The Great Content Marketing Summit 2017

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Things have been a bit full on since becoming an academic, not least because I have two book projects on the go, but I gave the keynote again this year at HMR International’s Great Content Marketing Summit in Cologne yesterday. I would have written up a review of the highlights, but the other talks were in German and I had to leave early to catch a plane home. Instead, here’s an overview of my presentation, which had 3 parts:

  • Mapping the Brand-funded content territory
  • Inspiring examples
  • Some sample themes from a forthcoming book


Mapping the territory:

I first presented my attempt to map the brand-funded content space in latter part of 2015 as part of a white paper I put together for the digital publishing platform provider Edition Digital. The Venn Diagram I shared back then was based on Google’s Hero | Help | Hub (HHH) framework that Xoogler turned academic Lazar Dzamic discussed in the 2015 Edition of Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM).

What I like most about the HHH framework is that it is based on analysis of how content is actually being consumed, or at least on YouTube. That seems more reliable and useful than just expert opinion, even if I think that their Hub category is actually more of a brand publishing approach than a type of content.



The thinking behind my Venn Diagram above has evolved since I first presented it and you can read a more recent explanation for The Drum from late last year. It’s based on the belief that terms like Content Marketing or Branded Content have become redundant because content is now just what marketing is and does, i.e. as brands and their agencies try and respond to the changing media landscape and how we’re consuming it.

What my Venn Diagram basically tries to do is show how marketing is being reshaped by content from 3 different directions and how these are all being driven by the technology delivering the content, even if much of the best work plays through these lines. Hopefully, it also provides a starting place for answering questions about those all important strategic considerations, i.e. what content do you create for who with whom, where and how often when ‘always on’.

Inspiring examples:

I’ve been reviewing the various content-related award shows from 2016, as well as asking experts around the globe to recommend examples they rate. There wasn’t as much great work as you’d think last year, which is one reason why we didn’t publish a 2016 edition of BOBCM. However, we are publishing a new round of expert examples and will be sharing some interesting case studies. When I get a moment I will also put together a report of the award winning work from last year, but I have included the examples I presented in Cologne yesterday.

Themes from forthcoming book:

I’m currently facilitating another book collaboration, this time with Lazar mentioned above. Our aim is to look at content-based marketing in the round, in order to help people navigate through the different perspectives/approaches and provide a signpost so that they can drill down further into the detail/conduct further research. I’ve offered a taster of some of the themes we’ll be exploring below.

[HERO] Branded Content & Entertainment

This is the space where the advertising and entertainment are colliding, and the work you’ll see winning the Branded Content and Entertainment category at top advertising award shows like Cannes Lions, Clio Awards, D&AD, and One Show.


I presented the following examples:

The Jaguar Desire short film by Ridley Scott Associates is reminiscent of their earlier ground breaking work for the BMW Films series from the 2001/2 that’s seen by many as the catalyst for what has become known as Branded Entertainment.

A new episode was released last year as part of the 15th anniversary of the launch of the series. Things have moved on somewhat since then, which might explain why the latest release hasn’t had anything like the impact of the original content.

Adam&Eve’s work for HM featuring David Beckham has also been highlighted by Starcom EMEA’s director of strategy Paul Wilson as part of our latest round of expert examples. But as explained in my presentation yesterday, you don’t need movie stars, celebrities and big budgets to capture people’s attention. Check out how Curious Films helped New Zealand Transport Authority used Snapchat to get their message across about stoned driving:


The Hero category is by definition where you find some of the most inspiring award winning work, but more risks still need to be taken. For example, I highlighted the Heaven Sent example for Stride Gum, which none of the audience had seen ­– possibly because Red Bull Stratos is a hard act to follow even if you can find someone crazy enough to jump out of plane at high altitude without a parachute!

Social Purpose documentary now a genre and award category

From a branding point of view, the Hero category provides an opportunity to help win hearts rather than just price comparing minds, which helps explain why the Social Purpose documentary has now not only become a genre, but an award category. The building of sustainable brands through content is a theme explored by Thomas Kostler in his Goodvertising book series. It’s also a theme we plan to look at in the book collaboration I mentioned above. In the meantime, check out the winners of the D&AD’s new Impact Awards and some of the examples I presented in Cologne:


If everyone is zigging is it time to zag

These Social Purpose documentaries are becoming part of a formula for how brands communicate their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda. The upshot is that this ups the ante to have that award winning director, celebrity voice over, sound track from popular musician, etc. I actually see more innovative ways of using content to get a message across coming from cause campaigns. The Children Against Zika campaign that won the Grand Cristal for the Branded Entertainment category at the Cristal Festival last year is an interesting example:

Another interesting example from Brazil is the Carequinhas – Bald Cartoons campaign that Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s Global CEO James Morris recommended for our Expert Examples section.

From Promise to Values Gap

The Promise Gap is “the difference between the image consumers have of a particular brand and the actual experiences”… as measured by the London brand consultancy Promise, who help show how well brands live up to their reputations. But brands have another problem, because the more they communicate their purpose and values the more they expose themselves to being called out when they don’t live up to them… as a number of UK supermarkets discovered this Christmas when they became the focus of the Stop Funding Hate campaign:

[HELP] Content Experience

The ‘How To’ type videos that Google categorise as Help content are a great way of adding value to the customer experience. The  Content Experience circle in my Venn Diagram above attempts to go beyond this and look at the territory that Pine and Gilmore called The Experience Economy in their book from 1998, which in the way I am framing this space could include experiential marketing and the customer’s – increasingly social – experience as content.

One interesting example is the Ikea Dining Club in Shoreditch that’s offers a very different shopping experience from the the 8 circles of hell you find at their large stores, including:

  • Cafe serving a ‘taste of Sweden’
  • ‘Food for thought’ workshops
  • kitchen showcase area including a virtual reality demos

This maybe all be a bit too staged for some, but it creates an experience that brings the brand closer to the customer both physically and emotionally – particularly their DIY Pop-up restaurant where customers can invite their friends and family to a unique dining experience where perhaps most importantly they can avoid having to do the washing up:

Seems like Shoreditch is the place if you are going to create a pop-up restaurant. Lidl have also been at it with their Deluxe Restaurant that offers a set menu by Michelin Star chef, but when your bill arrives you end up only paying£27.50 rather than over £80 because all the food & wine comes from Lidl. Now that is a memorable experience that exceeds expectations, which is the secret to driving word of mouth and social sharing.


I actually think that Content Experience provide perhaps the most scope for brands to stand out from the content crowd, and again I think cause campaigns brands are leading the way in creating meaningful experiences that resonate emotionally. Check out the Unforgotten campaign by the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence that picked up a whole host of creative awards last year:

[HUB] Brand Publishing

Put simply, this is the space that used to be called Content Marketing until that term stopped describing a specific approach and became understood instead by many as simply meaning any marketing that uses content. What distinguished the approach previously was the more editorial-style content, which is why I think brand publishing is a more accurate description of the approach. For me, this is where Contract/Customer Publishing meets the evolution of Direct Marketing and its embracing of ever more marketing tech. It’s a space that’s represented by a growing number of organisations around the globe including:

Most marketing associations have a content group or committee now, including IAB UK whose Content & Native Definitions Framework was featured in the BOBCM 2015 Global Edition. They are all busy selling their conferences, reports and award shows, although sadly that is not helping improve the quality of the content.

In fact, some industry experts think that the popularity for all things content has resulted is our being deluged in crap. Time Out’s Creative Director Adam Harris thinks the answer to this problems is to find that sweet spot between Advertorial and Editorial, e.g. the Oreo Snack Hacks Fanatic Hack by Michael Voltaggio he recommended in our Expert Examples section.

Perhaps, the trick to engaging online audience is to also look at those are doing this well like bloggers who also have an audience, rather than hiring former journos and copywriters. Check out My Drunk Kitchen for inspiration and some important lessons for surviving your ‘adultolescence”:

Even Joe Pulizzi at the Content Marketing Institute is finally admitting that brands my have to go beyond the written word to capture the attention of audiences:

For content marketers, everything is changing. The written word is no longer enough to capture the attention of our customer and prospects. In 2017, we need an integrated approach to mixing rich media into our content delivery for it to be effective.

That said there are still brands using black ink effectively, particularly in fashion, e.g. Net-a-Porter’s Porter Magazine recommended by Tiffanie Darke at News UK and Jigsaw’s Style & Truth magazine recommended by Vince Medeiros at hipster publishers TCOLondon. Vince also recommends that you check out Patagonia’s books published by Penguin and the Brooks Compendium of Cycling Culture published by Thames & Hudson. Perhaps brands are finally realising that Amazon might also be a useful content distribution partner.


Content Marketing is not without its critics including Dave Trott in Campaign and Professor Mark Ritson in Marketing Week. Dave Trott correctly points out that content is poorly defined and there’s a danger of it becoming just the unimportant stuff that gets delivered by efficient, exciting new delivery systems. Mark Ritson seems to be channelling Bob Hoffman’s alter ego as the ad contrarian, but does not seem to have come up with an argument that couldn’t be equally applied to advertising.

What’s missing from these critiques is some Bryron Sharp-type analysis with supporting data that shows that content is no more effective than advertising. The reason I mention this is because IPG Media Lab and Forbes have conducted research that shows that Branded Content’s impact is “superior to display advertising in terms of recall, brand perception and intent/consideration” (see more here). IPG Media Labs Deconstructing Branded Content: The Global Guide To What Works research with Google is also worth a read.


I think it’s fair to say that brands looking for help reaching the hard to reach segments of the very broad millennial demographic are unlikely to be asking older white guys like Dave Trott, Mark Ritson, Bob Hoffman and Byron Sharp even if they are very fond our quoting the latter. The problems they face with skippable media and the adblocaplypse are not likely to be solved by what some critics of Byron Sharp see as little more than recommending the more efficient and frequent delivery of a logo.

That’s why I think it is interesting that brands like HP and General Mills are demanding that their creative agencies provide diversity audits:

Diversity gives HP a competitive advantage. It helps drive new business, fuel innovation, and attract and attain the best employees. This letter is a call to action. Now that we have built our business case and begun to put our own house in order, we are relying on our agency partners to do the same; we are expecting these marketing and communications leaders to actively embrace diversity and actually do something about it.

One of the problems they are trying to solve is that customers now exist in what Th@t Lot’s Barney Worfolk-Smith describes as their ‘fractured passion centres’ or bubbles. This forces brands and their agencies to think about how campaigns can be adapted more to reach different segments in different places, rather than just create something that is one size fits all. This includes the trend for locally produced rather than just globally adapted content.

Uni-Noodle’s House of Little Moments campaign is a good example of how cultural nuances can be lost outside their region. The campaign cleaned up the awards in Asia but did less well at the global award shows. I was part of the Cristal Festival Branded Entertainment Academy in 2015 that didn’t award the campaign the Grand Cristal. The president of the jury was Jimmy Lam , Vice Chairman & Chief Creative Officer DDB China Group. He was disappointed that the international jurors couldn’t see why the campaign had been so successful in the region, and that campaigns don’t necessarily need a social purpose to be great, inspiring and worthy of winning the best of show.


I hosted a guest lecture by Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s UK MD Tom Curtis at London College of Commutations in September, where he explained to students how things have got more complicated for brands:


They now have a whole host of partners to choose from and also manage so that impact of the various parts are greater than the sum of the parts:



Brands like Unilever, Pepsi and Mondelez are also taking a leaf out of Red Bull Media House by bringing content production in-house with a range of partnerships. It’s not difficult to see why this might make financial sense, particularly when it comes to the production of Help content or more regularly published Hygeine content via a Hub.

This strategy is not necessarily going to be a recipe for more stand out content though, not least because there are many pundits that think we have already reached ‘peak content’ and that fighting for consumers attention is about to get a whole lot harder.

Brands should also head the warning of Ogilvy Group UK’s Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland in my article for Contagious back in 2014:

Brands need to be realistic about competing with content creators, unless they’re prepared to risk allocating budget that could result in failure.

As he points out, the Hollywood system is an example of a few successes bankrolling a large number of duds and also-rans.


You only have to look at Scott Brinker’s marketing technology infographic below to see how many have embraced Mark Twain’s adage that ‘during a gold rush it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business':

marketing_technology_landscape_2016The creative spark that gives customers cars rather than faster horses is unlikely to be found in these algorithms. Brands may look somewhere other than content deliver mechanism if they really want to create more engaging and successful stories. And perhaps Tim Piper’s comments at the New York Launch of the 2015 Global Edition of BOBCM provide a clue where the solution might be found:

In advertising, people are thrilled if an ad goes viral or even gets watched. Then there’s a few thousand people in LA who create work that people pay to go and see.


Content was seen as being an antidote to advertising clutter, but the sheer volume being produced now by brands is seen by some as the latest variant of cognitive pollution and one that’s contributing to much deeper cultural problems. That adds an ethical dimension to the discussion of brand-funded content and its contribution to society as a whole. We plan to explore this theme as part of the book collaboration I mentioned above, but in the meantime Mara Einstein’s Black Ops Advertising book from last year is an interesting cultural critique of ‘Native Advertising, Content Marketing and the covert world of the digital sell’.



Without wishing to sound like a scratched record, I still think that a good place to start is to keep looking for what good looks like and that means going beyond your traditional competitors, i.e. your comparators. To paraphrase TUI Group’s CTO Mittu Sridhara, your customers’ best experience is their best experience and it doesn’t matter whether that’s in your category or if it happened in retail, or it happened online.

Anyway, I hope the above offers some interesting and inspiring examples of what good looks like along with some  useful additional context. You can also check out our Expert Examples section and library of Case Studies, and feel free to get in touch if you think there are any campaigns that you think we should be featuring.

About the author

Justin Kirby is a consultant, educator and thought leader with a 20+ year career in industry as a digital strategist, producer and entrepreneur. He chairs and speaks at conferences around the globe, judge industry awards, and advise brands and agencies.