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Context is King

What makes a successful ad campaign? According to Henry Daglish, a judge at the recent Newsworks Awards, a common ingredient of many of the winning entries was an artful combination of message and medium.

By Henry Daglish

Context is King
“A simple, highly contextual campaign.”

I was lucky enough to be a judge on the Newsworks Awards 2023, which were announced in December. Within my patch was both ‘Best Display Campaign’ and ‘Best Content Partnership’.

The first thing that struck me was the good health of the sector; across both categories, there was the best part of 60 entries. On the one hand, it was clear that there are still some great standard display campaigns out there while, on the other hand, you could see how far the news brand industry has evolved into the world of fully integrated content partnerships.

I do sometimes fear that us media planners and buyers far too often overlook the power of the actual printed medium. We all know that retailers tend to dominate the papers when it comes to supporting their sales, promotions and seasonal activations and it was good to see so much of this coming from the likes of Lidl and Asda.

“Sometimes the simplest things are still the best.”

Both of these brands stood out in how they were actively bringing to life their campaign platforms within the medium of print. Clearly, there had been a great load of thought and attention put into combining the medium and the message to the best effect. In this world, context firmly remains king. However, the one campaign that stood out to me was the high impact display campaign from the Disaster Emergency Committee following the Turkey and Syrian Earthquakes. Nothing cute, nothing special, just the simple effective use of high impact display around relevant editorial that drove a 7x return on investment. Display might be overlooked by too many of us but it clearly still has a highly effective role to play. Sometimes the simplest things are still the best.

At this point, I must say that I was delighted to see our own work on Sarson’s Vinegar win the Chair’s Award – a simple ‘Sarson’s Fryday’ display campaign that saw a wrap of Metro (tomorrow’s chip paper) drive a nationwide push to save our chippy. A simple, highly contextual campaign that got the recognition it deserved.

At the other end of the spectrum was the work that has been done around content partnerships. This category included over 40 entries and was clearly in rude health. Albeit the sceptic in me might suggest that this is happening because ‘content’ and ‘partnership’ are becoming the buzz words for agencies and media owners alike.

The truth is that when you step into this world, there are two clear extremes of this type of work. At one end, you have the lazy agency briefing a media owner to create a load of content for a brand that in reality has little to do with it, or no right to do it in the first place. There weren’t many examples of this sort of work at the awards but they were there. As a reader, I’m sure that they would have been easily sifted out and ignored. As a brand, it’s been a waste of a few hundred thousands of pounds all justified back, by the agency, to the client in terms of impacts delivered and so called added value here and there. To me, this is the very worst of the so called content revolution; it smacks of doing content for content’s sake and risks ultimately undermining readers’ trust and can be the start of slippery downhill slope.

That said, clearly the media owner side of the industry has invested millions in growing revenue around content creation and editorial alignment across all platforms. It’s absolutely the right thing to do and the closer that the editorial teams work with the commercial departments the better… but we should all be aware of the moments when one overrides the other. News brands are one of the few remaining areas of trusted media and that should be protected at all costs.

A true partnership

However, at the other end of the category, I saw some of the very best work in terms of actual partnerships that involved content. I say that sentence specifically because it was loud and clear that this work had started with a partnership where content was a clear and obvious manifestation of that way of working. This is where brands have clearly thought really hard about how they can bring their own expertise to things and to the actual benefit of the content created and ultimately the readers themselves.

Halifax provided their own house prices and mortgages data.

For me, there were two stand out examples of this type of behaviour – Halifax’s sponsorship of The Sunday Times ‘Best Places to Live’ and Boots’ ‘Project You’ campaign. In both instances, these brands and all those involved with them, had thought really hard about how to improve the ultimate reader experience. In the case of Halifax, this campaign was also a clear extension of their ‘It’s a people thing’ creative platform. Not only had they supplied their own house prices and mortgages data to justify why these are the best places to live but they had also extended their activity into fully localised solutions that worked all the way through to their own branches and employees. ‘It’s a people thing’ and ‘best places to live’ seamlessly merged, in partnership, to become the ‘It’s a Brighton Thing’ or ‘It’s a Bristol Thing’.

Similarly, Boots had used their own data to deploy localised content campaigns that were geared to rise if ailments within those areas also rose. Both of these are smart, simple ideas that ultimately drive better relevance and value to the readers themselves.

Boots used their own data to deploy localised content campaigns.

What I’m saying here is that, yes, there is a clear and healthy trend in the growth of these type of news brand partnerships but I think it is so important to not only properly assess how this content adds value to the reader but to also properly understand why the brand has a credible right to be there in the first place. The press and news brand marketplace is something where the editorial trust remains and we must work with that above all else.

One observation I had from judging this category was the clear obsession of converting these partnerships into video content. I’d say that 70% of the entries involved some form of video content creation. Obviously, it’s very hard to argue against the power of audio-visual messaging, and of course it has its place, but we might be at risk of losing the depth of attention that comes from actually reading stuff.

Agencies and brands are guilty of getting obsessed with video content. This is nearly always justified by statements around how we work in a low-attention high-clutter world. News brands are built on the power of the written word across all their platforms – reading is probably the highest level of attention that you can give anything – it’s madness to me that we’re willing to let this unique opportunity go amidst the idea that it’s much easier to watch a video. I do also believe that video is becoming more and more culpable for driving excessive adload within publisher sites.

So, I was pleased to see that the two standout entries in the Partnership Content category didn’t actually concentrate on creating video content at all.

In today’s lack-of-attention ridden world, I firmly believe that the publishing industry has a massive role to play; there’s so much opportunity to take advantage of this space but, bizarrely, in the world of content partnerships, we do risk potentially adding to the problem if we’re not careful… sticking to the knitting isn’t a bad thing to do.

Click here for more details of the winning entries and to see pictures of the Newsworks Awards 2023 event.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.