Branded content – clients, power, talent & focaccia

cat with breadBack when I was a girl bread came as white, brown, sliced or in a loaf. Now… gluten free spelt focaccia anyone?

So it is with content. Back in the day there was print. Then there was digital. It was words, some pictures… then a little podcast, some video. Now, let me talk to you about… content focaccia.

The Drum’s Content Marketing Breakfast

I attended a content marketing breakfast organised by The Drum last week. It was the panel that drew me; Kaylee King-Balentine, director at The New York Times, ITN Production’s Head of Branded Content – Simon Baker, Justin Pearse managing director of The Drum Works, digital social director of MOI Joe Edwards and Clare O’Brien senior industry programmes manager of IAB UK. Let’s call them “the bakers”.

But I was also drawn by the focaccias, the ciabattas, the bagels and the brioche. The sourdough and the spelt. Or, to bring this metaphor back into the room: the branded content, the marketed content, the native content, the sponsored editorial, the branded entertainment and the promotional content.

Understanding the ingredients

If, in 1975, say, you’d asked me to distinguish between focaccia and ciabatta, I would have politely explained that I wasn’t that type of girl. Now I both understand the ingredients and have very strong views about which is the most appropriate to serve with Genoa salami. I’m confident when it comes to bread. And I’m confident when it comes to content.

As was the Drum panel.

Orange is the New Black

Lets take Kaylee King-Balentine, who worked on the branded content created to promote Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. To all intents and purposes this is journalism at its best. But its reason for being is to promote, that is to say commercially spotlight (aka sell), Netflix programming.

The branding is subtle. Netflix were, apparently, keen to explore just how branded the content could be made to be – for example, by, possibly, adding interviews with cast members. In the end, apart from the relevant idents and credits, the on-screen tie-in is  restricted to a relevant interview with the author of the book upon which the series is based.

But, would the outcome have been the same if the two forces squaring up had not been Netflix and T Brand Studio, The New York Times’ branded content unit – emerging behemoths both – but a small agency and a big client? Or an inhouse marketing team faced with board members screaming about dwindling sales and the need for cut backs?

As content becomes more complex and more nuanced across the inform/sell – editorial/advert divide, where do you draw the line? And even if you know where to draw the line, will your client or boss let you?

Church & state

Justin Pearse of The Drum Works confidently describes a church and state divide between The Drum editorial team and The Drum Works team. But it’s not simply a question of real-time teams and decision making. Take The Economist, among others, which is coming up with interesting ways of re-presenting its back catalogue.

Articles written under the editorial banner and retaining this integrity, are repackaged for second use and sponsored by a corporate or other third-party with its own, post-partum agenda for use. What, potentially, is the impact there?

cat with mouseIt’s a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat (ah, suddenly the image at the start of this blog becomes clear). If you box up content with one or two other elements that could have a deleterious effect on that content, how do you asses what that impact might be? I’m not suggesting there’s automatically something noxious about co-branding content this way; just how do we know – before we do it?

The consequences of getting it wrong can be fatal. And even major brands can mess things up. Microsoft and NME being two, but you’d be hard pressed to find the original content that caused the problem now (if the link the the article I just signposted you to is anything to go by).

Increasingly those who are required to oversee content need to deploy what is, in effect, editorial judgement, but without necessarily having had any editorial experience or training. It’s like asking an engineer to bake bread, to a baker to perform heart surgery, or a surgeon to fix an engine. It’s interesting how many of the serious players in branded content production now recruit from journalism.

Okay. Where am I going with this?

  1. Content can’t go backward. As new forms of content and branded content are redolent with good content, you wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Or the bread out with the tin.
  2. Rules can be written but are seldom read. Given the speed at which digital content, its audiences and delivery platforms are evolving, rules – even if read – best describe the past. Not the future.
  3. Which brings me to the third thing…

The third thing

We pay content creators and marketers for their skills, yes, but do we reward what is, in effect, their ability to exert editorial judgement?

Journalists constantly refine their “nose for news”, as getting the big stories brings both recognition and remuneration.  To both sniff out and develop a story requires an ability to work independently. Keeping a lid on your scoop until you’re ready publish and not being faced down by the politician/business/celebrity who would rather you didn’t, helps cultivate this independence and an essential editorial integrity.

Marketers and agencies acquire the ability judge and deliver on behalf of brands, as that is where their recognition and reward comes from. But these skillsets don’t regularly require the exclusion of the brand from the content, which really good branded content often does.

I’ve been involved in various initiatives designed to nurture digital talent and am currently a great fan of Amanda Davie’s Digital Talent @Work. The reality is that the digital pace is so fast that those who work in it are not necessarily given the learning and development support they need to hone core skills, never mind the list of new ones that branded content may demand of them.

I suspect that what it really boils down to is taking a far, far wider look at what skills you want your digital talent to exhibit; and accepting that those in charge of content need to enjoy a status and power base that would allow them to stand firm in a branded content face off.

So… if you’re a business or an organisation out there and you’re feeling a bit chuffed because you’ve just got a content strategist/web editor/marketer/copywriter to back down over something. It could be you, rather than they, that got it wrong.

Now that would be half baked.