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Dominic Mills 

The content ‘rats’ are back // What Greta would say about data

The content ‘rats’ are back // What Greta would say about data

Having a simple way to think about the function of content will make a big difference to the up-and-coming generation of marketers, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: why data is not the new oil.

About three years ago, working at a content conference, one of the speakers caught my ear. “These days in London, like rats, you’re never more than a few feet from a content creator," they said.

It made me laugh but it also expressed a truth. It was a time when you couldn’t move for bumping into a ‘digital content strategist’, a ‘branded storyteller’ or a ‘community content technologist’.

I always struggled to understand what they actually did, but it was a short period when almost everything was defined as content. It had got to the point where I didn’t really know what content actually was anymore, apart from anything that wasn’t an ad, or where it began and ended.

Content was, in a sense, whatever you wanted it to be. It was no longer special, but a commodity. Whatever the question was, the answer was ‘content’.

Then, although it never went away, content faded into the background.

Now, I wonder whether it is back again. Last week I went to an event put on by Green Park Content which was packed with client-side delegates. Hundreds of them, of which about 30 were from Unilever alone.

Green Park (one of whose clients is Unilever — of course) seems to be a little different from other players in the game in that its founder Sven Lung launched e-commerce fashion player, meaning he comes at content from a different starting point.

In the break, I heard one delegate say to a colleague: “OMG, this is totally exciting. We’ve got to up our game. We’ve got to do more fun stuff in this space.”

There were, I think, two explanations for this. One is generational; both were under 30 and therefore content was relatively new to them.

The second, more likely, is that they were enthused by the keynote from former Unilever CMO Keith Weed, entitled ‘Has Content Killed Advertising?’ (The answer is no; they co-exist and work in different ways.)

Weed has certainly driven Unilever into the content space, most famously through All Things Hair and Cleanipedia, which does for stains and dirty laundry what All Things Hair does for…well, what it says on the tin. Both illustrate what you might call the ‘how-to’ area of content.

But I think that, apart from showing examples of Unilever content to prove his creds, the real service performed by Weed was to help marketers better frame content’s role.

I’m paraphrasing drastically here, but essentially Weed’s theory is that advertising is interruptive. To succeed, it has to be a) trusted and b) entertain or inform.

Content, however, is what the consumer seeks out. It can either play to a consumer’s passion or emotional needs, or it can act as a utility or information source. Dove’s work with Cartoon Network promoting self-esteem among younger girls is an example of the former, and a Magnum vegan dessert recipe the latter. Done well, content of this type starts from a position of trust.

Interestingly, Weed noted that one of Unilever’s first attempts at content was just bad advertising.

You may say none of this is rocket science, and it isn’t. But in a time when the lines are just so blurry, having a simple way to think about the function of content will make a big difference to the up-and-coming generation of marketers.

The second force likely to drive content forward is the rise of e-commerce and the DTCs, most of which, I suspect, will use a mix: interruptive advertising (assuming they have the budgets) for fame, and content for utility and information.

The question for today’s marketer then, is how to mix the two and when to turn up the gas on one or the other.

But there’s a second question too. Proving content works. Sure there are case studies, and the Content Marketing Association’s awards place a premium on results over creativity, but there is as yet no over-arching body of work looking at content effectiveness in the way that the IPA Databank does for advertising.

One reason is that content budgets are typically low compared to others (meaning adding proper measurement makes it too expensive pro rata) and a second is that it is often handed off to a junior team (sometimes in-house).

But if content is making a comeback, then that will change.

What Greta would say about data

How many times have you heard the phrase ‘data is the new oil’? How many times have you used it? The answer to both is: too often. Even Boris has called it the “crude oil of the modern economy”. And yes, I’m guilty too in a lazy, unthinking way.

Do a Google search and the current number that comes up is 1.72bn — although with the caveat that a small number of the links go to articles saying data isn’t the new oil. The backlash is underway.

Let me pose the question then: how would Greta describe data? Greta, after all, has been adopted by the industry as its new poster child as it goes XR crazy, and everybody piles into demonstrating their green creds. So what Greta says goes in our business. And she certainly wouldn’t describe data as that filthy polluting oil stuff.

Although I never particularly liked ‘data is the new oil’ — over-glib and a natural reluctance on my part to follow the herd - I understood the analogy. Data as a source of power (i.e. fuel) for all things marketing, and data as a lubricant to keep the many wheels of marketing turning smoothly.

But it’s time to move on.

Times economics columnist Philip Aldrick tackles the subject here — if you can get behind the paywall.

First, he demolishes the oil analogy, calling data (as only an economist can) both ‘rivalrous’ — meaning once an individual has consumed a tank of oil, no-one else can — and ‘excludable’, in the sense that you can’t use it unless you can afford the price the seller charges.

Besides, oil is finite — and data most certainly isn’t.

There’s a fascinating read here in Wired, but it doesn’t offer us a substitute for oil.

Me, I was thinking ‘data is the new wind’. It’s self-generating, universally available, and a source of power. Greta would surely approve. But it just sounds crap, dull, lame.

Aldrick, however, adapts an idea from Ruth Porat, CFO of Google parent Alphabet, who compares data to sunlight (and shares the same qualities as wind).

But he gives it a twist. “Sunlight,” he says, “can nourish us. But it can also burn.”

I like that. Move over, oil.

A small caveat to readers of this week’s column. I am currently many miles away and in a place where Wi-Fi is scant. So if this column lacks timeliness, that’s my excuse.

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