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Vox Explainers explained: inside the media company's unusual pitch to advertisers


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

October 18, 2017 | 5 min read

Vox Media has bolstered its branded content wing with the launch of The Explainer Studio, a division which works with brands to create what it dubs ‘Oh so that’s how it works?’ content on any subject, including those relating to their services.

Vox Explainers

Vox Explainers for NFL, Ben and Jerry's and Spotify

The Drum caught up with Graham Nelson, creative director of Vox’s Explainer Studio, on how he will run the New York-based team of creators, what it can offer to partner brands, and how he plans to build upon the early success of The Explainers.

With experience most recently creating content for the Huffington Post and AOL, Nelson - who trained as a visual journalist in Japan - said his curiosity for weird news angles fuelled by a stint at law school has inadvertently proven to be the perfect background for creating this kind of content for brands.

And embracing the odd is something he's cultivating in his team. Nelson said what will set The Explainers apart from other publishers' branded content efforts is that the voice of his team, the "creators", will shine through in each piece of work with a view to eventually becoming an asset it can sell against.

“[The Explainers] are so creator-centric, every creator eventually comes up with their own style of doing them. There will be a Graham-tone eventually, whatever that means, and I expect that our writer and producers will develop their own style as well," he said.

“You see that each Vox creator — Joss or Phil or Estelle — has created their own way of doing them. Different sub-genres are emerging. Moreover, as I move from subjects as varied as an algorithm tone to the second brain of the stegosaurus, each one is inherently different and I learn something new.”

The Explainer Studio is currently comprised of seven people, supported by the larger Vox Creative sister studio's producers, strategists, editors, and designers.

While the format has leant itself well to video so far, “there could be comic strips, or podcasts or something complex or weird with relaxed intellectualism and quirkiness,” suggested Nelson.

In short, the team has been given an open remit to explain things in an array of different ways.

On a measurement front, there is still a tendency from marketers to value "viral" shares but realistically, Nelson said performance will be judged more on engagement metrics.

At this early stage, the company didn’t divulge which metrics they are sharing with potential partners but did point out that average video engagement times were at an impressive four minutes.

As for partners, there are numerous entertainment brands, FMCG brands, and automobile brands on board including Spotify, Ben and Jerry’s and the NFL.

Spotify used it to explain its playlist-compiling algorithms while NFL took a nuanced look at the history of fantasy football and Ben and Jerry’s broke down the magic of ice cream.

The content runs across Vox Media’s network which includes Vox and sites like the Verge, Recode and Eater. But there is one variable that will make the format flourish, said Nelson — Research.

"This job is research; finding the right story and look for the format and for the brand. It’s there, but you have to look hard, and then write and design smartly.”

Agency buffs could look at this media company moving into the advertising space with an eye of trepidation; The Explainers format could eventually attract budgets that once would have been channeled into traditional ad agencies. However, Nelson denies that Vox Creative is in any direct competition with these groups.

“It’s hard for me to think of them as rivals and I hope they don’t think of me as a rival. When I talk to my best friend at BBDO, for instance, I’m always like, your life is … very different than mine,’” he explains.

“Our scope is narrow; our formats’ roots are in journalism and (to a lesser extent) animation.”

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