Dell’s New Native Ad on the Times Shows Just How Far Sponsored Content Has Come

On New Year’s Eve of 2013, Sebastian Tomich, VP of advertising for The New York Times, and Stephanie Losee, managing editor at Dell, sat in the Times‘ offices, planning a paid post on the millennial workplace. The road was about to be closed for the festivities in Times Square, and, eventually, security would kick them out. But not before they had the bones of what would become the first native ad published by the Gray Lady.

Right from the start, the Times‘ advertising team knew it wanted to move native away from traditional advertorials and emulate the level of quality that the publication’s newsroom delivered to its readers. “We didn’t know what the response would be, and we needed the right partners,” Tomich says. Meredith Levien, EVP of advertising for the Times, has said that Dell, with its strong background in content marketing, was “a very deliberate choice.”

Dell’s paid post went live in January to neutral reviews. We called it “solid, if unspectacular … the type of boilerplate story about the changing millennial workforce that nearly every brand seems to write.” But now, the brand is back for a second go-round with a visually impressive exploration of enterprise cloud computing. Both Dell’s first posts and the new offering were written by journalists hired by The New York Times, but this one is enhanced with proprietary research on corporate security and interactive global market data.

Much has changed since Dell’s inaugural post was launched. Native advertising back then was, as Losee puts it, “a hundred years ago.” Since then, the Times launched T Brand Studio, the branded content development arm of its advertising department. You might have seen some of its recent work for Netflix and Cole Haan.

Dell says the studio created an “entirely new visual approach” to presenting Dell’s data, using rotating circles to animate data points culled from company-commissioned research. In “Global Technology Adoption Index: A Reality Check From the Midmarket,” Dell published information that wasn’t previously available, creating true value for readers.

“Now that brands are watching T Brand [Studio] conceive of these new ways to represent information [in a way] that’s interesting to our audiences, companies will start creating campaigns around these interactive data visualizations, graphics, and tools,” Losee says. She’s hoping to use video next.

Dell The New York Times Sponsored Content Native Advertising Content Marketing Brand Publishing Stephanie Losee Sebastian Tomich Meredith Levien Netflix Cole Haan Data Visualization Tech Content Marketing B2B Content Marketing

It’s been a good year for T Brand Studio. The team has grown to twenty-one people, among them journalists and creative directors that Tomich says “could go and work on any editorial team.” In the third quarter, the Times saw a 16.5 percent increase in digital revenue, and Levien has pointed to its paid post business as the “biggest driver.” Before 2014 is out, the studio will have devised some forty campaigns, a number that Tomich says will “grow substantially” next year. Also in the pipeline are big-name hires and a push to help brands publish on their own channels. He even hints that paid posts will expand to mobile.

The New York Times is by no means the first publication to create custom branded content. Forbes, where both Tomich and Levien worked before joining the Times, has BrandVoice. The Huffington Post has HuffPost Partner Studio. There’s Wired‘s AmplifiStudio@Gawker, and Guardian Labs. (Full disclosure: Studio@Gawker is a Contently client.)

Like its cohorts, the Times has fallen under public scrutiny for embracing native ads. But both the Times and Dell say the paid posts have been well-received by audiences. “The program took off, and reader response was great,” says Tomich.

“There were no nefarious goals. We didn’t want to slip anything by anyone,” Losee adds. “The conversation early on was about trust, but as we [prove ourselves], we might be able to move past that issue to quality, effectiveness, and doing the right thing with an audience’s precious time.”

For T Brand Studio, this year has been about showcasing the studio’s capabilities—and delivering a few surprises that have helped reframe the narrative around branded content. Advertorials? With cogent storytelling and interactivity, paid posts are miles beyond standard advertorial fare.

“Our goal is to start to have audiences seek out our content instead of delivering it to them as a media message,” Tomich says. He also expects to see publications continue to differentiate themselves. Just as every editorial team brings a different point of view, so too do content studios.

“[T Brand Studio] shows that rather than this icky compromise native advertising can be a means for brands to do something special,” explains Losee.

When it comes to native ads on the Times, “special” is fast becoming the status quo.

Image by Sebastiaan ter Burg

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