Newspapers are not “only words” – the power of context

I wrote this article for NewsWorks as a summary of their excellent Shift 2015 conference in February.  Here is the article on the NewsWorks site.  Here’s a link to the videos of the sessions which were all excellent.  Rory Sutherland’s presentation was especially entertaining.  

“It’s only words
And words are all I have”

So sang Ronan Keating, Boyzone frontman. That attitude would have been given short shrift at The British Library where Newsworks held its third annual conference, Shift 2015.

First on stage was Roly Keating, the library’s CEO and custodian of millions of words. The nation sees them as so important that, by law he collects all British newspapers. He’s overseen the building of new housing for his ever-increasing newsprint pile.

Keating is painstakingly digitising his archive and he captures the webpages of 300 content sites a day. He won’t dispense with the paper copies though. “I need to collect the fabric not just the content,” he said. Context is important.

Doug McCabe, CEO of Enders Analysis, told Shift that while content is king, context is queen. However, the queen is increasingly being ignored by the counting house.

Enders and Millward Brown have authored a report describing the tensions created between clients and agencies by automated trading. Clients have reservations while agencies are more bullish. “What are teething problems for some are insurmountable objects for others”, says McCabe.

His report asks if “the incentive to invest in content in order to create an attractive advertising platform is being undermined?” Measures ignore the benefit of context. As branded display ads are increasingly programmatically traded the lack of emphasis on context matters. The AOP’s Trust Research and FT’s “Halo Effect” study both show the softer benefits of environment.

Those undervaluing soft metrics risk the roar of Rory Sutherland. The Ogilvy man preceded McCabe with a standout piece of stand-up. Insights were rapidly delivered including that “there are butterfly effects in marketing that can have big effects”.

Sutherland explained: “Scale of the intervention in advertising is not proportional to the scale of the effect.” Marketers can control context, for example, and Sutherland is increasingly obsessed with the subtle power of context.

Marketers are trying too hard to live by the worldview of the finance departments and in doing so they are “taking on the worst characteristics of their abusers”, according to Sutherland.

Marketing should instead be “the science of knowing what economics is wrong about”. He reeled off examples in which context has changed behaviour for subtle reasons economists haven’t grasped.

Sutherland probably snorted when McCabe revealed that 61% of CFOs aren’t confident CMOs make good commercial decisions. McCabe’s quoted Einstein, “not everything that counts can be counted”. In future he might quote Sutherland urging marketers to think about “target context” before “target audience”.

In the following discussion, David Wheldon, marketing chief of Barclays agreed that economics guides decisions as marketers are required to drive down costs.

However, Wheldon’s CFO is primarily concerned with brand reputation (he has minions to worry about cost, quipped Wheldon). They need to be squeaky clean and their brand needs to be safe in its contexts. Programmatic buying doesn’t always deliver that safety.

Tracy De Groose, CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network UK, agrees that automated trading’s efficiency appeals to moneymen at client companies. The biggest single question at a current major pitch is: “What is the role of programmatic for my business?”

She sees teething problems but also a game-changer, adding that there are ways to manage exposure and context. A successful branded campaign for Burberry that ran across five markets is proof of what programmatic can deliver for brands, De Groose said. She believes that ideally both brand and performance should be measured.

David Dinsmore, editor of The Sun, talked about the performance of his content beyond his brand. Nowadays his content drives social media conversation, is picked up by aggregators and quickly ripped off by other sites. It means his content reaches further and is more influential than ever. People may not realise The Sun was the source, he says. He enjoys non-Sun types being “drawn to the flame” of The Sun’s content and their “Pavlovian response”.

He also believes a silent majority cheer The Sun on. He has a clear view of those he writes for, describing them as “real bloody people”. He’s proud of them and their scale (their contribution to an international disaster appeal was greater than the donation of France). Their interests guide him and he stressed the importance of connection: “Don’t mislead them or they’ll find you out.”

Shift concluded with a stellar panel of political journalists looking forward to the election. They came from the Guardian, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Mail and The Mirror. They elaborated on the themes that Dinsmore raised – extended influence of newspapers and the guiding hand of readers.

Steve Richards, chief political commentator for The Independent, said that reviewing New Labour’s early days he was amazed how newsbrand articles touched on factors that would determine each politician’s destiny. This wasn’t hindsight; these were contemporary accounts unconsciously laying out the future, enabled by access to politicians and the depth of analysis required of print.

What of this election? Would those reading the runes need to delve deeper than the characterisation of Milliband as a cartoon? Jonathan Freedland, executive editor of Opinion at the Guardian, believes newsbrands are well placed to deliver the necessary detail. He sees parallels with a young, awkward pre-election Thatcher. She and Milliband would be the most experienced in-coming PM’s of recent times, both having held cabinet posts.

Sue Cameron, a columnist on The Telegraph, thinks the depictions of Milliband as cartoon-like are telling enough. She said such depictions work because they sum up the doubts people have about him.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail’s Andrew Pierce has doubts about David Cameron. He’s not really a Tory, Pierce moaned.

This election will be tight, which will increase the influence of newspapers, according to the panel. Experience tells them that the smallest of their insights can grow into significant stories later. The potential for events to turn on such stories is great. As Sutherland had said, the scale of intervention is not always proportional to the scale of the effect.

The panellists’ content may be kingmaker at this election. The context of national newsbrands will certainly add to the potency of their words. They are not “only words” but words in a powerful frame.

Sutherland had quoted Daniel Kahneman saying politics is one business very influenced by the subconscious effect of context. The other, Kahneman had said, is advertising. The ad industry will do well not to forget that.

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