Great content stems from a great editor, says Andrew Hirsch the CEO of London’s award winning content agency John Brown Media. With more than 50 Blue Chip clients in five continents, from John Lewis, Chelsea FC, RBS and Virgin (to name just a few), Hirsch knows a thing or two about custom publishing. Here he shares his insights on using data to inform content and why brands need to have a multichannel approach.
Content Magazine: Congratulations on your recent wins at the CMA awards in London. Nine accolades from 21 nominations is impressive. What do you think is the key to your teams’ success?
Andrew Hirsch: The key ingredient to our success in content is hiring the very, very best designers and the very best editors. I think this should almost be money no object. You should not be looking to save money on your editor. You should be going out and getting the very best editorial team for the brand. Who your editor is and the quality of the design are the two key elements to success.
Your background is in content—setting up your own publishing company in Australia in 1987—is this why you place so much emphasis on quality editorial?
That’s right, and then when I joined John Brown back in the UK in 1992—this company also had a rich heritage in consumer magazines. So quality content is in our blood. Our starting point always begins with the questions: Are we producing something people would want to pay for? Is it as good as a news stand title? Even though most of our content isn’t paid for (by the consumer), is the quality (of what we create) good enough to be paid for? That’s our benchmark and where we come from.
How do you marry creative excellence with commercial demands?
It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. But we always start from the point of view of the end customer, not our client. If you take Waitrose (the high-end British supermarket) as an example—before launching its ‘Waitrose Food’ magazine we set out to understand what their customers wanted to read; what they were currently reading; what other media they looked at. And we found out about the kind of content they already liked to absorb and engage with. Then we said, how can we match that or give them something better? We always look at the customers and work out how to please them first. If our clients’ customers are happy, then our clients are happy. There are agencies out there that say as long as the client is happy, then the job’s done. I don’t actually believe that. Appeasing the client is only half the job. I think you’ve got to go way beyond that.
John Brown Media has launched some of the best branded magazines in the world from Bloomingdales to Virgin Airlines. Why do you think magazines are still popular, considering we live in a digital age?
You need to get people’s attention, and print gets attention. If everyone just did digital—it would become too noisy and people would switch off from it. But the reality is, a single channel approach doesn’t work. Whether it’s a print only or digital only campaign. You need to look multichannel. Things work best when you’ve got print and digital working alongside each other. You’ve also got to look at your demographic and the age group you’re targeting. If you’re looking at trying to get to 18 year olds, then maybe a digital campaign disbursed with an event is the way to go. If you’re looking to target a 48 year old, maybe a mixture of print, digital and events will work. You’ve got to look at the customer. You need to find out what they are absorbing already. You can’t just say, ‘well here’s what we’re going to do’ and ignore the customer.
In 2015 you merged with Dentsu Aegis Network and have since been able to work closely with its data analysis arm, iProspect. How important is data to your business?
Data has always been important. It’s just now, since our acquisition with Dentsu, we have better access to more sophisticated data. But we’ve always used data and insights when pitching to a client. We don’t just go in and say ‘this is what we think’. We actually go in and say this is what the market is doing, this is what your competitor is doing, this is what your competitor is doing in other markets around the world and here’s the gap in the market that you’re not involved in from a content perspective. We use data insights to identify gaps in the market and suggest content that will fill the gap.
How are you using the new forms of data to shape your content decisions?
We are working with iProspect globally on a number of brands. We are now able to look closely at those clients’ key words or key phrases and work out how they can automate them. What’s interesting is we can now identify say 10 phrases that prospective customers are searching for. We can then give these to our editorial teams as a starting point for them to create content around. We’re actually making content much more compelling for online users and potential customers, who are already searching for these phrases, to buy from that brand.
What marketing automation tools are you using?
We’re using Hubspot and a similar tool to Silverpop more than we did, say six months ago, and we’ll be using them more as we go forward. But I think tools only tell you so much. One of the things our editors do is absorb themselves into their brands. So for example an editor for John Lewis will shop regularly in store, online and on mobile to truly understand the customer experience. They’ll learn much more from that than from marketing automation tools.
Are consumers becoming fatigued with ‘branded content’? And if so, how are you combating this sentiment?
I don’t think they are fed up with content per se. People are fed up with being bombarded with poor content—where it’s not relevant, where it’s not well targeted and where they’ve already said no to it. Content needs to be relevant, when it’s not relevant fatigue is not the right word, it’s irritation. For us we’re just focusing on creating great content. Great content finds the customer—if you produce mediocre work, that’s very easy to switch off from, that doesn’t stand out in a crowded market then consumers won’t engage with it.
You’ve a lot of experience migrating traditional print products online, what lessons have you learnt from that process that you can share?
About seven or eight years ago we spent a lot of time thinking about how we were going to move our clients’ products from print to digital. Looking back—the way we did it stemmed from hiring the right editor, someone that was as comfortable in digital as they were in print. These editors understood that they weren’t creating content for a magazine and then reformatting it, but were creating content into one form that could be pushed into any channel. If you’ve got an editor that doesn’t feel confident working in a digital world, then they’re not the right editor for you.
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