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Opinion and Insight

Content Is Like Engine Oil – Bad Oil Will Gunk Up Your System

MediaCom Americas CSO Jon Gittings talks to LBB about content, connections and tricky conversations

Content Is Like Engine Oil – Bad Oil Will Gunk Up Your System

When it comes to clever, data-driven content, MediaCom have been leading the charge with award-winning campaigns for the likes of Mars (Snickers’ Hungerithm) and Bose. Jon Gittings is the Chief Strategy Officer for MediaCom Americas and as such has seen how the worlds of media strategy and content creation have been moving ever closer. And while much has been said about the increasing volume of content being created for brands, Jon hopes that the industry has “passed the peak of ‘more stuff’”. Rather content strategies should be informed by smart data and behavioural insights. What’s more, while these days the potential to tweak and personalise content may seem infinite, Jon’s very clear that it needs to be balanced against the production and media costs of making and distributing these variations.

This year Jon is a co-Chair of the World Media Awards jury (deadline for entries is less than three weeks away, so get your skates on!),  which recognises content-driven advertising, so the topic is very much front of mind. LBB caught up with Jon to pick his brains.


LBB> The World Media Awards celebrates content-led advertising. Content is really interesting in that there are so many different kinds of players getting involved– production studios, media owners, creative agencies and media agencies etc. What makes media agencies particularly well placed for this?

JG> As the communications landscape evolves, diversifies and fragments we are seeing an ever-increasing requirement for multiple iterations of any given piece of content.  These iterations need tailoring to both the connection point within which they are running and the increasingly customised audiences they are targeting (amazingly, over half of Facebook video ads still aren’t formatted correctly).  That has effectively made media agencies gatekeepers of knowledge around channel and consumer nuance.

This also puts media agencies at the sharp end of understanding performance results in real time, analysing information in a way other content providers either can’t access or don’t analyse in the same way.  This will only become more prevalent as we move into an increasingly adserved world and as traditional media becomes more addressable.  


LBB> Is there any particular type of content that you think media agencies are uniquely well suited to compared to other players in the field?

JG> I don’t think any agency should be type-cast or pigeon-holed when it comes to content development, but we should be honest about who is good at what.  Media agencies excel at understanding points of connection and their context; how consumers interact with devices and platforms; and the data that fuels these interactions and connections.  What we don’t excel at is making the creative leap required to deliver the core creative idea behind a brand.  There are always exceptions but it’s not a core skill.  Our best content more often comes as an iteration from an existing big brand idea; is content that complements and enhances that idea.

What is a core skill is our ability to bring platforms, data, devices and publishers together to create high value content and experiences for brands and consumers in the way we have done with Bose, Vice and Spotify. Leveraging our intimate understanding and commercial relationships with publishing partners – whether editorial or influencer based – puts us in the driving seat when it comes to constructing and executing this type of content.  At the same time, we also excel at digital content optimisation, or algorithmically driven content such as Mars’ Hungerithm, which we developed in partnership with BBDO.  

LBB> Indeed, I see that MediaCom prefer to call themselves a ‘Content and Connections’ agency rather than a media agency! How central is content and content creation to MediaCom as an organisation?

JG> At MediaCom, we practice ‘Systems Planning’. In essence, that means we work to optimise the communications system as a whole, not just the individual components. We look at the interrelationships and dependencies between brands, customers, content and connections to find leverage opportunities and fix leakage points so we can take the performance of the entire system to a higher level. We see content as the fuel for the highest performing systems.  

It’s a bit like engine oil. If you use bad oil it will gunk your system up.  If you use quality oil, your system will run effortlessly. To that end, we always use the phrase ‘design your content with the connection in mind’. That’s why I think MediaCom, and our MediaCom Beyond Advertising division, are well placed to take a leadership role in the development of content strategy; and where appropriate, the development of content assets. 

LBB> A lot of the really great projects that MediaCom have been involved with are brilliant examples of collaboration with creative agencies or media owners or tech platforms – from a strategic point of view, what’s the key to identifying the most appropriate partners?

JG> I’ve mentioned Bose and Mars already. Both are great examples, and there are many more, but that’s a particularly broad question. A lot depends on the type of partnership we’re talking about. Is it a customer facing one (e.g. a media partnership, influencer tie up or a sponsorship) or is it a technology / production partnership? 

First and foremost, you need a ‘shared goal’ between a brand and partner. In most cases this will be a shared audience of definitive value but it should also extend to shared equity. People often ignore the value of the latter as they crave the scale of media behemoths. One of our tests is always ‘on an implicit / intuitive / subconscious level does it makes sense for these partners to be working together?’ – if it doesn’t the content almost always doesn’t work. 

Secondly, especially when it comes to media partners, we need a confidence in their ability to balance brand ‘marketing’ outcomes with their own requirements. We’ve learned the hard way that being ‘too native’ or ‘too editorial’ doesn’t often deliver the key marketing KPIs clients need to hit short term. 


LBB> I guess what’s interesting from a strategy point of view is that traditionally you’d sit relatively upstream of the actual content creation… but thanks to dynamic content, the ability to respond to data and real-time feedback, I would imagine that the strategy teams and content creation teams are in a position where they have to collaborate more directly and frequently… I’m just curious to know what’s really happening on the ground!

JG> I think we are still in the formative stages, but absolutely, more direct and frequent collaboration is essential. Discussing real time performance with content creators isn’t an easy conversation if the content creation itself does not sit inside that agency. Sometimes, real time data gets embraced, sometimes it gets over-ruled. We work with one particular brand where our data proved that the client’s ‘boring’ product-centric content was outperforming the agency’s ‘emotive’ brand content. That was an interesting conversation.  

We also have to consider the economics of production. Whilst it is possible to make endless changes and amends to a given piece – or go out and shoot more – we can quite quickly get to a point of diminishing production returns; especially when we think about the media needed to propagate the content in question. For one millennial brand I recently looked at in the USA, the average audience delivery across 131 pieces of content was just 0.93% of 15-34s.  


LBB> With the growth of voice technology, it seems that algorithms are going to play an ever-growing role in the sort of content we consume, particularly without an interface like a computer or smartphone. Already I can just ask it to play ‘something’ on YouTube and Spotify and they will serve ‘something’ up -  and while I’ll skip stuff I’m less keen on, there’s definitely less active ‘seeking out’ and ‘deciding’ on my part. What challenges (or opportunities) does that present strategists with?

JG> The algorithmic serving of content presents many problems but one of the biggest is being ‘content ready.’ Not only do we need to be able to serve up the right stuff at the right moment, we also need to make sure that the ‘stuff’ is both great, nuanced to audiences and in line with a bigger campaign or brand thought. Or in other words, we all know it’s hard enough to make a great creative that people care enough about to pay attention for five, let alone, 30 seconds; so now how do you deliver creative consistency within tighter and tighter confines? 


LBB> So with some brands these says, it can seem like the content strategy is simply ‘more stuff, please’. What’s the key to developing a really smart strategy around hard-working, effective content – as opposed to creating massive volumes of ‘stuff’?

JG> Hopefully we have passed the peak of ‘more stuff’. Many brands have dipped their toes in and have seen that much of the theory doesn’t hold water. The ‘brand as publisher’ / ‘brand as content studio’ model that was in vogue in the press 18 months ago only seems to have worked for a handful of brands (if we’re still using Red Bull as the example then something is wrong there).

Our starting point when we speak to brands about content strategy is simple; how does your category operate, and what is the perception of your brand. Although these are very macro strategic questions they are essential to developing a smart content strategy. For example, in categories where scale is a prerequisite, a purist ‘content strategy’ (e.g. grow your own audience) is highly unlikely to succeed at delivering growth. From there we then adopt data-informed, behavioural science frameworks that determine the depth, breadth and format of content required for that particular brand in that particular category. 


LBB> Why is the World Media Awards an important or interesting show for you?

JG> Because it’s a great platform to recognise the impact of global culture / subcultures; because it represents social connectivity and influence across the world; that in turn drives the increasing ability of local trends to go global. All of which means that ‘internationalism’ in communications is alive and well and deserves to be celebrated. 


LBB> What are you hoping to see from the entries this year?

JG> Delivering effective global or multi-market work isn’t easy.  People will always push back with “that won’t work in my market” or behave in a “not invented here” manner. The risk is that in an effort to appease stakeholders, global and multi-market work becomes bland or watered down. So above all, I’m looking for work that has survived this process and remains distinctive, imaginative and excitingly effective. On top of that, I’d like to see the usual suspect boxes ticked:  is it culturally impactful, is it a frictionless consumer experience, is it a smart use of data?



LBB is media partner of the 2018 World Media Awards. The WMAs are looking for multi-market content-driven ad campaigns. It’s free to enter and the deadline for entries is Thursday January 25th. Click here to find out how to enter

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Genre: Strategy/Insight