Dan Davenport rides his bike to work, but he also takes a plane. He’s a time-zone jumper, part of his job description as content director at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing. Having spent the better part of two decades at the corporate mothership in Des Moines, Iowa, Davenport moved last year to New York City to help integrate Meredith’s operations.
And “integration” is the ideal that all agencies aspire to—not only from an operational and delivery standpoint, but also in the eyes of equity and venture capitalists, who continue to look to content marketing and digital agencies for investment opportunities.
“Oftentimes in the past, clients would say ‘we want content, we want an e-mail program, or we want a magazine,’ and they weren’t buying the strategy side.”
As I’m talking to Davenport in MXM’s New York City headquarters, he’s preparing to jet to Des Moines in a couple days for a company-wide content/strategy “mash-up.” “We’re codifying how we go about building the continuum from strategy to content,” he says. “In the past, we’ve pitched clients and our teams would come together and at the very end of it we would have really great stuff, but oftentimes we had a lot of pain to get to that. So, we’ll spend two solid days in Iowa and come away knowing that our teams in Iowa, L.A., New York, Washington DC, Dallas and Detroit will all be telling the same story.” Davenport says the “mash-up” is also necessary because of the evolution he’s seen on the client side. As brands increasingly recognize the value of content, their understanding of the process becomes more fluent.
“Within the last 18 months, brands are really starting to understand and buy into the strategy component.”
“Clients, within the last 18 months, are really starting to understand and buy into the strategy component,” he says. “Oftentimes in the past, clients would say ‘we want content, we want an e-mail program, or we want a magazine,’ and they weren’t buying the strategy side. Well, now they’re buying that with greater frequency, which means we’re having to deliver with greater frequency, and I think that we realized earlier this year that to best do that we need to end up with a document that says ‘This is how MXM goes to market, from a strategy to content to delivery to measurement continuum, this is how it’s done.’”
Despite the leaps some clients have made in their understanding of content, Davenport says plenty of gaps—and opportunities—still exist. “A lot of times brands haven’t thought through who their audiences are from a segment perspective,” he says. “Sometimes they haven’t thought through who they are at all.”
More often than you’d think, he says, clients haven’t done much of a competitive review. “They generally know what their main competitors are doing, in a general way, but they may not have strategically documented it.”
It’s the first step in the strategy build, followed by, as Davenport says, questions like “What are we going to be measured against? What are the inputs? What are the insights that go into it?”
“A lot of times brands haven’t thought through who their audiences are from a segment perspective.”
From there, Davenport says the team can then build in the “pillars,” or attributes, of a content program. He cites as an example MXM’s work with a financial institution, where they deploy brand attributes like “straightforward,” “accessible” and “actionable.” “Attributes are the content,” he says, “and in some cases it can seem a little generic, but it’s important that we can say ‘these work for Bank A, but they would not work for Bank B, because this is what your brand is.’”
With pillars in place, editorial topics follow. “We’ll ask the client, ‘what are the subject areas the brand can talk about?’ I’ve seen brands miss the mark when it comes to talking about the things that best suit them,” says Davenport. “So that exercise can get us to the X axis of an editorial calendar. With a banking client, for example, we’re talking about retirement, investing, personal finance, credit and taxes, and down the Y axis we can talk about time—when people will be thinking about taxes and when they’ll be thinking about back to school. We start with what we know, what I would call the editorial know-how.”
Davenport’s editorial “know-how” extends back to the days when MXM was known as Meredith Custom Publishing, so he’s seen his share of editorial line-ups and understands the role that service journalism plays in content marketing.
“Brands generally know what their main competitors are doing, in a general way, but they may not have strategically documented it.”
Whereas, in the past, an editorial calendar served to align edit with design, production and sales, today it proves value to a client. “At times, clients can have short memories—as can we,” says Davenport. It’s not uncommon, he says, after having built a twelve-month edit plan, someone on the client side cools on a certain idea after six months. “So we want to be sure we can remember the idea was smart at the time, for specific reasons, backed by research.”
After all, it’s a long year, and as customers’ needs change, brands need to have a plan to be there. “We tell them, ‘you’re certainly making plans for different products to spike at different times of the year; so your content needs to work along with that,’” says Davenport, who concludes, “Some businesses may be seasonal, but strategy never is.”