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The Guardian argues brands that take a back seat from pushing sales in branded content are ‘wasting their time’

Guardian website

The Guardian’s commercial strategy director Adam Foley believes too many brands creating branded content feel that they are “somehow absolved from the need to sell anything”, and those holding back from pushing a commercial message are “wasting their time”.

Foley appeared unconvinced that enough was being done to prove branded content's effectiveness, speaking on a panel at IAB’s content and native event, which included speakers from Yahoo, LinkedIn, Unruly and Wavemaker.

He told audiences he had “not seen a huge amount of examples of success in this marketplace”, instead pointing to a number of examples of how misuse of branded content can have a “catastrophic impact” on brand. Foley pointed to PepsiCo, which removed budget from TV and into branded content, only to lose five per cent of their market share in a year, as an example of this.

His message, naming Chipotle as example, is that the format “doesn’t insulate brands when other market factors come to play”.

Instead, he believes brands should stop thinking of branded content as being somehow different from advertising, since that absolves it from having a duty to sell anything.

“I hear the conversation all the time which is ‘you can’t put the brand in there too much’. What is it for then? If you are not doing that then it is a waste of time,” he mused, adding that while branded content might outperform advertising in certain metrics, it fails to connect to the wider business needs.

Measurement or the lack thereof was an oft voiced concern in discussions on branded content over the course of the day. Ben McKay, joint managing director of Wavemaker UK, opined that in measuring the effectiveness of a branded content marketing campaign “there is lots of intuition used at the moment rather than any hard statistics”.

Nigel Clarkson, managing director at Yahoo UK, said the issue is that the industry “obsesses around clicks as success measures”, instead pointing out that what should be measured is “empathy towards brand” and “brand exhilaration”. He said the briefs Yahoo receives from agencies “are very rarely about business outcomes, they are almost entirely about performance metrics”.

What Clarkson failed to outline is how these emotion-based metrics are measured. While Genna Osler, UK commercial director at Unruly believed that sharing a piece of branded content is “particularly good for advocacy”, Foley considered short term metrics like shares, like, views and clicks were “meaningless” and that “good reviews don’t pay bills”.

The only thing that is important, Foley said, is someone converting those metrics into benefits for business: “It is easy to make content that people like and share, but it is very hard to actually sell anything. That is the challenge.”

Clarkson pointed the finger at publishers to bridge this gap between what connects proxy KPIs with business outcomes. The issue, according to LinkedIn’s head of EMEA insights for marketing solutions, Jennifer Brett is that branded content is not that easy to define, therefore you can’t have easily agreed upon benchmarks.

Foley argued there is only one benchmark and one KPI: are you persuading someone to change their behaviour? That is what advertising is for, Foley said, everything else is a byproduct.

“You can talk about values all you want,” he said. He pointed out that when news broke of Apple illegally given tax benefits amounting to some €13bn by the Irish tax authorities, everyone was in uproar. A week later when the new iPhone came out, everyone had forgotten.

“See how far values get you” he said, “People discard them very easily.”

At the heart of Foley's argument was the notion that people don’t behave in the way they are supposed to, or advertisers hope for. It’s why the Guardian is reframing its approach to asking its advertisers what they want Guardian readers to do and guiding that, rather than thinking of advertising as having lots of different functions.