Laura Wade of Maxus: why branded content needs to change to fit a hyper-connected media world

unnamed2-e1386580625227Laura Wade is the head of Maxus Partnerships, a new division at the WPP-owned media agency that aims to build content-focussed relationships between consumers, clients and media channels. Here she explains why the focus of branded content needs to move from the advertiser’s message to the needs of consumers and media channels.


The current furore around content cannot be ignored – but how do you create great content and why should you do it? Simply put, it offers the best way to reach today’s hyper-connected and hyper-social consumer – it also, if well executed, offers a way to have a disproportionate impact on your share of voice.

But as brands, agencies, media owners and platforms clamour to embrace content, how do we ensure it stacks up against the same rigour applied to other marketing communication and how do we maximise ROI?

Partnerships are not new. However, an approach founded in genuine collaboration is new and I believe it’s what’s needed to create innovative marketing platforms for the long term.

The launch of ITV Fusion and 4Shorts (Channel 4’s short form content brand for 4OD) reveals a bolstering and extension of the traditional TV sponsorships: far beyond idents and towards packages that integrate brands organically with programming content.

Genuine collaboration is about working together to achieve a shared goal that is bigger than the level of investment from any one partner. It’s about trust in the partners you are working with and about equality. The biggest shift for brands wanting to produce content is that it’s not just about the brand – it’s about the channel it’s going to be consumed in, what the audience actually wants to see and what those people are willing to share.

That is why credible consumer data and audience insight, aligned with brand beliefs, are important for success within the branded content space.

Content and open collaboration are at the core of the evolving model, where a fresh approach to collaboration marks a radical and fundamental shift from traditional brand-led comms. Clients previously bought into content that was well shot and well edited, relaying tangible touch points. In an era of Gangnam Style YouTube sensations, brand guidelines are now based more around producing multiple pieces of platform -agnostic content, with references that translate seamlessly and material that resonates with the audience.

A collaborative spirit has been key to our work at Maxus with ITN, ITV and Barclays LifeSkills to highlight the bank’s role in encouraging 50,000 young people through work experience in 2013. This meant the production of 40 vignettes each day, on the day, for one week in June this year that followed two students as they undertook their work experience in businesses in London and Birmingham. To position this as a topical current affair, we worked with ITV to run each vignette as a solus piece of copy in a centre-break in the News at Ten on ITV1.

In a digital and social context where consumers shape, lead and even edit content, it can no longer be just about brand, media owner and agency working to deliver a campaign. Rather, we’re moving towards a far more holistic approach where audience, brand and content all operate on a level playing field. Content and partners have become just as valid to the plan as brand. In essence, the model is now about placing genuine content realised through brand truths with audience insights at the heart.

It follows that this places a huge burden of pressure on the brand manager, who effectively takes on a commissioning editor role (a full-time job in itself!) while retaining responsibilities for ROI and, ultimately, selling products.

Of course, some might question the need for a partnerships and content division when content should be at the heart of everything we do. But as I see it, the role of specialist divisions is to marry data and insights from media planning and consumer behaviour with stellar creativity; we need to think beyond the rate card.

Our role is to follow logic and processes, use advanced consumer data and offer the creative guidance that enables clients to make that big, brave decision that also meets brand objectives. It is also to advise and assist in content discovery. There’s no point creating content if no one sees it!

From the client perspective, this means shifting from a media brief to truly content-led briefs that are less about using certain channels to reach certain demographics and more about how they want to make people feel. The brief needs to ask an agency what insights it can offer to create that ‘big’ idea that will resonate with passion points.

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