A long time ago on a planet not so far away, brand marketers had it easy. They could hire an agency of record that would not only make fantastic TV, print and radio ads, but also place them in front of the right audience at the right time.
As the world grew more complex, we started to see these AORs split into discrete units that focused more intently on one part of the action. First, creative AORs separated from media AORs. Then traditional split from digital. Then we saw the emergence of social AORs.
Now, it's becoming increasingly clear that brands need content AORs.
Content is growing at an unprecedented rate because traditional advertising is getting disrupted at an exponential rate. Audiences are ignoring ads, cutting cable cords and downloading ad blockers like never before.
But, the same forces that are disrupting advertising are also creating incredible opportunities for brands. Consumers want transparency and control through their digital devices. To get audiences (and especially those ad-block-loving millennials) to start paying attention again, we must produce things they actually want to see. That's why brands are forecasted to spend more than $300 billion per year on content marketing by 2019, almost double what it is now, according to PQ Media.
Much of current content marketing, however, is simply entertainment. While it might reference a brand's positioning, it often does not have a coherent view or purpose. Despite our enthusiasm, few brands are reporting breakthrough return on investment.
Great content means a lot more than simply making cool posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And it's a lot more than simply creating three-minute videos, desperately hoping they go viral. It's about brands taking a leadership position and standing for something bigger than their products and more important than their marketing. It's about both inspiring the audience and empowering the audience.
Great content can certainly serve the entire sales funnel, but its core role is in the mid-funnel: shifting consumers' perceptions. It helps the audience understand what makes a brand different or better. It works most effectively when audiences access it via their own volition, unlike traditional marketing, which requires paid media to garner attention.
This is new territory for agencies, which have historically leaned on paid media to focus on the top of the funnel (awareness) and the bottom of the funnel (conversions). This new type of thinking requires a new type of agency -- the content AOR. Content AORs can't simply be traditional agencies that shift to a new media paradigm. That is what leads to the untenable amount of uninspired brand videos we have today.
At its core, it requires an understanding that audiences are not monolithic. Just as media buyers target ads based on specific behaviors, content AORs need to reach discrete audiences at specific times. That requires listening capabilities that leverage disparate data, creative teams that can produce discrete forms of content for both rational and emotional stages of the journey and technical chops for building immersive experiences that are personalized based on real-time data.
Content AORs need to get creative teams to work with the insights teams to move beyond "one and done" content, like a campaign, and move to an ongoing conversation that takes place between brands and consumers. Sometimes a brand should speak by creating content; other times it should listen by interpreting data. To succeed, we have to embrace a process that requires constant care and feeding. Like any great conversation, if we allow it to lag, our customers will walk.
Agencies of record came into being when businesses realized that the skills and culture required to create great creative are different from those required to develop great products and services. This stage is no different; a strategic understanding of all aspects of content marketing lies outside the core competencies of most brands. It's about getting the artists, geeks and organizers to play well in the sandbox.
Breakthrough content will be developed by agencies that were born and raised in the digital revolution. Agencies that have the ability to not only develop the content, but also the commitment to leveraging data in more complex ways than simply media targeting. It requires a commitment to creating both emotionally engaging content but also the more mundane tools that consumers need for frictionless experiences buying and using products. And, perhaps most critically, it requires the technical skills to build experiences that live within the consumer journey, not interrupt the journey.
Audiences are desperate for useful, empowering and inspiring content. This has led to the reactionary creation of content overload, which is only making the equation that much more difficult. Brands can build the tools, resources and culture to do it internally or can attempt to get their traditional agencies to make the shift. Many will succeed, but it will be an arduous battle. That's why content AORs will be a key component of the marketing ecosystem.