A while back, I knew a worker in the purchasing and procurement department for a large aerospace company. She told me one time that people were having huge amounts of trouble getting new computers. They'd fill out the request for new hardware and specified what they needed: a computer. The request would invariably get denied. The company clearly felt that people had enough computers and that the ones they had were good enough and there was absolutely no reason for anyone to worry about getting a new "computer."
Then, one day, an enterprising soul in the company filled out the same request in the same way that everyone else did, but rather than say he needed a "computer," he said he needed a "workstation."
His request was granted.
What he - and everyone else in the company - learned that day is that what you call things is sometimes even more important than what the thing is. Calling something a computer felt limiting to the people who cut the company's checks and therefore not worth spending any more money on. But a workstation was a new thing and could be used for all sorts of new things and activities, maybe even something that could change the company and drive it forward. A workstation was exciting in a way that a computer simply wasn't.
This all came to mind today because of a debate that recently flared up in a discussion forum I participate in. The core question was: "Is a standard, 30-second commercial considered content?" This is one of those highly divisive questions that make for such good fourm fodder. Opinions split right down the middle, arguments were powerful on each side and there is no ultimate answer, simply because it all comes down to how you define the terms "content" and "commercial."
I will state my opinion here (and you can flame me back if you'd like): I absolutely think that a 30-second commercial is content. But that's because I have a very broad definition of what content is. For me, "content" is a workstation; an ad (any ad) is a "computer."
What Is Content?
The idea of shifting the notion of the "thing we create to compel consumers to take an action" as "content" rather "advertising" is an empowering linguistic move in that it takes that thing-created and separates it from the space-where-it-is-placed. When you mention a particular format of a creative work, you immediately connect it to the place where you would encounter that thing:
painting : museum
movie : theater
commercial : TV
banner : web page
The struggle that advertising professionals have faced for a long time has been to create great things, rather than focus on filling the spaces allotted by publishers or clients.
But today, we are experiencing a wonderful and remarkable collapse of all those spaces-where-it-is-placed. We are reading magazines on tablets and watching TV shows on computers and it no longer makes sense for us to strictly think about the format defining the type of thing we are going to create. That's why I favor shifting the language we use to describe our work to a term that is broad: content. Actually, consider that word itself "content" - the stuff contained within a particular (umm) container. We are focusing on the creative work itself when we say we build "content" and not ads.
The Blurring Lines Is a Good Idea
Of course, by saying this we are starting to blur the lines between what has traditionally been thought of as the work of the offline versus the online agency. Not long ago, it was very clear who did what. Offline did TV. Online did banners. Today, however, it is not clear at all - who is in charge of the series of five-minute clips that will be seeded on blogs and YouTube?
That's clearly a question that we should all, collectively, decide to ignore. Seriously. There are some problems that exist and we should acknowledge but specifically decide to not try to solve. We are in a business environment where we are seeing talented creative people moving from traditional agencies to digital ones, and we see the traditional agencies buying up or building digital talent. We should all work toward the same goal from different perspectives and that would be a good thing.
We are in a buyer's market for great new ideas. Amazing developments in platforms and creative technologies mean that more people can build things that we can generally just call content. Then, with a solid strategy in place, we can morph these things into what we could call ads. But first and foremost: let's let ourselves be creative and open and the best way to do this is to simply make a change in the language we use to describe the stuff-we-make.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014