An insider’s account of the booming business where ads want to be journalism, sort of

“Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work” was also a triumph of digital storytelling: In addition to the written article, the Times presented audio clips, infographics, a photo essay, even original video shot within a Los Angeles County prison. Journalism, real journalism, multimedia journalism, had been committed.

And an advertiser paid for it. The piece was a “paid post” — journalism underwritten and approved by a sponsor, in this case, the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” (Such work is usually called “branded content” or “sponsored content.”) The story — an early prominent effort from T Brand Studio, which the Times had formed earlier that year — turned heads. It became one of the most popular NYTimes.com stories of the year, according to Adam Aston, the editor who runs T Brand. Even David Carr, the paper’s late defender of journalistic mores, approved. “All brand-sponsored journalism does not suck,” he tweeted.

 

A little more than a year later, I started work as the director of content at Vox Creative, Vox Media’s branded content shop. By then, I’d been in New York publishing for a decade and a half: First at Newsweek, back when white-jacketed waiters served dinner on close nights; for a year at Gawker, when that was a simple two-person editorial operation; then setting up a blog at New York magazine; eventually, helping lead the launch of a new online magazine about Jewish news and culture, called Tablet. I’d also spent a short stint as a copywriter at Ogilvy, which meant I’d learned the conference-calling and client-placating skills of agency life — as important as editing ability in branded content work. And so the gig seemed like a good fit.

It wasn’t, ultimately. Branded content is weird. The business never quite seemed to make sense, and the more time I spent working in it, the less sense it made. There is always so much talk within it about editorial values, about applying an editorial brand’s expertise to content made for clients, and yet there is somehow also so little concern about the ultimate quality of the work, so long as the client was happy. In fact, that last part was the weirdest: There often doesn’t even seem to be an ad agency’s insistence on standing up for the work.

But the business was — and is — booming. T Brand launched in 2014; the same year, Dow Jones launched Wall Street Journal Custom Studios, and The Atlantic formed its version, Atlantic Re:think. (The magazine’s previous, more ad-hoc sponsored-content effort had blown up a year earlier, after it published and then removed controversial content paid for by the Church of Scientology.) In 2015, Time Inc. launched The Foundry, a studio that works across all of its titles; The Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio took off; and Condé Nast started 23 Stories.

There was a simple reason for this: After years of collapsing advertising revenues, branded content brought in real money. Today, according to one estimate, premium branded content is a $6 billion global market. By 2021, it’s expected to reach $20 billion. And as display and programmatic dollars get eaten up by Google and Facebook, this is a market that more traditional publishers have the skills to dominate. At Atlantic Media, more than 70 percent of digital ad revenue last year came from branded content programs, according to reports.

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Netflix kicked off the branded content boom in 2014 by hiring The New York Times’ T Brand Studio to produce a program for its series “Orange Is The New Black.” T Brand has since crafted programs for companies as varied as BMW, Shell, Airbnb, Nest, and Cartier.”

Branded content seemed to offer a lifeline for writers, too. As writing for the web descended into a social-optimized sea of desperate hot-takes, a million English-degree monkeys at a million keyboards, branded content appeared to hold the promise of the golden age of magazines: Time to work on great stories, space to run them, even money to pay for them, as long as the client signed off. It wasn’t so different from some of the lifestyle journalism I’d done. And it was where the jobs were.

Vox, where I ended up, is the digital publishing company behind Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, plus sites about tech, sports, food, real estate. At Vox Creative, we made branded content to run on all of them. We never landed Netflix as a client. We also never committed journalism, although we occasionally came close. After a not especially happy 13 months, Vox and I parted ways a little more than a year ago. (I’m still under a confidentiality agreement about my work there.) Since then, I’ve freelanced for various other branded content shops, several — full disclosure — mentioned in this piece, doing a lot of work that was better than what we did at Vox and some that was worse. But I’ve still never fully understood why we were doing this. Why is the business growing so much? Does anyone, anywhere, think the work is any good? Does it actually accomplish anything for clients? It was time for me to go back to being a reporter and find out — and, if I was lucky, figure out not only what branded content is but what it can be.

 

I began by calling Melanie Deziel, the first branded-content editor at T Brand, who conceived, pitched, and wrote “Women Inmates.” Like many journalists, she ended up in the business because that’s who was hiring. “I got an undergrad degree in reporting,” she told me. “Then I graduated into the recession, and I had to figure out, how do I take these skills and turn them into something remotely marketable?” This was the spring of 2013, and branded content was the growing market. “We’re going to start one of those branded content studios,” she recalled the Times telling her, “and we need someone with a strong journalism background because of the sensitivities around being a legacy news publication.”

That’s the digital world’s way of saying that the Times, being the Times, felt compelled to create branded content of actual newsworthiness. The implication is that operations without such legacies don’t have such sensitivities. “For publishers looking to preserve the reader relationship, the idea of an ad experience that’s not only profitable but also additive to readers, instead of disruptive, was really appealing,” she said. In other words, rather than adding more gunk to a page — popups! autoplays! — in hope of a few more programmatic pennies, branded content could both offer readers a good experience and earn whole dollars.

“For publishers looking to preserve the reader relationship, the idea of an ad experience that’s not only profitable but also additive to readers, instead of disruptive, was really appealing”

The T Brand team came up with “Women Inmates” by realizing that a look at the real lives of women inmates would be a powerful way to promote a fictional show about the subject. “That was pretty much the core of our pitch,” she said. “We didn’t say, it’ll be this many words and this many infographics.” The T Brand team simply said, we want to go do reporting around this. And the agency bought it.

The team produced the piece in five weeks, a shockingly short time for branded content, which requires not only reporting and editing but the gauntlet of agency and client approvals. It’s worth noting that Netflix is itself a storytelling company, and also that it lacks the regulatory and compliance issues of a bank or pharma client. Even so, I’ve worked with media companies that took weeks to approve a listicle. Who would guess that a client would sign on for open-ended reporting on such a sensitive subject? “It shocked us, honestly,” Deziel told me.

 

Here’s how branded content usually gets made, in my experience (and informed by interviews with a dozen branded-content professionals). It starts with the pitch, almost always in response to a request for proposal from an agency. At some studios, the same editors who create the content work on the pitches; at others, pitching is done by dedicated content strategists. Often, strategists spearhead the pitch but bring in editors and other creators as needed, when specific expertise is required, or when projects begin to feel like actual journalism.

The pitch process is, in some ways, the essence of the thing: Strategists must come up with an idea that feels authentic to the publication and serves the advertiser’s interests at the same time. This is the whole thesis of branded content, after all. “Sure, it has to be good,” a strategist colleague of mine used to say, “but it also needs to sell.” In order for it to sell, the advertiser typically needs to know exactly what they’re buying. This means that a pitch often simultaneously promises original reporting and declares up front what that reporting will reveal. The trick, people in branded content say, is to make pitches specific enough to get sign off but vague enough to be executable. There is little time and, before a signed deal, no money for the kind of pre-reporting that would go into an editorial pitch.

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Porsche asked The Atlantic’s Re:think to create a program to “explain the psychological and physiological effects of thrill-seeking behavior.” It included articles, video, photography, illustrations, and a quiz. Additional Re:think clients include Xerox, United, AT&T, Boeing, and IBM.

After a client buys a pitch, the post-sale team swings into action, beginning (or assigning to freelancers) reporting and writing while getting designers and artists and website developers moving. There’s a brief, shining moment when it feels like the old magazine world: We send out reporters, we assign photographers, we commission illustrators. Then we rush rush rush to get something, anything, done, because the client has a deadline and the work needs to get into review.

There are usually multiple rounds of client review. Often there’s one round for draft outlines and design sketches and site wireframes, another for completed versions; sometimes there’s another to review the revisions, or for legal review. This is what feels least like magazine making: Bit by bit, whimsy and wit and originality get stripped away. In publishing, you revise to make a piece sharper. Here, you work by committee to make them duller. Oh, you can’t use that name, riff on that phrase, sketch in that color.

Finally, the piece comes back from review. Sometimes the feedback is great — it’s good content, appropriate for advertiser and publisher, and you’re proud to publish it. That’s rare, though. Sometimes the client’s marketing team rewrites it so much that the best you can do is argue for copy edits to make it sound vaguely like journalism. That’s rare, too. Mostly, you struggle to find a mutually acceptable middle ground. It’s not quite journalism, and it’s not quite advertising. You live to fight another day.

 

My friend Joshua David Stein, a writer I’ve known for more than a decade, gave up on fighting another day. He spent a few years making branded content for Time Inc., then he left the game to go back to editorial. I emailed him about his experience, and, because we’re both creatures of an older media era, we talked over lunch.

“At the end of the day no one gives a shit what you’re trying to sell them,” he told me. “So you have to use interesting content to entice them. And that’s easier to do when you have actual editors who know what a story is.” It’s indelicately phrased, but essentially right.

“The problem is that you as an editor are basically representing two constituencies, the advertiser and the editorial brand,” he continued. Others involved in the branded-content transaction, he argued, don’t really care about that editorial equity because of their incentive structures. “The sales team answers for their numbers, and they get paid on the front end. So they can promise things that will never be executed and aren’t a good idea, because they get paid and they’re out. Then if you’re in my position as a creative director, you have to figure out what to do. You have people telling you, ‘It’s fine, just push it through.’ As the creative director, you’re supposedly the firewall for quality. But really no one cares. Why? Because we buy all the traffic anyway; no one’s organically clicking on it.”

It’s true: With very rare exceptions, nearly everyone pays for traffic, not just the give-’em-what-they-want operations but also the legacy publications. Social promotion is often a line item on an insertion order. (One notable exception is WP BrandStudio, which, as part of the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, benefits from Amazon-inspired recommendation engines on the newspaper’s web pages. “A vast majority of our traffic is organic versus social,” Annie Granatstein, who runs the BrandStudio, told me, crediting a Post ad-tech product called Clavis targeting.)

For Stein, it’s all of a piece: You do whatever it takes to make the client happy, even if it means work you don’t believe in, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not good because it’ll get paid traffic anyway. “You’re not in the business of excellence anymore,” he said. “That’s not what branded content is.” It struck me as essentially true, especially at shops that don’t have legacy sensitivities and the higher standards that go with them. He quit the Foundry in February of this year, he said, “on the day I got my bonus.”

 

The anxiety of creatives not withstanding, the branded content business continues to boom.

“Within the past year or two years, it’s become a massive focus of the company,” Adam Ochman, a VP of content and strategy at the Foundry, told me over the summer. “I’ve been here just shy of a year and a half, and I would say I hit the ground running and haven’t been able to slow down since. Advertisers and clients just can’t get enough.”

Adam Aston, at T Brand, rattled off results: about $15 million in revenue in the first year, close to $50 million in the third, an expectation of continued double-digit growth. T Brand has opened offices in London and Hong Kong, plus acquired an influencer agency and an experiential shop to more easily include social-media influencers and events in their programs. There were five staffers when he arrived, in March 2014; he expects there will be around 175 by the end of this year. There are more deals, and bigger ones, which can include events, podcasts, and even virtual reality.

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Paramount hired the Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio to promote “An Inconvenient Sequel,” the follow-up to Al Gore’s landmark film. The program included an interactive story, a quiz, a video, and a request that readers to sign a pledge to fight global warming. Other clients include Canon, Allstate, Bank of America, Audi, and Prudential.

At the Post’s BrandStudio, Granatstein told me that in the two years she’s been there, the group has grown 400 percent — “four times the staff, four times the revenue, four times the number of advertisers we’re working with.” A spokeswoman for Condé Nast’s 23 Stories told me that its revenue is on track to grow at least 50 percent this year, on top of major growth in their launch year. Justin Montanino, who built the branded-content business at New York Media, the publisher behind New York magazine and digital offshoots like Vulture and The Cut, told me this summer that they’re seeing triple-digit growth, year-over-year, every month.

Eventually, that growth will slow, but the business will keep expanding. “I honestly don’t think we’ve scratched the surface yet as to how many advertisers are going to eventually play in this game,” Ochman said. “I see exponential growth.”

Granatstein was more measured — she predicts more growth for the biggest publishers. “Mid-tier publishers” — she was at Slate before the Post — “aren’t necessarily seeing the same kind of boom numbers, and I think that has to do with how labor-intensive it is for media agencies to oversee these programs,” she said. “So it’s a lot easier for them to do two or three, not 10 spread out, and if they’re only going to do that few they need to go somewhere with reach.”

 

Coming from publishing, I always thought that the branded content explosion was driven by desperate publishers, who had finally found a way to make money online. Once I was working in branded content, I started to think it came from desperate marketers, who didn’t know where to spend their media dollars now that people use a DVR to fast-forward through TV ads and everyone ignores banner ads. As it turns out, it’s a little bit of both, plus general ad fatigue. People, especially younger ones, have become increasingly inured to advertising; online, they’re actively irritated with it. Branded content can stand out from the clutter and, done right, provide a positive experience.

“We’re trying to solve a business challenge,” Erin Quintana told me. She’s a big shot at J3, the dedicated Johnson & Johnson agency within UM, Interpublic’s global media network, and the person UM put me in touch with when I asked to speak to someone who buys branded content. “At the core, there is usually a business challenge a content program will allow us to tackle that traditional media would not.” An example of that, she said, would be “when there’s a relevancy issue, or credibility, or the need to be more authentic with a certain target group.”

The conversation was a reminder, for a journalist-turned-branded content person, that this work, at the end of the day, isn’t journalism. She gave the example of a teen-focused J&J skincare product. “All we’re doing is digital content, social content,” she said, “because that’s what you need to do to be relevant to teens.” When you’re working only on digital, and digital channels have grown, and all those channels require authentic content, well, there’s your explosion in branded content.

So why aren’t agencies just making and placing editorial-style content themselves? They are. But the publisher branded-content studios are important, too, because they know how to break through all the noise. As much as it’s necessary for branded content to convey marketing messages, it only works because it doesn’t sound like a marketing message. Dean Challis, a communications strategist I spoke to at the agency Droga5, put it best: It’s a “value exchange,” in which advertisers are “borrowing equity” from an editorial brand.

 

There’s the rub. You can only borrow equity from a publisher when the publisher has equity to lend. If branded content reads like marketing, it won’t work well as advertising. But if it doesn’t do any marketing, it doesn’t have much value as advertising. It may be the legacy publishers, with their sensitivities, who are best suited to square that circle because they don’t try to be all things to all people.

Aston, at T Brand, comes from a long career as a journalist, and he sees his role as to “tell journalistic stories that can live comfortably alongside the peerless, world-class journalism our newsroom does.” For all the expansion of his studio’s offerings, its “classic, core” product to clients remains a webpage with a reported story, a photograph, and the distribution and media around that.

“You have to first think of the story, just like any journalist should be thinking, and then your secondary thought has to be the client”

Likewise for the Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio. “Our clients are coming to us thinking about that Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism,” Granatstein told me when we talked in her office in the Post’s New York newsroom. “They want that journalistic sensibility.” And data backs up that preference: BrandStudio pages grounded in a journalistic article show higher time spent than those without. “You have to first think of the story, just like any journalist should be thinking, and then your secondary thought has to be the client,” she said. “If you put the client and their branding first, then you end up with what feels like an ad.”

Wendy Hubbert used to work as Granatstein’s lead strategist. She is a former book editor, event planner, and copywriter who buried herself in research to find a real, journalistic story that’s adjacent to a client’s brand. She was most focused, like any newspaper editor, on what will make for compelling copy. “I am the Lorax,” she used to say. “I speak for the readers.”

 

And that’s the crux of it. It’s the publishers with strong brand identities, with that equity advertisers can borrow, who can do the best work. And clients will continue to pay for it, even if they have less control than they might like, because they need that equity.

Which brings us to 23 Stories, Condé Nast’s content studio. Condé Nast is a unique company, and 23 Stories is a unique content studio. While most content studios are studiously walled off from editorial operations — that old church-state divide — Condé editorial teams work directly on 23 Stories programs. “When the company was going into branded content, the idea was, ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it the best that we can,’” Dirk Standen, the group’s editor-in-chief, told me. “And that needs input from the editors to make it really good.” He would know: He was formerly the editor of the company’s Style.com.

“When we’re good, I think we’re able to connect a client to culture,” Standen said. “Which in a way is what Condé Nast’s titles have always done well and continue to do well.” 23 Stories has Condé-type clients, Condé-type budgets, and Condé-type access to talent. A program for Lincoln, featuring “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, launched a few days before the Oscars.

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Microsoft hired Condé Nast’s 23 Stories to create 12 videos, 24 photos, and seven articles to promote the Microsoft Surface. The program, which ran on Vanity Fair, Wired, and Ars Technica, exceeded guaranteed views by 30 percent. Other notable 23 Stories clients include the television show “Empire,” Bank of America, Lincoln, Chevy, and Olay.

Those kinds of budgets, as well as Condé Nast’s relationship with luxury advertisers, means that 23 Stories can often work directly with a client’s marketing team, rather than through an agency. “I’ll give you a good example of this,” Standen told me. “We’re currently doing a campaign for LIFEWTR, which is Pepsi’s premium water. And I just came back from a five-hour meeting with their global team talking about, ‘What does next year look like?’” He’s doing agency-type strategic work with LIFEWTR, even before they get into the specifics of how 23 Stories can help. “We’re a branded content studio, we can be your agency of record, or we can create events and experiences for you,” he said.

The ability to do all that, or some version of it, is what every publisher wants. The Atlantic has a group called Atlantic Media Strategies, separate from the Atlantic Re:think content studio, that’s a full-fledged content-marketing agency. This summer Bloomberg launched an integrated ad agency, to leverage the financial-information company’s publishing expertise, as well as its vast stores of data. The Times is working to turn T Brand into a full-fledged agency as well.

Ideally, this solves several problems. It generates more revenue, which comes in from recurring retainers, rather than hard-won pitches. It’s also a way to get a greater say in the creative process, to help set priorities, to think about strategies rather than just tactics.

It also means that those of us who moved from journalism to branded content will have to, as they say, think different. What we’re making — which is blindingly obvious in retrospect — isn’t journalism supported by advertisers but rather advertising that borrows the look and feel of journalism. Which means that it’s much better to be the agency than merely the production house. That’s how you actually get to do great work.