winter / 2015

The magazine of branded content
The Artful Pitcher
UK-based Nic McCarthy’s 3 keys to a successful pitch & how content should be a piece of cake.
Oct 27, 2015

As director of content at Seven, the London-based content marketing agency, Nic McCarthy has parlayed her tabloid journalism pedigree—editor at OK! and US Weekly—for a broad range of clients, including Spotify, Tetley Tea, and Weight Watchers, among others.

That pedigree was one reason why The Content Council chose to bestow its first ever Best Content Director award to McCarthy at the 2014 Pearl Awards.

“Nothing leaves you more exposed than winging [a pitch].”

We asked Nic a few questions about the state of content marketing in Britain, and how it differs from the U.S.

Content: Do you give the client what they “want,” or do you give the client what you think they “need?” And how do you educate them on the difference?
Nic: We never give clients what they want if we think it’s wrong, or there’s something better. That would be like doing crap work on purpose! But neither do we preach to clients, or make out that we always know what’s best. Everyone brings something to the table—we are the content experts but they know their brand and customers better than anyone.

A good example is a brief that’s about getting started in a new area—maybe a client wants to move some serious paid media budget into content for the first time, or maybe they want to start a short-form video program on Facebook. They may have a particular idea about what will work. If we think there’s a smarter way, we will usually workshop the challenge with the client in person, talk about it like grown-ups, and figure it out together.

“I couldn’t believe how hard people worked [in the U.S.] and how little holiday they got!”

What are 3 aspects of a successful pitch?
I wish I knew! Joking. I chaired a talk at the 100% Design show in London last week called “the art of the perfect pitch” so I’m ready for this question.

1. Do your homework. In a busy agency it is very hard to find the time to do all the groundwork for a pitch—the brand research, the customer and competitor stuff, what’s working (and new) on the platforms and channels in brief right now, influencers in the space, and on and on. But nothing gives you more confidence and is more impressive than knowing your stuff. And nothing leaves you more exposed than winging it.

2. Be original. People are often content with having the right answer. Because it was a lot of work to get there! But that isn’t enough—most of the other agencies will have the right answer too. Find an original angle on your work and make it entertaining. Put stuff on the walls, make some videos, bake some cakes! These people want to see that you are smart, that you want it, and that you are going to be great to have around. Plus if you can’t capture their interest in a pitch, how will your content capture the attention of their customers?

3. Stop talking about yourself. Like being stuck with the office bore at a party, nobody wants to be trapped in a room for 90 minutes with someone who drones on about themselves. The potential client knows all about you by the time you get to the pitch, so cut to the good stuff. They’ve come for the answer to their problems, so give it to them—and quickly!

Do you think content marketing is suitable for every industry? Which ones do you think it wouldn’t work for?
Great question. If you’re a fashion or food brand, it’s much easier—these are things people love to talk about and they choose these brands as a reflection of themselves, not just on price.

“Clarity around product and pricing is critical, and content can’t make up for a lack in any of these areas.”

We had a brilliant meeting a couple of years ago with the CMO of a British car insurance company, who told us that his customers just didn’t want to hear from him. They begrudged paying for car insurance, and did not want to be reminded about it. His strategy was to contact them as little as possible.

So it’s harder for banks, insurance companies, utility firms and so on. But I believe that the smart ones find a way. For these kinds of brands functionality is key—people expect instant access to their data across every device, and a competent suite of tools so they can manage their accounts. Clarity around product and pricing is critical; smart customer service a must. Content can’t make up for a lack in any of these areas. But it can drive awareness and acquisition, it can communicate a brand’s personality, it can tell people why one brand is a better choice for them than another.

You won the first ever Best Content Director award at the Pearls last year. What did that award mean to you?
It felt brilliant. I got my first job as an Editor-in-Chief at the British OK! Magazine but my boss didn’t approve of industry bodies and we never entered any awards. For 5 years we had an amazing run of exclusives—some weeks selling over one million copies—but no awards. Which made the Pearl award even sweeter! Although as I crossed First Avenue (in very high heels) to grab a cab after the ceremony, I fell into a pothole and chipped the glass trophy. Such poise!

“Netflix, Nike and Airbnb are especially inspiring because they combine technology with fantastic content.”

The Brits have been doing branded content longer than the Americans. Do you think Americans have some catching up to do?
I think you still have much more printed work than we do—but that may have more to do with US geography and a heritage of magazine subscriptions than anything else. We are always looking at what US brands are doing with content—Netflix, Nike and Airbnb are especially inspiring because they combine technology with fantastic content to brilliant effect.

You’ve been in mainstream media both in the States and in the UK. What are the differences, in the people and the overall culture of media?
When I first joined the staff of Us Weekly (I was brought on to cover for then Editor-in-Chief Janice Min while she had a baby), I couldn’t believe how hard people worked and how little holiday they got! I’d come from a weekly magazine in London, so was used to long shifts and weekend working, but this was different. We would come to work on a Monday morning at 9AM and leave after closing the cover at around 2AM on Tuesday morning once we’d checked in with the LA office for any late-breaking stories. Magazine culture in the city was also much more hierarchical than London—editors in corner offices and interns picking up lunch. But the people were absolutely brilliant—so smart and great fun. I took my two children to visit the team a couple of years ago during a Halloween trip to the city and it was lovely.

Complete this sentence: If I weren’t working in content marketing or media, I would be a head teacher.

Favorite headline ever?