Brands are not Publishers

I once believed brands needed to become publishers. Now I think that was wrong.

A few years ago I created a guide for businesses called “Brands as Publishers.” In that report, created when I worked at Huge, I and my colleagues outlined the core principles and investments needed to transform marketing departments into omnichannel content production and distribution machines.

Our influential report anticipated the trend of companies like Pepsi, Sprint and Goldman Sachs developing in-house content studios, with brands taking on more of the work typically done by creative and production agencies.

But the truth is, most companies are not publishers, and won’t find trying to become publishers a good long-term strategy. I expect the experiments in publishing will remain small or be closed down entirely. Here’s why:

Brands don’t want a cost-center in-house. Companies looking at their balance sheets prune functions that don’t produce revenue. Arguments could be made that it is cheaper to have an in-house creative group than to pay outside agencies, but most companies will remember they prefer the flexibility of outsourcing content production.

Brands want to focus on their core business. Investments in in-house content teams are unlikely to be sustained when content is not the company’s main product. When the next restructuring comes, publishing divisions at banks, airlines, or consumer packaged goods firms are likely to be jettisoned or orphaned. As the CMO of one major global retailer told me, “We don’t want to be publishers.”

Brands won’t be able to get the best talent. Top creatives, writers, producers, and editors are simply not going to want to work in-house at many companies. The head of digital marketing for one communications giant lamented to me that he’d hired really good writers and editors only to see them quit within a year. This kind of talent wants a creative environment that is at odds with the dominant corporate culture of most firms. Companies design their operations to reduce risk, but creatives need to be able to take risks. They may take the “client-side” job, but they won’t stay.

Big firms that randomly drug-test employees are probably fooling themselves if they believe they can attract the best and brightest creatives.

Leaders who pull off success will soon find greater opportunities elsewhere. Setting up a great content studio requires two key people working closely as partners: an experienced managing editor who knows how to efficiently run complex publishing operations, and a visionary creative chief who is dedicated to nurturing other creative people. Not only are these sorts of leaders rare, but when they succeed at building an in-house publishing division for a brand, they instantly become quite valuable to the competition. Other brands and agencies will poach them.  For these leaders, the in-house shop will have been a great career stepping stone.

Over the next few years there will be continued transformation on the agency side. Large agencies are un-siloing, creating nimbler teams that combine creative, design, technology and strategy. Small agencies are re-focusing on a single core area of strength. Many agencies are trying to become publishers as publishers trying to become agencies.

The demands of social and omnichannel that drove the original vision of Brands as Publishers are not going away, however, and brands will still need to solve the publishing challenge. They won’t be able to do it on their own. They may try, but eventually they’ll come around and seek outside help. The question is: Who can build the new kind of brand publisher they need?