Disintermediating the media: Why ad agencies can't do content very well

When they look out into the real world, the princes of adland can see everyone making their own content. Fans are writing blogs. They’re editing mash-ups. Making spoof music videos on Nokia handsets.

If Joe Bloggs can make his own content, the princes think, why can’t we ad agencies do the same?

Once established, this line of thought tends to continue as follows: If we can make our own content, perhaps we won’t need to pay vast amounts of money to advertise next to the work of journalists. . .

The upshot? Pretty much every ad agency in the country — and quite a few PR agencies, too — is trying to figure out ways of disintermediating the media owners that used to be their only channel to market.

For Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, it’s all abouta new structure to the way we develop our business”.

The results can be brilliant. Take O2’s effort to get students to vote for Britain’s best campus. Once upon a time, this kind of campaign would have involved spending serious money on radio, direct marketing and local press advertising.

Not now. Earlier this year, O2 set up a branded group on Facebook and invited students to join it — and to vote for their college. The winning campus was promised a £50,000 party underwritten by O2.

The results were impressive. The mobile phone operator attracted 109,977 students to become members of its group. And boy, did they interact: they uploaded 56,448 photos, posted 89,259 comments and took part in 2,739 discussion groups.

But the results can also be lamentable.

At the same conference a few weeks ago where Sorrell talked excitedly about agency-generated content, he also had this to say: “One of the things I really regret is that we seem unable to a limited degree to develop those ideas.

Nowhere is this more evident than on Facebook, which last year started to allow outside developers to build promotional widgets that members of the social network can download and recommend to their friends.

Facebook’s move was heralded as revolutionary. Since the floodgates were opened, outsiders have built and launched 22,000 applications on Facebook. Many have been custom-made by ad agencies to promote TV shows, album releases and so on.

But guess what: not one commercially-driven widget currently appears in the top 50 most popular applications used by Facebookers.

Says Tom Smith, research manager EMEA at Universal McCann: “The numbers aren’t great and applications aren’t on the way to replacing other types of online advertising.”

What does the failure of client-generated widgets on Facebook tell us? Why has this exercise in commercial content creation been such a disaster?

Perhaps it’s partly because the age-old structural division between commercial relationships and content production still has its merits.

The division between Church and State wasn’t set up on a whim by hermit-like editors who felt the need to shut out all contact with commercial life. The separation came about because commercial relationships tend to have a corrosive effect on a medium’s ability to engage its readers and users.

Agencies can easily become too close to the client’s money to reject poor ideas with sufficient authority. Alternatively, their proximity to the money can inhibit their ability to generate the off-the-wall ideas that might succeed. The best avoid these traps. But the majority don’t.

There’s another reason to be skeptical about agencies’ efforts to build their own content.

By definition, researching, building and publishing new content ideas is a risky business. That’s why, every year, a large swathe of the UK’s magazine industry shuts down — only to be replaced by new hopefuls.

Many are called (by publishers); few are chosen (by the readers). In this sense, media is a hit-driven business that generates lots of misses along the way.

The problem with clients is that they want their brands to be associated with hits — and only hits.

If you are a product marketer at Sony or Nokia, associating your brand with a succession of naff content executions won’t do very much for your promotion prospects. Better by far, perhaps, to leave the business of prospecting for editorial hits to the people who can tolerate misses: namely, publishers.

Yes, there are going to be many more situations on the web in which media owners get cut out of the equation. In some of those situations, clients and agencies will do their thing successfully. Among the results (hopefully): a bigger, richer, more diverse, media economy.

Just beware the loose talk about wholesale disintermediation of editors and publishers from the ad industry’s value chain.

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about content professionals or passionate users generating content. Those who can manage to stand to one side from commercial concerns will always sing the best tunes.

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