Interview with Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s Tom Curtis

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As part of new book collaboration I am co-editing with Xoogler turned academic Lazar Dzamic, I’ve been meeting with a number of leading experts to get a range of perspectives that represent the diversity of those delivering content-based marketing solutions. I hope to share some of this outreach and to kick things off, I caught up with Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s UK Managing Partner Tom Curtis.

Why does content exist and is there too much now?

I am particularly interested in the wider communication problem that branded content tries to solve, rather than just the specific client challenges, so I asked Tom why it exists? His simple answer is that branded content has existed for years and that people just didn’t use to call it that. However, he answered the question in a different way when we discussed whether we have reached peak content yet.

As Tom points out, there are clearly those who think we have and that you only have to search for the phrase ‘Peak Content’ to find a lot of industry commentators suggesting 2015 was the tipping point when the amount of content out there became unsustainable for human consumption. However, he thinks these are just sound bites and nothing particularly new:

 “You could argue this happened years ago when the supposed number of ad messages thrown at an individual every day (depending on your source, somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000), was met with the anecdotal response from most people that they couldn’t remember any of them.”

For Tom, it seems ridiculous to think that for the next few years – even decades ­– the amount of content being created won’t simply continue to grow and grow, and that this presents a big challenge for brands:

“The challenge has moved from how to stand out in a TV ad break to how we can get people to want to watch our brand messages in a seemingly infinite pool of other things they think they’d rather be watching (and many things they wouldn’t).”

He believes that the only obvious solution to standing out is to be better at it than everyone else. This includes being better creatively, better targeted, more relevant, and better designed for the platform it’s consumed on. But crucially, he thinks it will all be about improving the quality of the content:

 “Algorithms will filter out the dross and quality content will win.”

Is still all about the Big Idea?

I had seen Tom speak at the IAB UK conference last autumn talking about the Big Idea, and asked whether they were enough now to reach fragmented audiences through ever growing number of new platforms. He believes that a great idea without a notion about how it’ll get distributed is only half an idea. That’s not to say that brilliant creative ideas aren’t important anymore, but he doesn’t think that you can just come up with a great idea now and expect audiences to come flocking:

 “Of course we can still pay for eyeballs but we simply can’t afford to ignore the fundamental changes in the way people are interacting with brands. Like, for example, why so many people are installing ad blockers.”

Put simply, Tom argues that creative and distribution are becoming more inextricably linked than ever before, and so one without the other is basically pointless.

Is Branded Content Oscar-worthy?

Tom doubts we’ll be seeing a Transformers movie bothering Academy judges anytime soon, or the inevitable barrage of new toy-related films jumping on the Lego bandwagon.

But at some point he thinks it is inevitable that brand-funded content will win an Oscar, although he doesn’t think brands need to be as prominent as Lego was in the Lego Movie. What he does see is a future in which brands will look to invest in the creative industries in a many interesting and diverse ways:

 “That said the challenge will always be to ensure that brands benefit from their investment. People often forget about the ‘brand’ in branded content and focus too much on creating something beautiful that results in little or no business outcome. If that’s the case, you’ve got to activate it brilliantly.”

The trick he thinks will be hooking people in with what might ultimately be described a ‘lightly-branded’ content, and then get them watching something that’s going to have a proper brand impact.

What is great content, and is there an example that helps encapsulates this?

Tom explains that at Mediacom they try to avoid differentiating between good branded content and good advertising. He thinks the lines have blurred so much now that they call everything content, and that includes ads. He admits this is difficult to do when the rest of the industry treats them separately, and a client brief lands on their desk asking for ‘some content’.

He thinks best content can come from anywhere, but chose a much smaller, but no less powerful Channel 4 Shorts series they created for the disability charity Scope:

 “At MediaCom Beyond Advertising we truly believe that content can make a difference, not just to a client’s business, but to people’s lives. That is what makes it great. And the change in attitudes to disability that we saw as a result of the Scope campaign were hugely rewarding. It’s also just really enjoyable, good quality video.”

What the shape of content to come?

We also discussed how content is transforming the industry, and what’s on the horizon. This covers a lot of ground, so we can only scratch the surface here. But for Tom the fundamental shift in focus to ‘content’ has resulted in an industry free-for-all with many agencies and publishers getting in on the act:

 “Content departments and heads of content are now in every major agency and media owner these days – although their approach to content is often very different.”

Like digital before it, Tom points out that we’ve also seen an emergence of specialist ‘content agencies’ that feel they offer a different point of view and a different ability to produce content for clients than other agencies, e.g. the creative, media, digital and PR ones. What hasn’t changed quickly enough for Tom, is the ambition to think beyond the 16:9 screen:

“TV is still hugely powerful for brands but that doesn’t mean the creative idea needs to start with a TV script. And it still seems, remarkably enough, that it so often does.”

He thinks this is going to change dramatically over the coming years, so although campaigns will still start with big ideas that get executed across multiple channels TV might just be one of them:

“Our Churchill Lollipoppers campaign, with creative agency WCRS, is a good example. The starting point wasn’t a TV ad. It was the idea that there isn’t enough Lollipoppers on the streets anymore. Every execution, across all media, was single-mindedly focused on Churchill’s campaign to get more Lollipoppers. It’s simple and brilliant.”

As part of thinking about what the future holds, I also asked Tom what he thought students really need to understand about the industry they’re studying/planning to work in. As a recent recruit to academia, I was also interested in how Higher Education can help with this?

First of all, he explains that students need to understand that the industry is changing, and that the agency model will undeniably look very different over the coming years and decades – even if he thinks much of it isn’t changing as fast as it should. That’s why he thinks there’s an opportunity for students to enter the industry with a completely different mindset to many of the people in the industry today:

“They shouldn’t focus on being a traditional ‘creative’ with the view of becoming an art director or creative director. These roles, I think, will become few and far between. Brilliant creative ideas can come from many places these days. We’re interested in people with a multitude of skills, knowledge and passions.”

He also suggests that educators need to think beyond the creative process itself because an understanding of how both content is distributed and success is measured are both critical. One way he thinks students can add a string to their creative bow, is to expand their digital technical knowledge by setting up their own websites or blogs, and learning how to optimise their content for search visibility. He also predicts a growing focus on the connection between data and creativity:

“The amount of data we have at our fingertips to inform our targeting is mind blowing. Yet using data to truly understand what content should be created in the first place? Well – we’re on the tip of an iceberg there.”

We hope to explore this and other themes discussed with Tom as part of the book collaboration I mentioned above, and as part of these new series.

Justin Kirby, is an author, strategist and curator of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM) series of publications and events.

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.