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Content Is Crap

2014 May 18

In a famous essay written in 1996, Bill Gates declared that content is king.  He presciently foresaw that faster connection speeds would make content the “killer app” of the Internet, creating a “marketplace of experiences, ideas and products.”

Yet unfortunately, Gates mistook the transaction for the product.  While his vision of the future was correct and he moved quickly to create and acquire valuable content assets, he largely failed.  Today, almost 20 years later, Microsoft has no significant content business.

The reason is that content isn’t really king.  Content is crap.  Nobody walks out of a great movie and says, “Wow!  What great content.”  Nobody who produces meaningful artistic expression thinks of themselves as content producers either.  So the first step to becoming a successful publisher is to start treating creative work with the respect it deserves.

A Mission Is Not A Transaction

Henry Luce was not a fan of mainstream media.  He saw it as made up of dry and dull daily newspapers on the one hand and sensational tabloids on the other.  He wanted to create a new breed of product—informal and concise—which would prepare people to discuss the issues of the day.  The result, Time magazine, succeeded beyond his dreams.

Later, much like Gates, he presciently saw that photography would change publishing forever.  In his prospectus for Life magazine he wrote:

To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed;

Thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half mankind

To see, and to show, is the mission now undertaken by a new kind of publication, THE SHOW-BOOK OF THE WORLD

Luce is arguably the most successful publisher the world has ever seen.  Time, Life and Fortune became not just magazines, but icons.  Later, People and Sports Illustrated created—and dominated—new categories as well.  Even today, Time Inc. is the largest publisher on the planet.

The contrast between Gates and Luce is stark.  Gates, while he insightfully described the forces that would shape the new “marketplace of ideas,” expressed no special opinion about it, except that he thought people should pay for it.  Luce, on the other hand, saw not just an opportunity or a task, but a mission.

And, of course, Luce succeeded where Gates failed.

Why Pixar Movies Don’t Suck

In the film industry, Pixar is an unparalleled success.  It’s 14 animated films have won 27 Academy Awards and every single one is on the list of highest grossing animated films of all time.  Yet in his recent memoir, Creativity, Inc., the President of Pixar, Ed Catmull, laments, “early on, all of our movies suck.”

The trick, he points out, is to go beyond the initial germ of an idea and undergo the tortuous process it takes to get “from suck to not-suck.”  That takes commitment.  As Catmull writes:

It is the nature of things—in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while, and that near-fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence.

Again, notice the contrast.  Where Gates saw a “marketplace of ideas, Catmull sees a personal journey.  Most successful people—and successful companies—feel that way about what they do.  It takes passion to spend the long, hard hours required to produce anything good enough to make an impact.  Excellence is about more than just showing up.

And that’s why most marketers fail at content.  They see it as a strategy rather than a meaningful way to exchange value, a ploy rather than a craft.  People like Luce and Catmull are not merely seeking an audience, but to share something important with the world.

If marketers are ever to be successful with content, they will need to learn to think more like publishers.  Most enterprises do have something to offer the world.  They have important experience, expertise and insights.  Unfortunately, when digital technology empowered them to share anything they want with the world, they chose crap.

The ROI Trap

When I returned to the US a few years back, I found that marketers were enamored with the new field of content strategy.  Apparently, it was the most exciting thing going.  I had spent my career in publishing, but had never heard of a content strategy and had no idea what one would look like.  I have to admit, I was intrigued.

Alas, I discovered that content strategy was in reality just another name for brand planners selling long form ads to clients.  Nobody who was talking about content strategy seemed to have ever published or produced anything.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they approached content like marketers.  Instead of a mission, they began with a “consumer insight.”  They would envision a typical consumer, research the content that consumer would most likely have an affinity for and make a connection between that particular content and their brand’s values.  The objective was often stated simply as ROI—return on investment.

Yet metrics are not a strategy.  In reality, successful marketers must attain three core objectives: awareness, sales and advocacy.  Successful publishers, on the other hand, have one: build a meaningful relationship with the audience.  Clearly, that can enable marketing objectives, but marketing and publishing are separate and distinct.

Red Bull’s adventure sports gives meaning to its brand of energy drinks.  Nike’s Lebron James video inspired millions.  Wine store owner Gary Vaynerchuk became a social media legend—and built a successful business—by producing videos that helped people enjoy and appreciate wine.  Does anybody question whether these are worthwhile?

The Paradox of Emotional Connection

Great brands have a lot to offer.  Some have unparalleled technological capabilities.  Others make finely crafted products through processes that have been honed over decades, or even centuries.  Still others embody a deep commitment to service, making our lives better in small, but not unsubstantial ways.  Every brand has a story to tell.

That’s why marketers like to talk so much about “emotional connections.”  The problem is that they usually get it backwards.  They spend their time seeking out emotional triggers in their consumers instead of bonding with the story of their brands.  The result, as I hope I’ve made clear, is crap.

The truth is that if you find yourself feeling the need to talk about an “emotional connection,” you probably don’t have one.  True emotional connections come from passion and passionate people are committed not because they’ve made a strategic choice, but because they have answered a calling and never felt like they had a choice.

Every brand has a great story to tell.  But please, don’t call it content. Content is crap.

– Greg

19 Responses leave one →
  1. May 18, 2014


    Thanks for this post. It hits the mark.

    I know what the “next big thing” should be. It’s an app that will sort the good stuff from the “content.” I would gladly pay for that so I can stop wading through the “content.”



  2. May 18, 2014

    Another thought-provoking bit of insight, Greg. My thought, however, is that successful content marketers would agree with you too – that they are successful because they creating emotional connections via content that is about what their brand stands for.

    I immediately started thinking about Buffer, the content scheduling service. They have mentioned several times that the majority of their inbound interest comes from the great content they produce on their blog. On face value, it looks like any other company blog that was setup as part of their content strategy, and they have taken steps to employ people whose sole job is to fill it with intriguing content. Since Buffer is, at the heart of it, a productivity app, their content largely reflects productivity related insights. And it has worked for them. Possibly because they are talking about the story of their brand, i.e. productivity, or that they are producing content that people love – the line is blurred for me.

    As another example, we have the New York Times. On an admittedly oversimplified level, would you not argue that they are currently facing their recent challenges because they have had too many publishers in their company and not enough content marketers? Their journalists are some of the absolute best at their job, and they would have a cringe-fest even thinking about the likes of, say, Buzzfeed and the chewing-gum content the latter produces. Yet, the sad reality is that Buzzfeed garners more viewers than NYT does.

  3. May 18, 2014

    Good points Tariq. I would say that the term “content” is similar software in that it is useful as part of a taxonomy, but fairly meaningless beyond that.

    Imagine if someone said that their strategy was to “develop, acquire and leverage software.” Immediately, you would ask: What kind of software?” What does it do? Why is it important?

    Yet marketers say things like that about content all the time and expect to be taken seriously. That’s where the crap comes from.

    With regard to the New York Times, I would say the issue is a bit more compllex. The problem isn’t that they need to become content marketers, but that the business side people lost their sense of mission and ceased to become publishers. They were too content to stay on their side of the “Chinese wall” and lost connection with their mission.

    If they had stayed to true their mission to “inform the public,” they wouldn’t have made a lot of mistakes that they did. Does a paywall further the mission of informing the public? Does paper inform the public better than digital? How can digital technology be used to create a better informed public? These are the questions they should have been asking.

    I wrote at greater length about the challenges publishers face here, but I do think it’s worth mentioning that because the New York Times has continued to take its journalistic mission seriously, it remains a profitable business despite some serious disruption to its business model (i.e. classifieds).

    – Greg

  4. May 18, 2014

    Thanks Dan. Glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  5. May 19, 2014

    My feelings exactly. When I teach Storytelling I first teach a group and have them tell personal stories particularly who I am and why I am here. I want them to start with the emotional connection so that they feel it and, forever more, know when it is missing.

  6. May 19, 2014

    Thanks Annette. Storytelling is a great skill for anyone to learn!

    – Greg

  7. May 20, 2014

    Great post! I fully agree.

    I am currently experimenting with Social Objects. Trying to find things people feel passionate about both inside and outside the company. And then producing relevant content for the discussions swirling around those social objects.

    And it’s always freshening to ask your content team this: “Are we aiming for the must-have, interesting or scary content? What would happen if we would produce something that creates bigger emotions that we can handle?”

  8. May 20, 2014

    Thank you so much for saying this. “Content” is literally an empty word: on its own, it’s meaningless, a placeholder. Just as “I had some food for breakfast” tells you nothing of my mushroom and asparagus frittata and “I’m reading a book” leaves the wonders of “Lord of the Flies” completely unknown, “I create content” imparts no meaningful information whatsoever. Someone had to say it!

  9. May 20, 2014

    Thanks Miikka. I really like the idea of “social objects.”

    – Greg

  10. May 20, 2014

    I totally. You can’t imagine Bill Gates saying, “software is king,” although he said a lot about what software could do, why it was important, how it could transform our lives.

    If people thought about content the way Bill Gates thought about software, we wouldn’t have the problems we do.

    – Greg

  11. May 21, 2014

    Great insights here, Greg, but don’t underestimate the business side. Those of us who have marketed subscriptions and continuities know that success involves creating an on-going relationship with our customers, rooted in SHARED interests and passions. This requires more than a media strategy, just as great journalism requires more than a content strategy. It takes a lot of work to get both stories and business models (which form the structure of customer relationships) “from suck to not-suck.”

    As you note with the term “content,” using the wrong words can lead us astray. On the business side, “consumer” is another word to avoid, like content. Consumers are faceless creatures prone to consume empty calories, whose job is to buy what we produce … whereas customers pay our salaries and therefore merit serious respect and consideration.

    A great story is necessary, but not sufficient. So is a great business model, which structures an exchange of value between story-teller and reader that is a win/win. Great marketers know that, and I suspect Luce had a few of those. After all, he was the publisher, not the editor, of Time.

  12. May 21, 2014

    Thanks Chet. I guess what it depends on what you mean by “the business side.” When you have P&L responsibility for a publishing business, the product always has to come first. Great marketing and sales are important of course, but you live or die by the strength of the product.

    – Greg

  13. May 25, 2014

    Great post, Greg. I don’t think it takes anything away from your main point for me to argue that Bill Gates and Microsoft were a little more successful than the complete failure that you describe. When Microsoft got into the content business as a result of that memo, they did the following:

    -invested in Dorling-Kindersley and in a joint venture with them, produced a number of early CD-ROMs of DK “content”. That investment spawned Encarta, which was very successful before being de-throned by the cheaper business model of Wikipedia, and led to Microsoft publishing games (Halo) and indirectly, to xBox. The Entertainment division of Microsoft is about $10.2B of their $77B business.

    -Creatd MSN, which led to Microsoft Advertising, a $3.2B business.

    -invested with NBC to create MSNBC, which flew high for a while before its recent troubles. It’s still the 3rd largest cable news channel, behind Fox and CNN.

    While not comparable to his record in software, hardly a total failure either.


  14. May 26, 2014


    Funny enough, those are exactly the businesses I had in mind. Encarta was actually never a particularly successful business and, as you mentioned, ultimately failed. Microsoft did have some success with game publishing, but it’s a very small part of their entertainment business. The NBC partnership was troubled from the start and only gained traction after NBC took full control in 2005.

    So while I agree that these failures did lead to other successes, the fact remains that Microsoft has never had a successful content business. There were some minor bright spots, but as a whole it has been notable for its content failures even though, as you suggested, its strategy has been, for the most part, sensible and prescient.

    What I do think is interesting is how differently Gates talked about software. He would never say something like “software is king,” although many of the same arguments would apply. He talked about what he wanted to do with software, why it was important, the challenges and opportunities ahead.

    In effect, Gates had a clear mission with respect to software, but not for content. He succeeded fabulously at the former and failed miserably at the latter.

    – Greg

  15. May 27, 2014


    This is one of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. You hit the nail on the head and them hammered it throughout the article. I could take out at least 6 phrases that are bound to become classic wisdom.

    The notion of “build[ing] a meaningful relationship with the audience” for its own sake brings back the significance of business in general, and the solution to the emptiness of today’s world. The vision you shared exudes meaning, purpose, life, connection and fulfillment.

    After reading your piece, I feel that enslaving publishing to profits is close to a crime.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  16. May 28, 2014

    Thanks Martin. Although I don’t see that delivering value is mutually exclusive to profit. In fact, you can’t have one without the other!

    – Greg

  17. June 1, 2014

    Found your post via a trusted contact on Twitter. Love it.

    Not sure when content became a term that everyone uses, but it bugs me. Content to me is cheap, generic, consumable and forgettable, usually spit out by bloggers, mills and regurgitators. As you said, crap.

    It takes away the real meaning, thought and craft behind a product that’s done by a trained professional. And as someone with journalism background, I find it insulting that a company offers me $5 for 500 words and complains I don’t churn out 5-10 posts a day. Quality cannot be turned out at that rate or price.

  18. June 1, 2014

    I think the problem comes when people confuse a taxonomy with an activity. It is completely fine to look at a marketing operation and say” okay, that’s media buying, that’s creative, that’s sponsorship and that’s content.” But simply saying “creative” doesn’t make it so. Just like saying “legal” doesn’t make you a lawyer and “medical” doesn’t make you a doctor.

    I think it’s significant that Bill Gates never said that software is king. He was too busy thinking about how to make it and what to do with it!

    – Greg

  19. Curt Krafft permalink
    September 17, 2014

    Excellent and inspiring article. This is something I am trying to do right now. Pushing my idea for a 50’s & 60’s oldies format for commercial radio. Older people have money and they do spend it. They are an untapped resource and a lucrative demographic. And this format would also be a way to resurrect AM radio. (Though it would also work on FM too.) And my oldies format would go way beyond the traditional and boring 350 song playlist. And yes, I’m hitting all the radio groups big and small and presenting this idea to them. And all I have to do is convince one….

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