The revelation that McDonald’s is closing its youth YouTube channel, Channel Us, could be seen as vindication for those who think the noise around content is all shout and no substance.
Finally, here’s the proof that rather than content being the new weapon in the marketing arsenal, the ending of Channel Us is proof of just another flawed way in which agencies are trying to get clients to part with their money—this time with the Emperor’s New Clothes of "content".
I’ve kept track of Channel Us since its inception, partly out of competitor curiosity, partly because one of the creatives who came up with the idea now works for me and partly because in the past year they’ve been one of the most high profile brands to enter the content space.
For all these reasons, I’ve wanted to see it succeed, but dig under the surface and rather than this being a notch on the bedpost for the content naysayers, there are some clear reasons why this project failed where others succeed. Its closure says more about agency land and its struggle to understand content, than it does about McDonald’s.
The challenge that all brands (and their agencies) face in creating compelling video and TV content is that for the first time, they’re taking themselves out of the ad break or the pre-roll and placing themselves as the content itself.
That in itself is not revelatory, but in creating a youth-focused YouTube channel, McDonald’s was no longer in competition for eyes and ears with the other ads in the break, but put themselves directly up against the kings of content, the likes of Vice, the BBC, E4 and Red Bull.
That’s a high quality threshold set by content practitioners who have honed decades of experience in how to create highly targeted, well-produced editorial that understands and delivers to an audience in a repetitive and always-on manner.
The challenge then becomes creating an editorial proposition that differentiates from these other established content offerings and is a compelling, unmissable and shareable offering to the target audience.
Channel Us was described on its home page as "an entertainment channel". But the same label could be applied to many other YouTube channels, websites, social media feeds and TV brands. What made this stand out in the same way as many of McDonald’s’ ads do?
Creating amazing advertising campaigns is a very different discipline from creating always on, editorially-focused entertainment. The proposition needs to feel unique, unify with other forms of social media and have a clear sense of purpose. Channel Us struggled on all these fronts.
So if the marketing challenge is different ("editorial" not "ad break", "always on" not "campaign burst") then surely the make-up of agencies that can achieve that challenge needs to be different too.
Youth-focused video that can challenge strong content propositions from brands like Nike, TopMan and Oreo and broadcasters like BBC3 and Vice need agencies that have experience of the editorially-focused broadcast world, as much as the advertising-focused marketing world.
And of course this gets to the nub of the current bun fight (excuse the pun) that is seeing every agency in town press the case for their content credentials.
As much as brands are experimenting with content, many agencies are also finding their way as they battle to "own" the content experience with the client. This is a fight for the future of marketing with the clients caught up in the battle.
Channel Us has just experienced a true "content" experience in the same way that every great broadcaster does—low ratings, apathy from the audience and eventually being pulled from the schedule. I’m sure McDonald’s will be back at some point with a well tuned and highly audience focused content proposition.
Channel Us merely showed that even the most brilliant brands and their agencies are still finding their way in this new but challenging area of marketing that sees the ultimate sign of success decided by the most important stakeholder of all—the audience.
Steve Ackerman is the managing director at Somethin' Else.