Branded content experts from The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Somethin’ Else discuss the key to authentic content at the World Media Awards launch
They say that content is king, but who’s the king of content? The much-debated changing media landscape has seen an interesting range of new kinds of companies launch into the branded content arena – bringing with them a host of storytelling skills not often found in more traditional agency set ups.
The panel at the World Media Awards’ recent ‘Masterclass in Storytelling’ is a case in point. On stage, speaking to Bloomberg’s Executive Editor Arif Durrani, was an interesting bunch who showed that tapping into editorial skillsets and treating people as audiences (and not mindless consumers) may prove the key to helping brands win the battle for eyeballs and attention.
Jim Pearcy, Creative Director, EMEA & Asia, for the Wall Street Journal’s content agency, WSJ CUSTOM STUDIO, Raquel Bubar, Director of T Brand Studio for The New York Times, and Somethin’ Else MD Steve Ackerman, were on hand to share their experiences – as well as some helpful pointers for navigating this evolving area.
For Jim and Raquel, being aligned to their respective media platforms gave them unparalleled insights into the kind of content that’s likely to engage their readers. And that’s all embedded in their understanding of how to root out real stories, journalistically, and tell them in the most authentic way possible.
On stage, Jim shared the example of a recent branded content piece for global airline alliance, Star Alliance. To celebrate the brand’s 20th anniversary, they teamed up with National Geographic to create a travelogue series, Connecting Cultures. In it, an intrepid journalist set out to take part in some truly unique experiences around the world, from horse riding in Europe’s highest village, Ushguli in Georgia, to living with an Inuit community in the Arctic Circle. For Jim, the exercise was proof that for brands to pursue the most interesting and engaging stories, they might need to let go a little.
“It was the most challenging work I’ve ever done because the whole idea of it was to find stuff that no one knows about,” he said. However, while some of the adventures involved a leap of faith, an experienced team meant they came out with some fascinating tales and breath-taking scenes. “[With the mountains in] Georgia – no one had been there. I wrote the stories based on what I thought they might be. Oddly enough it went closer to the treatment than some corporate videos have!”
Jim also pointed out that with this particular project, they also had to persuade the client that a bite sized two-minute video could only be superficial. To reach and touch the informed readers who come to the Wall Street Journal, they had to have the depth and quality of a piece of editorial content.
“That’s the difference – you’ve got to get people to leave something that they chose to look at. They’re on the WSJ, the FT, and you’re asking them to leave,” said Jim.
For Raquel and her team at T Brand Studios, that journalistic methodology and experience is just as important. However, she said the team had a very strict ‘hard wall’ between the T Studio crew and the NYT editorial staff, in order to maintain the integrity of their product. “We approach it as journalists, the same way they would a story and they find people. We have a hard wall with the New York Times editorial team though – we use every journalist except our own,” she said.
Approaching the debate from a slightly different angle was Somethin’ Else’s Steve Ackerman. His agency creates content for brand channels in order to help the brands compete for attention. One of the agency’s big clients is Topman, for whom they create around three or four films a month. And Steve views Topman’s competitors as not simply other menswear brands targeting a similar demographic – in the battle for hearts and minds, they’re also up against the likes of media platforms like Radio 1 and content-creating brands in other commercial sectors, like Red Bull.
It also requires a team that understands not only storytelling but also the practicalities of getting out there and making stuff. “One of the things media agencies do is they decide to set up a content department and they always seem to bring in someone from Endemol and populate it with planners, account handlers, people who – if you look at their CV – have never made a piece of content in their lives,” he said.
He shared a piece of Somethin’ Else work that he and the team had been particularly proud of – a short film exploring masculinity and mental health with poet Hussain Manawar. For Steve it showed how important it is to be connected with a diverse talent pool, and to really understand who they’re creating content for. “The starting point really is the audience – and I intentionally say audience, rather than consumer.”
And while content can do great things for connecting with a more engaged and committed audience, none of the panel members felt that branded content was a replacement for more traditional mass media approaches, particularly for certain kinds of brands. “Sometimes people come to us and ask for content and we say, ‘what else have you done?’ They say nothing, and we might say, you should do some brand advertising. You’ve got to understand what content can be,” said Jim.
But while the rise of media platform’s content agencies has changed the landscape for the creative industries and the kinds of agencies competing, they’ve also made for a big change internally for media owners. The tough world of media sales, for one thing, has had to adapt, says Raquel. “In a way, our side of the industry has changed, the sales side. I think being a sales lead and selling branded content has made their job a lot harder. You have to understand what it is you’re selling.”
But while it has its challenges, it ultimately results in some pretty interesting work; work that’s about hunting out and weaving stories.
To celebrate that, the World Media Group has been bringing together the people driving forward this constantly evolving field, with the World Media Awards. Entry is free – though organisers do say that a donation to Reporters Without Borders is welcome. Organisers are looking for creative cross-border, content-driven advertising that has been targeted to at least four countries. The deadline is Thursday, 25 January 2018. This year, Little Black Book is proud to be a media partner. Find out more here.