When Fleet Street went to Madison Avenue: 10 years on the content marketing frontline

FirstWord Media is a decade old. Its co-founder Adrian Michaels reflects on the collision of marketing and journalism and what they’ve had to learn from each other

Even the phrase “content marketing” still annoys me a little, if I’m honest. It sounds like the opposite of impartial journalism, or marketing masquerading as journalism, like the advertorials that would appear alongside genuine news in the pre-digital days of print journalism.

I suppose the past 10 years at FirstWord, if they’ve been about anything at all, have been about explaining that content marketing is very much neither of those two unpleasant things.

The journalism – which is what we do, as a large group of experienced editors and writers – is as good as it can be, delving into tough topics and delivering proper insights that people want to read, or watch, or listen to. The marketing is ultimately about building audiences and sales by associating companies and brands with an intelligent conversation about the world they inhabit.

It used to take a lot of explaining. In 2014, even after 20-odd years of the internet, marketing was still dominated by advertising, events and media relations. There was little appetite for well-written content, even as websites and Google were crying out for it.

I’ve been looking through some of our old sales pitches. “These days,” one of our slides used to say, “Everyone needs to think like a publisher.” Ten years ago, about half the slides in our sales deck were devoted to why companies needed to make content. Now? Not one.

“Publishing material regularly drives engagement. It’s good for business.”

Today, companies understand that the digital world allows them to reach audiences directly. Those audiences are largely agnostic about where they get their information – they just care that it’s trustworthy and good. Publishing material regularly drives engagement. It’s good for business.

As a result, the planning, production and distribution of content is now a central feature of marketing and communications. In the most recent survey from the Content Marketing Institute, 84 per cent of B2B marketers say content marketing has been key to creating brand awareness in the past 12 months. Another survey by HubSpot, a marketing software company, found that 50 per cent of marketing departments are planning to increase their investment in content marketing in 2024.

One of our early slides said: “Marketing and journalism are on a collision course.” Well, they collided alright, with content becoming more valuable as other means of engagement, such as advertising and media relations, lost much of their effectiveness. The best stories, made by companies such as our client RELX, are gaining many times the eyeballs of most articles in the national newspapers.

“Even the best companies still need outside editorial help with strategy, newsroom discipline and content creation.”

In 2014, few professionals on LinkedIn had titles such as “content manager” or “editorial manager”. Now companies are hiring journalists by the dozen for these jobs and making them part of their marketing team. But even the best companies still need outside editorial help with strategy, newsroom discipline and content creation.

But if Ross Cathcart, my co-founder of FirstWord, and I thought 10 years ago that we could just rock up, write a few stories and then hit the pub, boy were we mistaken. Marketing departments are part of a business. They have budgets. If you want a business to give you money then you usually have to explain not just why they should pay for something, but also what they’re paying for. That’s an unusual feeling for journalists, who just practise their trade without really ever having to explain what it is they actually do. I mean, would you ask a neurosurgeon to go into details about how she holds the knife before you are overwhelmed by the anaesthetic? Or do you care at an intricate level about Novak Djokovic’s forehand wrist angle, as a regular tennis spectator? Maybe a bit, but mostly you just pay up and enjoy the results.

Very often our clients do just sit back and enjoy the results, too. We got hired from all three of the first sales pitches we made: to a huge global consultancy, a small corporate intelligence company and a massive European bank. And to the extent that our clients trust us to deliver fabulous content, we are mostly allowed to get on with it. But they’re naturally curious to know how we go about our jobs, considering they’re paying us to do so. Eventually we had to write it all down. I never thought I’d have to sit, as I did in 2018, with two former Financial Times features editors, with the purpose of putting down on paper how we edit. What are we looking for? What makes a great feature? How should it flow? What facts and data and opinions should it include?

“We got hired from all three of the first sales pitches we made: to a huge global consultancy, a small corporate intelligence company and a massive European bank.”

We wrote it all down. And then we held workshops with clients who were curious. At the very least, it gave them a checklist of things to look for when assessing the value of the product.

Internally that checklist was also useful. From day one at FirstWord, our goal was to deliver the very highest level of content from media professionals at the top of their game. Anyone who came to work with us needed to know what standards were expected, and how to deliver them.

The other really large education area for us has been marketing itself. If as journalists we were to forge strong and enduring relationships with company marketing teams, it would be good if we could talk their language and learn about their strategies, procedures and goals. We could offer more assistance, be more easily integrated into their set-up and not seem so much like a bunch of neurosurgeons hired from outside for something horrible and expensive that you’d rather not enquire about.

Journalists are bad at marketing. They might be able to write a sales headline or read 3,000 words and summarise them in a sentence, but that’s about 1 per cent of marketing. As we have come to understand it, marketing is strategy, budget controls and how the boss is communicating priorities from on high. It’s about message houses, alignment and unifying frameworks. It’s about vision and activation and campaigns. And it’s about patience: newspaper journalists file a story and their day is over. The next usually bears little relation to what came before. But a company builds things over time and campaigns need buy-in, sign-off and stakeholder consultation.

An old journalist’s instinct when hearing all this would be to take cover. Possibly even to say something rude about management word salad first. But it’s simply a question of a marriage of disciplines. The making of content has to be justified and budgeted and fit into strategy. So we also ended up writing down all the major differences between writing features for the Financial Times and writing top-end business features for companies. I even gave a presentation about it at a conference in Berlin.

Importantly, one big difference between journalism and content marketing is the tone. While the media has always looked for and thrived on bad news, corporate-funded editorials accentuate the positive. They are almost always constructive, offering advice and points of view related to an audience’s concerns.

By injecting ourselves into the world of marketing, we’ve learnt too that there are forms of content that weren’t immediately in our product list: internal communications, workshops, process flow charts, surveys of market activity, and the translation and rewriting of content into the fluent business journalism of other languages. Even cartoons, since they cut across all languages without needing translation.

“Everyone needs a bit of journalism, some summarising, some ability to shed new light on old questions.”

It’s a hybrid world, not Fleet Street but not Madison Avenue either. Storytelling is as old as humanity – it’s the way we understand the world. Everyone needs a bit of journalism, some summarising, some ability to shed new light on old questions.

Content is a new area for companies and it carries dangers. So as well as content producers, we have become trusted advisors. One day in Milan we watched while a local design agency unveiled mock-ups of a putative new English-language magazine for a large financial services company. The magazine’s name was going to be World of Possibility, and it had been shortened on its front pages to WOP. For an Italian company. I’m not making this up.

The journalists at FirstWord have to be protectors of corporate reputations. You can’t make content that undermines a brand or which could ruin a reputation that has taken decades to build. WOP magazine never made it beyond the design stage, and I wrote a piece for our website on how companies can stop content marketing from killing their brand.

Meanwhile, companies have had to learn to trust us and our methods. Which has meant embracing the journalistic processes that guarantee quality content – the in-house interviews that yield fresh insights, the writing that eschews clichés, the editing, sub-editing and fact-checking, the craft of writing a good headline, the discipline of deadlines and the merciless war against corporate speak and grammar crimes. I always say it’s like the list of credits at the end of a movie. You have no idea what most of those jobs are, but you have to assume that without them the movie would be rubbish. It’s the same with the hidden tasks of our craft.

“We have shown plenty of organisations – over 220 clients now in 19 countries – how to make good content.”

Just as journalists are bad at marketing, so clients find writing and editing hard. They may have a head of content, but making the stuff is still a headache. We’ve always described ourselves as industrial-strength paracetamol for this problem and have shown plenty of organisations – over 220 clients now in 19 countries – how to make good content and why it’s better than a bad piece. We’ve run courses on storytelling, on how to commission journalists, where stories come from and much more. Lately, we’ve held workshops on harnessing artificial intelligence – which will be a great tool to aid journalist productivity, provided you know how to use it.

We still get a big kick out of doing stuff that we and our clients know they can’t do, no matter how many workshops they attend. Like any trade, journalism’s best practitioners can pull off stunts that seem like magic. Ghostwriting a column in The Guardian for the French president without speaking to him, for example, and having Emmanuel Macron read the first draft and request no changes. Or helping a huge US financial institution with a massive paper on Mexican pension fund reform which was in a bad mess and needed a complete rewrite from its source materials before being launched in five days’ time. When I took that call, I felt like Mr Wolf in Pulp Fiction. “It’s all going to be OK,” was the first thing I said down the phone, feeling very Harvey Keitel. Then I called the former Mexico City bureau chief for the FT and we knocked it into shape over a weekend.

I hope that makes it clear that we really enjoy our work, and these 10 years have been a rewarding marriage of marketing and journalism. Our clients want and need content; we love making it and are good at it. The end result has a real value for companies and their audiences, which makes it all worthwhile.

Ten years ago, few people in business imagined that a global pandemic would stop them from meeting customers and marketing in person at events. But it came to pass and the importance of making content for remote audiences really took off. In the midst of a global health emergency, the need for quality content gained a wider audience, and acceptance.

I don’t see the demand for quality content marketing doing anything other than climbing in the next 10 years. With the AI-fuelled spread of untrustworthy and poor material, audiences are going to gravitate more to sources they can trust. Companies will grow their reputations – and market share – if they deliver articles and audio and video that people want to consume.

Here are a few other predictions:

  • We’ll be doing way more editing

In the beginning, we produced all our clients’ content from scratch. Now content is such an accepted and growing part of how they engage with the world that companies have lots of in-house consultants and executives who want to write, even if it is a headache for them and they are not trained for this task. Everyone needs an editor. And great editors are thinner on the ground than great writers. Happily, we’re really good at editing.

  • Company content quality will be better than a lot of the media

It already is in many ways. Newspapers have got rid of so many of their fact-checkers and sub-editors. They’re in a desperate rush to publish fast and if they ever correct what they’ve written they do it online after publication. Companies are mindful of the dangers to reputation of making poor content, so they put effort into their quality production processes, or they use FirstWord’s “newsroom” that still adheres to tried-and-tested values such as objectivity and accuracy. Consumers of content already know that some company websites have got reams more great material than many newspapers and magazines.

  • Printed matter is still important

I got this wrong. I remember an early pitch to a commercial real-estate company that loved its brochures and magazines. It loved printing things and handing them out. I accused them of being in the Dark Ages and said everything was digital now. We didn’t get any business from that client, but we’ve made a lot of beautiful printed matter since then. It’s still a nice thing to make and give out. After all, Kindles didn’t destroy the love of paper books, did they?

  • AI won’t be able to do what we do

I’m forever patiently having to explain that AI simply regurgitates what’s out there. Our job is to probe and interview and craft insights that don’t already exist. AI will be helpful with lots of tasks, and can improve the productivity of various parts of journalism, but the quality of its final output is far from guaranteed to get better. Still, clients and others will be asking me more and more if AI is going to eat my lunch and that’s probably a good thing, since it has forced us into a greater understanding of where we bring value.

A few years ago, I was about to start a new job at a national newspaper running an editorial team in their advertising department. I don’t think anyone was using the phrase content marketing then and we didn’t know what title I should sport. It was suggested that I be called Director of Content, which I rejected on the grounds that it sounded like I was in charge of office morale. If the job went wrong, would I be called Director of Discontent? For that matter, if I introduced myself to someone as a Content Director, I thought they would reply, as I would: “Is that right? You don’t look very happy.”

That job was the start of a rewarding and fascinating journey, learning about our clients’ businesses and forging that strong marriage of marketing and journalism. We really enjoy helping companies to tell their stories and tell them well. We are lucky to work with some of the best people in the craft. At FirstWord today we are engaged in all things content, and fully contented.