“I think a lot of people still treat branded content as a second-class citizen,” says Scott Donaton, “and brands have earned that to some degree by creating a lot of really bad, heavy-handed content.”
The chief content officer at Digitas, Scott Donaton’s clearly not stingy when it comes to doling out opinions. After all, his heroes growing up were New York City journalists in the mold of Jimmy Breslin, hard-nosed, colorful and unapologetic newspaper guys, all of whom would likely have pointed comments, if not bewildered laments, about the evolution of journalism from the days when print was both king and queen.
“A lot of people still treat branded content as a second-class citizen.”
“Content for brands, as it’s evolved over the last ten years or so, is such a different mindset for them,” says Donaton, a longtime ad industry journalist and former editor-in-chief of Ad Age. “The new landscape generates a fear-based response: If they can’t reach people in traditional ways, if people can by-pass their commercials, then they figure they need to jam their message into other places where eyeballs are going to be. The result is content that’s too self-serving and isn’t relevant enough for audiences.”
On the other side, Donaton sees the traditional content creators, legacy news media, as carrying a certain snobbishness towards “sullied editorial.” “I’m not saying that what they do doesn’t need to have its integrity protected, but there is a belief automatically that branded content will be created by a kind of second-class citizen tier and it will be clearly marked with warning signs.”
Donaton believes that the reality of how audiences perceive and consume content is different than it was in the days of Breslin. Today’s audiences, especially the younger-skewed, largely distrust systems, politics, experts and media, and only care about information that’s relevant to their lives.
“I think we’re at this point where brands legitimately have as much chance at consumer’s time and attention as anyone else.”
“Audiences care about whether it was worthy of their time, whether it delivered entertainment or information value,” he says. “Which is why American Express can do something like OPEN and provide so much value to its audience beyond what would have happened if they simply ran ads aimed at small business owners in small business magazines. I think we’re at this point where brands legitimately have as much chance at consumer’s time and attention as anyone else, and will get to a point where it will be commonplace to be developing content and co-developing content that is not put on the false side of a dividing line from more ‘pure’ forms of content as they’re defined right now.”
“We’re right now just sitting at that point which is in between a crazy challenge and amazing opportunity.”
To develop content more effectively, Donaton believes brands must change their definitions of control and creativity. “These are all things that scare brands, there are legitimate fears from brands that move slowly in this space. It’s not that they don’t get it or they don’t see the need to do these things, but there have been a lot of efficiencies to things like buying television ads. There are a lot of brands that see that it still works in certain ways, and I think we’re right now just sitting at that point which is in between a crazy challenge and amazing opportunity.”
That’s why Donaton jumped to Digitas at the beginning of 2015 after four years as global chief content officer at Universal McCann. “I’m trying to help define what that new model might look like,” he says. Clients include L’Oreal, Harley Davidson, Fitbit, Puma and Lenovo.
And what the model will actually look like is anyone’s guess. But Donaton likes the resources at Digitas—the technology and the data, specifically. And he has some ready replies when I mention virtual reality technology.
“We can begin to think about the possibilities of immersive experiences, to create new experiential ways to put people in places that they otherwise obviously couldn’t be in, in situations, or in geographic locations, whether that’s an adventure sports thing or whether that’s travel to another destination,” he says. “There are a number of issues with these technologies right now—they’re not available yet in any widespread way for consumers to interact with. They’re kind of expensive. They’re clunky. There’s not content for these devices if you own them. But how can I put people in certain worlds and have them see what that looks like to be a part of that, and then use that to drive their interest—that’s going to be powerful at some point. It’s not going to be tomorrow but it’s something I think brands need to be aware of as a platform that’s coming.”
“We can begin to think about the possibilities of immersive experiences, to create new experiential ways to put people in places that they otherwise obviously couldn’t be in.
And Jimmy Breslin would have no patience for it.