to compete with that? And “that” could be Hollywood, it could be Bollywood, or it could be the traditional media companies or digitally native media companies. The entire ecosystem is competing for attention from everybody else.

I think that the industries that are best enabled to do this are the ones that long ago embraced an approach where they’re not just talking about themselves, but they’re talking about a broader ideal. B2B is a great one because B2B companies have been investing in thought leadership for many years.

Finance, too.

Finance is a perfect example. When you can unlock the value of your expertise to connect with people, your product is in the middle of that. What you’re selling is in the middle of all that. Ultimately, you’re in a bigger space. Granted they’re competing with everyone from the TheStreet.com to The Wall Street Journal and so forth. But they’re able to carve out a specialty or a point of view that allows them to credibly play. And/or they have incredible talent that are experts in these areas.

There’s still only so many minutes in a day and so much multitasking that can go on. I think people are feeling that the treadmill is often hard to keep up with. You have to really carve out the right niche or figure out how you’re going to come in and sometimes compete with or partner with people. I think some of the things that we’ll see in the future are so-called “unholy alliances.”

I think we’ll see, especially in technology, brands get together; so people who control software and people who control hardware get together. They’re like-minded and they’re targeting the same audience, and they recognize there’s greater surface area that could be attained by working together. I think we’ll see some of that.

Do you think we’ll start to see brands partner to launch publications?

Absolutely. Purely because of the fact that there’s too much out there. Also to partner with the media companies, as sponsor and native is another way to scale it instantaneously. The best native content, I think—and you guys probably agree—is stuff that really is your brand in the middle of something bigger. You’re able to credibly make that connection.

One argument I’ve been hearing a lot lately is that perhaps the fallacy in native for brands is that you partner with The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and you certainly get results. You’re paying $100,000 at minimum to introduce your content in front of an audience for a set amount of time. To reach that audience ever again you’re going to have to just keep paying instead of operating more like a media company that owns that relationship and the audience. How do you think that’ll pan out?

I think too much of that sponsor stuff is one-offs. You do something once and you’re done. It works well when it’s purchased and managed like a stadium sponsorship, where you’re putting your name on a building for ten years. That’s a long time, but let’s just say you’re putting your name on a building for a year—you want to make sure you maximize that relationship with a wealth of content.

Forbes is doing that really well with their BrandVoice, and by carving out distinct areas for brands. Gap International is a client of ours that partners with Forbes. They run an entire section on talent.

I know that well. We power that.

You guys are the arms dealer for everybody. You work with everybody. I’m talking to you guys like you’re omnipotent.

That’s too kind. What about agencies? Where do you think that agencies fit into this entire equation, and how can brands work with them best?

There’s a space race here because of the new budgets that are being formed. Many parts of the agency ecosystem can handle this work.

From what I’ve seen, the best way to work this is to bring together a mini-team where you have the brand ethos and the creative agency helping to form the focus based on the brand narrative that they’ve created. You have the media buying agency buying the space and negotiating the deal, if that’s part of the package. I think arguably you have the PR firm creating the content and thinking about how it gets amplified across the ecosystem, including advising the media buying firm on other opportunities. The reason I say that, beyond just the pure bias I have, is that the best content marketing I think in some way resembles journalism. I stress that word “resembles.”

You picture a reporter doing a story about a new kind of food: It’s highly likely that they are going to include your competitors in that story. They’re going to look at it from a category perspective. A PR professional knows that and they’re trained in the fact that stories are balanced, and you have to work to get journalists the best information they can and let them do their jobs. They’re going to have their own perspective.

I think it’s a similar approach here, where you say, “What does the audience need?” What is the white space of opportunity? How do we do that credibly?” We have to bring some of the elements of journalism to this without it being journalism. I think PR people are well equipped to manage that process and are comfortable dealing with that give and take with the client. The client always wants a very branded, overtly clear message. The audience wants balance, wants perspective. I think that PR professionals are comfortable with that dynamic. They deal with it on a daily basis. The other agencies deal with more controlled forms of communication.

Do you think that the PR agencies are equipped to handle the heavy duty lifting of creating journalism-quality content? Or do you think it’s more of a situation where the PR firm leads the effort but then brings in freelance people or other specialty agencies?

It’s really both because it depends on the size of the agency. An agency like ours, we have teams that do that. We’re equipped to do that at scale. I find that talent is increasingly out there because there are a lot of journalists that are looking for new career options, and some are ready to jump over to the other side.

You were saying that brands need to be a little bit less afraid to mention competitors and their content for it to be balanced and actually resonate with readers. How else do brands need to adapt to work successfully with their content partners?

I don’t know if they necessarily need to adapt—they just need to start with an audience-centered perspective. I think too many brands start with: “What do we want to talk about? What’s our message?” They’re not thinking about how content flows from the people who create it to the people who ultimately are going to consume it, and all the different diversions within that.

Brands need to put distribution thinking ahead of content development, which sounds completely backward. The history of the content industry is make something great—and that bar’s going up by the way—and then think about how you distribute that great thing. What BuzzFeed and others have taught us is that you need to think about all of the different pathways that people take to find great things. You need to identify what those brands do, and what those content creators do, to get their content out there. It should not impede your creativity, but it should inform it.

I say distribution-thinking first, content-thinking second.

That’s increasingly becoming a data-driven approach as well. BuzzFeed is so genius because they can really predict how things are going to spread, and they optimize every little piece of their content.

They also could be a victim of their own success, though. As they get so popular, they have to reinvent themselves constantly because the people could get tired of what they see as formulaic.

So the challenge is to constantly find new formulas.

They’re good like that. They do that.

Where do you think content marketing will be in five years time?

Remember: In social media’s early days, a lot of brands were not good at it. A lot of brands actually were terrible. A lot of brands were fearful of social media. They got good at it over time.

I think that we will see some brands be excellent at it, and the ones that take a journalistic mindset and distribution-centric thinking will be the most successful. In five years time, we will see 30 to 50 percent of brands fully engaged in content marketing and trying to do it well, and then the other percentage, whether it be 70 or 50, either having tried it and given up or never having tried it. They realize that it’s hard to do. It takes a lot of investment and a lot of effort to do well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Image by Scott Beale/Laughing Squid
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