Why are we still having conferences about this vague subject?
What’s left to say about branded content? On Thursday 2nd March the Branded Content Marketing Association hosted One Extraordinary Day in Branded Content – a conference that promised “a unique opportunity to hear from and connect with the leaders of the Branded Content business.” And it left me thinking we’ve genuinely heard it all now.
Nestled into a modest, grey room on the periphery of the ExCel centre while BVE, the giant media conference, raged on in the main exhibition space, the BCMA’s event did deliver on part of its promise. The line-up was promising, including two knights – Sir John Hegarty, British advertising’s most prolific rent-a-quote luminary, and Sir Peter Bazalgette, Chairman of ITV – as well as senior professionals from respectable creative agencies, media agencies, research companies and even a few clients.
The BCMA’s CEO Andrew Canter introduced the day’s proceedings, encouraging us to use the event’s hashtag #lovebrandedcontent. Not a sentiment many people want to be associating themselves with, as one attendee identified early on.
First up, a “breakfast table chat” with Sir Peter Bazelgette, interviewed by Gary Knight, Commercial Content Director of ITV. ‘Baz’ was a laugh, inexplicably blessing us with a rendition of late 1950s advertising jingles at one point. Ultimately, the conversation was irrelevant though. Two commercial TV grandees spouting clichés about how important the creative industries are, how great the media landscape is with all these hip young things like Netflix and Amazon Prime entering the game (they stressed that TV’s not dead though!) and how good old-fashioned TVCs are branded content too. Most of it was hard to argue with, but no great revelations.
Next up was Neil Boorman, Content Director at Mother London, who chose to focus on branded content’s problems. Fair enough. It’s got a few.
He reminded us that everyone is making content these days. YouTubers, for example. He went on to extol the virtues of arch-gamer and YouTuber Pewdiepie, who was recently disgraced for including the message “death to all Jews” in one of his videos. Paired with his passion for Reddit and his Richard Spencer haircut, he should be careful people don’t mistake him for one of the ‘alt-right’. That might be a bit too edgy for his East London agency.
So everyone makes good content these days, he argued, except brands. As we’ve heard at a good few conferences, people don’t want to talk about brands or use their hashtags, they definitely don’t want to delve into the rich heritage of a brand on an expensive website.
One of Neil’s points resonated with the whole day. Red Bull and their Stratos stunt are still wheeled out as the best example of good branded content. It happened in 2012.
Neil did try to end on a positive though, which boiled down to: there are gaps for people to make great content; why shouldn’t brands provide it?
Sir John Hegarty, BBH Founder and Chairman of Electric Glue, leapt to the stage next to talk creativity. Everyone in this industry has heard him make speeches like this before. The amazing thing is that he always finds a new combination of words to do it. You know the drill. He told some anecdotes , settling on six semi-random abstract nouns as the “pillars of creativity”:
An all-encompassing formula to creativity. Nailed it.
The day’s first panel session was moderated by Andy Gulliman, Ex-Worldwide Film and Content Director for Saatchi & Saatchi and now Founder of Gulliman Films. He was joined by James Hayr, Head of Commercial Partnerships for the Endemol Shine Group, Andy Holland, Head of Production & Talent at Drum and Alastair Humphreys, adventurer and author. Their discussion was broad. They had a good ruck about whether Fosters bringing Alan Partridge back for the web series Mid Morning Matters was a good piece of branded content, agreed that different kinds of agencies need to cooperate rather than chase the same parts of a client’s marketing budget, and asserted that branded content works best for long-term brand building.
Barbara Matijasic’s presentation was baffling. She’s Marketing Manager at Edition Digital and spoke about the power of a “content hub” and why you should make sure you put all your content on as many social media platforms as possible. It felt a little patronising. I think she was trying to sell us something, but I could be wrong.
The afternoon promised to be L’Oreal section - “here comes the science bit!” It kicked off with Jane Christian, Head of Business Science at MediaCom and Tom Curtis, Managing Partner and Head of MediaCom Beyond Advertising to address ROI. As we’ve heard ad nauseum, nobody knows which half of their marketing budget is working. Jane and Tom admitted they had no “holy grail” and they didn’t. They spoke about the educated guesses MediaCom make to work out how much money their branded content makes for their clients. Surprise, surprise! Profits are more important to clients than “impressions”.
The media owners were up next. In a panel chaired by Clare O’Brien, Head of Industry Programmes at IAB UK, consisting of Tim Bleakley, CEO at Ocean Outdoor, Karen Stacey, CEO at Digital Cinema Media, Abby Carvosso, Group MD, Advertising at Bauer Media, Adam Harris, Director of Custom Solutions, Europe at Twitch and Tim Mines (AKA Spamfish), a gamer with over 130,000 dedicated followers on the live streaming platform. The debate mostly consisted of each panellist flying the flag for their medium of choice as the number-one branded content platform, punctuated by more clichés: content needs to be great and authentic and relevant to its audience.
One worrying side note: Adam remarked that out of a room of apparently serious marketing professionals, he had spent the day repeatedly explaining what Twitch was. The live streaming platform was bought by Amazon in 2014 for almost $1 billion. Its audience is undeniably on the young side, but you’d think that business story alone would be enough to earn it some recognition.
Eleanor Thornton-Firkin, Head of Content and Creative Development at Ipsos Connect provided the outsider’s perspective, backed up by research, which turned out to reinforce what everyone else has been saying for years: most branded content is crap, there’s too much of it, it tends to be an afterthought for CMOs and it’s difficult to know what works. She did have some insightful case studies to hand though – For example, Lexus’ hoverboard stunt changed 51% of people’s brand expectations and 71% were into it. Why? It was “super cool” and not too heavily branded.
Finally, the clients took to the stage with Tom Curtis courageously reprising as moderator. Leah Davis, Head of Marketing for Team GB and the British Olympic Association and Scott Wilkinson, Head of VOOM, Brand, Acquisitions and Digital at Virgin Media Business, were here to predict the future of branded content in a 20-minute “fireside chat”. Expectations set, they got stuck in, ready, as Tom put it, to “think, drink and breathe branded content.” After a spirited back-and-forth they landed on some conclusions: everything marketeers do is branded content, don’t fall into “the crap trap”, it must be as good as non-branded content, platforms and mediums will change, but the creative idea must come first.
I suppose part of me knew that was the kind of insight a conference like this would deliver. I think everyone knows, broadly, how brands should be approaching content. And when you’ve been to a couple of events like this you’ve heard it all. There really is no silver bullet, but I’m sure marketing professionals will continue to pay £499 (not including VAT) to reassure themselves that’s still the case. Even if it means inevitably hearing the same old guff for the umpteenth time.