On 9 March, Andrew Sullivan wrote a telling piece for the for The Sunday Times in which he excoriated online journalism for ‘selling its soul to the admen.’
He’s not alone. More than one Guardianista has had something to say about the topic too.
Understandably perhaps, journalists are pretty cross about ‘native advertising’: brands paying money to publishers to develop and disseminate content on their behalf. The journos see their independence, their integrity, and their values under great threat. ‘Outraged of Fleet Street’ may or may not be correct in this respect, but either way, for the folk who somehow have to find the money to pay him or her, it’s a very attractive proposition.
Someone who helped lead the (incredibly successful) native advertising drive for Hearst in the US told me a few years ago: ‘as publishers, we know our audiences very, very well. We know what type of content they want; and we know when and how they want it.’
As a statement, at least, it’s kind of difficult to argue with that. Guardian Labs – a self-styled ‘branded content and innovation agency which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences’ – is another example, recently signing up with Unilever to provide Guardian readers with branded pieces on ‘sustainability’.
For a client, prima facie, this all looks rather compelling. No longer do they have to rely on the hunches (sorry ‘insights’) of planners, nor the ‘Big Data’ that may or may not have been accurately analysed. The actual data are already there. Moreover, the creative flair and ‘magic’ is gladly supplied by fresh-out-of-quality-agency creative directors who are delighted to be in an exciting new home, whilst the media planning phase (and cost) simply isn’t necessary because the publisher has long since done all that.
On the surface, at least, it’s all pretty neat. But, nomenclature aside, it ain’t new: we all grew up with the ‘advertorial’.
What has changed, however, is the publishers’ desire to push native advertising; hard. No longer, for them, a mere addendum to the business of selling newspapers, this is instead a matter of survival; of business reinvention.
So it’s interesting just how little regard is typically paid to native advertising by agencies when examining their ‘competitive set’. This might be another product of the seemingly endless deckchair-rearranging that our sector is currently engaged in, but it’s time to take notice.
Publishing, as an industry, was at the front of the ship when it hit the iceberg, and it knows how cold the water is.
It isn’t going to get off the life-raft any time soon.