Part 1: Can you buy good content from a creative agency?

While many ad agencies claim to have deep expertise in content strategy and creation, there are few that can actually deliver against it, says Meredith Xcelerated Marketing's EVP

Editor's note: This is the first column in a two-part series discussing the content marketing land grab. The second column, written by Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA/Chiat/Day New York, will be published tomorrow.

Phone rings. Client on the other end invites us in to pitch content marketing for one of their lines of business. We’re delighted. After gathering key details we ask politely who we’re up against, and the answers make our jaw drop: ad agencies, media agencies, custom publishers, PR firms, database organizations … and the list goes on.

Content isn’t king, but it’s the currency of the industry right now as marketers turn to anyone and everyone who can meet the needs of sophisticated customers empowered to tune out messages that aren’t personally relevant.  

As client marketers are pulled between incumbent agencies and content specialists to determine the best solution for their content needs, they will need to work out their needs and the real differences between so-called campaign content and always-on content.

Campaign content is often reliant on its entertainment or impact value to break through. It has a short shelf life and frequently fails to solve a real customer need. It focuses on only one part of the customer journey, awareness, and invariably is driven by the brand objective. 

Always-on content is developed to meet the needs of customers as they go through their customer journey — not a brand journey, not a product journey, not even a digital journey. Those are byproducts of the push era. Always-on content needs to be driven by the customer need at a personal and relevant level. Easy to say, but very hard to pull off at scale.

With content being defined in these ways, does it really make sense to hand content creation to an advertising agency? It’s one thing for agencies to add a section to their credentials presentation, but quite another to help a client navigate through the content ecosystem.  While many agencies claim to have deep expertise in content strategy and creation, there are few that can actually deliver against it. 

But wait, there’s more. Forrester has created a new category of agency: the Customer Engagement Agency (CEA). It’s defined differently from a general market agency or a media agency in three important ways.

The CEA applies a publisher’s mindset and answers a real, authentic customer need. It drives customer engagement as opposed to passive viewing.  Remember that publishers exist because consumers are willing to pay for their content — and that is a very high bar.  

Also, the CEA delivers at scale. This requires not only an understanding of the multitude of customer needs but also having the true subject matter expertise to fulfill those needs. It’s not about having one or two content strategists, but having a team of content strategists and content architects who work with a creative team that has deep subject matter and channel expertise. 

They are the definitive experts within the verticals they work in, and typically not general agency art directors or copywriters. Full disclosure here — MXM has been recognized as part of this new breed of agency and we believe it’s in sync with our plan for continued growth.

Finally, could client organizations be the right starting place for content creation? Many clients think so. They control their customer data, they understand their product, they can oversee the kind of collaboration that outside shops rarely make happen and they build a work flow process around internal approval checks and balances.

Last thought from this content specialist.

There needs to be defined processes for content creation, approval and delivery that can be executed by multiple teams in diverse locations, working simultaneously. The volume and variety of content to be developed means robust workflow is critical.

And these teams need the right technology infrastructure to deliver, measure and optimize content in real time. This combination of people, process and technology allows for the creation and delivery of thousands of pieces of publisher worthy content, across different forms and types — and likely delivered through a personalization engine to deliver extreme relevance.

There is no silver bullet at this time. Give the industry five years, and maybe we’ll have that nailed down. But this starts with a deep understanding of infrastructure around content, customer journeys, content audits, measuring content success and the trends around content.

For now, whichever agency, CEA or client can check the most boxes on that list wins.

David Brown is EVP of Meredith Xcelerated Marketing.

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