Brands as publishers – for real?

Josh Black

In this guest post, Josh Black questions whether some brands can justifiably call themselves publishers.

Barely a week goes by these days when I don’t hear some sort of new marketing jargon. This week’s doozy was ‘micro moments’, a term I’m still grappling to fully comprehend.

Let’s tackle another term instead for now – ‘brands as publishers’, quite possibly the content marketing buzzword champion of the year.

No doubt, brands are pushing out more and more content, but at what point can they really call themselves a publisher and what do they need to do to legitimately earn this title in the minds of the people that matter – the readers and viewers?

When I go to bed and dream about content, publishers, in my mind, are institutions like the Thomson Reuters, Penguin Random House, McGraw-Hill and Harper Collins – organisations that have produced content for generations that has educated, inspired and changed the world.

What brand really produces content that changes the way we think and live like this?

Do any brands produce content that causes revolutions and changes policy? Does any brand produce content that advances humanity?

People pay to view the content produced by these bastions of the spoken and written word. They spend real hard-earned money from their pocket, because the content from the world’s best publishers has incredible utility and value.

Unfortunately, giving the content away for free, like brands do when they ‘publish’ content, provides very little measure for the quality of the content, because no viewer or reader is reaching into their pocket and paying for it.

I’m not convinced that paying for it with their time, as they do with free content, is an accepted measure of the value of the content. As Evan Williams, former CEO and chairman of Twitter says of much of the content being pushed these days, “we put junk food in front of them and they eat it.”

That’s not to say that all brand content is junk – I’d argue that there is some incredible work being produced, but there’s also plenty that just adds noise and clutter. In short, we’re just not consistent enough yet. As an industry, we are still learning and getting the model right.

Brands want audiences. If we could turn back the clock thirty years and deliver mass audiences through one platform, like television in the 1980’s, it would make all of our jobs so much easier.

The reality though is we can’t.

Expectations from management at the world’s largest advertisers are increasing at an exponential rate – just like media fragmentation is.

Budgets, meanwhile, are only just ticking up or, in some cases, staying flat. To ease some of this pressure, advertisers have looked to create brand owned media or have become ‘brands as publishers’. But they ask questions that no editor at the Wall Street Journal or Penguin Random House would ever ask – ‘is this in line with brand strategy’ and ‘how can we insert the brand logo without consumers noticing?’

Herein lies the problem and challenge.

The other challenge is that very few brand-owned platforms truly deliver mass audiences. I say few because there are some, but I’m not sure if these platforms still qualify as true publishers because I’d still question whether people would pay for the content if it came with a price tag. How many of these platforms could financially support themselves with either third party advertising or subscriber payments? How much of the content could support itself without paid media attached to it?

It’s not all doom and gloom – we are doing some great work. But we need to get our batting average up as an industry. First, let’s start using the right terminology for what we are actually doing – we’re not really ‘publishing’ yet. Second, let’s look at the lessons and view the content that we, as an industry, are producing for our clients through two lenses:

1. How can we create content that has such value and utility to our audience that they would reach into their pocket and pay for it if we asked them to?

2. How can we build content destinations that truly live and act like a publisher as opposed to a cleverly masked destinations trying to act like something they’re really not?

The world might be getting smaller, but when it comes to media the world is getting more complex, challenging and fragmented by the day. As the CEO for GroupM’s content business across APAC, I have an absolutely vested interest in seeing more and more content produced and distributed. But unless we produce better quality content more reliably and more consistently, the reader and the viewer will speak louder and louder. We can either choose to listen to them or continue to ignore them, and that, would be to all our peril.

Josh Black is CEO of GroupM Content APAC ’s content businesses across Asia Pacific, which include Mindshare Content+, MEC Wavemaker, Mediacom MBA, Maxus Content, PLAY, Dialogue Factory, Filmworks China, ESP Properties, ESP Brands and GroupM Entertainment.


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