When the concept of ‘native advertising’ was first bandied about, I must confess to having had a slight sense of déjà vu, writes Britta Reid.
After all, those of us who had been around for a while certainly knew ‘advertorial’ when we saw it, didn’t we? And don’t those digerati always tend to act as if they have just invented things that have been around forever? Remember that youngster, who looked about 12, seriously trying to explain the concept of impressions to us, the seasoned planners in the agency?
Regularly monitoring Digiday provided me with a sense of how things were developing internationally. Initially it seemed that some of the international legacy publishers were somewhat reluctant about adopting this new approach. A rumour had it, that a factor in Jill Abrahamson’s being fired as the editor of the New York Times, was her strong opposition to native advertising. Indeed when Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the publisher of the New York Times, wrote to his staff on the subject, he admitted that the platform was “relatively new and can be controversial”, but pointed out that it was necessary to “restore digital advertising revenue to growth”. Of course this was followed by the hasty reassurance that there would be “strict separation between the newsroom and the job of creating content for the new native ads”. Indeed, the T Brand Studio was set up within the organisation to handle native advertising. It was not long before the publisher was being hailed for its groundbreaking print native advertorial for Shell.
Then Conde Nast caused a furore by announcing that it was making editors available to work with advertisers on developing branded content. Interestingly, the company was setting a minimum spend requirement before advertisers were permitted to participate in the format.
Over the pond, Trinity Media had no scruples about placing journalists in its Invention Content Studios and the Telegraph Media Group launched ‘Spark’ to replace its former offering, ‘Create’. Spark is intended to set alight the world of native advertising by combining data insights and analytics with branded content creation. Matt Cory, managing director of Spark at Trinity, is on record as having memorably described this approach as having “found a place where the Mad Men are meeting the Math Men, and actually getting better outcomes”. The Guardian Media Group, having tackled its venture into the field through the Guardian Media Labs, recently announced that it has seen a 20% increase in digital sales over the year. This, it claims, has more than compensated for declines in print circulation and advertising.
With all this activity going on overseas, I decided that it was high time to find out how local publishers were tackling the native advertising. In my media agency days, I had always found Caxton Magazines open minded about exploring ideas with the media agencies. That, together with the fact that the Caxton offices are located five minutes down the road from my townhouse, prompted me to send an email to Debbie McIntyre, head of insights, suggesting that we chat about the subject. She responded most enthusiastically, putting together an impressive coffee klatch to share their views with me. Besides Debbie, Frith Thomas (editorial director of Woman and Home), Marti Pansegrouw (editor of rooirose), Linda Mali (editor of Bona), Clive Vanderwagen (head of client strategy) and Marco Riekstins (creative studio manager) set time aside to talk to me.
That all these people were prepared to talk to me was an immediate indicator of the importance they attach to native advertising. Immediately they highlighted the difference between the old style advertorial approach and native advertising. In the traditional advertorial approach, the client logo featured large and there was an emphasis on conveying information, so the overall look could be very copy heavy. The pack-shots tended to be relatively uninspired. The promotional identification was large. Although the material was put together by the publication, the traditional advertorial was seldom a seamless part of the reader’s experience of his or her magazine.
The Caxton team acknowledged that developing native advertising is a real skill, and indicated that they had keenly observed how international publications were tackling the challenge. Their enthusiasm for native advertising was based on the ability to provide their readers with seamless communication experiences, underwritten with a sense of editorial endorsement. Of course, with three editors in the room, it was unsurprising, as well as reassuring, to immediately hear them re-affirm that editorial integrity constantly needed to be maintained. This topic was frequently re-iterated. There is no tolerance for conning the reader.
Thus the team was very clear in stating that not every brand would necessarily lend itself to native advertising. The brand would need to sit synergistically with a topic that the publication would realistically cover in the normal course of events. The topic must work for the reader, for the publication and the marketer.
Both Pansegrouw and Mali made the point that native advertising also gave them a chance to make “home language” content for their readers, and speak with true authenticity.
Another difference from the traditional advertorial approach, which was sold in standard ad sizes, is that the Caxton team were now talking about creating “campaigns” for their clients. They are analysing how they can use their properties to build multi-media communication programmes for their clients. Thomas stressed the importance of the editor as the brand custodian of a title. The editor has to know the DNA of her brand. She needs to intimately understand the workings of her readers’ hearts and minds, and how the cross platform components of her brand work together. Someone that in touch with a set of consumers is in an ideal situation to collaborate with marketers.
This bespoke approach has had many implications for the Caxton team. What silos there were between editorial, design and sales, have largely been eradicated. It also means that specific shoots have to be commissioned, writing outsourced, and videos shot. New skills and resources are needed. More effort goes into the process, and every campaign proposal has to be carefully thought out in terms of content and execution, and costed out individually. The sales role is changing radically. Gone are the days of a quick deal on x number of pages for y% discount. Then there is also the onus of reporting back to the client on the campaign performance. The role of campaign management is crucial.
Listening to the team enthusing about the process, made me wonder if they might not be stepping on agency toes. I was not surprised to hear that their most successful collaborations have been directly with clients, and that the role of the media agencies, to date, has largely been trying to figure out the billing process under Caxton’s guidance.
It also struck me that if costing proposals from their side is now a complicated art form, it is highly unlikely that Adex is currently geared to track the value of these native campaigns. It is a sad irony that if these go unrecorded in Adex, then the media agencies will continue to see the story of an ongoing decline of the magazine industry in the official ad revenue figures.
There have been comments that publishers are their own worst enemies. The time I spent with the Caxton team was proof that this is not necessarily so. There was a remarkable sense of enthusiasm – in fact, love for their company. There was a remarkable degree of respect and co-operation between church and state, the traditionally opposed editorial and sales functions. There was an absolute commitment to revolutionising the way they work with their readers and marketers, and an eagerness to embrace all growth opportunities from native advertising to events. For a magazine junkie like me, it was a most heartening discussion. I would urge media agencies to spend some time investigating what this team can do for their clients
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