MBPT Spotlight: Want To Learn About Modern Content Strategy? Check Out Jack Benny

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With the emergence of new technology comes new terminology. Just about every brand pundit I hear from with these days is talking a new language, and a phrase I hear a lot these days is “Content Strategy.”

It seems that digital technology, screen proliferation, social media and the concept of “native” advertising have all brought our business to a new world in which advertising messages—good old-fashioned persuasion—aren’t enough. What brands need today, the pundits say, is a new and deeper association with exclusive, premium content.

I’ve always said that the essence of marketing is executing timeless themes in timely ways. To my way of thinking, there is nothing new, disruptive or particularly revolutionary about the idea of a content strategy. Marketers have been partnering with content creators since the dawn of advertising. Alas, it seems that everything old does in fact become new again.

Consider, for instance, classic comedian and early TV megastar Jack Benny. From 1933-65, Benny was among the most dominant entertainers in America. His top-rated radio show eventually made the successful transition to TV, and garnered huge ratings and audience share for the duration of its run, inspiring the modern-day sitcom along the way.

But, during the radio years, Jack did not even get top billing on his own show. First it was The Canada Dry Program; after that came The Chevrolet Program and then the General Tire Revue. It wasn’t until General Foods signed on to sponsor The Jell-O Program Starring Jack Benny that Jack’s name made it into the title—and even then he got second billing. Eventually, the show moved to TV in 1949 as The Jack Benny Program.

The important thing to understand is that for every one of these brands in a multitude of categories from ginger ale to tires, Jack Benny’s comedic personality and unique brand of humor represented what today we call a content strategy—by associating themselves with Benny’s “content,” brands were able to create deeper and more potent relevance than with a message delivered in a more “traditional” (there’s that word again) context.

There are countless other examples: Milton Berle, a.k.a. “Mr. Television,” regaled America on TheTexaco Star Theatre, Walter Winchell fronted Jergen’s Journal and Bing Crosby was the star of Philco Radio Time and The Kraft Music Hall. There was also The GE Theatre (hosted by Ronald Reagan), Campbell’s Playhouse (written by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman) and the perhaps ill-named Ford Theatre.

For those that posit that the difference between the early years of radio and TV and today’s more “sophisticated” media universe is that today’s brands are actually creating their own content, let’s not forget Procter & Gamble, which began producing the world’s first “soap opera”—in 1937. The Guiding Light was a pure “content play” (in today’s terms) designed to attract masses of women to the relatively new medium of radio, a medium that P&G wisely and correctly predicted would become a powerful marketing channel for its household soaps and other products.

The irony is that these “traditional” media sponsorships were both audience strategies and content strategies in their time. It’s a reminder to today’s marketers who are blessed with a marvelous and dizzying array of media alternatives with new names and lofty promises of ROI—while the external media world has changed, the underlying marketing challenge has not; namely, creating a purchase still requires putting the right brand message in the right place at the right time.

For those of you who are responsible for a content strategy, the message is simple: Don’t let the complexity of tactical media execution overcomplicate your thinking. This trip down memory lane is a reminder that marketing is about executing timeless themes in timely ways. The names may have changed but the story remains the same.

Hubbell is founder and CEO of BoomAgers, a creative services agency launched in 2011 that is dedicated to helping clients capture the full value of the baby boomer marketplace. Hubbell spent 30 years in the ad agency business, including posts as executive VP at Saatchi & Saatchi, D’Arcy Worldwide and NW Ayer, and working with clients including Procter & Gamble and Pillsbury.

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