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Content's magic ingredient

by Mike Doman

Content Magic
When I don’t know what to write, I get really frustrated. All my life, I’ve generally known what needs to go on a page and when I don’t, I worry that I may have lost it – the thing that pays my bills.

I crave cigarettes. I haven’t had a cigarette in 617 days, but not being able to put words on a page makes me crave nicotine like a fiend. It’s the one remaining time that I want them. And instead of having a cigarette I just start to write. About nothing, usually. It helps me find the thing that kick starts a narrative – the thing all good things are built on.

But we’ll get to that. That magic ingredient.

At the end of the day, all good advertising is a narrative. “Content”, such as it is, is just an extension of the traditional micronarratives agencies have thrived on for as long as anyone can remember. Narratives need a few things to work, namely a beginning, a middle and an end, along with some kind of throughline – something to string the sentences together.

We’re scared of not doing things the old way, because we’ve been doing them so long

The stuff around the narrative – the programmatic trading, the analytics, the research – is all just ways to make that narrative more informed. Content is a way of expanding that narrative beyond product – we say “earlier in the funnel”, but we really just mean starting a conversation before we sell stuff.

Everyone’s doing it. Yet the gulf between good advertising and bad has never been more pronounced. Because of the magic ingredient.


In a world where brands increasingly engage with people like people, where a brand personality is as important as a tone of voice, where two-way conversation isn’t a benefit, it’s a given… vulnerability matters.

In content, the difference vulnerability makes is night and day. Human truths are the key to an actual story. The moment someone cries, or giggles, or you can feel the pit in their stomach – it triggers empathy. Empathy’s a direct consequence of vulnerability.

But brands are still reluctant to embrace vulnerability because it means they need to be vulnerable, which they aren’t used to being. It also means brands need to take the focus off products, and we as an industry aren’t great at that – it doesn’t look as nice on a spreadsheet or a report. However, making people feel something can make a brand - if you’re able to define what the feeling is and make people feel it again and again over time.

For some brands like Red Bull, that feeling is adrenaline. For Telstra, it’s connection. For Nike, it’s empowerment. And they all do it by creating a feeling. Many use content to do it, because content gives them the canvas to explore the stories and themes that make them the businesses they are.

The gulf between good advertising and bad has never been more pronounced

So good work needs feeling. To create a feeling, we need to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable then, we need to be brave.

A psychologist once told me that the amygdala and the hippocampus are parts of the brain that play significant roles in how we think and feel, particularly when it comes to anxiety and fear. When something uncomfortable comes along, the amygdala and the hippocampus kick into gear and millennia of evolution tell us to start to feel fear. At this point, the brave persevere (and the fear subsides over time), and most of us find a way to avoid the situation.

We can’t keep doing it. Our effectiveness relies on us not doing it. We’re under siege from the global population to be meaningful and connect, but we’re scared of not doing things the old way, because we’ve been doing them so long.

Philosopher Stephen Russell said “don’t mask or deny your vulnerability: it is your greatest asset”. In a world where brands are increasingly treated as entities with their own Facebooks and Snapchats, it’s your brand’s greatest asset, too.

Even if that means admitting you still crave cigarettes and fear you’ll lose your ability to write, just to get a message across.

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