Girl Guides: Guardian Labs' Anna Watkins on the challenges of balancing commercial success with journalistic integrity

In the final instalment of our Girl Guides series where we champion the female role models blazing a trail in the digital, marketing and media industries, we catch up with Anna Watkins who has spearheaded the Guardian’s branded content arm, as she candidly tells of the commercial troubles faced when maintaining journalistic integrity.

Content marketing studios have exploded over the last year as publishers race to diversify revenue streams and capitalise on the surge in demand from clients for alternatives to traditional advertising.

The Guardian was first in the UK to take advantage of this trend, launching its Labs division two years ago with managing director Anna Watkins at the helm. Since then it has had a steady stream of branded content successes, including its Guardian Witness citizen journalism venture, conducted with mobile operator EE. Yet Watkins speaks candidly about the challenges faced entering such uncharted waters, and those still on the horizon.

With no specific content marketing regulatory framework yet available publishers have all adopted different strategies, with some bowing more to advertiser pressure than others when it comes to blurring the lines between editorial and commercial. The Guardian’s 200-year-old mantra of being a vehicle for open journalism means it rigorously maintains the church and state dynamic publishers have traditionally held between the departments. Yet not all media owners stick to the same standards, with other national papers bending more flexibly to the will of their advertisers, and this has caused the Guardian to lose out on winning pitches, according to Watkins.

“We are very black and white about our stance on maintaining our journalistic integrity. But the honest truth is it has created some problems commercially. There are some corking pitches we have lost out on because other publishers will mention the brands, and will guarantee letters from their editorial. And we just can’t do that, so we will lose out on deals.”

The lack of industry regulation around branded content only exacerbates this, and gives advertisers the upper hand when negotiating deals. “Clients will often come to us saying another publisher will do exactly what they’ve asked. We had hoped advertisers would understand why we are doing it, and appreciate that we have the trusted environment. But the reality is if a brand doesn’t appreciate being in a trusted environment, to them the fact another paper’s food editor will agree to write about their food brand, and essentially PR it – well you can see why that is attractive to certain advertisers.”

It is this more relaxed approach to the boundaries between editorial and commercial which has given native advertising a bad name. As such the Guardian is not the only publisher to try distance itself from the term, preferring instead to use content marketing or branded content. She and her team have worked closely with internal editorial teams to ensure Guardian journalists are comfortable with how Labs works.

However, as regulation becomes stricter, she believes equilibrium will be reinstated. Several major brands including P&G and Mondelez have been pulled up by the Advertising Standards Authority for not clearly labelling when content is paid for and not editorially independent, and therefore misleading for consumers.

Of course in some areas of publishing there is more leeway. Pop culture and lifestyle magazines are relatively open about the fact some of their columns are semi endorsements, but their readers are also aware of and accepting of this. However, when it comes to news, rules must be tighter if trust is to be secured. Yet Watkins believes there are some newspapers currently benefiting from the lack of regulation.

Meanwhile, the publisher has also been the focus of much media attention of late for its role in spearheading the launch of premium publisher programmatic alliance Pangaea. Joining the Financial Times, CNN International, The Economist and Reuters in launching the network, it gives advertisers the chance to book campaigns via a single entry point – Rubicon Project’s exchange – and in doing so gaining access to a combined 110 million-strong global audience.

Now it is actively investigating the potential for extending its content marketing deals to run programmatically across the network, as opposed to the typical display advertising. Watkins stresses that this is early days still but that it is already talking with agencies about the opportunities this could introduce.

She believes branded content, executed properly, can provide formidable results for marketers, with some of its existing projects, such as its work for insurance brand Beagle Street, outstripping every other medium including TV campaigns that have run alongside them.

This project hinged around major research it conducted called ‘Mood of the Nation’ in which it tracked people’s life habits and moods and found a direct correlation between people’s happiness and life longevity. It created an app in which people could input their mood, which was sponsored by the brand. The app would then give back three suggestions of what that person could do that day to improve their happiness levels. It included a swathe of other independent editorial within the app such as videos from a psychotherapist.

Although it will not reveal the exact results, Watkins says the propensity to buy outstripped every single other medium. “All of those who took part in the app, we raised their happiness levels by 12 per cent. It is such a beautiful example of the interaction of technology, new platforms, data and video.

“Too often media agencies evaluate branded content as a little digital-display type thing whereas this was put through exactly the same tests and metrics as TV, and that’s what we should be doing because otherwise content marketing is always going to be siloed off, rather than part of the mix,” she adds.

This was first published in the 5 August issue of The Drum. To read all of the Girl Guides interviews, visit the dedicated portal.

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