Are We Really Headed Toward a World Without Ads?

The future of media, if you believe Shane Smith, is destined to be increasingly free of traditional advertising—and, therefore, much more about branded content.

The future of media, if you believe Shane Smith, is destined to be increasingly free of traditional advertising—and, therefore, much more about branded content.

“Young people have grown up with ad-free content,” the Vice Media co-founder and CEO said in a recent conversation with Unilever marketing and communications chief Keith Weed, “and so visionary brands are saying, ‘I get that, and we’re going to interweave and be part of the process.’” Brands that don’t excel at branded content “are going to be left in the dust,” he added.

It’s a position that’s not unexpected coming from the Vice boss, given how his millennial-focused media company has staked its reputation on disrupting traditional media models. Vice remains hot (it has a $4 billion valuation based on investments from Disney and others), and in March, Smith was named Cannes Lions Media Person of the Year, so the media industry keeps listening to him.

But is a “world without ads” or, rather, a world in which traditional ads have been replaced by branded content—really our collective destiny? A reality check:

Content marketing makes sense for some—but not all—brands

Ask people to name a company that’s had great success making branded content a cornerstone of its marketing, and Red Bull is likely to be their top answer. And for good reason: The brand has been so successful at creating sports content that it’s been described as a media company that happens to make an energy drink. That reputation was further underscored in March when the brand’s media arm, Red Bull Media House, signed a major content deal with Reuters to supply the news giant with action-sports photos, videos and stories.

But Red Bull is a special case—after all, extreme sports and energy drinks are aesthetically compatible—and let’s face it: Not every brand has a consistently compelling story to tell. If your company makes, say, toilet paper or rubber bands, does it really make sense for you to become a media company that happens to sell sundries?

Content marketing can be hard to scale

A lot of branded marketing is being driven by media companies that have special creative units that collaborate with brands to “storytell” through a form of branded content known as native advertising. From BuzzFeed to The New York Times, media companies have been investing heavily in creating compelling content with brand “partners”—and when it works, it can be great (see the New York Times-Netflix collaboration around the topic of women inmates, which subtly promoted a new season of Orange Is the New Black). At the same time, such branded content can, by definition, be hard to scale because it’s designed to appeal to a very specific media consumer: the BuzzFeed listicle lover or the Times devotee.

For brands that are seeking broader reach with their content-marketing strategies—and might even “own” their own channels (e.g., an Instagram account, a YouTube channel, a dedicated website)—the fact remains that if you build it (content), they (consumers) won’t necessarily come.

Yes, there are companies focused on helping brands scale across markets with their branded-content distribution, including Contently, Percolate and Keywee, while many of the tools used by traditional media companies—including Facebook promoted posts, content discovery platforms like Outbrain and in-image ad units that promote branded content—can work for “brand publishers,” too.

But the bottom line is that in the brave new world of branded content, marketers have to be skilled at, essentially, marketing their marketing.

Producing great content is, itself, difficult

For a 2015 report titled “The Future of Content,” The Content Council and Advertising Age conducted a survey of marketer and agency executives and led with the question, “What do you see as the biggest challenges of content marketing today?” The No. 1 answer (63.4 percent of respondents): “Creating quality, engaging content.” Just behind that answer: “Lack of budget” (53.3 percent) and lack of time (50 percent).

Recommended articles