How publishers are re-positioning branded content to compete with platform consultancies

It’s been a year of reappraisals for publishers. With changes to everything from the third-party cookie to a rise in new competition for audiences’ time, publishers have taken a moment to prioritize their strengths and jettison anything that isn’t a core part of their revenue. For many – from newspapers to magazines – that has come in the form of refocusing on their storytelling ability and direct relationship with audiences.

Branded and sponsored content has been a core component of publishers’ strategy for years. In-house consultancies are delivering revenue back to the wider business by utilizing the talents of the content creation and sales teams in tandem.

Over the course of the pandemic, however, a number of platforms have launched their own in-house agencies and consultancy services. These new players use many of the same selling points as the in-house consultancies – they know their audience better than anyone, and are adept at creating content that lands most effectively. So in the face of this new breed of competition, are publishers’ in-house consultancies cutting back to the platforms they themselves control, or will good storytelling win out?

The new breed

Earlier in the month Reddit launched Karmalabs, its own in-house consultancy designed to allow brands to reach audiences on the ‘front page of the internet’. It had been a long time coming, following a concerted effort to make brands’ content more native to the platform and Reddit itself more brand-safe.

Will Cady, global director of Karmalab, says: “Recent months have demonstrated more than ever the impact and influence of Reddit’s passionate communities in the cultural zeitgeist. There is amazing potential and opportunities for brands to be part of the internet’s most relevant and authentic conversations, but with more than 100,000 communities on Reddit, some wonder where to start – this is where Karmalab comes in.”

To date, Reddit has worked with brands like Samsung and Snickers to embed their advertising content within its thousands of communities, suggesting that huge established brands are gearing up to take the platform seriously.

Reddit is far from the only platform to have done so: TikTok’s suite of partner programs are designed to let brands launch directly and authentically on the social network, and similar efforts from the bigger social networks effectively cut the publishers out of those conversations.

Livestreaming platform Twitch, too, is bumping the amount of branded content it creates on behalf of brands. Its creative strategy lead Jack Woodcock says: “Typically, most of the ads that we will deliver for brand partners will be quite simple. It will be taking a product or brand and then creating a narrative that we can build around that product or brand into a piece of live content working with a streamer.”

Those platforms, then, are trading off the unique opportunities that come from understanding what can be done with their own tech. Combined with the vast reach they offer brands, that’s a huge draw for advertisers. So what are publishers’ unique strengths?

The old advantages

As noted earlier in the year, publishers’ branded content ambitions haven’t paid off in 2020. The Telegraph’s own in-house effort was significantly downsized, for example, and The Washington Post took a haircut in its forecasts for branded content revenue. Despite that, there have been some green shoots, with Hearst UK investing in creating an in-house studio and influencer partnership programs.

David Dumville is head of solutions for News UK. Speaking of its own in-house consultancy The Bridge Studio, he argues there are new opportunities arising: “There is no question that over the last 12 months as a content business The Bridge Studio has had to adapt. Much like everyone else in the world, we’ve had to find new ways of doing things and new ways to succeed.

“Consumer trends have obviously been driven by Covid-19. This has meant little to no travel briefs, for example, alongside a huge increase in finance and SME partnerships as both established and new brands look to communicate confidence and salient advice to their customers in these uncertain times.”

Hamish Nicklin is chief executive officer of Dentsu International UK, having been poached from his position as chief revenue officer at The Guardian. He says that the strength of The Guardian’s own in-house offering – Labs – is partly to do with the brand itself: “The point of differentiation is that it’s our brand. It’s ‘what does it mean to create something that is good enough to sit on The Guardian?’. Well, it’s everything The Guardian stands for. If you set yourself up as a one-man band, or one-woman band, you can create your own content, great. But you can’t guarantee that it’s going to have the word Guardian in front of it.”

Vice, too, is capitalizing on its brand recognition. Following its acquisition of Refinery29 – in part due to that site’s branded content expertise – it has launched its own consultancy Virtue to trade off the company’s punchy and personal content creation.

Dumville notes that, while the core proposition of The Bridge Studio focuses on News UK’s own products, legitimacy allows the consultancy to exist on other platforms with a halo effect: “Influencers and access to talent in general is a huge growth area for us and is again driven largely by the demands of our clients. News UK launched The Fifth as a standalone influencer agency to directly monetize this burgeoning revenue stream, and we work with them closely for content solutions on an ever-growing number of briefs.

“These come from both the more traditional strands such as print and digital-branded content, as well as within the more contemporaneous social space in which everyone wants to play, ensuring that partnership campaigns can live beyond their primary paid media channels.”

For publishers, branded content has been an unfortunate casualty of reduced budgets during the pandemic, and a recognition that platforms can appropriate some of their strengths. But with marketing budgets back on the up, and with a year of reappraisals behind them, it’s likely that publishers will begin reinvesting in their in-house consultancies.