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Can brands really expect to make content that is created for the sole purpose of entertainment? Maybe they already have, says Genius Steals co-founder

There’s no business like show business — an old saw the advertising industry seems to have taken to heart with its newest obsession: content.

Content is the thing, nowadays. According to a survey by Yahoo Advertising Sales, "Seventy-eight percent of chief marketing officers think custom content is the future of marketing." Content is something people choose to consume; advertising is something we pay to watch.

But we perhaps haven’t quite cracked it: For the second year in a row, no Grand Prix has been awarded at Cannes in the new Branded Content category. Jury chair David Lubars explained that they didn’t think any of the entries would be remembered in the future.

"We had many fantastic golds, but the golds are the best of this year. When you give a Grand Prix, that's like classic history forever. I don't think any of those quite hit that. None of them had that classic, '30 years later still talking about it still' quality," he said.

Perhaps it's a bit much to ask for branded content as memorable as the movies we loved as kids. I mean, can you imagine if a brand like, say, Coca-Cola had made "Ghostbusters" and "The Karate Kid"? Some of the most loved content — or "films," as we used to say back then — from the '80s? That would have won a Grand Prix!

Wait! Hang on. That reminds me: Coke actually did make "Ghostbusters."

We think we’re constantly inventing new ideas in advertising, but we also tend to live generation to generation. We don’t have a robust education legacy, so people coming into the industry tend not to learn much about what happened before. That's a shame because we keep "learning" the same things over and over again.

The power of content is perhaps not unfamiliar to the Coca-Cola Co. It published its content manifesto a few years ago, but I’m thinking further back, before this generation of content conversations, when it made "Ghostbusters."

In June 1982, Coca-Cola acquired Columbia Pictures and ran it as a division of Coke for most of the '80s. Peter Sealey, a veteran Coke executive, went over to run it. There’s a charming anecdote from his first week when he had a 9 a.m. meeting with Bill Murray:

"I’m sitting behind my desk with a coat and tie on," he recalled, "and he’s wearing a pair of Bermuda shorts, drinking a Budweiser. He saw me as the suit."

No matter how great the content that was awarded at Cannes, I can, quite confidently, predict that none of it is going to have the longevity of "Ghostbusters."

Is that an unfair comparison? And if so, why? Surely if branded content is to be considered content, it must be measured against the rest of the content that it competes with for attention. Otherwise it’s just the same old advertising in diaphanous robes. And, if that’s the case, are advertising agencies really best placed to create it? Why not, say, the content industries?

Coca-Cola sold Columbia to Sony in 1989, but that wasn’t the end of its interest in content. It rocked the agency world in the early '90s by appointing talent management business Creative Artists Agency [CAA] to work on the brand and create advertising for it. In order to geta  "fresh look at the creative product," it went to Hollywood, but the relationship ended only two years later.

CAA did take the cue and launched its own marketing arm — which, years later, found great success with Chipotle.

The great challenge for branded content is that is has to compete with content created for the sole purpose of earning attention, with no secondary need to create value for a separate product or service. A whole other industry has been built around that — one which has inherently capricious fortunes, which is ultimately why Coke got out of it.

As Coca-Cola has found out a couple of times before, being a content company is not easy, especially if you are mostly trying to sell soda pop. The Ice Bucket Challenge, which won a couple of golds as content at Cannes, maybe be fun and definitely had its moment, but no one is going to buy a digitally remastered edition in 30 years' time.

Faris is co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy he started with his wife, Rosie and is the author of Paid Attention.


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