Some of the UK's largest online publishers have revealed that the lines between church and state are 'blurring' in their newsrooms as their branded content outfits become more sophisticated and seek to carve out an authentic tone of voice for brands.
Over the past year some news outlets, including City AM, have spoken out about tearing down the traditional commercial divide while sticking to the guidelines, but it would appear the viewpoint is gathering pace.
Hearst, Bleacher Report, the Lad Bible Group and Fandom powered by Wikia told The Drum editor Stephen Lepitak during a panel at Advertising Week Europe on Thursday (23 March) how their branded content and editorial teams work together as one rather than separately.
"We’re very much merged completely," said Bleacher Report's UK managing editor Lee Walker.
"Luckily, we’re not in the position where we’re chasing cheap money and have to compromise the brand," he continued, "it’s very much a good idea is a good idea and if we can assimilate the brand into that then everyone’s a winner."
Meanwhile, Dorth Raphaely senior vice-president of content at entertainment fan site Fandom powered by Wikia, which boasts a global audience of over 190 million readers, said in his newsroom the "lines were blurred".
"Our team is one team, maybe that’s a resource thing, but really for us it’s about integrity and we feel that you can work with the sales team and figure out what works for them but you know deep down inside whether you’re being honest to that content.
“The key thing is that if the client has no say over the content at all, then [the publisher] does not; so we really try and steer clients away from getting involved in the content.”
When pressed on how their reporters react to being tasked with writing branded content, Raphaely said that to his surprise he found they enjoy working on sponsored projects because "they understand the business model".
"Also, those pieces of content are sometimes more creative in the sense that you have to figure out what still works for editorial and for the client and so all those brainstorms that are applied to get to the end goal can often make for a more creative process," he finished.
Victoria White, commercial content director at Hearst UK, said she believed branded content to be "an exciting growth area" for publishers, adding that the stigma previously attached to penning branded pieces had fallen away in recent years.
"There was a time a while ago when you didn’t want to go and do branded content, it was slightly frowned upon. Whereas recently, we have so many applicants for our [branded content] roles - people from amazing editorial backgrounds and it wasn't difficult to find people to fill our studio."
White, who previously worked as editor for Hearst for 14 years', said her ethos was that good quality branded content should get the same treatment as editorial features.
Bleacher Report's Walker agreed that it came down to a mindset, adding that young people had an "inbuilt ad filter" and that failure to create compelling content would be evident in a lack of eyeballs. "It shouldn’t be second-class content or paid for content it’s content, just make it good," he asserted.
The Lad Bible Group's head of brand and marketing Stephen Mai said that for his audience it came back to authenticity, so integrating the branded content team with the social and editorial departments was a no brainer.
"As a publisher we’re not a traditional news outlet so 'it’s not the news it’s our news' is what we say. That means the traditional lines of high quality reporting versus other type of content isn't as apparent.”
"If we were producing content that we would want to produce any way for brands then it really shouldn’t be any different to what they’re doing in terms of day-to-day content. For us it’s about making sure we’re working on stuff that already feels like our organic content."
While publishers have been building out their paid for content teams over the past few years several companies including Unilever have been building in-house content studios to refine the way they market brands.