Is it content or 'just an ad'?

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Canon: is it an ad or content?
Canon: is it an ad or content?

What must a brand do to create content as opposed to ads - and does it matter anyway, asks Andy Bryant, director, creative, Red Bee Media.

Every week the content-marketing ninjas at Red Bee seek out and write about the most noteworthy example they can find of the craft. It’s usually a tough call to choose from the growing body of video content appearing on brands’ web sites, YouTube channels, social-media pages and other owned/earned media.  Our ratings are usually positive (sorry, Pepsi), and our weekly highlights are building into an impressive body of case studies of content marketing excellence.

A couple of weeks ago, though, our chosen project made me pause to think.  The team had opted for a stunning film from Canon: an epic gladiatorial battle resembling a cross between a medieval version of Serie A football and a street brawl, directed with characteristic flair by Jonathan Glazer. 

Impressed by the quality of the work, I searched for more details and noticed that the client, the agency (JWT) and the production company (Academy Films) all described the project as an ad. Well, the latter two actually called it a "spot," but we know what they mean. As good as the film is, did it even qualify as a weekly content marketing highlight? And does it really matter anyway?

Intrigued by these questions, I asked the Red Bee team to help me out. What is content, what is an ad, and is it possible to draw a clear distinction? The answers revealed a number of interesting perspectives on the subject. 

Here’s one response: "Ads sell a product or service, whereas content tells a story."  This definition feels a little too simplified for me.  Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember the brilliant storytelling that has characterised the best advertising over the decades. Take British beer ads in the 80s alone;  from Heineken to Foster’s; from Carling Black Label to Castlemaine XXXX.

Or, going back even further, the story of how the man who drives the snow plough gets to the snow plough. There’s no doubt that today’s media channels allow brands to tell much longer, richer and more diverse stories than is possible in a commercial break, but good storytelling has always been an essential ingredient of good advertising.

Here’s another definition: "An ad is ruthlessly single-minded in conveying a single product benefit, whereas content starts with the audience’s interests and, consequently, can be more exploratory and multi-themed."  I think we’re getting closer here. However, to quote just one example, is the Volvo Van Damme stunt really just an ad? It is generally considered to be one of the best examples of branded content over the past year, yet it focuses 100 percent on dramatizing a very specific product feature: Volvo Trucks’ Dynamic Steering.

Some of the team hedged their bets. For example:  "Some ads can be considered content, if they’re good enough."  (OK, but who decides which ads count?)  And: "Content is something entertaining or informative that can appear in both paid-for and unpaid-for media" (Isn’t that a description of good advertising, too?)  Here’s an even less definitive view:  "I see very little difference in anything other than the form — executional time lengths of content seem to be longer."  (But there’s a reason for that, which we’re coming to.)

Several people in the team submitted versions of a definition that, in my subjective view, captures the key difference between content marketing and advertising. At its simplest: "Content is something I choose to watch. An ad is something I am forced to watch."

To flesh this out a little, how about "An ad is an interruptive piece of unrequested short communication"? Why interruptive and why unrequested? Because traditionally an ad depends on paid distribution in commercial media. The economies of distribution dictate that the timelengths are invariably short. And viewers aren’t strictly forced to watch: They can pay attention; ignore; zap forward; or (probably in rare cases) rewind to enjoy again.

By comparison, "Content is usually a longer piece of storytelling that a consumer will actively choose to consume." The liberation in timelengths has been created by the widening of online distribution channels, many of them free, and the active choice comes from the fact that we’re increasingly accustomed to clicking on videos we think we might enjoy:  because our friends send them to us; because we might value the information they contain; because everyone’s talking about them ... (Or, just maybe, because they made it to the heights of Red Bee’s content highlight of the week.)

I'm not going to tackle the subject of paid views now. I know, I know, some of the biggest online "viral’" hits — take Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, for example — were fuelled by a surprisingly high level of investment in paid distribution. But content marketing doesn’t depend on this in the same way that advertising does.

Having defined the distinction between advertising and content, at the risk of muddying the waters again there’s no doubt that, in this new environment, brands with really good advertising can enjoy the benefits of really good content marketing.  For example, a great ad can make a brand more famous by attracting millions of extra views on YouTube than would be possible via paid-for TV advertising alone. But in my book it’s still an ad.

(Of course, there’s a growing category of hybrid projects. For example, the Guinness Sapeurs ran on TV as an ad, with a longer-form documentary running beyond paid-for media.)

So, to return to Canon’s Calcio Storico, it was created as a "spot"by a very fine ad agency and a world-class commercials director. The fact that, to date, it has racked up around 3 million YouTube views and, no doubt, many more on other owned and earned channels, doesn’t make it any less an ad. 

Should it have qualified as our weekly content highlight?  Strictly speaking, probably not, unless we had focused more on Canon’s wider Come And See "content hub," of which the gladiator football ad formed part. But I’m sure that, as content marketing continues to evolve, the debate around the difference between content and ads will run and run.

This article first appeared on marketingmagazine.co.uk.

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