2019 in content: purpose, podcasts and passion

This year we’ve helped clients talk about their environmental and ethical commitments, seen powerful content being made in Asia and embarked on new adventures in audio

Dear friend,

Yes, this is a Christmas round robin – but don’t panic, we’re not going to boast about our children or our side return extension. Instead we wanted to share some of the new ways we’ve worked with companies on content to start conversations with their audiences in 2019.

So, without further ado, allow us to introduce our nine lessons (without the carols):

1) Podcasts became our new thing

Since we started out five years ago, FirstWord has worked on lots of video content, but in 2019 we embraced podcasting big time. Our forward-thinking Italian banking client Intesa Sanpaolo wants to talk to clients about sustainability and the shift to a circular economy, as well as acting as a standard bearer for successful Italian companies. To do so, it has started a podcast series called Intesa Talks, hosted by former BBC business reporter and producer Guy Ruddle. Subjects so far have ranged from fashion to cars, with an interview with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak adding a sprinkling of tech stardust.

2) We called on Donald to adapt his behaviour


Thanks to Greta Thunberg and thousands of other young people taking part in climate strikes, the conversation about how we adapt to our warming planet has firmly hit the mainstream. We’re delighted to be working with the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) chaired by former United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on a series of opinion pieces setting out why governments and the private sector worldwide need to collaborate and act now to make infrastructure, communities and companies more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Very gratifyingly, the New York Times published one of them, an open letter to Donald Trump from Mr Ban and GCA chief executive Patrick Verkooijen, calling on the US president to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement.

3) We can teach as well as do

This year we set down on paper a few of our trade secrets in an attempt to explain the workings of an editorial service that combines faultless journalistic instincts and experience with the skill of translating brand values into content clients can use. After five years in business, it was a chance to think through and articulate what makes the FirstWord offering so different. In summary, we work to create content that puts forward what an organisation stands for in ways that its audience will enjoy – thereby achieving marketing goals.

Once we’d established our blueprint, we took it on the road. It formed the basis for a workshop with a large marketing team in the Middle East who need to speak to diverse audiences with clear, readable and engaging content. And it could be coming to a city near you in 2020…

4) Crazy rich content – Asia in the ascendant

After a blip of several hundred years, the world economy is reverting to the mean, where Asia is the powerhouse of ideas and growth and exports those to the West. Wanting to see it for ourselves, we spent a week in Singapore meeting a host of organisations, from the Ministry of Health to local champion banks and multinational companies seizing the opportunities in the region.

We found much to admire and inspire at Temasek, the investment company owned by the Singaporean government, which has set up a self-contained newsroom publishing a magazine and high-quality thought leadership. It has successfully added a publishing string to its bow, telling stories with emotion to produce a regular flow of content for internal and external audiences.

5) Part 1: The rise and rise of ESG

Digitisation was the dominant theme for clients in 2018, but this year it was ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues that blew sky high. For our investment and asset management clients, it was the undisputed number one issue. Two forces drove this: knowing the values of the companies in which their money is being invested is now a priority for investors and pension-fund savers, and there is a big enough body of evidence showing investment with purpose is a win-win – holding companies to the highest standards reduces risk and creates value.

Activist hedge fund TCI this month called on companies to improve their disclosure of carbon emissions or face the fund voting against their directors. When it comes to content on ESG, full disclosure is also imperative. Whether it’s a blog, a survey or a lengthy white paper, our advice remains the same – when you talk about ESG it has to be reflected in your investment decisions and it has to be genuine, because the reputational damage of being found wanting is too great.

6) Part 2: The rise and rise of purpose

Outside the asset management world, companies from industrial equipment makers to household goods producers are now expected to have a ‘purpose’ beyond making money. As a result, our clients are responding to the expectations of staff, shareholders and customers to state their position on sustainability, as well as issues of ethics and governance.

Content is one of the most effective ways of putting across purpose, but as with ESG, it has to be squarely rooted in the facts. Companies that give back to the communities they operate in, or work with local organisations to solve pressing problems in developing countries, have great stories to tell. We’ve also seen more clients being asked to take a platform, literally, and this has given us the opportunity to work on “in real life” content in the form of TED Talks and conference speeches.

7) Return of native

Our bread and butter is working with clients to produce content for their own channels, but traditional media still carries prestige and delivers an audience at scale. As a result, native content – sponsored articles and graphics published by newspapers and magazines in print and online – was back in our lives in a big way in 2019. Successful campaigns offer content that is good enough to appear on any page of the publication, which only journalists with thousands of hours in a newsroom (that’s us) can produce.

Native also took us on an enjoyable journey into the world of luxury brands and celebrity photo shoots this year – it’s light years away from most of our client work in tech, financial services and industry, but we could get used to diamonds and designer labels…

8) We still want to lavish cricket-based hospitality on people

We’ve tried really hard to broaden our horizons – we’ve travelled the world, we’ve got into podcasts and TED Talks and luxury fashion – and we STILL only have one client who wants to come and watch cricket at Lord’s with us. If you dream of backward cover points and cow corners – and you’ve got this far – give us a call and be the new client we can share our cricketing passion with.

9) The big reveal

December is always a mad month for client deadlines, but one of the brilliant things we get to do is look at loads of lovely and very clever cartoons sent to us by the talented illustrators in our network, to pick a Christmas card. Past years have been very zeitgeisty (it’s as if we got paid to stay well informed), featuring President Trump and ‘flake news’, selfies and Uber, and this year’s is no exception. Say hello to ESG Father Christmas…