‘VR Is the Next Frontier’: The NYT’s Branded Content Boss Dishes on the Future of Marketing

Any conversation about the branded content space must include T Brand Studio, the custom creative agency at The New York Times. Since its launch a year and a half ago, the studio has swelled to 35 people, 14 of whom were just hired in the last two months to meet surging advertiser demand.

Heading the team and leading its ongoing expansion is Sebastian Tomich, who was recently named SVP of advertising and innovation. Tomich has embraced the role of branded content champion in the most effective way: by creating features for digital advertisers that mirror the quality of the content produced by the The New York Times newsroom. Through such groundbreaking Paid Posts as “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work“—created for Netflix and praised by journalists—along with work for Cole Haan, Goldman Sachs, and Google, Tomich is redefining branded content as value-driven stories that can be as intellectual and entertaining as editorial. He expects to double T Brand Studio’s business year-over-year.

Here, Tomich shares his strategies for success, talks storytelling through virtual reality, and reminds us that native ads and branded content are two very different animals.

Where do Paid Posts—the company’s branded content offering—fit into The New York Times‘ overall advertising strategy?

It’s one of many products, but it’s something we’ve done well and used to differentiate ourselves in the market. The New York Times produces some of the best journalism in the world, and as a creative studio, what we offer goes along with that. But there are many other things in the works that aren’t Paid Posts that will be big successes, like data and how we package editorial. In the future, I think more brands will look to us to shape their content strategies.

In some ways, Paid Posts have helped to reinvent the branded content industry. Are you concerned about the competition now that custom content studios are cropping up at publishers like the Guardian and The Wall Street Journal? What sets T Brand Studio apart?

In general, in publishing it’s very hard to differentiate yourself. You have to do it through talent and your creative work. We’ve proven, I think, that our work is the best on the market. We’ve made it clear that this isn’t just a spin on an existing marketing team. Every publisher will have a studio within the next year—they have to—but if you look around the industry, many are made up of teams that already existed, remarketing existing capabilities. Our branded content team was built from the ground up.

When pitching Paid Posts to advertisers, how do you navigate the issue of performance and return on investment?

Paid Posts are a branding play, so the metrics we focus on are derivatives of those we’d use for a branding campaign: time spent, brand lift. Our reporting has shown that these pieces can have tremendous value for raising brand awareness. Digital brand advertising as a whole is hard to tie to things like sales and revenue, and it’s still a looming question in content marketing. It may be hard to connect the dots at first, but presenting your brand in a positive way does generate results, and there’s an opportunity to remarket to readers later with something more product- and sales-focused as well.

In March, T Brand Studio invited professional filmmakers to audition for the chance to create branded content for The New York Times and “push the boundaries” of storytelling. What kind of response have you gotten from “The Selects” program?

We always want to bring in the best talent just like any newsroom or magazine. We received more than 1,000 submissions, and our video lead vetted all of them and chose five winners. We’re working with multiple clients to find the right fit, offering them the best talent out there, and we’re actively assigning the filmmakers work. You should see something in the next few months.

As a publisher, the Times is looking to virtual reality to enhance its digital presence this year. Will this new focus extend to sponsored features?

We’re definitely planning for it. Any format the newsroom is pursuing, you can assume that we’ll pursue it on the brand side as well. We share storytelling tools, and VR from a storytelling perspective is the next frontier. There’s still the question of adoption—how fast can we get the hardware in the hands of readers? But we hope to get something live this year.

Other publishers like Complex and The Daily Beast are starting to expand their branded content services by creating content for brands that lives outside of native advertising, on their own sites. How does T Brand Studio approach paid versus owned content?

T Brand Studio is a content marketing agency. Whatever we create for brands, it’s platform agnostic and can be used on their own channels. We shouldn’t refer to what we do as native advertising. That’s about a distribution outlet. What we’re doing is producing branded content, and should it fit, we’ll promote that content through native advertising.

In response to the Times‘ claim that its sponsored content can earn as much engagement as its editorial, Trevor Fellows of The Wall Street Journal‘s custom studio told Digiday, “I don’t think native is served by putting out hyperbolic claims about its effectiveness.” Are these claims exaggerated?

It’s not about who created it—newsroom or content studio—but about the quality of the piece. Native advertising and branded content are two entirely separate things; the jargon really doesn’t fit. As we said at the NewFronts, the best story wins.

What is T Brand Studio’s biggest success to date?

There are many. The biggest challenge is to meet the rapidly growing demand and still maintain quality, and to keep a very talented staff happy when they’re working all hours of the day. In 2015 so far, one of the pieces we’re most proud of was made for The Imitation Game. We produced a biography of Alan Turing that includes a live version of the Enigma machine. The engagement we saw was phenomenal—and we got it all done in two weeks. We’re proving to clients under tight timeframes that we can meet their needs and still produce quality work. Look out for more amazing content in the months to come.

Image by The New York Times

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