ITN Productions' Mark Browning on content marketing and the challenge for brands

Liam Ward-Proud
Mark Browning says brands risk being sacrificed on the “altar of social media” if they get content wrong
Most people know ITN as the producer of ITV and Channel 4 news, or as the maker of heavyweight investigative shows like Dispatches. But over the last four years, creative production division ITN Productions has been busily building up a content marketing operation, grabbing a slice of brands’ fast-growing content budgets so hotly pursued by traditional advertising and media agencies.
ITN Productions managing director Mark Browning talks to City A.M. about the creative challenge facing brands in today’s crowded media environment, and why he thinks legacy production houses like ITN will play a greater role in the marketing and advertising landscape.
Why is content marketing exploding in popularity?
There are a number of factors. It’s increasingly easy for consumers to avoid the traditional forms of advertising and marketing. We spin through ads on TV and YouTube. Even on Facebook and Twitter, people just scroll past. This tendency to avoid makes brands look at producing content that’s valuable in its own right – audiences want to be entertained, informed, surprised, or inspired.
I’d also argue that Generation Y in particular has become accustomed to turning off all the noise of the twenty-first century clutter. Previous generations were a lot more sensitive to advertising. This means brands have to try harder, and it’s why content marketing is in a sweet spot right now.
Does the rise of digital present a specific creative challenge to content marketers?
It’s allowed an explosion of creativity. The idea that you could just “post and hope” with your content is completely gone. It’s far more complicated than just having a strong idea. Good content marketing engages the consumer where they are, rather than blurting straight into an online conversation. Brands need to get with consumers’ digital rhythm, and go beyond interacting with them just through the prism of their product. It’s not all about your product – you need a brand purpose, and to build relationships on this.
What’s the argument for using a legacy TV producer for content marketing rather than an ad or media agency?
Everybody makes content these days, but the vast majority don’t do it very well. I’m sure everyone’s heard the Simon Daglish (ITV’s group commercial director) line – 90 per cent of the content in the world is crap. Brands have to decide who they can trust to do it well. At ITN, we’ve got an unmatched legacy – you can’t magic up decades of expertise in storytelling, informing and entertaining overnight. And the stakes are high. You see people get it wrong time and again – the brand ends up being sacrificed on the altar of social media.
Can you envisage a time where large swathes of the content we consume is produced by brands?
The direction of travel is pretty clear – we’re seeing brands become publishers, publishers becoming broadcasters, and broadcasters are becoming brands. Those traditional boundaries have completely come down. It’s not that they’ve blurred – the categories just don’t exist anymore.
All this merging of territory has actually presented a huge opportunity to a company like ITN. Suddenly, our skills and brand values are totally relevant in a different market, and it’s all because of the shifts we’re seeing in the structure of the industry.
Presumably there’s a line where consumers become uncomfortable with brand involvement in content. How alert is the industry to that?
Probably not alert enough, to be honest. In some cases, we’ve seen companies cross the line, and then they’re completely lambasted on Twitter and Facebook. Consumers are super-sensitive to brands gatecrashing their party. Just look at MasterCard’s uncomfortable Brit Awards experience, where it was lampooned on social media because of the requirements it sent to journalists covering the event. It’s another reason that brands have to be careful with who they partner with. You might see some bright, new, funky partnership opportunity with a new content maker, but it’ll cost you dearly if you get it wrong.
Other than ITN’s work, what’s the best piece of content marketing you’ve seen?
I’ve got two, and they’re both from Red Bull. First, the Stratos campaign, where Felix Baumgartner jumped to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere. You can’t get a bigger piece of content marketing than that, and of course it went absolutely ballistic on TV, radio and everywhere else.
The other one is Red Bull’s Can You Make it campaign, where individuals had to get around Europe using only cans of Red Bull as currency. Every single bit of the campaign revolved around the key touchpoints for Generation Y – they even had to film it on their phones. Red Bull is a real leader in content marketing.

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