Now that content is hot, the 800-pound advertising and PR agencies are calling themselves content marketers. But are the Mad Men up to the task?
By Richard Sine
If marketers like you feel the ground shifting beneath your feet, rest assured the major advertising and PR agencies feel it as well. The Internet has blurred the traditional boundaries between PR, marketing, and sales, threatening those disciplines’ revenue models along the way. So agencies of all stripes are turning to a new growth area: content. Content marketers say that content can and should be integrated with other marketing efforts, which may be handled in-house or by other agencies. But don’t just assume that the same agency that produces your TV spots or print ads can handle the very different process of content marketing.
Custom content agencies are often called in to fulfill a particular marketing objective, such as re-engaging lapsed customers, says Gordon Plutsky, CMO of King Fish Media in Salem, Mass. As such, they’re accustomed to playing well not only with the client but also its other agencies. For example, King Fish recently incorporated elements of a client’s ad campaign into the catalogs it created. Then it partnered with the ad agency to create a program that measured the effectiveness of all of their marketing products, from the catalogs to the TV spots. In another example, when King Fish produced direct mail for a client, it borrowed elements from the client’s ad agency’s campaign, while the client’s Web designers borrowed from the direct mail for web copy. And King Fish itself works with a PR agency to help get the word out to media about the content it creates for clients.
Agencies must collaborate for efficiency and to ensure brand consistency, Plutsky says. He believes the partnership succeeds best when agency representatives meet regularly in person and are encouraged to talk directly, not just through the client. But Plutsky also advocates that marketers hire agencies individually, rather than trusting their “agency of record” to contract work out.
Increasingly, custom content agencies have observed global advertising holding companies, major PR agencies, and digital platform providers bidding for content marketing projects. But history demonstrates that making the shift to custom content isn’t easy. In recent years, several media companies and PR firms have shuttered their custom arms even as content has grown as a marketing category, reinforcing the idea that custom content is its own discipline and not simply an outgrowth of advertising or PR.
Custom content requires a different talent pool than other disciplines, notes Diana Pohly, president of The Pohly Company in Boston. The creative process is also unique, combining the client orientation of an agency with the audience orientation of a media company. Content initiatives are labor-intensive, Pohly notes, on the part of the client as well as the agency. Inexperienced marketers—and inexperienced agencies—often aren’t prepared for the amount of time required by content projects as well as the number of details involved. These projects often produce large amounts of content, tell complex stories, and explain difficult concepts, none of which plays into the strong suit of agencies that grew up producing 30-second TV spots or press releases.
No matter which agency is bidding for a project, however, Pohly recommends closely examining its portfolio and talent team to ensure it has experience with the kind of project you want done. Make sure your agency won’t be learning as it goes.