Why Ford’s CMO Has Content on His Mind

If you still have doubts that brands are now in the content business, talk to Ford CMO Jim Farley.

In a 20-minute conversation, Farley mentioned content no fewer than 15 times. Again and again, he came back to the biggest challenge for Ford in digital media is to create compelling content that’s shareable. Ford has been a leader in figuring out social media, starting with its breakthrough campaign for the Fiesta three years ago. Along the way, Farley said that it has learned that the role of marketer has changed. It was always in the content business, but that was mostly confined to TV spots and informational content. Nowadays, it is pumping out entertainment content, such as sock puppet here, which is designed to spark conversations in social media.

Yesterday, Ford officially launched the Fusion, its big bet on taking a chunk of the U.S. market for midsize sedans. In the three months leading up to the launch, Ford has tallied 11 million digital media interactions through a content-based campaign with “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, who recorded a series of videos on “Random Acts of Fusion.” Farley spoke to Digiday about how the carmaker is approaching digital, particularly in its focus on creating shareable content.

Have you figured out social media yet?
We’re getting closer to figuring out the cadence in the social space. We’ve made a lot of progress. We’ve committed a lot of resources to our digital spend and the human capital to promote the company and our products. We developed a lot of new muscles. We learned a lot about how to make social make sense for the company and still be authentic and not interrupt people’s natural interactions. In social, we learned how important content generation is. We didn’t understand how much content we need to be produce. That’s the currency of the social experience.

Why is content so important?
What we found is that shareable content is something you have to be professional about and quick to develop. You can’t do it by content alone. You have to have paid advertising. But it’s best to start with a running start. If you’re doing pre-launch on the Fusion, start with Ryan Seacrest’s fan base. If you want to have a conversation about Ford, start with Mustang. You have to find something that starts the dialogue and is compelling. You have to have great sharable content, which isn’t easy to produce.

How do you find Facebook as a content-distribution medium and as an advertising medium?
As a distribution source for our content, it’s rich. But you better be ready for the content to be interesting. People will self-select out regularly. Like most marketers, we budget for launches and events. We don’t have a budget sitting there for content production. Advertisers used to do that in the ’50s. They’d own a TV show and produce it. They were producing content back then. We’re back in that business now. What works and doesn’t is a fluid thing. We learned that entertaining is important. You have to have a point of view that people would want to share. We found that Facebook ads plus really cool content make it an effective medium for advertising. It’s not one thing, though. Talk to Facebook, and ask them their best advertiser. What they said to us was produce really good content, be smart about ads to generate scale and from there make sure where they go is just as interesting. All those were different challenges.

Content keeps coming up. Brands have always created content. How is it different now?
If I walked through the agency three years ago, the team was mostly working on broadcast advertising. There were a couple people in other areas, including the Web. They’d be working on banner ads or our own cool videos the banner ads would link to. When I walk through today, one person is working on a Ken Block video, the next is working on an animated figurine doing comedy, the next is working on Ryan Seacrest videos. It’s almost overwhelming. We’re not used to entertaining people. We’re used to informing people. Entertaining people means taking risks and making cultural judgments. Take Doug the puppet. He had a press conference where he had to be funny, but if he was too inappropriate, it would be bad for our brand. Those are new creative muscles.

You mentioned mobile as a huge opportunity. It seems like nobody’s all that crazy about it as an ad medium just yet.
On a scale of 0-10 of understanding it well, if search is an 8 and social is at 4-5, I’d say mobile is at a 2. For example, the people who are 5s and 6s aren’t doing advertising. They’re creating apps. If you’re General Mills, you produce an app that makes it easy to scan your products and do couponing. That’s more effective than ads. Are apps advertising or not? Who cares. If they get people interested in your product, it’s going to be effective. Is a banner ad going to work on a smart device? Probably not. That would be a 1 or a 0 at this point. The smart people I respect are going into app development and making their mobile sites engaging. They’re using the provider of your service as a conduit into your life. I don’t have the answers, but it feels like I’m around a 2.

The digital media industry often debates what it can do to attract more brand spending. What are two things digital media should improve?
The first is, I’ve been advertising in print publications for more than two and a half decades. Guess how many walked in and said the ad you’re running is awful and you need to change your ad right now? It happened once in my career. I gave that person business for as long as they were working on that brand. The first is, help me understand your audience so I can create the right way to promote my brand in an effective way that’s respectful of your audience. Digital for most marketers is very intimidating. Your media partner has to hold your hand. I will never forget that person saying my ad was wrong. He said, “I got your money, but you’re making a mistake.” I wish that would happen more regularly in digital. The second thing is, we gotta sort out this privacy thing. These are very personal interactions and devices. No one wants to get bothered. For us to be successful and get more money to digital, we have to find a way to start sorting out respecting the customer and being part of their lives. It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to find that line.