Welcome to summer 2018. The weather has been concrete-meltingly hot, but there’s still a chill wind blowing through the publishing industry.
Print circulations are plummeting. Advertising revenues are tanking. Digital subscriptions and membership schemes are, for some, showing promise. But in most cases, they’re not yet bringing in enough money to stem the losses. So, what’s to be done?
Nearly every publisher now has a branded content offering. The hope is the associated revenues will stop the FD frowning (for a while). Some are just starting on the journey; others have been doing it for years. Some are making pots of cash. Others… less so.
However sophisticated your offering, whatever size your business, and whoever your audience may be, it’s always worth reviewing your structures and processes to ensure you can react to an ever-changing market.
I’ve worked in branded content for over ten years, at publishers such as the Guardian and Condé Nast, and now at a branded video agency that works with publishers and directly with brands. This much I know…
I’ve deliberately started with a subject that makes most people’s eyes glaze over. I should know. I spent more hours than I’d care to mention in committee meetings at the Internet Advertising Bureau working on their best practice guidelines. I was fascinating dinner party company in that period of my life.
Boring it may be, but it’s crucial. An editorial reputation takes years to establish; it can be destroyed in a heartbeat. There’s no surer way of doing that than duping your audience into reading commercial content.
The CAP Code – the advertising industry’s code for non-broadcast marketing communications, administered and enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – states that “marketers and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications; for example, by heading them ‘advertisement feature’.”
That ‘for example’ is crucial. You do not have to use this label. It’s not a law. It’s best practice, but most advertisers hate those words - hence publishers’ reluctance to use them.
There are official regulations that apply to commercial content, and you really will be in hot water if you don’t adhere to them. They are the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, and they basically say the same thing. They prohibit “using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer”.
The Guardian’s policies are very strict. ‘Supported by’ applies to content that is funded by a third party but is editorially independent. The funding partner has no sign-off whatsoever on the content; they cannot even see it before it goes live. ‘Paid content’ means the advertiser has full control. The definitions of these labels are published online.
I think all publishers should make their definitions public. Very few do. Many like the shady grey areas ambiguous labels create. But don’t forget you may be risking more than a slap on the wrist from the ASA if you don’t clearly signpost your paid-for content.
At the Guardian, no staff journalists can work on content signed off by advertisers (including video producers and picture editors); its commercial content team, Guardian Labs, is entirely separate from core editorial. Given the DNA of the paper, it cannot risk anyone thinking its journalists’ editorial independence can be compromised.
Condé Nast’s policies are slightly more relaxed. That’s fine; it’s not a news brand. Staff journalists can work on advertorial content (if the relevant editor approves). Advertisers get sign off on all content, including editorially independent ‘sponsored’ content, although editorial can refuse to make amends if they don’t agree with them. The Guardian also had that policy in place a few years ago for some of its commercial content (under a different labelling regime), but it created so many difficulties the decision was taken to make the church/state divide even cleaner.
But that change in turn caused some trouble. We once worked with a client that had funded an editorially independent video. They were horrified when they saw it; they felt it was so far ‘off brand’ they wanted it taken down. (It featured some twerking. Long story.) We couldn’t do that – it was editorial content. They then asked for their logo to be removed from the offending film. We were reluctant to do that, as it was important readers knew the conditions under which that content had been produced. It was also part of a longer series, all of which was sponsored by that brand. Awkward.
My advice? Have honest discussions internally about church and state. Make sure everyone knows where the line is drawn. Build the structure accordingly, and have clear reporting lines.
The impact of branded video
The approach at the Guardian had cost implications. Guardian Labs had to duplicate roles that existed in editorial, roles other publishers are comfortable deploying on branded content campaigns. Video production is perhaps the prime example.
A film editor isn’t a journalist in the sense a writer from, say, the technology desk is. So why stop them working on commercial content?
Pete Fergusson, the founder and CEO of Nemorin Creative Film and Video (hello boss) founded the commercial video team at the Telegraph. He reported into the head of editorial video. Some resources were shared.
Good producers aren’t cheap. Good motion graphics designers aren’t cheap. The Guardian’s editorial video team sat one floor away from me – but I couldn’t use their skills to produce content that was signed off by clients.
So, we outsourced our video work entirely to production partners. At the time, I found that slightly frustrating – I wanted to have dedicated resource in-house over and above the couple of producers we had.
In retrospect, I think my instinct was wrong. We had to produce everything from short-form animations to longform documentaries, and we covered every subject under the sun. We couldn’t predict what we’d be working on from one week to the next. What skills did I really need in house?
Using production partners with access to extensive networks of specialists made more sense than having generalists on the payroll. That model was more flexible, and meant we weren’t carrying unnecessary overheads. The best partners felt like extensions of my own team.
Sure, I would have loved access to some in-house editorial video people, if only to help formulate ideas. But those guys had a day job to concentrate on. And the church/state divide remained entirely intact.
In my experience, most publishers focus on branded content revenue. Not many track profit. It’s hard, but absolutely necessary. External costs are relatively easy to calculate; internal ones less so. These campaigns tend to involve a lot of people, some for short periods of time. But time is money, and If you’re not making a profit, what’s the point? I know one media owner whose brand partnerships sales team are bonused on a combination of revenue and profit. Great idea.
To pull this off properly, you need to have some sort of timesheet system in place, or estimate in advance how many hours the team will be spending on a given project. If you know their salaries, you can then work out the actual costs of production, and make sure you make a profit.
There is no one size fits all solution to any of this. Audiences’ tolerance for, and perception of, commercial content will vary depending on the editorial context. But transparency is important for all publishers. Publish your definitions. Don’t change them because of advertiser pressure.
And profit is important. Really important. Make sure you can show the FD the impact you’re having on the business. She might even crack a smile. Before putting your targets up for the next quarter…
Nemorin.com is a branded video agency creating bespoke film content in conjunction with publishers, brands and agencies in the UK and globally.