Marketing content is the fusion of advertising and unsponsored mass communication. In theory, it combines the best of both worlds. In reality, it’s a stinky potion of the worst. There are a number of reasons why. In this article, I cover trust.
Early in my media career, I was programme assistant to the Head of Short Stories at BBC Radio 4. Within months of getting the job, she made me responsible for sifting through unsolicited submissions. Inside a year she invited me to select, edit, produce and direct selected scripts. She gave me a little guidance, then let me get on with it.
One of the stories I produced was about an embittered ex-girlfriend who set fire to her ex’s flat… not realising he was locked inside. The BBC received two complaints from listeners. I was tasked with responding to them personally. No damage was done to the BBC. In fact, I’d contributed to the breadth of its output.
Now imagine that’s sponsored content. A senior person and their junior assistant making audio content heard by millions? No additional oversight. No casting intervention. No cost controllers. Etc.
This can’t happen in the world of marketing content. There’s the agency team – creatives, producers, planners and others – all ‘contributing’. All knocking sharp corners off a sculpture until it’s a characterless sphere.
And then there’s the client – an upward cascade of marketing professionals who insist on changes that make the content even blander. Polish the sphere. Nobody wants to take a risk. Nobody wants failure attributed to their name. They’re terrified of a ‘listener’s letter’ scenario.
Trust doesn’t show on the balance sheet. The benefit of trust doesn’t jump from an email trail. You can’t explain why it’s vital. It’s intangible. So how can you argue for its inclusion?
Louis Armstrong came up with the best answer when asked to define the rhythmic concept of ‘swing’. “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” For a more recent example – study the phenomenally successful ‘Frozen’. Anti-hero prince, Broadway singer lead voice (rather than Hollywood pick), cold-hearted main character. I’ll wager the Frozen team was made up of individuals that were trusted and trusted one another.
Trust works in above-the-line advertising because a handful of high-profile people (advertising, client and media) can work together to produce something great. They trust one another. And they’re senior enough to reject broad interference.
Trust works in unsponsored mass communications such as broadcasting and journalism. Budgets force teams to be small. Without trust, nothing gets made.
Nobody ever built a statue to a committee
But in marketing content you have the worst of both worlds: big enough budgets to allow mass interference, and an absence of trust. So marketing content is shaped by committees of people who don’t trust one another. That’s a recipe for the blandest dish ever made. And after it’s been served, the committees reconvene to analyse why the intended audience didn’t lap it up. Or even show.
And because they can’t put a finger on it, the committees add more processes and contributors, or change the team. So next time around it’s even less likely trust will emerge. And another polished stone sphere is sculpted. To pile up with the rest.
I’ve worked journalism (BBC), programme-making (BBC and independent) and advertising (BBH). Now, like many ex-advertisers, broadcasters and journalists, I work in marketing content (BBS*).
*Bloody Boring Shit