by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Matt Potter (@MattPotter), the chief content officer for John Brown Media UK, has strong feelings about content. Get it right, and you’ve got a lifelong brand relationship, he reckons.

John Brown Media logoQ5: Why do you think there is so much ineffective content coming out of adland, globally?
Matt Potter:
Two reasons. First, because content is being strategised, planned, executed and reviewed by people who don’t really have anything to do with content, don’t quite understand what it is or how it works, and have no experience with it but have been told it’s important to have once you have your brand ident and big campaign channel idea sorted. So, it’s, “Look, here’s the new portal! Look, here’s a great big sponsorship deal and a shiny logo! The content? Sure, sure, that will fill up those channels.” So effectively, the story itself — the core truths of an organisation, their opportunity to connect — is treated — bought, planned, budgeted — as if it’s a synonym for “stuff”. So that’s what it becomes. Got some data, got a channel, just put whatever in there, pump it out. You just can’t market to human beings like that.

And they should know this, because — if they stepped out of PowerPoint and thought about it from a consumer’s point of view — they would know it wouldn’t work on them, either. It’s as crazy as turning up for a date and chanting slogans across the table because you just don’t have anything interesting to say that’s going to lead to a brilliant, two-way flow and the beautiful relationship you want.

The problem — I mean, I know you’ve already spotted it — is that effective content marketing is a quality proposition in a commodity game. It’s about producing outcomes, not buying by-the-yard output. And that’s hard for adland’s media-channel planners to understand themselves, let alone the poor clients they’re pitching to.

The other problem springs from that. Because a lot of marketers — and I include plenty of agency-side marketers in this, not just clients — don’t understand what makes great content effective; they don’t really know what makes the difference between brilliant and terrible. And, of course, terrible is cheap; — of course it is; it’s landfill. Of course you can get anyone to stuff your page with keywords, use automated tools, whatever, very cheaply. But I’ve actually heard marketers talk about how they’ll automate their brand’s content marketing, farm it out piece by piece to gig-economy marketplaces, or use third-party media to “dress” their owned channels, and in the same meeting chat about understanding their customers’ needs.

At this point, they should probably be hearing that needle-scratch sound you get in movies when the action freezes and the voiceover says, “You’re probably wondering how we got here.” The fact is, it might be “content” to you as a marketer, but to each and every person out there, that touchpoint is a chance to be a moment of connection with what’s best in you. These moments, to them, are big. They might be the best, most-inspiring thing they saw on a terrible day. They might allow them to dream, to feel more confident, to take a new view on life. And you might not get another chance. That’s worth taking seriously.

Q5: What is best practice agencies should adopt to create winning content?
Think like a journalist. What’s your story? I used to get pitched at the BBC by people saying they wanted to do a travel story. I’d say, what’s the story? They’d say, “Paris.” But Paris isn’t a story, it’s a place. I’d tell them to go away and think more about why your story should cut through — why it mattered. What’s the audience? What’s different this time? What connects, not with what you want to say but with their curiosities and passions and inner lives? Same for your brand or product or whatever. A famous American reporter once said journalism is the art of taking something people don’t know about or care about and making them care. That’s also a pretty good summary of content marketing.

Q5: What pitfalls would you advise watching out for in the combining of data with creative content?
Don’t let the data push you around. Analytics and audience data have sunk more great marketing than it’s enabled — not because it’s wrong but because the people using it are afraid of it. If Steve Jobs had let the data boss the creative thinking, we’d all be listening to slimmer MiniDisc players right now.

If we think about creative content as if it were a journalistic story you have the chance to cut through with, then the data is your leads, your clues, your material. But it takes expertise and skill and overarching human intelligence to turn that into something that will make people notice, light fires, capture hearts and minds, forge change in attitudes or behaviours. You don’t get that from just uncritically regurgitating whatever you get sent.

Q5: When it comes to branded content, how can advertisers ensure they authentically engage consumers?
Four ways.

First, by getting out of their own wilderness of self-confirming PowerPoints and seeing themselves as others see them. I’ve met so many advertisers, marketers, the lot who are convinced that, because they work inside a brand and drink the Kool-Aid every day, anyone out there gives a damn.

You see it in car brands, [which] talk to consumers as if consumers are car nuts. You see it in banks and telecoms companies talking about the people who take their money-off offers as if they had bought into a set of beliefs around the brand. The thing is, if they were still able to get some distance and think about it for a second, they’d know that’s not know was happening. But adthink, like everything, gets institutionalised. People know what a bank ad, or content marketing programme, should look like, because that’s what it tends to look like. But that’s also the very thing that risks making it invisible and meaningless. It’s like pumping out dummy copy. And a lot of money is spent on that. Part of a good agency’s role — and certainly a good part of its value — is helping to unchain the thinking inside the organisation.

Second, and this is connected, see your customers or prospects or whatever for what they are — rounded people, with a life and an inner world that has nothing to do with you, your product or your relationship with them. Sure, I might drive your car or bank with you, or shop at your store, but that doesn’t mean you only have permission to talk to me about cars or financial product and services, or groceries. In fact, I don’t want you to — because you’re just trying to sell to me, and there’ll be a good chance I’m not even in the market for a car right now. So, use your emotional intelligence [EQ], and put yourself into the mind of the consumer. Do I just want you to keep pushing at me, or are there really interesting things about you I might find stimulating and fun and compelling? If you’re a car company, your view on future cities, or technology, or whatever, might be really cool. If you’re a food store, I want to hear provenance stories and trends, not just promos dressed as recipes.

Third, don’t rely on partnerships, sponsorships and celebs to “borrow” attention or interest. People are wise to it. We’ve reached the stage where kids on Instagram are adding #spon to their posts to pretend they are being paid to promote things. That’s the warning light that your consumers have tumbled the fact that brands using hired guns is cheap.

Lastly, for goodness’ sake, own your audience. You’ll always get more out of people — more of a chance to impress, more info shared, more insight, more shared time — if you host the party than if you rock up at someone else’s and try to buttonhole everyone. We’ve now seen the consequences of brands trying to build entire audiences exclusively on social platforms, only to realise too late that the platform was holding their audience hostage. Get people into your owned channels, and keep them there by being compelling, fascinating and consistently brilliant. You’ll thank me for it.

Q5: How would you respond to critics who argue against the blending of consumerism with human connection?
I suppose by repeating the question to myself for ages to see if I’m missing something.

  • Find out more about Matt Potter here.
  • Find out more about John Brown Media in South Africa here.


Carey FinnCarey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to, her new regular column “Q5” aims to hone in on strategic insights, analysis and data through punchy interviews with experts in media, marketing and design.

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