Should brands even be in the content business?

Michelle Manafy is the editorial director of the Online Publishers Association

Today, storytelling is a core competency for marketing and media companies alike. From the discussions that took place at the 12th Annual OPA Summit in Miami last week, some of the best marketing stories emerge as the result of creative collaborations between marketers, agencies and media companies. These partnerships bring brands that people value together with content people actually like – content that is developed out of deep understanding of a brand’s most loyal consumers.

As the opening keynote, National Geographic’s Creative Director Bill Marr made clear to the audience of media and marketing executives: “We are all in the business of bringing people in through great stories.”

Vox Media COO and Group Publisher Marty Moe countered the general conventional wisdom when he said, “I don’t think brands want to be in the content business.” Brands value partnerships with media companies, he said, in order to tap into their expertise in creating and delivering content that will appeal to and genuinely engage audiences.

For example, speaker Rob Candelino, VP of marketing and GM of Unilever’s skincare business said that his company is looking for ways to enhance experiences and he looks to media companies to help him meet his marketing and business goals. Specifically citing mobile as an area of focus, Candelino said media companies need to “help us be more nimble in delivering our messaging.”

During a panel composed of agency and marketing executives discussing the future of the video marketplace, GE’s Digital Content Strategy Leader Katrina Craigwell pointed to the success that GE is having at “telling GE’s story.” She described GE’s work with “The Slow Mo Guys,” which features a YouTube duo who film their activities in extreme slow motion using a digital high-speed camera. GE invited the pair to visit their labs in New York to film scientific techniques in their trademark style. The results so far are impressive, netting hundreds of thousands of views on GE’s YouTube Channel and more than 4 million on Gav and Dan’s channel.

Effectiveness is not measured by views alone, though. An additional benefit, according to Craigwell, was finding a way to illustrate “what a great place GE is to work for” in a context that resonates with young job seekers.

During his talk, Jon Suarez-Davis, Kellogg’s VP of global digital strategy and North America marketing, said he believes that the key to successful media-marketing match-ups is “supercharging creativity,” which he said can be accomplished by bringing the “creativity of media companies out front in the process to work with brands.”

Television certainly provides vivid examples of the power of creativity and storytelling. Viewers are deeply connected with the programming they love — look no further than the chatter around the new digital watercooler, our social media networks. OPA Summit speaker Christy Tanner, svp and gm of CBS Interactive Group, discussed the popular TV Guide Watchlist app and the creative ways CBS has incorporated native advertising from endemic and non-endemic advertisers into the content stream. Essential to Watchlist’s advertising success is making advertising content “act like other content in the application” so that sponsors benefit from audience appreciation.

The high level of brand vision could be seen in many of the marketing campaigns referenced at the OPA Summit—including a three-minute excerpt of the Dove-sponsored short film “Selfie,” which it premiered four days earlier at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was created by Documentarian Cynthia Wade, who won a 2007 Oscar for Freeheld.

Unilever’s Candelino encouraged those that want to partner with marketers on similar content creation to get to know their brand goals, audiences and messages before approaching them with proposals. “Often we get content proposals that miss the mark because they don’t understand who our consumer is, how we add value to their lives and how precious we are about our brands,” he said.

As Vox’s Moe put it, “We are best positioned to help brands get their messages across. We are the ones that best know how to connect brands to our audiences by creating experiences that really powerfully tell their story in a transparent and authentic way.”

“Creativity,” according to Kellog’s Suarez-Davis, “happens when people who think differently get together and collaborate.”