THE EVOLUTION OF CONTENT

 VIDA's co-founder and chairman Peter Cowley, also co-founder of Spirit Media. 

VIDA's co-founder and chairman Peter Cowley, also co-founder of Spirit Media. 

Before co-founding VIDA, chairman Peter Cowley changed the face of digital content at companies including Endemol and co-founded digital media agency Spirit Media, alongside many other projects. We talked to him about the evolution of content.

 What brought you to content in the nineties?

I started in advertising at BBH where clients included BSB, before it merged with Sky. I moved into the fledging cable industry working for Videotron, later part of Virgin.

We ran the first interactive TV trials, working on the 1992 Olympics showing different events on different channels, with the ability to pick your camera angle at football matches. New then, this became standard.

With the explosion in broadcast media led by Sky, the UK moved from four terrestrial to hundreds of cable channels. The early adopters had an appetite for sport, news… and reality TV, although they didn’t always admit it!

 Content has come a long way from the days of watching TV via a 'squarial'.  

Content has come a long way from the days of watching TV via a 'squarial'.  

What characterised change?

The way content was created, as well as distributed, changed dramatically. Companies experimented with niche technology to create differentiated offerings.

For some businesses it was a challenge investing in emerging media. We see that today – music, film and publishing adapting to audience preferences. We’ve moved from people watching videos on YouTube to Netflix basing their model on millions watching films over an Internet connection.

It’s always about technology creating new possibilities and changing audience behaviour, with businesses having to catch up.

What are the differences between then and now?

People always want content and services – in that way, not much has changed. But content is getting richer, as with high definition.

Distribution is about broadband: faster, more powerful connections and watching on different devices. It’s democratising content: more homes have connectivity.

Those in content need a broader skill-set for creation and distribution, matching content to audience and syncing with revenues. Bedroom bloggers, social influencers and niche providers have this, while big brands can be slower to evolve.

Spirit Media, co-founded by Peter, is at the forefront of content evolution.  

The work you did at Endemol in the noughties, particularly around Big Brother, pioneering live programme streaming, premium rate voting, competitions, mobile portals, and mobile video, was very influential. What does it mean to you?

We had a chance to modernise approaches to television programming and promotion. Technological change combined with the appetite for content, particularly among a younger, receptive audience.  

Through adding Internet and social media to television, channels could develop a relationship with their audience. This changed data, analytics and business models.

For reality shows, mobile voting is now standard. We looked to seed out content and create social dialogue, and you can also see that in programmes like Bake Off, The Apprentice, or sites like Digital Spy.

What’s your view on the proliferation of content?

False news is a major issue. It pushes people to platforms, but companies pitting fake against proper content then find they can’t monetise themselves.

How we pay for content is in flux. We see The Guardian asking for donations, we pay a licence fee for the BBC while other channels advertise, and we pay subscription fees to stream films and TV.

Paying to view content on laptops was once unthinkable. But people will pay for premium content. In another ten years, it will change again. However people access content, companies always need to consider their audience, and content within their business model.

How does technology affect content now?

Companies can use technology for creating and distributing content that resonates with their audience. For example, the filming and editing tool Go-Pro provides good fodder for extreme sports-style content.

There’s also the area of augmented and virtual reality, and not just 3D but 4D. Developments will inform the evolution of content and how businesses use it. We’ll likely see more channels to market becoming automated.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is being used to curate content, as with Revolute, where users ask questions and systems generate responses.  Computers are creating or rewriting content: it’s automated, with machine learning. Or we can look at Quill, a content farm.

VIDA’s not-for-profit arm uses content for the greater good. How does that work?

We’re interested in creating content that has wider social benefits, where people are leading by example. It’s something we’ve each always focused on.

Early in my career, I helped set up PatientLine, one of the first interactive TV services for hospitals. Later at Spirit, our ‘I am Whole’ initiative addressed issues relating to mental health like stigma.

Content is heading in this direction. For example, BrightVibes looks to inspire people by highlighting positive change, delivering ‘contagiously inspiring stories’ across platforms. It’s also an antidote to negative and false news.

The 'I am Whole' initiative from Spirit tackled stigma around mental health. 

Where else do you see content heading?

Video content is easy to deliver and consume, and can be a positive. Spirit worked with Diabetes UK creating video content to de-stigmatise issues around diabetes and help normalise behaviour.

Using content to tell stories is also key. Heartier, which delivers fresh, organic, locally-sourced food, includes stories for customers about food sources. Similarly Cornerstone, a new magazine and lifestyle business, draws on narratives within the customer’s day, like getting ready in the morning.

What’s your favourite piece of branded content?

The 2014 video First Kiss, featuring strangers kissing for the first time, got millions of views on YouTube. There was a backlash after people realised it was promoting clothing line Wren and the strangers were actors.

But in a sense it was the reverse of an advert. Commissioned by Wren’s founder Megan Coker on a tiny budget, it was brave; constructed like an ad, yet the brand wasn’t mentioned and it relied on shareability. It was pure content that came across as authentic and made people react and think.

The 2014 First Kiss promo video from Wren. Content that made people react. 

And what about niche content?

Online content channels are a big industry but B2B sectors, including construction, have been slow to embrace them. Spirit helped The B1M, which produces construction industry videos, create a YouTube channel with content.

So a company in an ‘old school’ sector is getting involved in newer content distribution. Their video ‘Building Trump’s Wall’ is a strong story, using content to show what’s possible.

Finally, are there any maxims or quotes that you live by?

One of my favourite quotes is reportedly from Winston Churchill: “success consists of moving from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

Chloe Riess