Brands should think like talent, not publishers


Brands publishers” is a very useful metaphor: it’s helped us explore the possibilities of inbound media, weaning marketing off the idea that attention is something you just pay for. But is it the right metaphor, or can it be limiting, at the very moment that we need to be thinking in a more open way?

Publishers may not be the best role models

In the excitement and head-nodding that discussion of “brand publishers” has stirred up we have not often enough paused to question the role model we are taking on. You know that all is not very rosy in the publishing garden, right? This is an industry being ravaged by web-based disruption as much, if not more, than any other. 

But since brands are looking to earn attention more than revenue from their publishing efforts, that shouldn’t matter, should it? Maybe.

Another issue with the publishing metaphor is that that implies that the brand commissions others to create for it, when quite often it can find the content and creative or editorial talent it needs within its own organisation.

Lastly, publishing is often too slow for the web. Things are moving fast, new players emerging, old ones adapting and innovating, but still: is it a good model for the web, for earned media and digital?

For inspiration, look to talent

At Media Future 12 in Dublin there were tales aplenty of talent (authors, artists, creators of all ilks) going direct to their audiences using the opportunities that the web offers to side-step “publishers” altogether. Hugh Garry and Matt Locke especially offered some great examples, with social artists with niche audiences discussed alongside the giants like Jamie Oliver (the master of the extensible personal brand) and J K Rowling (Pottermore is the biggest direct author-to-reader venture yet seen).

Brands – some brands at least – would benefit from looking to these individuals as inspirations and role models for attention earning rather than the publishers who used to own their relationship with the audience.

Red Bull is a brand that I have held up as an example of brand publishing excellence before. Does its activities – everything from major extreme sports events to starting a radio show – sound more like a publisher or a major celebrity extending their brand and building their audience in new areas?

What would a brand acting like talent do?

“Brands as talent” sounds interesting to me, so let’s extend the metaphor, play it out in a thought experiment. What would a brand following the trajectory of talent do? Not being in the talent management business – but I’m making a mental note to ask people who are –  the following spring to mind mixing up recollections of reading about and talking to authors, stand up comics and musicians:

  • Build an audience: Harking back to the post about audience management I wrote on the Brilliant Noise blog, the main concern of talent has to be to build an audience. The only way to do that is to be performing, creating, out there getting attention, even in a small way. If you’re smart you’ll be getting people on that mailing list, following you on Twitter and Facebook to find out more.
  • Find its voice: As well as building a fan base, getting out there with your work helps you develop your own voice. A lot of talent starts out copying others, then evolves their own way of doing things as they build confidence and learn from feedback.
  • Test, iterate, test: Comics are especially good at this. Trying out new jokes and routines with small audiences to see what works – they are even quite clear about what they are doing.
  • Stock and flow: (Hat tip to Robin Sloan, here) Lots of talent use social media to do two of things above simultaneously – trying out or recording or exploring new ideas, while keeping in touch with a core fan base. Graham Linehan (see his conversation with Cory Doctorow at The Story) does this well, and Simon Evans has evolved a way of working with Twitter which is really cool – both a conversation and a kind of stream of consciousness joke book.
  • Partner up: In The Pirate’s Dilemma, Mat Mason talks about how hip-hop/urban talent operates almost like a network, constantly trying out new collaborations and partners to cross-promote each other to the fan base. Think of the number of divas who team up with rappers, old hands trying out duets with new kids on their labels. Brands should think about this from a content perspective, not simple sponsorship – and team up and share audiences, collaborate to come up with new concepts.

As I say, I’m not an expert in talent development, but am keen to learn more. Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts…

: : Bonus link: Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate could be a good source of inspiration on this theme: it’s the tale of how after a career set-back he re-invented himself as a stand-up comic (for the second time), building a small, dedicated fan base. He’s now winning comedy awards and selling out theatres around the country again.

By Antony Mayfield

I'm Antony Mayfield - to find out more about me take a look at my LinkedIn profile (see the button on the home page). You can contact me by email at antony [dot] mayfield [at] gmail [dot] com. Google