Working with Magazine Branded Content Studios

November 7, 2016

By Conor Risch

There’s an undeniable logic to the idea of magazines offering to develop branded content for their advertising clients: If an ad can match the sensibility and quality of a publication’s editorial stories, then the audience may be less inclined to tune out the ad or avoid it. By creating branded content—also commonly called native advertising—for their clients, magazines are able to translate an advertiser’s message into a package that has a better chance of engaging their readers.

“More and more advertisers are trying to find a way to connect with an audience,” says Chas Edwards, the co-founder, president and publisher of Pop-Up Magazine Productions, which publishes California Sunday Magazine. Rather than a sales pitch, advertisers want to produce “some kind of content experience that’s worth spending a few minutes with. If it’s really good, it might be a thing that you remember. If it’s really, really good, it might be something that you tell other people about, either in person or… on social media.”

PDN recently spoke with representatives of content studios at three magazine brands to find out more about their business, and about how they are working with photographers and videographers to produce content that speaks to their readers.

Matching Advertisers to Audiences

Native advertising, in all its forms, appeals to marketers who recognize that there are few—if any—one-size-fits-all solutions for reaching today’s consumers. Marketers have more data and a better understanding of audience segments than ever before, and they are tailoring their messaging to speak to many smaller groups of people rather than trying to reach everyone with one creative concept.

Strong magazine brands cultivate readers with certain interests and sensibilities, who’ve responded to the voice and values defined by the magazine’s editorial staff. The branded content studios at magazines offer advertisers their expertise in connecting to their audience, and they are typically the ones leading the charge in developing the creative concepts for sponsored content.

The branded content studio at New York Media, for instance, offers their clients a variety of audience segments because they not only publish New York Magazine, they also publish the beauty and fashion website The Cut; Grubstreet, the food site; and Vulture, the pop culture site. Despite addressing a variety of topics, New York Media maintains a similar voice throughout its properties, says Justin Montanino, the company’s Senior Director of Branded Content. “We speak to a rather affluent audience, but at the same time it’s accessible. There’s an intelligence, there’s a sophistication, but there’s also a humor. It’s lifestyle content that’s also very smart.”

Photography is important to the “story advertising” (their name for branded content) that California Sunday Magazine produces because it’s important to their readers. “The photo direction of the magazine has struck a chord with our readers and with the broader industry,” Edwards explains. “When we collaborate with a brand around story advertising, a component of that campaign is going to be in the print edition of the California Sunday Magazine, and photography is really central to that experience.”

Photo by Séan Alonso Harris for Atlantic Re:think

Séan Alonso Harris photographed a story in The Atlantic sponsored by Cathay Pacific. The feature, which also included video, documented the work of Possible, a non-profit that provided free healthcare after the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Photo by Séan Alonso Harris for Atlantic Re:think

Little Crossover from Editorial to Branded Content

Because a magazine’s branded content studio looks to create work that reflects the magazine’s sensibility, it stands to reason that a photographer whose work is right for editorial assignments with a particular publication will also fit the needs of the branded content studio. The branded content studio representatives we spoke with, however, say they don’t ask their photo editors for suggestions in an effort to maintain the proverbial “separation of church and state” that preserves editorial independence. Only occasionally will photographers who’ve worked for one side work for the other. “We keep it pretty separate,” says Emersson Barillas, the creative director of Atlantic Media’s Re:think content studio. They take a “similar approach [to the one] a magazine [might] take for a cover story,” Barillas says, which means they are fans of some of the same photographers and illustrators the editorial team might be. “We have had some overlap [in hiring],” he says, but “those conversations have always been through separate channels in terms of the commission.”

“I wouldn’t say that we wouldn’t use someone because editorial has used them,” Montanino says. “But we don’t look to them to recommend photographers to us. We’re really our own entity within New York Media. We have our roster of talent; they have their roster of talent.”

Both Barillas and Montanino say they regularly receive inquiries from photographers who want to work on branded content, while Edwards says he and his team generally only hear from photographers or directors who are interested in working on a particular series of ads California Sunday has produced over time. Animation directors and their reps got in touch, for instance, wanting to work on an animated film series Pop-Up Magazine Productions did with Google.

Montanino says New York Media’s content studio has a roster of people “that we can turn to for almost any type of project,” and says they often find new people through referrals. But, he adds, they are “always fielding cold calls and considering new people…. We always want to be growing the roster of talent that we work with so that no matter what gets thrown at us, we always have someone that we can turn to, to deliver something really high quality.”

Photos by Maren Caruso/courtesy of California Sunday Magazine

For the branded content studio at California Sunday Magazine, Maren Caruso photographed San Francisco’s Three Babes Bakeshop. The piece was sponsored, and a promotion for Got Milk? Photos by Maren Caruso/courtesy of California Sunday Magazine

Variety of Work, Variety of Photo Needs

Both New York Media and Atlantic Re:think tend to produce work primarily for their digital channels, while California Sunday’s clients are interested in print, digital and Pop-up Magazine, the popular live storytelling event the company produces. Each company creates a variety of work, customized to the needs and interests of the client.

“The other day we were pitching to a client about wealth-management, speaking about very high-net-worth individuals, and at the very same time we were working on a quiz about wiener dogs and…a piece about mascara,” says Montanino. “Everyday is a new adventure.” He estimates that his team does a photo shoot “every week to every other week.”

When Versace’s eyewear team approached New York Media to produce a simple carousel ad to run on The Cut, “We wanted to turn it into something more than that, so someone on our team had the great idea of using the product and creating these themed images to correspond to different events throughout the summer,” Montanino recalls. They hired New York-based photographer Tory Rust for her “great eye for fashion” and use of “very bright, bold colors,” Montanino says. “The client was thrilled, and even though it was a rather simple post, we’ve showed that to other clients whenever we’re pitching an example of product photography that’s come out of our studio.”

When Lexus asked Pop-Up Magazine Productions to come up with a story about the combination of fuel efficiency and travel range offered by their hybrid vehicles, the team created a series of sponsored travel columns. Pop-Up Magazine Productions hired photographer Erin Kunkel to document day trips from San Francisco and Los Angeles into the surrounding natural landscapes. The Lexus campaign, Edwards explains, “had a lot to do with the concept called ‘range anxiety,’” meaning drivers of electric or diesel cars worry how far they can travel without a recharge or diesel stop. Pop-Up Magazine Productions sold Lexus on “an inviting, beautiful story that takes our readers on a journey” that alluded to the range of the vehicles. Photos ran in print with an introduction to each journey. “Then when you went online to the digital edition of the California Sunday Magazine, it was an 18-photo essay that was the full journey,” Edwards says.

Atlantic Media has worked for a couple of years with Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific. For a series of “stories about people that travel a certain way and how they’re influenced by the place they travel to,” Barillas says, he hired Brooklyn-based photographer Josh Dickinson, whose work he’d first seen on Instagram. Dickinson shot three videos to illustrate a branded story on The Atlantic’s website, and then those videos were also published separately on The Atlantic’s social channels. Taking certain pieces of a branded story and publishing those on social channels is becoming more and more common, Barillas says. Atlantic Media has also published sponsored stories using Facebook’s Instant Articles feature, which encourages media companies to publish directly to the social network.

Branded Content Budgets

Budgets for branded content work vary from project to project, as do the budgets for photography and video, which can run the gamut from editorial levels to commercial levels. “It depends a lot on the specific campaign, because some of these story ad campaigns, based on what the client is looking to do, end up looking more commercial in nature,” says Edwards. “In that case it’s really a commercial job and we bring in a photographer that we think is right for that. If we’re doing a piece that is more similar to an editorial travel essay, photographers tend to charge us what they would do for that sort of work. It depends as much on the execution that we’re doing, and we really look to the photographers to guide us.”

Branded Content Here to Stay?

Cynics will disagree, but for some magazines, branded content seems, at its core, to be about mutual respect: Publishers respect that readers are wary of constant advertising, but they’re also asking their readers to respect the fact that they have to sell advertising to keep the lights on and produce quality stories. “One of the reasons that branded content in general has had such a profound impact on the industry, and one of the reasons it looks to stick around for the foreseeable future, is that people really do spend time with branded content if it’s done well,” Montanino says. Clickthrough rates are much higher for native ads than banner ads because “there’s a real story” when a reader clicks through to read sponsored content.

The publications we spoke with said they are hyper aware of the need to be transparent with their readers about which content is sponsored. “You and I see a lot of native advertising and sponsored content out in the world that is not transparent,” Edwards notes. “It’s sneaky and I don’t think that’s doing anybody any favors.”

When Pop-Up Magazine Productions first introduced story advertising, it was at a live Pop-Up Magazine event, Edwards recalls. “If we did something inauthentic, if we did something sleazy, if we did something that was trying to slip a commercial break in without telling people, we were staring at an audience of 3,000 people who could throw tomatoes at us. So we were very invested in getting it right.” When they projected “Advertisement” onto the screen in the theater in “three-foot letters, you could hear a little nervousness in the room,” he recalls. They worked hard to make sure the ad “was as much fun, as authentic and surprising, and as memorable as the editorial pieces,” and the audience appreciated it.

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