To Succeed as Publishers, Brands Must Shed Midcentury Mind-set

Need quality content and new monetization models

Headshot of B. Bonin Bough

It's time to get real. For the last five years, all we've been hearing is that brands are publishers. This means that for the last five years not only have we been lying to ourselves, but we've also been disgracing the real publishers out there who understand how hard it is to monetize content.

And I'm not talking about pretending we can align a marketing mix model to show that somehow our content was able to drive offline sales, but really having a consumer pay to view your content or an advertiser pay to advertise within your content. I make this point because once you hold yourself to that standard, you realize that just because brands have a ton of money to spend doesn't mean that they are actually capable of judging the quality of content. In fact, without the metric of monetization, there really is no way for you to determine whether content is good or bad.

When we look at current content economics we can see why "publishing" has become such a huge part of the new equation. The economics are simple, but strangely, very few people want to acknowledge that we can't reach the same scale of audiences we could in the past with the same relative budgets.

Reach has been, and always will be, a key driver in how brands drive growth. But due to fragmentation, our ability to reach big audiences with consolidated buys has greatly diminished. More importantly, the cost of reaching large, unduplicated audiences with an efficient spend has become extremely difficult. At the same time, the budgets of most established marketers have increased incrementally at best while audience fragmentation has increased exponentially.

Given this pressure, many brands have turned to publishing, hoping to gain reach by creating compelling content that will drive organic views. The problem, though, is that we haven't changed our approach; we've maintained a brand-centric view on content creation. While we tell ourselves we need to create consumer-oriented content, many of us still ask the same questions during the creation process: Is our brand featured prominently enough? Are we delivering on the brand brief? Can we make the logo bigger? Real publishers never ask these questions. They focus on quality, not reach alone. They ask: Will a user pay for this? Will a consumer pay with their attention?

Most of our content partners are still operating under the same cost models that have shaped the last 50 years. The problem is that as the need to deliver more tailored programming to more platforms increases, these creation economics break down. We simply can't afford to publish content at the rate at which it is consumed using the old model. In 2013, at Mondelēz International we set out to test our assumption by creating a mobile game app for Oreo that we could actually monetize. In other words, challenging ourselves to create a game that advertisers would pay to advertise in and people would pay to play. To do this, we had to rid ourselves of many of our preconceived notions. We decided to only focus on two criteria: Don't desecrate the Oreo, and make the game make money.

Two years later, we have a cash-positive app—Twist, Lick and Dunk— that has over 6 million downloads and 250,000 daily active users. This is not to say that the work we did on this game is a model for success. The truth is that a number of large marketers like Red Bull to Unilever have great examples of creating content platforms that monetize.

I share this example more to demonstrate what it would take for us to change our mind-set and hold ourselves to a higher standard of quality that would result in making money directly.

A few of the lessons we learned from this process are that it's really hard to be a publisher. You have to find content creation partners that are willing to embrace new models that create mutual upside opportunity— such as revenue sharing—and its key to focus on the best practices of content monetization from traffic arbitrage to lifetime consumer value.

These lessons led us to partner with Relativity Media last year to help us begin our journey toward becoming a publisher. It will be a bumpy road, but those that can find partners willing to explore a new model of driving organizational growth with shared upside will win in the long run. One way to start the process rolling is by asking yourself the hard question: Can our media investments generate exponential value?

I'm excited to talk with Ryan Kavanaugh, founder and CEO of Relativity Media, during Engage L.A. on Feb. 3 about what brands really have to do to become true publishers. I hope you tune in for an honest and riveting conversation.

B. Bonin Bough (@BoughB) is the vp of global media and consumer engagement at Mondelēz International food and beverage company. 

Bonin Bough, a former digital executive at Mondelez International, is author of the book Txt Me and host of CNBC's Cleveland Hustles. He is also a member of the Adweek Advisory Board.