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Out of the Sidecar: Branded Content is Not a Second-Class Citizen


Scott Donaton

Out of the Sidecar: Branded Content is Not a Second-Class Citizen

Old Navy clothing makes you look like a tacky murderer.

Snickers only satisfies you for about 8 minutes then makes you hate yourself for the rest of the day.

Contextual content is publishers saying to brands, ‘We will camouflage your ads to make them look like news stories.’

Native advertising isn’t trickery; it’s publishers sharing storytelling tools. “And that’s not bullshit; it’s repurposed bovine waste.”

If any of these statements sound familiar, you’re likely one of the millions of people who watched John Oliver’s 11-minute takedown of native advertising on YouTube.

Those quotes are from that piece, from John Oliver, yes, but also from such prominent media personalities as Ken Auletta and, if the fog of memory serves correctly, Brian Williams.

It was parody, sure. But it clearly struck a chord with journalists and media insiders, many of whom labeled it as brilliant. That’s because it expressed a barely disguised belief many media publishers still hold: that branded content is a second-class citizen.

Agencies: The Content Creators

And that’s just one of the reasons agencies are best suited to lead the creation of content for brands: because we believe brands have stories worth sharing, and that those stories add value to — rather than corrupt the integrity of — a consumer’s experience.

The hand-wringing over branded content is a problem that exists mostly in the minds of publishers. It’s increasingly clear that audiences don’t care as much about the source of the material they consume as they do about its value. They care whether that piece of information or entertainment is worthy of their time.

We believe brands have stories worth sharing, and that those stories add value to — rather than corrupt the integrity of — a consumer’s experience.

And there’s little doubt the quality of brand storytelling is beginning to equal that of other forms of content. Intel’s “Beauty Inside” series didn’t just win the Grand Prix at Cannes; it also won an Emmy.

Agencies help brands uncover the stories that are worthy of people’s time, and help them craft and share those stories across many touchpoints.

There are other reasons for agencies to lead the creation of content for brands.

– We invest resources in building a content ecosystem, while publishers offer a closed-circuit environment where content is created to perform best with a single partner.

– We have a deep understanding of brands and their business objectives

– We have a deep understanding of people, and insights into what inspires human behavior.

Media organizations are designed to understand their own audiences and assets, not those of brands. Other than sales, all resources are devoted to self-serving performance and to building affinity for the media brand. That’s not a knock; it’s how it should be. It’s how those brands create value.

It’s really a matter of incentives and skillsets. Brands aren’t the primary constituents that publishers serve. They ride in a sidecar.

Agencies exist to capitalize on the intersection between brand truth and culture. 

Out of the Sidecar

Agencies exist to capitalize on the intersection between brand truth and culture. We start without a preconceived notion of an editorial voice and ask instead what is the brand’s voice. We assemble and invest in talent and expertise that understand the nuance of brand strategy and how creativity can drive positive outcomes.

Publishers deal with brands on a more transactional basis, with sales teams incentivized to sell pre-existing ideas. There’s a reason agencies all get the same packaged opportunities with brand logos swapped out.

Publishers are simply not built to engage with brands at a high-touch level on a continuous basis. But it is the primary purpose of agencies.

Ownership and control is another issue. If a brand works with a publisher to develop a custom content idea but doesn’t renew, that same concept can be sold to a competitor.

And if a media buy goes dark, the audience disappears. In our model, audiences are developed around a brand, not a channel.

We develop custom content ideas and then work across production and distribution partners to find the best ways to tell and share those stories. Stories that are unique to and owned by the brands.

That’s a long way from the idea of branded content as a trick to fool audiences.

(Author’s note: Not to undermine my own arguments, but to provide context: this column was adapted from comments I was asked to give at the IAB’s recent Leadership Summit, where I represented the agency side in a debate over whether agencies or publishers were best suited to lead content creation for brands. The only true answer to this question is that we have to do it together, which is the basis of a collaborative model in which we treat partners as partners, not vendors. A growing number of publishers, from Conde Nast and The New York Times to Buzzfeed and iHeart Media, have created brand studios. We view those operations not as rivals but as partners who will work with us, brands and creators to develop content that audiences will want to spend time with, shape and share.)

Scott Donaton

Scott Donaton


Scott leads our content practice, partnering with clients to tell their stories in innovative ways. Donaton launched and leads Digitas Studios, which develops unique custom content initiatives, strategies, and business models for clients.


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