PR can steal a march in 'third era' of digital content. Here's why...

If there's one thing that this year's inaugural Cannes Entertainment Lions showed, it's that we're entering an important third era of content - an era that could be highly fruitful for those who seize the opportunity. The question is: has the PR world let this opportunity slip?

New era of digital content means new opportunities, says Entertainment Lions juror Dave Roberts
New era of digital content means new opportunities, says Entertainment Lions juror Dave Roberts

We all remember the first era, a time characterised by an unwavering belief that whatever was uploaded to YouTube would find its audience organically, at a huge scale, pretty much immediately.

Of course, for the vast majority, this wasn’t the case; ‘viral’ became a dirty word and rather than delve more deeply into why content wasn’t delivering on expectation, the industry deferred to what it knows best.

And so we ushered in the second era, where, in a somewhat defeatist way, the new mantra became "if you want anyone to see it, you’ve got to pay to get it in front of them".

In an almost ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ fashion, huge viewing figures were bandied around (usually by media agencies), often with little or no question of their quality or value. Simultaneously apparently now freed from the constraints of abiding by first era ‘viral rules’, we saw a widespread reversion to a more brand-centric approach, which moved the centre of gravity away from the creation of ‘entertainment’, backwards towards the (albeit more straightforward) ambition of simply being ‘entertaining’.

It may seem a somewhat pedantic distinction, but as Entertainment Lions jury president Jae Goodman pointed out, "a 30-second commercial that gets passed around on YouTube is ‘entertaining’, but I wouldn't define it as ‘entertainment’. That piece of content was created to be interruptive in the midst of entertainment that a person tuned in to enjoy. On the other hand, a great clip from a television show that happens to be created by a brand that gets passed around in the same way, I would say that is entertainment".

And here lies the crux of the issue – those producing (unbranded) entertainment achieve their success thanks to an implicit understanding of how they’ll find their audience and how they’ll best craft a great, editorially led story.

Ring any bells? PR is an industry built on these behaviours. Ok, so traditionally ‘stories’ were delivered as press releases and audiences were accessed via cynical hacks at the end of a phone line – but the principles of engagement are identical; keeping a journalist interested during the first five seconds of a pitch has many parallels with keeping a fickle viewer engaged.

So, smart agencies that understand where and how their entertainment will be consumed, the form it should take and how it should be marketed have an enormous opportunity to steal a march on their advertising and media cousins.

If they stick to what they know and collaborate with the right creative partners, they could be the ones leading the charge into this exciting third era – where content and context are inextricably linked and where marketing content is distinguished from content marketing.

Dave Roberts is deputy MD of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment and was a jury member of the first Cannes Entertainment Lions this year

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