One morning in 1995, I got a call from a journalist in Rome. I was a reporter at Advertising Age, and my caller was researching offbeat ad media: ads on building façades, London taxis, eggs. After a few minutes, she asked if I’d seen her publication, Colors. “Benetton’s magazine? Yeah, I’ve seen it,” I sniffed. “I’ve never picked it up.”
Well, I got schooled. A large envelope from Italy showed up two days later with a few issues of Colors. I devoured them in a trance. I wanted to work there. I’ve rarely seen a more enlightening, unsettling publication in any medium, before or since. Colors has meant as much to me as my other favorite magazines of that era. I still have every copy I ever bought.
Yes, bought. The undisguised mission of Colors was to make me a Benetton customer, and that was all right by me. Useful, informative, captivating–Colors taught me things that interested me. It made me a brand advocate. I wouldn’t shut up about it. I would’ve been proud to rock a Colors T-shirt. Above all, I didn’t give a damn that it was published by a fashion label.
Advertising in 1995 had more in common with Mad Men than it does with advertising today. Colors was an outlier. Advertisers, in general, hadn’t begun transforming themselves into publishers through genuinely interesting, useful, authoritative branded content that boasted journalistic authority and aims, and an infectious narrative power.
Marketers and their agencies, of course, have always relied on great storytelling. The difference between now and 1995 is that agencies today have started turning to editors (or recovering editors) like me: creatives with journalism backgrounds who can help them build branded content designed to stand up to anything made by a traditional publisher.
Journalists, I’ve noticed, never really stop being journalists. No matter what you’re doing for a living, its principles stay in your bones, especially the sacred separation of “church and state”–editorial and advertising.
That principle is held dear, and not out of piety. It’s a measure that ensures a consumer’s trust in the authority, impartiality, and utility of your message. Basically, it guarantees that consumers will always understand, as they must, who’s talking to them.
Consumers have a greater tolerance for ad-supported content than many journalists might believe–if the content holds value for them, and if they know who’s delivering it. Any recent journalistic indictments of branded content have largely concerned the obscuring of a controversial source more than the content itself. The public may have come to see impartiality as the canard it always was. All published content has bias: If I were a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for an assignment to dig up dirt on Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s owner.
To take that argument one step further: All content is branded content. A journalism brand is the purest expression of branded content, because its publisher isn’t a clothing label, or a car or an energy drink. Its publisher is a publisher. And like any brand, a publisher’s aim is to sell–but in slow motion, by building relationships with customers meant to last years, or lifetimes.
Although media brands haven’t had to behave like anything other than the publications, networks or radio stations they are, the marketplace is changing that fast. Most of the publications I worked on kept editorial and advertising not merely apart, as they should have, but walled off: each in absolute denial of the other’s existence. I now find that strategy problematic–I’ve written about my issues with it in more detail here–but in short: it’s tough to reach your audience without understanding who that audience is.
Why does an editor walk into an agency? To get to the other side of the story, I suppose: to bring the rigor behind an engaging, informative piece of journalism to a brand that wants to tell an engaging, informative story. And to speak to a brand’s audience as directly and clearly as any piece of journalism should.
Do audiences care whether a piece of content is branded content? Maybe. They certainly care whether it’s good. And if your audience’s contact with your content unfolds into a relationship, well, then it’s good.
Jack Shafer, the razor-sharp media writer at Reuters, recently wrote: “I’m prepared to accept that an advertiser could produce content worthy of my time, though I’ve yet to witness that miracle.” That was funny, but it made me wonder if Shafer had ever seen Colors back in the day. If he had, but hadn’t really ever thought of Colors as branded content—then he may have already witnessed that miracle without realizing it.
Today, maybe Shafer would get a kick out of Rapha Performance Roadwear’s lush British cycling magazine Rouleur, or Hipstamatic’s artistic celebration Snap–or A Boy and His Atom, the “world’s smallest movie” released last week to viral fanfare by IBM. (Ogilvy & Mather is IBM’s agency.) If branded content like that can win over a skeptic like Shafer, or me, I can’t think of a higher compliment.
Todd Pruzan is Editorial Director for Ogilvy & Mather.
[Pen Image: Pixsooz via Shutterstock]