Rory Sutherland on long-form branded content?

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I’ve been asking industry experts around the world about key and emerging themes in Branded Content. This follows on from my report on the future of branded content marketing in the latest edition of the Best of Branded Content Marketing ebook series. To kick things off, I caught up with Ogilvy Group UK’s Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland. I wanted to try to understand more about why clients and their agencies are seemingly reluctant to produce long-form branded content. I wasn’t sure whether this has something to do with the economic realities of creating longer formats, or whether it’s more about an industry mindset that sees creativity as a function of brevity.

Rory explained that advertising works in lots of different ways, including: mere fame and recognition, positioning, factual information, social proof, adding display value to product, reputation, costly signaling, and so on.

He noted that, as is the case in many industries, advertising agencies can become too reliant on a single, unique methodology or process that they apply to solving all business problems. Rory thinks that this has evolved partly as a result of reverse-engineering a process from the kind of work agencies are famous for, and maybe in part because it’s what agencies enjoy doing.

That said, Rory sees a growing acceptance that one-size-fits-all approaches may not work in all circumstances. He thinks the difficulty, however, is to revisit content forms that are currently seen as “unfashionable” – for example, the long copy press ad – which are now almost impossible to sell to clients.

Rory’s point is that there are some problems that can be solved only by long-form communication. He cites QVC, the televised home shopping network, as an unfashionable example of how a fortune has been made out of this discovery – there are things that you can sell in 20 minutes that you could never sell in 30 seconds.

To quote the visual thinker and author Dan Roam, “Whoever best describes the problem is the one most likely to solve it.“

For Rory, the problem that advertising is trying to solve may not be simply to increase sales, or even increase saleability, but to reduce unsaleability – “to overcome those hurdles to purchase which are preventing people from confidently buying something whose ownership would ultimately justify the cost.”

And, as with QVC, he thinks that sometimes this requires more than a six-word headline or a 30-second spiel.

Take the recent British Airways [BA] India ‘Go further to get closer’ film. You can’t achieve that in 30 seconds – and it was doubly effective for me because I watched it on a BA flight immediately before the film ‘The Lunchbox’. But equally include an ad my old boss Drayton Bird wrote for the first LCD digital watch for sale in the UK in which, over 900 words, he basically wrote – in a double page spread – the complete instruction manual for the watch and all its features. By the time you had finished reading the ad, you knew how to use the watch, so you felt silly not owning it.

The creation of long-form branded content is an area my partners and I hope to explore more during the forthcoming Best of Branded Content Marketing Live event I mentioned earlier. If you’d like to share your thoughts about long-form branded content or simply suggest an interesting example, please leave a comment below.

I also hope to follow up my discussion with Rory by looking at who may be best suited to deliver longer forms of branded content, and shorter and more continuous forms for that matter; as well as when, where, and what type and length of content works best in the customer decision-making journey.

About the author

Justin Kirby is a strategist, writer, and speaker, and is a Lecturer on both the BA (Hons) and MA Advertising courses at London College of Communication. Justin has a 20+ year career in industry as a digital strategist, producer and entrepreneur. He’s been writing about the impact of interactive technologies on business and marketing since the early 90s, and his books include ‘Connected Marketing: the viral, buzz and word of mouth revolution (2005) and the Best of Branded Content Marketing’ (BOBCM) series he conceived and has been curating since 2013. Justin also chairs and speaks at conferences around the globe, judges awards, and consults brands and agencies.