A brief history of content marketing agenciesA brief history of content marketing agencies

A brief history of content marketing agencies

Written by Former Staff on 24th Sep 2015

Life is a little different in 2015 than it was eight years ago. Remember the writers strike? Remember we thought Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was going to be good? Remember how happy we were when Facebook removed that pesky “is” from status updates?

After watching Econsultancy’s seminar “The Future of agencies“, I decided to ask our director of operations, Chris Trimble, how things have changed for agencies in the time he’s been at Axonn, starting way back in 2007…


“There have been huge changes since 2007. Back then we were still marvelling over the iPhone instead of fretting about mobile-ready content. And while the term “content marketing” had been coined (it dates back to 1996), nobody was really using it. What Axonn, under our old Direct News brand, was doing back then was “optimised news” – which in short was writing content that would make the search engines happy. Quantity and keywords were king. You could achieve an enormous amount of success with what, by today’s standards, would be considered very crude. Perhaps even spammy.

Since then content marketing has undergone a huge evolution. Search engines have realised how much awful spam there is out there. While optimisation used to be the start of the process, it now comes at the end.


“In 2009/2010, content marketing became more of an industry in its own right. Most of the agencies out there had started their lives specialising in something else (PR, SEO, traditional marketing, news) but 2009/2010 brought in a new wave of companies who were dedicated solely to content marketing.

This was where we decided to fully make the leap, stopped thinking of ourselves as a news agency, and properly embraced our position as a content marketing provider.

And the talent pool changed at the same time. Until that point, for example, the best source for content writers was out-of-work journalists, many of whom had no interest in marketing but at least had transferable skills. All of a sudden you started to get a new generation of people coming in who knew what content marketing was and wanted to choose it as a career. Not because it was the only job they could find that allowed them to write but because they were genuinely passionate about it.

That said, at this stage true content marketers were still very difficult to find. If a writer had additional content marketing skills it would be an advantage but we were still forced to hire those could write and do little else. It was pot luck if your video team understood data or your graphics guys were great at social media.

The culture of agencies, or at least here at Axonn, was still quite corporate. There were dress codes, rigid hierarchies and the office space was very traditional. Plain and proper.


“Over the following years the industry began to develop into something a lot closer to what we recognise today. The introduction of what we now call “T-shaped-ness” came from different content producers having to work together to deliver comprehensive, unified campaigns. A writer might work on a visual media project where they need to be more aware of image creation and layout, and they’d end up taking the lead on those elements as it made sense for them to do so. Writers became more aware of the importance of social media, as it was forcing them to consider new audiences beyond just visitors to the websites for which they were writing content.

Silos started to be broken down and teams began to work more closely together.


“Today content marketing is a fundamental part of marketing – in fact, all agencies are content marketing agencies. There is an even bigger focus on being multi-skilled and the importance of “T-shaped-ness” across the board. The need to be constantly adapting and assessing has come to the forefront with more and more businesses adopting agile or elements of agile principles. Instead of fighting against the constantly-moving goal posts, marketers are embracing and anticipating change.

There’s been a real shift in culture too. Back in 2009 we probably looked more like an insurance company than a creative agency. Now the creative side has taken over, and like many other agencies we’ve invested a lot in designing office spaces that reflect and complement that. You can write on the walls, there are toys and game to play with, there are “break out” areas everywhere. I think across the industry there’s been this realisation that if you want to succeed, you need to be creative. That means being able to attract and nurture the right staff, and the working environment plays a big part in that.

The future?

“I think agile is likely to become more and more popular, but as an adaptable process, not necessarily something with hard-and-fast rules. It fits with marketing as a constantly-moving, ever-changing industry which involves a great deal of collaboration, and can also make a big difference to efficiency.

I believe the concept of “T-shapedness” will grow, but only up to a point – there has to be a limit otherwise everyone will simply become a jack of all trades. I think T-shapedness will be integral to developing stronger communication between teams as campaigns become more sophisticated and involve more and more teams and elements.

The biggest challenge that agencies are going to face is making sure clients are up to speed with what is needed for effective content marketing. The bar of what is required to do good content marketing is always rising but awareness of where the bar is can often be years behind the reality. There are plenty of companies who still seem to think one lone in-house writer is the solution they need, when that stopped being adequate a long time ago. There’s a challenge of creating more awareness of the tools that are needed.

However, there are significant opportunities ahead for content marketing agencies. While other sectors (SEO, PR etc.) have moved into the content marketing space content marketing agencies have the chance to reciprocate and go after those new revenue streams. The same goes for technology and data. The bigger and more sophisticated the industry, the more revenue there is for agencies to go after, and the greater the opportunity to carve out a niche.

To do that, agencies will need to focus more and more on maximising the customer experience and building ever-stronger relationships with their clients. It’s essential for agencies to be seen as partners and more like extensions of in-house teams rather than external providers, to make sure they’re delivering the best possible service. It’s understandable that some organisations prefer to use in-house marketing to ensure greater control, so agencies need to be able to replicate that sort of relationship by understanding, and meeting, their clients’ values.”

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