Q&A: Nic McCarthy on Brands as Publishers and the ‘Editorial Mindset’


  • By Juliet Stott
  • June 09, 2015
Q&A: Nic McCarthy on Brands as Publishers and the ‘Editorial Mindset’

Not every brand can become a publisher, says The Content Council’s Content Director of the Year Nic McCarthy of UK content marketing agency Seven. But all brands can adopt an “editorial mindset.” In this Q and A, McCarthy chats with Content King Juliet Stott about what it means to be a content director and why ad-blocking will raise standards in the industry.

Juliet Stott: You were recently named Content Director of the Year by The Content Council. But what exactly does a content director do?

Nic McCarthy: The most important thing I do is partner with our clients to figure out how to use content to grow their business – this means different things to different people. For some, it will be about building a particular audience. For others, it will be about carving out a territory or position in the market using content. Or it could mean using content to communicate a change in brand direction. I work with our strategy, social, creative and digital teams to come up with answers – fast! My other big job is to build the best possible content team at Seven. From writers, photographers, film-makers, technologists, designers and social specialists, it’s my job to make sure they’re the best, they’re happy and we’re having a good time together doing great work.

JS: You came from a purely editorial background and moved into a more commercial role – how have you found that transition?

NM: To be honest it was a shock. When you’re working in an editorial team (I was editing Us Weekly in New York with a staff of 70 journalists) you’re in charge from beginning to end. What you say goes. You cover the stories you want, create the cover you want and you’re responsible for the success of the brand in all its channels. The buck starts and stops with you. It’s a completely different thing in a content agency. You have to work collaboratively with client teams and other agencies to get results. That can be a real challenge. But clients hire us because they want honest advice about the content that’s going to make their business more successful. So you have to remember your editorial training, everything you’ve learnt about talking to an audience, bringing them in, making them loyal and creating communities. If you lose sight of that, you’re no use to anyone.

JS: Where do you see the future of content going?

NM: The last three pitches we’ve done at Seven have been international, digital-only with an emphasis on social. That’s a big change from last year. We’ve always been a very strategic agency but now we have to be even more so: The emphasis is as much on marketing as it is on content. Twelve months ago, you might have won an account with some great creative ideas and a good grasp of the brand. Now brilliant ideas are just the start – you need a watertight strategy; be able to show a real grasp of the brand’s market, position and competitors; campaign and activation expertise, and have a world-beating team.

JS: Content marketing and social media are inextricably linked. But with the rise of new networks like Ello, which allow users to block advertising or marketing in their feeds, how is content going to survive?

NM: It will mean that content marketers and agencies will have to raise their game. It’s a good thing as there is a load of rubbish out there. There’s a lot of lazy Web content and a lot of really dull corporate social content as well as feed-bombing and content clutter that makes people cross. Ad-blocking technology will force marketers and agencies to be better – the content will have to be entertaining, useful and enjoyable or people will simply refuse it.

JS: How has the relationship between content, advertising and communications changed over the last few years?

NM: It’s all blending and blurring in a really creative and interesting way. All the disciplines are coming together. There are loads of reasons but three big ones are: No. 1 is the way modern brands interact with people is often the opposite of traditional advertising – plain-speaking, two-way and not sell, sell, sell – so much more like a publisher than a company hawking a product. No. 2 is what happens between campaigns. It’s great to have a couple of splashy comms spikes every year, but people don’t want to be ignored the rest of the time. And, No. 3 is that advertising and content are brilliant bedfellows if you can make them work together. I spent two months working out of an ad agency last year and loved the experience.

JS: Is it realistic for every brand to become a publisher?

NM: No, and it’s not right for everyone. But I do think it’s possible for all brands to adopt an “editorial mindset.” Lots of brands have become more editorial in their tone and approach, Innocent Drinks or Dove, for example. But I wouldn’t describe them as publishers. Whereas brands like ASOS and Converse really are – it’s not just the breadth and depth of content they create, it’s the way they talk to people, their design values, the stuff they share – they’re chatty, open and not afraid to have a point of view. How far you go down the road of becoming a publisher depends on your objectives and what business you’re in.

JS: Can you give me an example where becoming a publisher has really worked for a brand?

NM: Our biggest client, Sainsbury’s (the UK’s second largest supermarket chain), is a perfect example. Their flagship title is the 20-year-old Sainsbury’s Magazine, the UK’s best-selling newsstand food title, created by a team of foodies and journalists at Seven. It’s a multi-platform food brand, making money from copy sales and ad revenue, and does a great job showcasing the supermarket’s foodie credentials. We have also worked with Sainsbury’s on their new food website called Homemade – the tag line is “we’re serious about food, but not that serious” – launched in partnership with the Huffington Post, which is doing very well. It has lots of wonderful traditional recipes but also lots of BuzzFeed-style food news and entertainment. So in both old and new ways, Sainsbury’s is a very successful publisher.

JS: Are there any brands that you admire, that are getting content right?

NM: There are two I think are doing a great job. The first is a brand I love, Sweaty Betty. They’re so good at content because they have a crystal clear idea of who they are – a fashion fitness brand that empowers women. This runs through everything from the way they speak, to the way their stores are laid out, to their beautiful photography, to their blog. They are consistent from beginning to end. The second is Fitbit. Their technology makes the brand so personal – quite literally always-on – that content is a natural next step. From their user stories to #challenges, the brand puts content to good use in keeping users inspired and on track.


To learn more about how MSP-C can help your brand with its content needs, contact us.

About Juliet Stott

Juliet is a former Guardian journalist now freelance journalist, writer & content strategist in York, United Kingdom.

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