"The truth is, it’s messy shit and there’s no easy way through it."
That’s Vice Chief Creative Officer Eddy Moretti talking about the realities of creating native advertising at the recent Native Advertising Summit. Vice has been working with brands for years and has in many ways been one of the pioneers of what we now call native advertising with initiatives like Intel partnership The Creators Project, going into its fifth year. Moretti spoke frankly about the challenges (see above) of creating original content for brands that reflects a site’s sensibilities but also noted that when it all works "it’s a beautiful thing."
The summit brought together a panel of publishers to discuss the "church and state" issues around native advertising and brand content. Moretti; James Del, executive director of Gawker; Kimberly Lau, VP and general manager of The Atlantic Digital; and Paul Greenberg, CEO of College Humor Media, (with moderation from your very own Co.Create editor) discussed the "church and state" issues around native advertising—how they create content that reflects their editorial vibe, works as advertising and doesn’t sink the site’s credibility and sacred notions of editorial integrity with it. Messy indeed.
The panelists discussed how the whole notion of advertising has changed, the kinds of brand content/native advertising they’re doing, who on the edit and marketing teams is involved, and what the guidelines are, if any, governing how all this content gets made.
The video of the panel, above, is 50 minutes long, but it’s an interesting overview for anyone looking to get a sense of how media outlets are looking at and executing brand content.
For a quicker overview, here are some of the topic highlights:
How has the notion of advertising and brand content changed over the past few years?
Del: "I’ve seen the idea of native advertising go from us just running simple sponsored posts that said, 'hey, tune into this TV show’ and over time it’s evolved into creating good content that is relevant to that advertiser’s messaging points. It also meant doing events for advertisers. It means doing video for advertisers. Basically acting as a full-service shop."
Lau: "What we’re doing today is (figuring) out how we have a better conversation, how we play a bigger part in what is happening online…The challenge is doing it in a way that’s transparent and ultimately brings value to our consumers."
How much native advertising are publishers doing?
Greenberg: "70% of our large campaigns have a branded or native component to them."
Who is responsible for creating native ad projects inside a web publisher. Are editors involved?
Greenberg: "We really do have a real machine we’ve created to the point where we reorganized our entire company about a year and a half ago. We now have two comedy writers who just write native content.
We have an internal production team; we create all of our own videos in house, but we’ve reorganized it so we have producers, directors, and editors who just work on native advertising.
We’ve become almost a full-service agency in house."
Moretti: "The win-win for the brand and for Vice is when we can create a piece of IP that we wanted to do anyway. Launching an arts channel (i.e., Creators Project)? That’s just a good thing for Vice to do. And it happens to align nicely, if you do a lot of work and sit through a lot of meetings, with the brand values and ROI that the brand wants to achieve."
Del: "It’s okay if it’s 'advertising.' It doesn’t need to feel like it’s some kind of, ‘Oh the line’s blurry. I can’t tell if it’s an ad or not.’ If the content is good and it’s interesting to your readership, people are going to enjoy it."
Readers "don’t care if a brand is paying for it. If anything, they’re psyched that a brand gets it enough to invest in something that they care about."
Where IS the line between church and state?
Greenberg: "The line between church and state is almost not there anymore although the line I think comes when we promote it. A lot of times we’ll label it "sponsored," but sometimes we don’t do that if we think the content’s good enough."
Moretti: "Most of the time it doesn’t matter. Because you’re doing an art film or a documentary series sponsored by North Face in Alaska. A lot of times there is a big safe zone. But then, of course, there are places where things can get screwed up."
So how do you maintain the balance—doing content that fits your brand while working for your advertisers?
Moretti: "You can have all these rules, but at the end of the day it’s a lot of hard work sitting around a table and the brand has to have an appetite for it. Because it’s not a simple ROI, and it’s not a simple editorial process.
It’s got to be a real, long-term effort. You as the publisher have to always push back on the brand and say ‘you don’t get it’ until they do get it. And when they do get it, it’s a beautiful thing."
Is there crossover in terms of editorial staff and the staff dedicated to doing native advertising?
Greenberg: "Absolutely. We’ve had ‘true’ editors in RFP meetings since we started doing this."
Del: "Gizmodo.com has its own editors. The department I’m a part of is called Studio at Gawker. In that studio, we have editors, one of whom is a former Gizmodo writer. They liaise with one another.
What about when it goes wrong?
Lau, on The Atlantic Digital’s brand content project with the Church of Scientology: "The biggest mistake is retrospect is that it wasn’t harmonious to our site. It didn’t bring value to our readers…The whole experience clarified how people are going to judge these things.
We have a published ad guidelines document. We’ve had debates on where the lines are and continue to have them. We have processes in place where we have multiple milestones, and we’re checking these things to make sure they’re in line with our site. There are multiple people involved in that."
Monetizing "real" edit content
Del: "There is a direct-response aspect that not a lot of people are talking about. At Gawker, we’re investing heavily in this idea that, look, if Gizmodo writes a positive review of a new cell phone or something, there’s no reason we can’t go in and stick an Amazon affiliate link onto that article. It wasn’t paid for by the brand, they just happened to like the phone, and our readers like going in there and doing things like that. It started with Amazon affiliate links, but now brands are coming to us and saying, Hey, this article is awesome; it’s great editorial content. Is there any way we can monetize whatever it is we’re trying to sell around this content. And as long as you’re fully transparent and you say 'Look, if you buy through this link, yes, we are going to get a cut of it, but understand that it was not written so this link could be here. It was written, and then we put the link there.'"
Also discussed: Andrew Sullivan’s deep reservations about native advertising (as discussed at another recent panel with Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith) and whether the practice spells the doom of real journalism.