Thanks to changing consumer habits and the wide-ranging pressures on brands, branded content agencies have had to adapt to the new media landscape as much as any other business.
Driven by teams grounded in journalism and 'fabulous storytelling', as one agency neatly sums it up, branded content benefits from key data and insight, meaning that these stories reach the right audience via the most appropriate channel.
Branded content agencies are finding ever-more brands are recognising this value, and working with them to create tailored content strategies from the outset.
Marketing gathered together some of the sector's key players to hear how they are developing the conversations that help to build relationships between brands and consumers.
Around the table
Lindsay Barrett, account director, Sunday
Steven Hunter, director, August Media
Julia Hutchison, chief executive, APA
Natasha Jackson, head of digital and content, River
Helen Ketchin, marketing director, Forward
Mark Lonergan, managing director, August Media
Noelle McElhatton, editor, Marketing
Dr Nicola Murphy, chief executive, River
Louise Pearce, editorial director, Forward
Philip Smith, head of content solutions, Marketing (chair)
It's been another busy 12 months. What are the key changes and trends in the sector?
Natasha Jackson: We were all talking about iPad and mobile 12 months ago, but we've realised it's not all about the device, it's about the content. We've gone back to basics and the fundamentals of creative content. It's about the story and understanding needs and behaviour; insights into what audiences need and want.
Nicola Murphy: We find we're speaking to chief executives now, not so much marketing directors, about content strategy.
Louise Pearce: Clients now understand content strategy is at the heart. They are working with us to see whether it is the right platform, and why. The content strategy is something they've thought important from the beginning, which is a real shift.
Lindsay Barrett: Clients have taken a step back recently and thought about what they are doing in different channels and (its) relevance, where previously they jumped in. The past 12 months has been a learning curve not only for agencies, but clients as well.
Steven Hunter: Clients are starting to understand that different channels (serve) a different purpose. Digital offers an instant aspect, but print is more a gift or reward for loyalty. They are also starting to realise, don't do digital just because it's cheap.
Julia Hutchison: The issue of integration has become more important. Some of that has been driven by clients' previously separate digital and marketing departments. It's been difficult for some clients to merge those disciplines, but, as a result, we are getting a cleverer repurposing and use of content in different channels.
What is driving this change? Is technology the key?
LP: It's experience; knowing what works where - for example, knowing that Facebook might be used as a service centre.
NM: It's client-driven, whether through the marketing director or chief executive.
Helen Ketchin: In our experience it's not always client-driven, but it should be. If it's not the client driving, they are less likely to fund it.
SH: They pay for it if they believe in it. We can be part of the education, but it has to be credible for them to buy into it.
LB: The significant thing is that social media may (previously) have been (treated as) PR, but now it comes out of a marketing budget. That has been a fundamental shift.
NM: We have clients who have tried things, especially mobile, with a contingency budget. It worked for certain things, and now they put it into the marketing budget. Where it used to be above-the-line and DM, now it's branded content.
NJ: I've noticed a change of roles. Clients have content managers rather than brand or marketing managers. They realise they have to focus purely on content and conversation, and make sure they are updating, seeding and sharing content.
JH: A lot of budget, 90% or so, used to go into design and build of websites. We are seeing a shift in understanding that they have to be updated accordingly.
Where is technology being embraced the most?
JH: Retail has a lot of data going back a long way and its very transparent in terms of sales and effect.
NM: We have retail clients and they are on the ball. We can see what was sold in what channel by day, by store, by mobile, which is incredibly powerful from an insight perspective in terms of driving where you put your budget.
HK: We have the advantage of working with Tesco, which has Clubcard data. We are able to do direct comparisons between Clubcard holders and non-holders who receive the same content. There's more of a need to spend time and money on data analysis, even outsourcing if necessary. There is so much data now that it can be easily misread. You need to spend the time and money looking at, for example, why there might be a peak in website hits.
JH: Agencies doing B2B work have seen strong growth. They haven't got the same big budgets, but digital has offered a world of opportunity. There's a lot of innovation; beautiful designs and things you wouldn't expect from B2B communications.
NJ: We do segmented email marketing for a female-focused B2B client and get to work on clever email marketing strategies. They are quite open to us carving up the data to see who the audience is and create content for them based on that.
HK: We had a B2B client who was doing a very promotion-focused email to prospects. We made it a more content-rich experience that led to a feature-based online magazine. Open-rates increased from 5% to 32% just by changing content. It was very effective.
LB: It's worth saying that print has not lost its potency. It can still be the most powerful way of communicating and delivering ROI, and still generates the most revenue. From both an advertising and content perspective, it is incredibly important. Clients who have jumped ship from print in the past 12 months have realised down the line that they need to re-evaluate that.
So what does this mean for agencies and brands?
LB: It's all up for grabs. It's not just us competing for clients' budgets, time and accounts. Those of us who work on big clients with multiple agencies - DM, integrated, advertising, PR, digital social and content (are all) vying for the same thing. There's no one answer and no one is doing it perfectly.
HK: You have to be a lot cleverer in the way that you approach it and put a content strategy forward. (We also have to) be quite honest about where our strengths are as an industry; where they finish and where it's good to get a specialist agency in, whether SEO or social.
JH: Strategy is an interesting trend. Our industry, five or six years ago, was seen as executional. There was the lead agency, whether media or ad agency, coming up with a good idea. Because of digital and focusing on content, our strategic experience has moved up the agenda in a positive way. We are brought to the table with clients now.