Why smart tactical content won’t win any awards, and other vital insight from James Morris of Mediacom Beyond Advertising

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I recently caught up with Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s (MBA) James Morris. He kindly participated in the Re-thinking Creativity panel that I helped put together for the Branded Entertainment & Content Summit at Cristal Festival in France last month, where he was also on their Branded Entertainment & Content Award jury.

Big ideas with legs, or more smart tactical content?
We started by discussing whether MBA’s award-winning examples of Branded Content & Entertainment (BC&E) represent the spectrum of the work that is being created by MBA agencies, or are just a subset of their overall output.

There were two things that struck James about the judging process. The first was that there seems to be a lack of distinction between what is branded content and what is advertising. Although the jurors may each have their own interpretation of what the difference is there isn’t any common agreement.

Rather, James observes, there’s an emphasis on integrated campaigns where a big idea meets a brand challenge, enabling a brand to create lots of different types of content including advertising. He thinks that’s where the tension lies, because the nature of awards is that you end up with many submissions that cut across the award categories, including BC&E. The result is a lot of debate about whether or not entries are relevant to the category. This issue is something I also discussed in my interview with former Ad Age editor Scott Donaton who has recently been appointed as DigitasLBi’s Chief Content Officer. He was the president of the Branded Content & Entertainment category at Cannes Lions in 2013.

The second thing that struck James about the judging process was that the emphasis on integrated campaigns based around a big idea means that the smart tactical work that’s produced on a day-to-day basis ends up being ruled out of awards, when it actually makes up the majority of what agencies such as MBA do on behalf of clients:

If you are doing something really clever with Instagram, or some really smart product-centric digital content, then it is never really pitched for an award and wouldn’t win if it were. So to win an award you really need that big idea, but there’s a big blurring of what’s advertising and what’s branded content.

Advertising and content becoming more indistinguishable
Part of the problem, as James sees it, is that advertising often forms part of that big idea and that’s because briefs from brands don’t really specify that they are looking for a big advertising idea or a branded content one. For example, P&G’s #LikeAGirl campaign – that was chosen by Blended Republic’s Chris Sice for our Expert Example Section and won the Grand Cristal in the Branded Entertainment & Content category – is one that James thinks is indistinguishable from advertising:

It’s really a platform to communicate a message on that you can create branded content from, but equally you could turn that into advertising.

Judging content by its craft, rather than just the big idea, might be more relevant and productive
James thinks that one way of avoiding lengthy discussions about whether a particular campaign is advertising or branded content would be to judge the content on the craft, similar to the way a genre such as drama is judged by the BAFTA awards. He thinks this would draw out the content component and enable it to be judged separately from other aspects of campaigns, such as those that are more obviously advertising.

BC&E to become more integrated and less isolated
We also discussed integration and for James this increasingly means the kind of idea or platform mentioned earlier that can help create a big culture moment that is executed across multiple channels in different formats, including TV, an experiential element, etc. From an advertising perspective he thinks integration can often simply mean the creation of a second-screen experience that is just an extension of a 30-second TV ad. That’s probably why many of the jurors and jury presidents I’ve spoken to dismiss much of what gets submitted to BC&E categories at award shows as ‘glorified advertising’.

One area of integration that James thinks needs to be pursued more is the likes of digital direct response and CRM integration, however he sees this as only part of an integrated campaign rather than defining what integration means. If, as predicted, branded content looks set to be at heart of every marketing strategy, it will be interesting to see how response-based marketing becomes more integrated into campaigns – particularly those campaigns attempting to solve a brand challenge rather than product challenge. Who knows, response-based marketing may even become another award category.

No ‘one size fits all’ approach to measuring BC&E; start with a clear strategy
Another area we discussed was measurement. James thinks that the obsession with measuring branded content is partly about the need to provide clients with robust evidence in order to convince them to dip their toe in the water or commit bigger budgets to an approach that is not as mainstream as advertising yet. As he points out, this is not unlike the adoption of digital marketing disciplines 10+ years ago. He thinks another problem is that measurement of branded content is dependent on what you are creating and why:

You could be measuring an experiential event that has a large social component. How you measure that would be very different from how you measure an ad-funded TV series. Currently, people use the same principles of how you measure advertising and use data from the latest technologies and research techniques, as is being done with other platforms.

That’s why James thinks it should instead be about starting with a clear strategy, so that you can measure whether you have achieved the marketing objectives that were set out at the onset. He thinks some of the problems around measurement may be a result of investments having been made in the past with the focus on the idea and creative process without thinking through what would be measured and why.

The role of Advertiser-Funded Programming (AFP)
Knowing James’ production background and experience of AFP, I also asked him about the role TV now plays in BC&E, given that there’s an increasing number of alternative platforms to reach consumers. He explained that it still has an important part to play across the Mediacom group, although more so in some territories than others, highlighting the Air Rescue series for Westpac Banking Group by his Australian colleagues that picked up the award for the Best Film, Series or Non-Fictional Program at Cristal.

However, he points out that AFP is by far the toughest kind of BC&E project to get off the ground, due to regulatory constraints and the need to align various commercial interests, including brand, broadcaster and production company. That’s why online work now represents a much greater volume of MBA’s projects, along with experiential and events.

The shape of things to come and the evolution of the agency
As far as where things are heading, James thinks that we’ll see the lines between advertising and branded content blurring even more, so that these areas will no longer require specialist teams:

You’ve probably seen that we’ve [MBA] rebranded ourselves as a ‘Content + Connections’ agency, which moves us away from being just a media planning and buying agency, and so we have already started on that process of merging the creative and media functions last year. The reason we’ve done that is not because we think it’s a possible future trend, but because it’s what we already see on a day-to-day basis with our clients.

James explained that the evolution of the agency has also required creating a new planning process, because a lot of the more traditional ones are now outdated and can lead to BC&E only being added as an extension to an ad campaign or as an afterthought, rather than being more strategically integrated at the outset. He thinks that content will still be seen as a specialist area in the short term, albeit an increasingly important one, but in the medium to longer term it will just become part of everything that agencies do, as digital has become.

It’s all in the skills mix with distribution being key
This merging of different disciplines means that James thinks you now have to have a team with a very broad set of skills if you are going to activate a big idea across different platforms. This includes creative, strategy and production, but also specialists from different areas such as experiential, communications, CRM, etc. He thinks there is, however, an increasing focus on not only how you get your great idea to an audience but also how you engage them and ultimately get them to buy a brand’s product:

“There’s still that need to come up with those brilliant ideas and produce that amazing piece of content that grabs big culture, so we shouldn’t ever forget that we need exceptional creatives and great producers. But you now also need a really deep level of understanding of how to distribute it. This ranges from online video seeding and SEO to more specialised CRM techniques that help you drive response. Clearly there are people that understand optimisation and CRM well and how to drive response from a Facebook post for example, so integrating those skills into the strategy and big ideas creative process is critical moving forward.”

James also participated in the BOBCM Re-thinking Creativity panel we helped put together with the BCMA for the Cristal Festival in December, where he was also on their Branded Entertainment & Content panel. You can also check out our other interviews with industry experts, and find out why James thinks the Carequinhas Bald Cartoons campaign is a great example of branded content.