Contensis CMS Writes New Script for Composable and Headless: Interview with CEO Rich Chivers

As a self-diagnosed cinephile, I can’t deny the power of John Cusack.

He’s just… well, he’s John Cusack.

Talk about a body of work: in addition to his brief appearance in Sixteen Candles, Cusack would go on to star in comedic hits like High Fidelity and Grosse Point Blank. He later dabbled with Westerns and psychological thrillers and even produced a string of veritable rom-coms.

And, of course, who can forget the modern classic Hot Tub Time Machine?

IMDB listings aside, Cusack is perhaps most revered for his role as Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything (the one with the boom box). It’s the last wave of 80s celluloid, set against the backdrop of a proto-grunge Seattle – and it singlehandedly crystallizes the teenage angst of the era.

I recently saw Cusack in person at a local film festival, where he accompanied a screening in a small, intimate theater. After the show, he was interviewed on stage, where he talked about the massive transformation engulfing the film industry – and how today’s tools enable anyone to tell stories with just an iPhone and an idea.

Despite this degree of newfound accessibility, Cusack also expressed frustration with large corporate studios that still own the mindshare in the market. He said they’re too risk averse, banking on “superheroes in tights” over independent films. At the same time, these large studios are producing and distributing epic work on a scale that smaller studios can’t compete with.

Across the CMS market (that’s content management system, not “Cusack Movie Syndication”), there’s a similar plot playing out. In a composable world where newer headless and decoupled technologies are powering choice, larger integrated platforms continue to provide an abundance of benefits. Organizations are making decisions based on a bevy of factors, such as complexity and vendor lock-in, but there seems to be more confusion in the script than ever.

That’s why people – both on the customer and the vendor side – continue to be important to the educational process, particularly as buyers weigh a shift towards the complexity of composable.

I recently caught up with Rich Chivers, CEO of Zengenti – the company behind Contensis CMS – and we chatted at length about the confusion and challenges that the terminology presents, and why customer experience is still the star of the show. He also gave us a sneak peek at what’s coming from Contensis.

Coming to terms with the “composable” term

Since I last spoke with Rich in 2022, composable has taken center stage, particularly from a marketing perspective. While Contensis pitches itself as a platform that is beyond headless and more than hybrid, the company also provides some modicum of hands-on implementation. This gives Rich some unique optics, and I wanted to learn how he viewed the composable explosion through that lens.

“If we go way back to web 2.0 with Ajax, this [composable] stuff was being done – it just wasn’t branded in the same way,” he said. “I think composable is becoming something that people can hang on to. And it's a nice term that describes what we've been trying to get to forever. But for us, it's not really new.”

This reflects what I’ve been hearing from other CMS and DXP platforms up and down the spectrum. In fact, at the 2023 Boye & Company CMS Kickoff in January, several established vendors reinforced their use of APIs for over a decade, allowing them to integrate with third-party systems and power headless strategies.

Granted, this was before the Wild West of omnichannel, where CMS was primarily focused on the web. As Deane Barker of Optimizely observed during a recent podcast, if you buy a web CMS today with a good headless API, you can solve more than one problem.

Rich echoed these sentiments. “We don't believe the CMS should be a CRM or an e-commerce platform altogether. It’s actually about getting the [customer] the right tool for the job – and integrating those services in the right way is how you should do things. Fundamentally, we've been delivering that for the last five or ten years.”

As Rich went on to note, composable is a great idea that solidifies what Contensis has been working towards – and in his words, it's fundamentally about APIs.

Is headless a kind of CMS… or a feature of CMS?

“It’s a really interesting question.”

After bouncing back and forth around the benefits of APIs and the Contensis position as a hybrid platform, I asked Rich how he felt about the moniker of headless. This was a heated topic of debate at the CMS Kickoff as well, bringing multiple POVs to the podium.

“If you think about what headless means, ultimately, we're saying that a developer can gain access to their content through an API in a meaningful manner – so of course, to answer the question, yes, you could quite happily say any CMS offering a great API can be headless. I don't think it's monolith versus microservice, the same sort of scales that move both ways all the time, becoming the separation between pure content and visualization. There's this constant sort of, ‘we want pure content we can deliver in any way’ versus ‘build a landing page and have it look like this.’ And, you know, we're curating. So going back to the headless question, yes – I think ultimately, it could be described as a feature of a CMS platform.”

But there’s more to it than that. As Rich detailed, Contensis is platformed for its headless capability, but it came from a heritage of head-centric features – and that was fraught with challenges.

“We effectively took what we had as a monolith provider and started again. I think for [any] monolith provider that's been used to delivering web content to a page with their templating system, they almost have to start again, because there's too many concepts wound up otherwise.”

One of the best observations Rich made was about the nature of CMS and what it means in a market of DXPs. It’s not clear – and to some extent, the emergence of visualization tools and other technologies to aid headless are further adding to the morass.

“There's all these sorts of gray areas,” he said. “Literally, where do you sit? Where do you position yourself, right?”

This is why listening to the customer is so essential.

Tipping towards growth with headless

Like many of his leadership contemporaries in the CMS market, Rich has a rearview mirror of experience that helps inform his vision. While the idea of a pure headless CMS is still relatively new, he’s been working with APIs for quite some time – and that brings some unique perspective to his outlook. 

I asked him to characterize the use cases that Contensis is seeing in 2023 and where headless fits in. His answer was resoundingly clear, but there was an interesting caveat about market maturity and persistent confusion.

“I'd say 95% of the opportunities we see today have definite requirements that you couldn't deliver without headless CMS from our end,” he said. “However, there’s a lot of misunderstanding out there. We bid for a Canadian university last year, and the tender process was actually cancelled in the end. They wanted an API first platform where they could do this, and they could do this. But then they wanted to drag and drop interfaces to do X, Y, Z. So they want both, but it's impossible to achieve because they're fundamentally different, right? We see a lot of people who come to us that still don't understand what [headless] actually means.”

Because of this knowledge gap, Rich and his team continue to engage with people to help them through the process. This is where a higher-touch, more consultative approach continues to prove valuable – particularly in the public sector, where Contensis serves a number of customers.

“We don't necessarily see us having massive growth in that area, but certainly from a business perspective, we're starting to see much more engagement from organizations who are properly understanding the problems, and then going, ‘yeah, how can we do this?’” he remarked. “But especially in the public sector, that need for handholding is really [essential to] the process. We're selling the idea of headless and the benefits it can bring, and helping them get to that place where they can realize it.”

Expanding beyond Blocks to Canvas

Rich and his team ushered in 2023 with a bang, introducing its new Blocks platform – a container-first way for developers to package and deliver code while managing releases through a familiar Contensis interface. A “block” is essentially a package of code built as a Docker image that runs on the Contensis cloud infrastructure, allowing site owners to deploy and manage easily. It’s still early days, but he seems bullish about it.

“Blocks is giving us the ability to be to take a full philosophical approach to headless,” he said. “You can use any stack for development you want, but you still have a management layer around it. You have all of the benefits of whatever frontend stack or backends you want to use, and deliver it through this new way of working.”

From a developer’s perspective, Rich said the company is seeing what they’ve been dreaming up for the last few years come to fruition. This includes a new feature called Canvas, an editor they’ve built from the ground up for creating long-form content in a really elegant, connected manner that will enhance the writing and creation experience. It’s slotted for the platform’s next release at the end of May.

“What’s different is it's an object-modeled format, so it's still JSON,” Rich said. “You write a blog in long form, but you can also decorate and attach. As a developer, you can consume this and use the parts you’re interested in, throw away [other] bits, and still use it as a full object model. Sometimes, people just want that slight bit of extra flexibility.”

In terms of the rest of the platform, Rich said we can expect big changes ahead. One big area of focus is the platform’s Site View interface for powering navigation.

“Think tree navigation per CMS,” he said. “It's very common in the monolithic world, but not very common in headless. We create an API, which people can consume, to deliver all that. But we have some big changes coming around permissions and different bits and pieces, and we've had to do a complete rewrite from the ground up to make that possible because of performance. We’re almost providing this… composable platform within a platform.”

What’s next for Contensis?

In addition to its upcoming release and platform enhancements, I asked Rich what’s on the horizon as the composable debate rages on. I wanted to know the key differentiators in a shifting world of technology stacks – and how Contensis is positioned to compete for mindshare in a crowded market.

“I think the one big difference compared to a lot of other vendors is that we actually do get close to the problems,” he said emphatically. “We make sure we can solve those problems in a really elegant way because we’re connected – and we see them. For example, if we’ve got an engaged customer and they have an issue they’re just not sure how to solve, they can pull in one of our product owners or development team members to take a look with their own eyes rather than it just being ten problems they’re trying to solve in a lab. When it comes to delivery, we do deliver for our customers.”

As I mentioned earlier, Contensis and Zengenti bring a sort of “rare bird” quality to their position, allowing their team to support a product while engaging with customers in a meaningful way. This speaks to the company’s culture and the leadership that Rich provides. At the same time, he’s an early-rising, self-professed code fanatic that loves solving problems and making complex things simple – and seeing what customers can create.

“Some of this Blocks stuff we’ve been doing, there are examples where people have done certain things that we just never expected. You look at it and go, 'Wow, we never considered that as a way you could use it or what you could do.'”

As Contensis continues to write its own script for headless and composable, its proven commitment to customer experience will be an important part of the company’s evolution and how it will shape its place in the market. Giving customers the right tools to solve problems is a critical part of its promise, and it sounds like Rich and his team are hyper-focused on this goal.

No one knows what the future looks like, but having insight from the past is what great leaders rely on. Unfortunately, there’s no Hot Tub Time Machine to get you there – you have to experience it, learn from it, and keep expanding the story.