Content marketing vs advertising: which is best?

Brand advertising – TV, press and poster ads – have traditionally accounted for the bulk of marketing spend.

At the top end, the media fee alone for a 30-second TV ad during the Super Bowl currently comes in at around $5 million.

Content marketing is the relatively new and fast-growing entrant into the mix. Companies are finding that they can create their own editorial to build brands and sales – and it’s often a more effective use of their money.

Enter content marketing

These days, anyone can be a publisher or broadcaster and it’s not just the big brands that have worked this out. According to MarketingProfs, the most successful US B2B marketers in 2016 dedicated at least 39 per cent of their budgets to content.

Here we take a look at the pros and cons of content marketing vs advertising, although of course they overlap in many areas.


Content marketing: why it is better

Content marketing may seem like the new kid on the block. But the truth is not so clear-cut. In fact, companies were producing their own content long before the invention of the cathode-ray tube. A prime example is the Michelin Red Guide, originally intended to persuade people to drive further afield.

Yet the growth of online and the collapse in B2B publishing has led to enormous change over the past 10 years. Since 2010, many of the B2B publishing giants such as Cygnus, VNU, Cahners, CMP and Intertec are gone. Others have been consolidated – such as Advanstar’s annexation by events company UBM.

These days, brands can easily and cheaply produce their own editorial – and customers are happy to read it. New publishers just need to obey one simple rule: information comes before the sell.


content marketing pros


Most content marketing is based online. This allows brands to get their own message out there easily and flexibly. This gives brands a lot of wiggle room when it comes to adapting content to the consumer. According to Business Insider, 89 per cent of marketers believe personalised content is the best way for brands to cut through a crowded marketplace.

The implications of this are limitless. Using email, different pieces of content can be targeted at different customers depending on where they are in the buying cycle. Resources such as Drip, which provides an automated email service based around response, is an easy and inexpensive way to achieve this.

This brings us to…


Some say distribution is as important as content creation. Others claim it is more so.

The fact that there are so many distribution options for content marketing is an enormous bonus. Social, email, SEO, forums, Facebook and more provide a route to different people with the same piece of content.

At the moment, it looks like email is the number-one distribution method. According to the Content Marketing Institute, 91 per cent of marketers rate it among their top B2B distribution methods. The next highest is LinkedIn on 71 per cent.

Editorial takes many forms

Content marketing is editorial – be it a TV documentary, podcast, magazine or infographic. This flexibility allows brands to tailor the message to the consumer – in stark contrast to a rigid, 30-second TV commercial.

The only people who keep ads are advertising people

If your content marketing is useful, people will come back again and again to reference it. Evergreen content will continue to make you money long after your initial investment.



In an age in which marketing strategies tend to be overarching, content marketing can be difficult to integrate. While a TV ad can be produced for a global audience – if sometimes with bad voiceovers – translating content marketing can be more problematic and complex.

Fortunately, there are agencies that specialise in transcreation. But that still means some content will be difficult to transport to different markets and may require additional work. According to HubSpot, 21 per cent of marketers say targeting content for an international audience is a major challenge.

Too much content

Content glut is an ever-growing issue for marketers. Five years ago, all you had to do was produce a blog once a week – it was easy to rank and bring in leads. Nowadays, it is difficult to stand out when everyone, to a lesser or greater extent, is jumping on chairs. Google had indexed 30 trillion pages in 2013 compared to 1 trillion seven years earlier. Now that number stands at more than 130 trillion.

As content marketing has matured, so it has increasingly required expert teams; strategists, people to produce the work and others to push it. Quality demands time and expertise. There are no shortcuts anymore.

Lack of an overall strategy

Yes, you can use content marketing as part of the overall marketing campaign. But how easy is it to integrate? You can put a strapline on some direct mail or a website landing page. However the whole point of content marketing is that it stands apart from any overt brand messaging.

The existence of a marketing strategy should, by definition, mean it is not content marketing.

Why advertising is better

why advertising is better


A quick hit

Advertising can provide a quicker hit – ideal in these days of information overload. By their very nature and design, ads convey the essential brand message in the minimum time. Yes, the detail might get lost, but in terms of subliminal messaging, they can’t be beaten.

A press ad, with a clever headline and image, can provide the first impetus to look at a site. And that is often where the content marketing lives. The problem with content marketing is that your reader – the customer – still needs to read the content. Advertising can push it into their heads even before that stage. That way the customer gets the message whether they like it or not.

And there’s evidence to back this up. In the UK, the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (Barb) claims that the average TV viewer watches 45 ads a day without skipping.

Overall strategy

Advertising, in many people’s minds, consists of old media such as TV, press and posters. But it represents so much more than that. Advertising is often at the heart of the whole strategy, produced before a word or concept is put to paper.

One consistent failing of content marketing has been a lack of strategy by marketers.

He who shouts loudest gets heard

If you have money you can forget any concerns about content glut and getting lost in the sheer quantity of content that is published. If you have the money, there is not much noise to blot you out.

Is there proof? Yes. According to the Advertising Association, UK ad spend grew to £5.8bn – a 3.9 per cent year-on-year rise – in Q4 2016. This marks the highest grossing quarter since the organisation began publishing its Expenditure Report in 1982. It also marks an upward trend following flat growth in Q3 in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum.

Meanwhile, for 2016 as a whole, ad spend grew 3.7 per cent, reaching £21.4bn. This marked the seventh consecutive year of market growth. Moreover, much of this is going into digital formats, which proves that advertising is not tied to old media like ad breaks and press supplements.

A large proportion of marketing budget is drifting into digital formats. The trend will only continue as ad tech improves and consumers spend more time with their internet-connected devices.


Are you a secret lemonade drinker?

Ads cost a lot of money to produce, but they also have a short shelf-life. There are exceptions to this. If you’re British and of a certain age, you’ll be aware of the classic ad for R White’s lemonade. But it looked dated 20 years ago.

Most brands realise that even classic ads make the brand look tired if they over-run them. Ferrero Rocher’s classic ‘Ambassador’ ad is just one example.

Does anyone watch TV ads any more?

Despite high viewing averages for TV advertising (see above), break it down and things become less clear. The fact is that the average doesn’t run evenly across all age groups. Millennials rarely watch live TV now.

Subscription-based on-demand services are doing a Blockbuster to live ad-revenue TV. It’s the norm to skip TV advertising. Again this is proved by the numbers. Since 2011, traditional TV viewing has dropped by more than 10 hours per week for 18 to 24-year-olds.

This says it all: MTV’s viewership has declined by more than 60 per cent since 2011.

Money, money, money

Is advertising expensive? Well, according to estimates by Guerillascope, it costs as little as £800 to buy a daytime-TV ad slot on Channel 5 in the UK. However, if you want to reach someone who has a job, you may have to pay more.

A 30-second ad during ITV’s breakfast schedule – between the likes of Good Morning Britain or Lorraine – costs between £3,000 and £4,000 on average. This may seem inexpensive until you realise that YouTube can host the same content free and you might get millions of hits.

Content marketing vs advertising: conclusion

If the above proves anything, it is that content marketing and advertising are not mutually exclusive. TV advertising frequently features on company websites, just as content marketing can be used on TV. Above all, consumers need to be entertained and informed – and there are many ways to do this.

A good example is Red Bull’s coverage of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking jump from the edge of space in 2012. It would have been foolish and impractical to make this part of an ad break, yet it helped align the Red Bull brand with excitement and extreme sports.

At the same time, a 30-second ad will struggle to be heard among the mass of videos posted to YouTube each day. It is about picking the right tool for the job. And to do this you must align the pros of advertising and content marketing.

Use brand advertising strategy to formulate the aims for your content marketing. Or use your own platforms to publish long-form multimedia content.

Good marketing means everything is able to work together.