What's the difference between an ad and content?


"There's no line between advertising and branded content, no straight line anyway," said Jennifer Golub, creative director-exec director of content at TBWA content arm Let There Be Dragons. "It's more of an ambling brook."

Cannes Lions, 2014 I noticed two nice pieces of work from Philips today, both creatively very thoughtful and visually well executed.

As both are produced in an entertaining and non-intrusive way, they leave you with warm fuzzies for the brand and products. (It has definitely made me feel more positively to Philips and these type of adjustable lightbulbs!) There's no hard sell of cold features going on here. Show don't tell.

It is interesting to take these two examples and throw them into the 'content vs ad' argument, with one clearly being more content, and one slap bang in the grey area of the two.

To start, the 90 second ad for Philips hue (it actually reminds me a little of some John Lewis ads). Much like John Lewis ads, this does sit on the fence between content and advertising. This particular execution does veer into the content argument though.

FTERGLOW looks absolutely incredible and is very much content, whilst actually promoting a longer film which goes live on Philips' website on 19th October 2014. (You can imagine Sony would've killed for this film during their 'Colour' Bravia marketing phase).

But why does the 'hue' ad feel like it could be both? Is it because it's beautifully made, with an interesting narrative to see how light in our home has changed (or not) through time? Is that enough to make it content? Even though its focus is the product? The product is in every frame, and shown in a 'normal' use case. AFTERGLOW also features the product throughout, but in a way that 99.9% of customers never will. It is not just this factor.

Only this week I read an article on AdAge which was expressing the struggle Cannes had (and is probably still having) in defining what content actually is. I'm sure this is a debate which won't be easily solved, but at Cannes they settled with this:

...content was interpreted as something culturally relevant that people invite or seek out.

That is certainly a sensible approach, but that still doesn't make for an easy categorisation.

With this in mind you could categorise the Philips 'ad' for Philips hue as content, as people would enjoy seeing how life has evolved at home in the recent decades. I myself was curious enough from the title of a blog post and a still from the ad to click through and watch it. Much like how people sought after watching the Epic Splits video from Volvo, as it became culturally relevant through millions of people watching it and sharing it.

I like to think that, video 'content' can come in any form or execution. A 6 second Vine, a 30 second TVC or a 12 minute YouTube video. But for me it has to have some (or all) these qualities, and I think the more you have the finer the work:

Some of these are obviously open to interpretation, but you have to be ruthless with them and put yourself in the shoes of the intended audience - does it deliver on any of these? By virtue of achieving some of these, you accomplish the others - so it is something of a self fulfilling list. But all the best advertising that does this can certainly be classed as content. And before the era of YouTube/online advertising, we'd all sit and watch stuff like this - the 100 Best TV ads - check out this from 2003...

Are any of these classic ads content?

I think so.

Perhaps it just boils down to story, does it contain a well designed and executed story, rather than just slamming audiences with features or prices? Story will certainly add value, and it will be far more engaging than one without a story - you just have to ensure it is relevant and authentic to the brand and the audience. It's not so simple.

We are storytellers, right?

(Nods to Petapixel & Gizmodo/Sploid & AdAge)

(Cross posted from Robert's blog)

  1. Don't be an interruption
  2. Have value
  3. Be relevant
  4. Be authentic
  5. And do at least one of these --> Inform, educate and entertain (Stolen from Reith's BBC Mission)