Matt Allison

Ubiquity Lab’s Matt Allison: Game, set and match

In Interviews by Peter Gearin

Bupa’s former global head of content has set up a consultancy he hopes will reshape the meaning of content marketing.

As a younger man, before his name became associated with Australia’s most celebrated content marketing initiative, Matt Allison dreamt of being a professional tennis player. “I obviously wasn’t good enough because I’m now a marketer,” he told Adam Fraser on the EchoJunction podcast. So, for a while, he became a tennis coach.

As a strategist to his core, coach Allison would have known a lot about the concept of going on the counter-attack. When a player is deep behind the baseline and the opponent is at the net, he has two choices. He can try to lob his opponent – hit the ball high in the air and deep in the court to push him back. Or he can try to go around him – hit the ball hard and wide, with enough spin to keep the ball inside the lines.

Ultimately, a player at the back of the court can either play it safe and hope to still be in the point so he can attack later. Or he can go on the attack and trust his skills to hit the perfect passing shot.

Allison faced a similar situation as head of global content strategy at Bupa. He led the team that built Australia’s highest-profile content marketing project, Bupa’s The Blue Room, which has defined how a multinational business that provides insurance and aged and healthcare services can connect with customers by publishing valuable content.

While The Blue Room continues to be a commercial success and an industry leader, one aspect of the project always had Allison on the defensive. Working with internal and external experts to formulate new strategies, Bupa’s global team found it challenging to coordinate cohesive plans that could be integrated across the entire customer journey. It worked with a search agency, a digital agency, a PR agency, a content agency, a social media agency … plus whatever agency might be needed to deliver something even more specific.

“The challenge was that I wasn’t able to find one partner that could work across everything,” Allison says. “I was able to deal with this ‘virtual’ team – it was due to be the maturity of the agencies I worked with that everybody was happy to work in this way. But it dawned on me that we [needed] to develop a holistic strategy across paid-owned-earned.”

So Allison went on the counter-attack. He recently left Bupa and launched his own consultancy, Ubiquity Lab. He is backing his skills, and his breadth of contacts, to reinvent the way organisations plan and execute content strategies that deliver a clear return on investment. He wants to use his experience to help businesses find that sweet spot between delivering customer needs and business outcomes.

“What we call ‘content marketing’ is not a stand-alone. It’s not even marketing. It’s part of that broader customer engagement mix.”

Allison says his overarching principle is that content programs shouldn’t exist unless they satisfy business goals. In the end, cutting costs or increasing revenue needs to be part of the equation. “How do we continue to get better at delivering quality content that meets people’s needs and actually engages them and provides utility in a way that we can monetise?” he asks. He argues content needs to be integral to a marketing strategy, but only as part of a wider “ecosystem”.

Allison has created a model that he says illustrates his vision of content-led marketing success: “How to win customers”. It’s a Venn diagram intersecting “thought leadership”, “content”, “automation” and “data”, within the context of “brand”, “innovation” and “customers”. “I believe you need all of these elements working in unison,” he says.

Allison says a mistake many marketers make is seeing content as a function that sits apart or stands alone from other marketing activities. Content, he argues, is the “blood” pulsing through the marketing “body”. “How do organisations get more sophisticated at leveraging their content in a way that powers that ecosystem so it’s integrated and becomes a business and customer enabler?”

He’s also created an “ecosystem maturity benchmark” – a guide to help marketers find the milestones that move them from a “walk” to a “sprint”. He says this helps businesses “operationalise” his Venn diagram. What it shows is that it’s almost impossible to replicate Bupa’s success with The Blue Room overnight.

“Tourism Australia is often used as an example, and rightly so, but it has a customer ecosystem that is fully developed,” he says. “It’s really hard to walk through those stages, and I think a lot of the organisations I’m speaking to at the moment are at the ‘walk’ or ‘jog’ stage. It’s recognising that it’s really hard to go from zero to 100 per cent overnight.”

How to win customers

Allison believes the Australian content marketing scene is growing quickly but “is still in its infancy or, at best, its teenage years”. He says the two biggest issues organisations grapple with are integrating content into the marketing mix and delivering measurable business value.

“There are a number of organisations doing content marketing incredibly well,” he says. “I guess the opportunity is how do we use content as a conduit between brand and performance marketing? I think everyone wants to move from brand publishing to integrated content marketing that delivers business outputs, but [many] haven’t quite locked down the strategy and the operating model to enable that yet.

“I think America’s seven to eight years ahead of where Australia is. What’s really interesting there is that within a year or two the term content marketing will have almost died out. It’s coming full circle. What we call ‘content marketing’ is not a stand-alone. It’s not even marketing. It’s part of that broader customer engagement mix. It’s one of the levers we pull.”

So what can Ubiquity Lab provide its clients that couldn’t be done in-house or by engaging a battery of agencies, as Bupa did? Allison says he is excited to work closely with large and small businesses, and not for profits, on what he calls “really deep strategies”. He knows the key to his success, however, is being able to bring together the right talent for each project.

“I have partners and experts across Australia,” he says, “whether that’s in agencies, people who run smaller agencies I worked with for a number of years at Bupa and in other capacities. They’re best of breed within the industry. I’ve pooled them to dial up what they deliver based on customer needs.

“We’re playing at the strategy end, but we also have the capability to help with execution. If somebody wanted us to, say, produce all of the content for a Blue Room or something of that size and scope, I’d partner with a content marketing or production agency to provide that for them. The sweet spot for us is actually up one layer – more focused on strategy, operating models and helping organisations move through those different phases.”

“Instead of [clients] working with five different agencies, we’re able to be that centralised service provider looking across all of the customer journeys. We provide that cohesive strategy and plan.”

“How do we help you build capability so that you can take the model in-house? Ultimately, our job is to make ourselves redundant.”

Allison says he has no ambitions to rewrite the typical agency model. “I’m certainly not agency bashing or on a journey to re-educate people on our view of the world,” he says. “I think agencies play a fantastic role. My message is really around integration. Integration and customer.

“Everyone is customer-focused and wants to get better at it. For me, it’s how do we start with the customer and then think about the different services that will enable that, as opposed to starting with a service-first mentality?”

Allison also wants to make it clear that he believes organisations must own the strategy, as well as build a sustainable operating model that enables them to transform how they engage with customers.

“I don’t want [Ubiquity Lab] to be the consultancy you have on retainer for five years,” he says. “For me, it’s more about how we can work with you. It may be for six months. How do we partner with you to develop the strategy, how do we help you build your operating model? How do we help you build capability so that you can take the model in-house? Ultimately, our job is to make ourselves redundant.

“I don’t think you should ever outsource strategy. That has to live within your organisation. But how do you partner with the right consultants to get their expertise, to help co-create the strategy, and then to help you build the operating model so that you can take the bulk of the activity in-house?”

Allison plans to take the lessons from his Bupa experience to help other brands create similar success. “We understand driving cultural change within a complex organisation is incredibly hard, because we’ve lived and breathed it,” Allison says. “It’s this first-hand experience, from both a strategic and operational perspective, that I feel really sets us apart.

“When I helped transform Bupa’s paid, owned and earned strategy, I had to learn the hard way – we got a lot right, but we also made mistakes. This experience at the coalface enables me to help other organisations win the hearts and wallets of consumers, as well as to avoid making the same mistakes I did.”

Thanks, coach. Thwack! 15-0.

Links & references

Brand Tales’ article on The Blue Room

EchoJunction podcast with Matt Allison

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