The New York Times’ branded content studio is coming for ad agency business

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Photograph: JavierDo

The New York Times is changing the game in branded content, and that means that creative advertising agencies, as well as the paper’s traditional newspaper rivals, should feel nervous.

By harnessing new expertise in immersive production techniques, such as augmented reality and 360-degree filming, to its unique reputation in content production, the paper is reconfiguring the notion of sponsored content production, which has recently emerged as the news publishing industry’s great hope for the future funding of journalism.

What began as an exercise in 'native' integration of branded digital storytelling into a publisher’s website, done so seamlessly that the consumer would find it as valuable as the editorial material which it sat alongside, is evolving at the New York Times into something far more ambitious.

Sebastian Tomich, senior vice president of advertising and innovation at the New York Times, gives two examples of this pattern.

T Brand Studio, the Times’s bespoke brand marketing unit, produced a recent campaign for the Kia Cadenza car which matched the paper’s historic expertise in coverage of the arts with its growing capability in digital creativity. It used its 'Times Talks' events platform to bridge the United States, with Kia Cadenza sponsoring a 'Design Now' event at Temple House, Miami, a 'Music Now' evening at City University New York and a 'Great Performers' night at NeueHouse in Los Angeles.

The events were heaving with creative talent, with guest speakers including singer John Legend and interior designer Thom Filicia. But the star performer in each case was the Cadenza, which became the subject of 360-degree films and augmented reality content which highlighted its hidden features. It was digitally sketched by artist Katie Rodgers, photographed by Jonathan Taylor Sweet and turned into a musical instrument with interactive touchpads, for a remixed track by music duo Chargaux, titled 'First Chair featuring Kia Cadenza'. Social media influencers were encouraged to pose alongside the car in film noir costume and be pictured from different angles by 12 DSLR cameras for content that they could share with their followers.

The campaign, called 'Impossible to Ignore', was a long way from your standard advertorial. For the many news publishers who have created content studios in the past year or so to feed a perceived demand for native advertising, its scope must have been daunting.

Earlier this year, T Brand produced a campaign for IBM called 'Outthink Hidden' to coincide with the launch of the 20th Century Fox film, 'Hidden Figures', which told the story of the little-known African-American women working at Nasa in the 1960s. The work offered augmented reality content that could be accessed, via smartphones, at 150 geo-fenced locations across America. For maximum impact it targeted tourist hotspots, universities famed for STEM subjects and the giant CES tech festival in Las Vegas. The content, which uses sensors to layer 3D imaging, text, video and audio into an immersive account of three women featured in the Hollywood film, was also accessible via a QR code in printed copies of the Times.

This IBM campaign was T Brand’s first project with Fake Love, the experiential agency it acquired in August last year. Outthink Hidden was made in partnership with IBM’s ad agency Ogilvy & Mather. But while T Brand looks forward to further collaborations with ad agencies, its growing ambition means that it will also be competing with them for pitches.

Competing with creative agencies

At three-and-a-half years old, T Brand is “absolutely evolving to function more like a creative agency”, Tomich says. He talks confidently of “going up against” specialist advertising agencies for bespoke client projects and starting “to go head-to-head with” ad companies in offering content strategies and distribution plans. “I don’t flinch when I say that we are the best at what we do.”

Content studios like T Brand are lean and “can produce things a lot cheaper than a traditional creative agency could”, he claims. “From a cost perspective there’s definitively a competitive advantage there.”

T Brand Studio, which has opened new offices in Hong Kong to compete for the Asian market, has grown to 150 staff. “If you think about what in a pitch separates T Brand from others on the creative side it’s that we have an enormous in-house team staffed with some of the best creative talent in the industry and we are able to recruit that talent because we are the New York Times and that is a huge leg up,” Tomich says.

Then there is the value of working alongside a newsroom which is over 1350-strong and pioneering the use of technology and data in publishing. “It’s a huge advantage to be tethered to a newsroom that is in my opinion the most innovative publisher in the world. And no matter where media consumption goes – AR, VR, audio, video – our newsroom will be at the forefront of it so we are able to take all of these production capabilities and move them into our studio business.”

For the New York Times Company, a media owner, to covet business in media planning is potentially controversial territory. Tomich is unabashed. “This is a new area that I see publisher studios beginning to play in. We are starting to get into this business now and it’s where we will start to go head-to-head with (media) agencies,” he says, arguing that T Brand would be able to remain a “neutral” partner and not simply recommend that business is placed with the Times.

“We develop a content strategy and build whatever it is that we propose and then in the case of distribution we may choose…let’s say Vogue or GQ is a better fit than distributing it on the New York Times and we have to be okay with that, because in an agency model we have to be neutral, because we are not selling our media.” T Brand already has a number of such contracts, he adds. Other publishers, including the Atlantic, Vice Media and Bloomberg Media, are also exploring this space.

With an online audience of 120 million, the New York Times is a model for transitioning to multi-platform publishing and it’s undeniable that it is in a strong position to offer services in content strategy. “Brands, more and more, if you go in and meet with them and talk about how they are structuring their teams, are thinking like newsrooms,” says Tomich. “The set ups and strategies and the ways that they publish are very akin to a newsroom model so we go in and say ‘We can help you build out your newsroom strategy from one of the best newsrooms on the planet.’”

Growing ambitions – but no agency of record deals yet

Where T Brand is not yet in a position to go is in competing for the big “agency of record” (AOR) deals to serve clients on an ongoing basis, he admits. “We are the bootstraps upstart when we go and pitch against the likes of a WPP or a Publicis. As it stands right now we are not in the business of pitching for large creative AOR contracts, we don’t have the talent in the building to do that or the processes and systems to be able to manage a large account like a P&G (Procter & Gamble) or a Coca-Cola.”

But he is convinced that publishers need to have big creative ambitions if they are to thrive. It’s not enough for content studios to merely offer clients “native” access to an audience.

Tomich, naturally, claims that T Brand is ahead of other news publishers in the branded content market. “We are the only brand that stands for creative excellence. If you think of the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, major global newspapers, creativity is not the first thing that comes to mind. For the Post it is leadership around politics, and for the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal it’s about leadership in the financial markets. For the (New York) Times we have a leadership position across arts, culture, travel…” New York Times editorial content is also more creative in its execution than that of rival publishers, he argues.

T Brand is growing. T Brand International, which operates from London under Raquel Bubar, has a team of 20 and three offices, including the new base in Hong Kong. Its operation is distinct from that in New York. “Our vision is almost to allow them to benefit from being independent and…to be more nimble,” says Tomich. “The team in London is awesome and could function with or without New York.”

T Brand is set to make a major contribution to the New York Times’s target of $800m annual digital revenues by 2020, and it aims to do 150 campaigns this year, not counting the new work in content strategy and distribution. Other publishers are struggling to keep up. “We see a lot of new studios just sort of mimic what we do and launch similar products,” Tomich complains. “The Washington Post literally just called it WP BrandStudio and designed their home page to promote their brand content exactly the same as we do it.”

T Brand has upped its game by acquiring Fake Love, which delivers advanced capabilities in AR and VR production, and the digital marketing company HelloSociety, which has brought expertise in distribution and creativity on social platforms.

A vital evolution of the publisher model

The bar is being set high. Publishers who hoped that native advertising might amount to a new income stream from a simple overhaul of the old advertorial model of text and pictures, repurposed for digital platforms, might find that client expectations start to exceed their capabilities.

Tomich’s own take on how this all plays out is somewhat Darwinian. “If Google and Facebook take more and more of the distribution dollars – they can provide really, really efficient and targeted reach – [then] the things that brands are coming to us for are these creative campaigns,” he says. “The economic challenge with that is you have got to support a creative team and there has got to be enough money left over to fund the newsroom. So for a publisher who is solely relying on ad revenue, my gut is that they won’t make it going into the future.”

With its 1.5 million subscriber base, the Times has the scale, the income cushion and the “red hot” brand that allows it to “pivot” into ambitious creative advertising. Other publishers are not so lucky.

“I just don’t see how they can survive solely trading on an ad model if they are going to rely on this really costly creative work. If you chart out the next few years I think you are going to see a lot of small publishers either not make it or have to consolidate.”

The “bigger shops” that survive, he says, will have to be prepared to compete for business in a range of markets where they never operated before. “If all the signals are true, which is that traditional ad spending – and I will count display in traditional – continues to decline and the budgets continue to move to search and social…the only way that we can grow these businesses is if we compete for other budgets like experiential, like PR, like creative, like production broadly.”

This daunting new world, says Tomich, “is a business we think we can win in, in the future”.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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