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Dominic Mills 

Oh no! Someone's built a machine that craps content

Oh no! Someone's built a machine that craps content

More than ever before clients are demanding content for their online platforms - but is Starcom MediaVest Group right to build them a machine that automatically serves up pre-existing material? Dominic Mills is not convinced.

I found this quote last week from one Thomas Messet, head of mobile marketing at Microsoft Mobile (aka Nokia): "We crap out shitloads of content on a daily basis."

Depressingly, this sums up a lot of what passes for content marketing these days: volume over quality.

I wonder now if Messet has lost his job in the recent Microsoft massacre. Perhaps he knew it was coming and, like men condemned to death, felt compelled to tell the truth.

Still, this seems like mere pavement poo compared to the plans Starcom MediaVest Group in the US has to carpet bomb us all with crap.

It's called Content@Scale, a machine which produces content in real time linked to specific consumer digital activity.

After trials in the US, it looks like it is now coming to the UK.

I don't use the 'crapping' analogy lightly. If you read the blurb closely, you'll see that Starcom refers to the machine 'ingesting' content licensed from publishers.

What happens when you ingest something? Sooner or later, you excrete it.

(Funnily enough I used to have a prototype content crapping machine called Tilly. She was a dog who liked to eat old newspapers. I hated clearing that stuff up.)

So how does this work? In short, Starcom has licensed a load of content from publishers including Time, Rodale, Martha Stewart and Forbes, and 'ingested' it into the machine. This stuff is available on demand to Starcom clients, who can serve it up - repurposed - in an automated manner in real time on their own websites, social media or display advertising as triggered by specific consumer action. If it doesn't already, it will soon include video.

So, let's say Kellogg's (a Starcom client) sees someone looking at stuff about All Bran - bingo, the machine goes into operation and serves up a repurposed Martha Stewart recipe for, er, bran muffins.

That's the theory. One of the problems is that the content is old or out of date - or as Starcom helpfully puts it - 'evergreen'. The clue is in the word 'repurpose' - a give-away if ever there was one.

Starcom talks about serving up 'timely' content. Well, it's timely in the sense that it's served up in real time, but not in the sense that the content is itself current.

The second is that it is not necessarily the right, or the optimum content. Starcom can only select from the content it has available - depending on the deals it has in place with publishers - and therefore there is the significant chance that it will serve up something that seems vaguely right - as far as a machine can tell - but may be completely wrong. Thus, our bran muffin-loving consumer might not have heard of Martha Stewart, or despise her because of her criminal record. In content, 'vaguely right' is as good as 'wrong'.

A third is that the content is served up on the assumption - with absolutely no evidence whatsoever - that the consumer actually wants it. Starcom and its clients are effectively playing a volume game - pumping this stuff out all over the place - without sufficient regard for quality.

The whole point about content is that it's the right stuff, at the right time, and in the right place and context. If it isn't, it's crap.

Nonetheless, I confess to a sneaking admiration for Starcom. Content@Scale is a clever idea, but it seems to me it is based more around serving Starcom and the publishers than it is either the clients or the consumer.

What publisher wouldn't be happy if a media agency came to it and said, "hey, give us all your old content and we can find a way to recycle it"? They're all strapped for cash and keen to find any way of squeezing a few extra cents or pennies out of it.

And as for Starcom, it binds it closer to the client, allows it to charge more money, and bolsters its claim to add 'creativity' or content to its offering - never mind the fact that, as with a lot of media agencies that talk the content game, they mostly serve up someone else's content or creative.

Longer-term, initiatives such as this threaten to disintermediate creative agencies. After all, what's the point of an ad - in whatever shape or form it takes - if it's substitutable by publisher content?

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