For most of the past decade, we’ve been hearing that, when it comes to marketing, “content is king.” You’d think that would be good news to a guy who’s always made his living as a writer and whose ad agency is about as writer-oriented as they get.

Actually, content is not king. And the idea that content is king has led to a big load of crappy content—and even crappier marketing.

Where did we even get the notion that content is king?

We got it where we get all our information these days: from the Internet.

With the rise of social media and the ability for more people to actually interact on the Internet came the idea that content—any content—is more important than what it says. It’s more important to be first than accurate. It’s better to say something—anything—than nothing. These assumptions harken back to old saws like, “Any advertising is good advertising,” and “It doesn’t matter what they say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

Which simply are not true. We’ve known for decades that some advertising actually appears to have a negative effect on sales. And you might want to ask Jared Fogle—who at this writing has not been charged with anything—about how having his name in the news has affected his future.

Still, the idea that you need “content” is seductive. Everybody’s on the Internet all the time. You really want prospects to come to your website. Great content that speaks to their needs is the best way to get them there.

Or is it? The content most marketers produce is almost entirely self-serving, full of sales pitches and corporate bluster. The case studies aren’t interesting. The videos don’t tell compelling stories, and not many people watch them.

Case in point: We maintain a website for a client that’s had about 17,000 visits and nearly 47,000 pageviews in the past 30 days. Over this same period, the most-watched video on their site has been seen 64 times, making it the 79th-most-viewed page on the site. I guarantee this video was more expensive to create than any of the 78 pages that preceded it in popularity. (Note: Well Done Marketing does not create video for this client.)

The video in question fits squarely into the “content is king/storytelling is the key to great marketing” mold. So why doesn’t it work?

Simple: It doesn’t evoke strong emotion. It doesn’t make anyone laugh or cry or see the world in a different light. Technically, it may be a story, but it’s not interesting. Nobody cares.

So if content isn’t king, what is?

The idea is still king.

The great idea. The bold idea. The funny, shocking, inspiring, attention-getting, amazing idea is king.

Check out this list of Adweek’s best ads of 2014. At the core of each is a compelling, clear, memorable idea:

  • Being a mom is a job so tough, no one would agree to take it on (more than 24 million views).
  • Cooking is a bold adventure (nearly 780,000 views).
  • War is devastating to children just like yours (48 million views).

You might suggest that it’s not fair to compare a video that cost a couple of thousand dollars to award-winning spots for major advertisers. But why not? In the Internet Age, they’re all just a click away.

Sometimes, good ideas come in very surprising packages.

Sometimes, good ideas come in very surprising packages.

Besides, great, emotionally resonant ideas don’t necessarily cost any more than crappy ideas; check out this collection of super-simple, great print ads and see if you don’t agree. And spending a lot of money on production is no guarantee of excellence, as this reel of execrable 2014 ads from Britain will attest. Note the general lack of strong emotion and the dearth of clear ideas of any kind.

The platform doesn’t matter: The idea is still king. If you’re still buying the idea that content is king, you’re getting the royal shaft.

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Lightbulb photo by Helgi Halldórsson from Reykjavík, Iceland (What a Great Idea!) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.