It's NOT About The Content

Image above: Evan Shapiro presents his Media Ecosystem 2024 map at the EGTA CEO summit.

I’ve been working in new media and digital advertising for more than 30 years, starting with early versions of online newspapers in the early 1990s. Throughout that time, leaders at publishing and media companies have always said, “It’s all about the content.”

I continue to disagree with that point. It’s not all about the content. It never was.

The business of media is the provisioning of consumer contact.  In media’s analog era, where distribution was scarce (printing presses, broadcast stations, cable & satellite systems), audience attention was quite plentiful. Media companies typically created and published the cheapest content they could to attract, entertain and retain the audiences that their monopoly distribution basically guaranteed them.



Consumers had little choice but to pay and watch, listen or read. They had few choices. And advertisers had few choices (one local newspaper, several top radio stations, a limited number of TV networks) if they wanted to reach those audiences at scale with their ads.

Certainly, content was and is important, and it should be celebrated. Celebrating content (like at the Emmys or with Pulitzers) is a great way to keep the content engines working and help generate rationales for premium pricing. But folks should not delude themselves that it is “all about the content.”

If it was, how come media companies that make content today have revenues, profits and stock prices that are down so much?

Historically, the most valuable media companies were those that controlled scarce, fixed distribution: broadcast companies, cable companies, satellite companies.

Today, with media firmly in the digital era, distribution is now plentiful, but audience attention has become scarce. No more can just putting up content garner scaled audiences that will both pay money and attract lots of advertising revenue. Media companies need something more.

What is that “more”? Clearly, today, it is about technology and data.

Five of the seven most valuable companies in the world -- Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet/Google, Amazon and Meta -- drive their profits significantly or primarily from advertising. And, after its announcement to start putting preroll video ads in front of its fast-growing GForce consumer cloud-based gaming service, Nvidia (which also operates in the ether of most valuable companies in the world) is getting into the ad game, too.

Companies that make content are nowhere near the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the world anymore. And, with the explosive growth of AI, it’s clear that the number of companies and people that can make great content fast and efficiently is only growing. There are billions of creators out there now, no longer dozens.

So, to the content-creating media companies of yore, I ask, “What is your technology and data strategy?”

Why haven’t you created or bought companies like The Trade Desk, Roku, MediaMath, TransUnion, or Experian? If you’re serious about surviving and thriving in the world of media in this digital era, you will need to.

For those who say content is king, I say that distribution is King Kong, and the path to dominant distribution is now though technology and data.

13 comments about "It's NOT About The Content".
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  1. Lynnwood Bibbens from ReachTV, June 6, 2024 at 1:14 p.m.

    I've been saying this for years. If content is King, then Distribution is emperor. 

  2. Gordon Borrell from Borrell Associates, June 6, 2024 at 1:36 p.m.

    Great thoughts here, Dave, but I'm going to posit a different view.  Big arenas are important, but they don't get filled without a Taylor Swift or a matchup between the Eagles and Cowboys. Using another example, think of podcasting. There are more than 4 million registered podcasts. Getting distribution is phenomenally easy. Programs like Simplecast post it to Apple Podcasts, Spofity, Google Podcasts, iTunes, etc., automatically.  Eighty percent of podcasts get fewer than 1,000 downloads per episode. What do you suppose drives the successful 20%?  While I generally agree with your statement, I think I'd word it this way:  "Distribution May be King Kong, But Content is Still King."  --said the guy who's had you as a guest twice on his podcast .... which by the way is in the top 5%.  YOU are great content.  

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 6, 2024 at 1:59 p.m.

    You raise some very interesting questions, Dave.

    But what exactly do we mean by "content" In the old days virtually all of the media content---TV, radio, print and movies---that we consumed was professionally made by "content" producing companies. Today a large amount of what is termed "media content" is either generated by people communicating with eachother or their "networks" via social sites or other digital media venues--- or people copying professionally made movies and old TV shows and posting them free of charge on a platform like YouTube for others to consume. Add to that the podcasts---many non-professional in content and you have a huge influx of content---but is such fare comparable to a new "episode of "Law and Order" or "The Today Show" or  the evening news on a local station, or a radio talk show host's ramblings with gueats or a new movie from Hollywood?

     So the main difference between today and the past is that, thanks to the internet, much of today's  content costs the platform nothing---yet it makes money by selling ads against its audience. But would FB, Google, etc be so profitable if they had to pay handsomly for their content. I doubt it.

    So the real question that you are raising is should the professional content makers play the same game as FB, Google, etc.? Frankly, I don't see how that would work as their content still requires a lot of money to produce and they now dirtribute most of it themselves via networks, stations, movie theatres, print subscriptions, AVOD/FAST services, etc.

    What has happened is really the creation of a parallel system of content creation and distribution---the professionally made and the non-professional ----each operating on a different business plan. Way back when an average consumer devoted something like 6-7 hours a day to TV, radio, print and movie content; Today that figure is about 8 hours---due largely to greater supply of fare and shorter working weeks. The rest---about 4 hours per day---- is devoted to creating non-professional content distributed by companies which have no content costs ---hence are far more profitable than the typical TV, radio, print or movie makers' margin. Both types of companies understand this difference and both are content to go their own ways.  

  4. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, June 6, 2024 at 4:50 p.m.

    ❤️ it Lynnwood!

  5. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, June 6, 2024 at 4:53 p.m.

    I don't disagree at all. If I was a local media owner today, I would certainly look first at content production as an are where I could have unfair competitive advantage. It's not the same media business, but it can be very valuable for them.

  6. Tim Messier from Mile Marker 1 Advisors, June 6, 2024 at 5:02 p.m.

    Owning some portion of distribution has always provided comfort, though creaters of streaming content quickly figured out something that early digital content creaters did not -- that syndication, bundling and warming up to aggregators (essentially distributers) are not inheritently bad things. A large part of that was (is?) the mystery around monetization when control and usage of content isn't, well, controlled. 

    Audience (the value of) needs to be worked into the equation somehow as some derivative of content and distribution. 

  7. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, June 6, 2024 at 5:12 p.m.

    by "content" I mean programming... shows, movies, news, sports... whatever fills the airwaves 

  8. Scott McKinley from Truthset, June 6, 2024 at 5:56 p.m.

    Here's a thought:

    Advertising is a stool supported by 3 legs:

    A. Audience: who is the brand selling to?
    B. Creative: what is the story the brand is telling to the audience?
    C. Content/media: where can the audience be found to deliver that message?

    How does each component contribute to ad monetization, and how might that be changing?

    In the pre-digital world, CONTENT was king. It was content that attracted the audiences, then the creative showed up to inform and coerce. Audience was essentially moot because audience definitions were super broad (age, gender, DMA). Therefore, it was national brands who could advertise national products to a national audience, sitting in front of a TV with 3 channels. End of story.

    But digital has written new rules, and traditional media has missed the plot.

    If you look at the market caps, P/E ratios, and growth trajectories of the companies that dominate today's advertising landscape, you'll see which leg of the stool has become the most important.

    - Media/content. How much you could spend to make premium content used to correlate directly to ad yield and market cap. But now the cost of content creation has dropped to near-zero (UGC), and the winners often don't make content at all.

    - Creative: It used be the 2nd most important thing behind media, because people actually used advertising to learn about new products that would make their lives better. Today, we have hundreds of outlets to learn about products. We don't need advertising anymore, and we don't really trust it to tell us things anyway.

    - Audience. If a brand can accurately predict who is behind the glass, it hardly matters what they are watching (media) or what they say to the person to get them to consider it (creative). What matters that you predict the needs and interests of that one person or household (audience).

    Don't agree? Would you be more likely to respond to...

    #1 an ad that precisely predicts and targets your needs and interestsm, placed between 2 cat videos...


    #2 an ad for an obscure health condition that you don't have, or a car that you'll never ever buy, placed in a commercial pod in the middle of an engaging TV series?

    So, in today's digital world (including TV), AUDIENCE is now king, CREATIVE is important, and CONTENT is only as good as the attention it attracts.

    And the way to get AUDIENCE right is to first build a tech and data stack that allows you to understand the identity of the viewer, then assemble accurate profiles that span demography and behavior to make accurate predictions about what ad to show.

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 6, 2024 at 6:49 p.m.

    Scott, I disagree about "audience" being the most important and "creative" is just "important". . "Creative", not "audience", considers what the target audience needs and how it will respond to a particular brand positioning strategy as well as how you present your message. In an ideal world---one we will probably never see---the two go hand in hand, but in the real world there is very little data that tells us not only who, specifically,  buys a product class but who is most receptive to the way a brand is positioning itself. In the end you wind up profiling blocks of consumers by demos and sometimes by their purchase behavior, then try to buy media that reach these groups in aggregate, not individually.

  10. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 6, 2024 at 6:55 p.m.

    Dave, I understand that, which is why I drew the distinction between professionally made and the other kind of content. In reality the two are functionning separately under different business plans and there is no way---that I can see---why either side will do well by  trying to tip its toes into the others' turf. For the former---which includes traditional modes of communication---TV, radio, print--no matter how the content is distributed, content is king and with it goes smaller profit margins. For the other, which uses content created by users for free, all you get is an ad impression aggregator where content is of little consequence---but profit margins are very high.

  11. Scott McKinley from Truthset replied, June 6, 2024 at 6:57 p.m.

    Thanks for considering the viewpoint.

    I think you're making my point, which is that that's how media used to work but not anymore. 

    The tech media companies win because they have a lot of data that tells them precisely who responds to advertising and buys products. In fact, they are so good it that they've
    a) fully automated that prediction and optimization cycle, and
    b) have run away 75% of the digital ad spend

    TV will follow that fate if it doesn't wake up and start playing by the new rules. 

  12. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, June 6, 2024 at 8:09 p.m.

    Scott, the missing link in your statement about what the tech media companies know about consumers is what motivates them to want to buy a product and why they choose a particular brand. Say, that you are right and the tech companies know exactly who buys every product, how often, and what else they  buy. I doubt that---but let's accept that for the sake of this discussion. Branding advertising is one way for advertisers to promot a desire to use these products and brand positioning is how they get their brand to be the wanted one when a buy decision is made. The tech media companies don't have such information as far as I know. So you still need branding ads to motivate the consumer decisions that the tech media companies are tracking.

    Another point concerns how brands target consumers. Whether they realize it or not all brand ads are promoting the product class as well as their own brand. Most ad campaigns target various segments of the product user base according to how a brand sets itself up competitively and, often, the brands try to draw mindset distibctions to distinquish themselves. Accordingly, some emphasize price, others quality, convenience, health benefits, style, etc---or combinations thereoff. Here, again, the tech media companies have little or no data. So, again ":creative" is at play.

     My point is that there is ample room for both types of advertising to work independently---under different rules---but often in tandem. Neither has to completely change its ways so only one approach--- say,the digital "data" approach---is adopted.

    What the tech media are good at is pushing out huge numbers of ad messages---many unwanted---to users of webstes who are consuming consumer generated content. Search advertisers love this kind of deal as they don't care how often a user is bombarded with ads so long as some of them finally clickthrough. And they only pay per cliickthrough. But branding ads perform a different and long term motuivating function and each impression is paid for. That's a critical difference.

  13. Bruce McDermott from Atom Valley, June 7, 2024 at 12:49 p.m.

    When I come across any site with a "paywall" or some other kind of blockage (sign away your first born and any pets you have in the house etc) I leave. Is it really so surprising that since everyone is doing what I do that no one is seeing any advertising or content at all? It's a death spiral for advertising straight into the ground.

    Advertising revenues drop add a paywall. Add a paywall and advertising revenue is non-existant..just like your business.

    What's the solution? Simply ask people what they want to buy today (just like Amazon) and then give them discounts on those products with an immediate BUY straight to the advertiser (who must never piss off the buyer by running them through hoops *Hands Off*).

    Piece of cake. The new form of Advertising. Now was that so hard?

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