LONDON, United Kingdom — For the past six years or so, all anyone in our related industries can talk about is content. Actually, I should probably dignify it by capping it up: Content. Doesn’t matter what business you’re in, at some point in the not too distant future you’re going to be wanting some Content. If you’ve got a website, you’ll be needing some Content; if you’ve got any kind of social network presence, you’ll be in the market for some Content; if you’ve got a video platform then you'll be in the business for some Content. Yada yada yada. In fact, if you’re involved in any transactional website, you have probably been doing this for a good few years now. Or at least someone in your company will be starting to become evangelical about it. Of course, you might work for one of those increasingly rare luxury goods companies who are still — seriously? — trying to put a velvet rope around the Internet, and if you are, I feel rather sorry for you.
Content has become such a buzzword that people don’t really know what it is they’re asking for, they just know that they need some. Why? Because people keep telling them they do, that’s why. Instead of PR companies offering “bespoke solutions” (er, PR, basically) they’ll be offering “bespoke Content” (notice how respectful I’m being?); instead of advertising agencies offering “tailored product” (ads) they’ll be suggesting “personalised Content” (see, I’ve got the hang of it); and if you speak to any digital agency (who will try and sell you anything they can get away with, as though the Internet were still just thought to be some huge second-hand car market) they’ll lean over their desk (sorry, “communal work station”) and tell you that what you need is a “fully integrated, 360, digital Content-rich experience that fully engages the customer as well as appealing to those free spirits who don’t wish to knowingly engage with anyone.”
The thing is, while none of their suggested solutions are necessarily wrong, the two fundamental problems are a) the wrong people are producing the Content, and b) the Content tends not to be very good (because the wrong people are producing it).
Content has become such a buzzword that people don’t really know what it is they’re asking for, they just know that they need some.
Which makes clients very suspicious about the whole notion of Content, as so much of it is so poor.
In a way, I suppose this is not so surprising. Traditionally, ad agencies have employed as many people to sell product as they have employed to come up with ideas, although these days it appears to be the salespeople who are doing the talking and promising the Content (Content they have no idea about how to successfully generate). And if you do end up in a room with one of the advertising creatives, it’s a good bet that their idea of Content is simply making a REALLY EXPENSIVE FILM. Wave a cheque in front of an advertising creative and they’ll start jumping up and down about this film idea they’ve had for ages, and interestingly the idea is perfect for your product. Odd, huh?
In the newspaper, print and website world, the situation might even be worse.
Why? Well, Content in old-fashioned layman’s terms could be classified simply under advertorial, sponsored editorial or promotions. For a while it’s been called native advertising, but it’s fundamentally the same thing. And the problem in the print business (or the print+ business, which is basically the term for old school print companies with a digital component) is that the people who have traditionally been charged with looking after the promotions or advertorial departments are those people who haven’t been quite good enough to work in either editorial or advertising. Whereas, these days, they need to be better than both, or at the very least have the capability to straddle the divide.
Which is why the Content world is still a bit like the Wild West. On the one hand, you have a world of clients with all of these editorial opportunities that they don’t know what to do with, and on the other you have a bunch of so-called creatives who don’t have any ideas, or who have no affinity with this new medium.
In this respect it’s a perfect storm.
However, this should be the easiest play in the world. Not only is there a huge growth industry out there (which is a godsend for all of those in our industry who are bellyaching about the decline in ad spend), but there is an ever-expanding generation of consumers who are perfectly willing to accept Content. Actually, they’re not perfectly willing at all (too passive, sorry), they’re actually desperate for content. And they’re not that bothered who produces it, as long as it is — deep breath — VERY VERY GOOD.
Take my 16- and 18-year-old daughters, who for the purpose of this exercise I shall call Money Pit 1 and Money Pit 2. Like every person their age, they spend every available waking second glued to their phones. When they’re somewhere where they can’t get Wi-Fi — “nightmare!” — then they’ll idly flick through a magazine or newspaper, but the rest of the time they’ll be checking their phones, surfing texts, emails (actually not emails, because they don’t use them anymore), Snapchat, Instagram, news feeds, YouTube and all the other stuff that these days is just OUT THERE.
And, again, like every other teenage consumer, they are actively looking to be entertained and sold to. And because of the nature of the devices they consume this information on, and because the old co-dependent church and state relationships of editorial and advertising no longer apply in the same way, they are not especially bothered by who is responsible for the Content. It doesn’t really matter to them if the Content they are watching/reading is produced by a magazine company, a newspaper company or a car company. It could be LVMH, it could be ASOS, could be Renault, Dazed or Marmite, could be The Daily Telegraph, Mini Cheddars or Harper Collins, could be Apple, Swatch or Kellogg’s. They don’t really care who produces it as long as the Content is VERY VERY good. They don’t really care about provenance, don’t really care if it’s editorial or advertising, don’t really care if it’s produced in London or Belgium; all they care about is its quality, and its ability to engage with them immediately.
Which is one hell of an opportunity.
On top of this, because they have been brought up in a world where they expect to be buying everything at the touch of a button, not only do they expect this material (sorry, Content) to be very very good, in an ideal world they’d like to be able to buy whatever it is, too. So if they are watching a film containing a great piece of music, a great pair of shoes and possibly a great destination, they’d ideally like to be able to buy in to all three immediately (hey, their father can afford it!).
Which for clients, for advertisers, for people with money looking to engage with new and existing customers, is an even bigger opportunity. Possibly the biggest opportunity there’s ever been.
Not only is there a huge growth industry out there, but there is an ever-expanding generation of consumers who are perfectly willing to accept Content.
But the industry needs to hurry up and get engaged, as the consumer is running out the door. I seem to have been saying this for four years now, and I’m beginning to bore myself. I rev up during lunch meetings and start giving my spiel and I can see people’s eyes glaze over. They’re probably heard me say it before, although a lot of people still don’t want to hear it. Their disinterest was interrupted when ad-blocking started to become such a big deal, but even then this appears to have simply caused people to lobby for legislation.
A journalist discussing this problem a while ago said that the biggest issue with ad-blocking was that nobody had yet managed to find a way to produce effective ads on the small screens of mobile devices. Well, this is obviously not true, as most people who own mobiles still engage with advertising — and most do so willingly — however, the bigger problem is that advertisers haven’t looked at the problem from the point of view of the consumer. Because if they did they would see that all the consumer wants to do is be entertained. Which is what we have always expected from our advertising. Yes, we’d like to be watching something that has some bearing on our consumer habits, and no, we don't want to be lied to. But we’re here, ready, willing and able to engage with whatever it is you’re about to show us. Could be advertising, could be Content, but we’re here. We won’t be here forever, as frankly we’ve got better things to do (we’re busy people), but we’re here.
Some people have already given up — “For digital publishers it is an existential threat,” says Sarah Wood, the co-founder of Unruly, a company which advises other companies on video ads. “And digital publications are experimenting with new monetisation strategies as a matter of urgency.” — but then this again ignores the issue. Consumers are perfectly prepared to engage with advertising, and indeed Content, as long as you make it interesting, relevant and entertaining.
People — consumers, us, “we” — don’t hate advertising. Far from it — when advertising is good and relevant and informative and smart and funny and entertaining and cool and and and … we like it. Love it. The display ads in a magazine have always been as important as the editorial, as they are part and parcel of the same experience; they are part of the same world.
Some have advocated legislation, which to me seems farcical: seriously, you want to force people to watch advertising, as though they were being brainwashed in A Clockwork Orange? No, ad-blocking is just another challenge that has been thrown at the ad industry, in the same way the Internet initially proved to be a challenge. But every challenge is also an opportunity, and as we all know, most of us are perfectly happy to consume advertising as long as it’s on our terms.
Many years ago, I became the editor of one of the first British men’s magazines, a title that has long since turned to dust. My first issue happened to coincide with Christmas, and so I took a copy home with me when our family had its annual celebration. On Christmas Eve, as I was washing up with my brother in my mother’s East Anglian kitchen, he asked me what I was up to. So I showed him the first issue of the magazine that I was responsible for. No word of a lie, he then proceeded to flick through the magazine, saying things like “Oh, that looks like a good car” … “I’ve heard of that record” … “I’ve seen that film” … “Are Lloyds really any good? I’ve been having problems with my bank for ages” … Etc etc.
That’s right, he was looking at the ads. I was a bit miffed as for him the editorial was on a par with the commercial segments of the magazine. And it’s a story I’ve been telling advertisers (and potential advertisers — after all, everyone’s a potential advertiser) ever since.
And these days, exactly the same thing applies to Content. If it’s good, if it’s relevant, and if it’s entertaining and sold in the right way, it works.
Seriously, what could be simpler?
There are also far too many media “experts” running around like headless chickens, proclaiming the death of print, as though their world was nearing its end. Well, it’s a universal truth that those who can foresee their own death are usually proved right, although there are just as many in the industry who understand that the world has simply moved on, and that the changes are here to be embraced rather than ignored. There has been a revolution, and like any revolution, in the reckoning there will be winners and losers. You only have to look at the biannual market to see the way in which the print world has changed, and in some ways grown. If you walk into the WHSmith in Selfridge’s in Oxford Street, you’ll see dozens and dozens of beautifully-crafted fashion magazines, all produced on lovely paper, full of extravagant fashion stories, contrary art pieces and quite probably a profile of an esoteric but largely-forgotten film icon from the sixties or seventies. Sure, these magazines are not selling in the hundreds of thousands, but they appeal to an increasingly discerning audience, one that doesn’t like being pandered to by the reductive forces of the Internet.
These magazines thrive on good old-fashioned ingenuity and creativity. Content, in other words. It doesn’t matter which form it comes in, as long as it comes with some regularity.
Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ, editor-in-chief of GQ Style and chairman of London Collections: Men.
This article first appeared in the new Autumn/Winter issue of GQ Style.
The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.