Last September, The New York Times hired Sebastian Tomich and gave him a critical task: Help introduce the most controversial advertising product in the 165-year existence of the Gray Lady.
Just six years out of college, Tomich was making the career leap those in the media business dream about. As the newly minted vice president of advertising at the Times, he’d be reunited with his former boss at Forbes Media, Meredith Levien, who had been named executive vice president of advertising just two months prior. Hiring the duo wasn’t without risk. Though Forbes‘ native advertising platform had been financially successful, it had also come under some media scrutiny—from the Times and elsewhere.
Though the Times wouldn’t announce they were introducing native advertising until December, preparation was already underway. There wasn’t much time to spare. The new offering needed to be released in concert with the redesign of NYTimes.com at the beginning of 2014.
Tomich and Levien had been through this before at Forbes. They were both at the company in 2010 when it became an early adopter of native advertising, launching new sections of the site where brands like SAP could publish their own content for the Forbes audience. The product, BrandVoice, was introduced by Chief Product Officer Lewis Dvorkin after Forbes had acquired his blogging platform, True/Slant, in 2010, along with its brand-publishing product, Ad/Slant.
(Full disclosure: Forbes is a Contently client, and we power much of the Forbes BrandVoice product.)
Sales had started slowly, but when Forbes started creating content on behalf of brands, it became easier for Tomich and the rest of Levien’s team to sell marketers on the idea of publishing thought-leadership posts. By the time Tomich left Forbes in September 2013, BrandVoice was generating 20 percent of the publication’s revenue. And the overall market for native advertising was growing as well. That month, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) reported that 66 percent of American agencies and 64 percent of marketers said they planned to spend on native during the next six months.
But despite the success at Forbes, Tomich and Levien didn’t think that model would work for the Times.
“We wanted to do something different,” Tomich said. “We looked at it like, okay, we can get into this, and there are a couple of ways to differentiate, but we cannot just go on and build BrandVoice on the Times.”
And there was added pressure of working without a net, since, for many media types, the Times represents the paragon of capital-J Journalism. Whatever the company did with native advertising would be expected to set a new standard—and would face extreme scrutiny.
“Our feeling is that the world is not necessarily asking for more content. There’s enough content out there,” Tomich explained. “If you want to make this work, you have got to compete with editorial.”
Photo by Jenny McCabe
The Times didn’t want to simply enable brands to publish large amounts of content at will, à la BrandVoice. “[We said] it’s going to be well-edited profiles,” said Tomich, “similar to ‘Snow Fall’ and ‘Shark and Minnow’ and many of the articles that we are famous for.”
On January 8, the Times introduced their redesigned website with their first paid posts, which were sponsored by Dell. Four posts were published that day, and they were met with a neutral response. The content was acceptable but unremarkable. “Will Millennials Ever Completely Shun the Office?” was the type of boilerplate story about the millennial workforce that nearly every brand was writing. So was “Reaching Across the Office from Marketing to IT,” a story about how CMOs and CIOs need to work together in an evolving marketing environment. The New York Times tapped content agency Group SJR to create the stories, but the Times soon moved to bring the creative work closer to home.
Levien and Tomich knew that if they wanted to follow through on their promise of “Snow Fall”-esque native ads, they’d have to build a team of elite storytellers. In April, after an exhaustive search, Levien hired Adam Aston, a former editor of Businessweek, as editorial director of the newly formed T Brand Studio. Aston’s arrival reportedly helped ease the newsroom’s reservations over running sponsored content. Soon after, Levien hired Melanie Deziel, a young writer just one year removed from Syracuse’s Arts Journalism master’s program, who had spent the previous five months as a social media strategist for the Huffington Post’s native advertising arm.
“Melanie is sort of the edgy, cool kid,” Tomich said. “Adam’s leather patches and pipes. They counteract each other very well.”
Deziel began working on a longform narrative about the lack of necessary infrastructure in the female penal system, which was a paid post for Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. The piece required extensive research and reporting, and it was gorgeously constructed. Moving images, infographics, video, and audio clips synchronized with the text to tell a rich story. Best of all, the only mention of Orange Is the New Black is a passing reference to Piper Kerman’s memoir, which inspired the show.
For Tomich, the story was a turning point.
“Netflix was the first one where I felt like we had complete buy-in to let the story unfold,” he said. “I could show you the original pitch—it is absolutely nothing like the final product. It required a lot of trust.”
Simultaneously, T Brand Studio grew its staff to 16 and realized they had found a sweet spot creating engaging data visualization projects on behalf of brands. In February, the studio scored another big success by creating “An Interactive Guide to Capital Markets” for Goldman Sachs, which provided a visually engaging lesson on what capital markets are and how they work.
According to Ann Rubin, global head of brand and content strategy at Goldman Sachs, T Brand Studio’s capacity for using data to tell a story was a critical selling point. “One thing when we talked to The New York Times that we were impressed with was your data-business [reporting] capabilities,” Rubin told Tomich on stage at OPA Content All-Stars in September.
As was the case with Netflix, T Brand Studio didn’t have a specific idea in place when the project with Goldman Sachs began. “We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Rubin said. “Our relationship is based on a brainstorming situation.”
A week after the Goldman Sachs guide was published, T Brand Studio scored a second data-driven hit with another interactive graphic, produced in partnership with United Airlines, that showed how far athletes traveled to compete at the Sochi Olympics. Impressively, it was viewed nearly 200,000 times.
Despite those successes, speculation was growing in the media industry that native advertising wasn’t working. Chartbeat revealed that the vast majority of readers don’t scroll and engage with native ads, and our own Contently study suggested that most readers have felt deceived by native ads.
However, in May, Levien was touting the success of T Brand Studio’s premium sponsored content, announcing that readers were, on average, spending as much time engaging with paid posts as with editorial content. ”Brands are storytellers, and they’re going to tell stories that are tied to what’s happening in the news,” she said.
For that opportunity, T Brand Studio charges a premium—between $25,000 and $200,000 for the paid posts, according to Capital New York. That figure doesn’t include paid social amplification of paid posts, which Tomich said the studio buys on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
But in August, T Brand Studio began to face some criticism. John Oliver devoted a hilarious 11-minute segment on his HBO show Last Week Tonight to lambasting the practice of native advertising, and Levien and T Brand Studio were key targets.
Oliver briefly praised the Studio’s piece for Netflix, saying it was “as good as [native advertising] gets.” Then he delivered the punchline: “It’s like hearing the one Katy Perry song that you like. You think, ‘Sure, this is the best possible iteration of Katy Perry, but it still feels wrong to be listening to.’”
Oliver then cut to a video of Levien at the Marketing 2020 Conference debunking the idea that native advertising corrupts the editorial side of the business.
“Let me vigorously refute the notion that native advertising has to erode consumer trust or compromise the wall that exists between editorial and advertising. Good native advertising is not meant to be trickery,” Levien said. “It’s meant to be a publisher sharing its storytelling tools with a marketer.”
“Exactly!” Oliver responded. “It’s not trickery. It’s sharing storytelling tools. And that’s not bullshit—it’s re-purposed bovine waste.”
The video quickly went viral, and as Capital New York reported in an excellent profile of Levien, it quickly led to an onslaught of online attacks. The Times‘chairman, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., encouraged her to “have a good laugh at it,” and she did.
“I think John Oliver is hilarious, and I think he did the most clever take one could have on the risks and downsides of native,” Levien told Capital New York. “It was my first experience with random people tweeting negative things at me.”
The experience didn’t shake her belief in the power of native advertising. “The best way to preserve editorially independent, high-quality journalism is to preserve the business model,” she said. “And I think the idea of branded content that shares a form factor with editorial is a great first step.”
T Brand Studio has been criticized more recently for the visual design of the paid posts. The borders that marked the posts as sponsored have shrunk, as has the sponsoring company’s logo. Some have gone as far as to accuse the Times of violating FTC standards.
Tomich, however, argued that the new design was more transparent, since it added a “sticky” border that remained constantly in view as you scrolled through any sponsored post. “One, it looks better, and two, now, if you were to scroll halfway through on the old model, you would have no idea it was a paid article,” he said. “Believe it or not, our brand content studio actually has editorial guidelines. There are lines that we will not cross.”
Those lines don’t just impact design, but also which projects the Times decides to take on. They’ll turn down projects with brands if the fit isn’t right. And Tomich believes this pushback is one of the major factors that helps potential clients differentiate the Times from other native providers. “There is a healthy tension,” he explained. “I think brands are working with us because they want our POV, and sometimes we pass on some work.”
Addressing the criticism of native advertising as a practice, Tomich believes it is a beneficial part of the publishing ecosystem. “We can all pretend like brands are journalists, but they are not,” he said. “Their role is different. I think that they have a role to play in providing information if they have expertise in a certain topic, but at the end of the day, there is always going to be a limit to how much they’re willing to cover.”
Despite that inherent limit, Tomich believes brands will get “even more sophisticated” with how they approach content, particularly on their owned channels. He pointed to the “Interactive Guide to Capital Markets,” which Goldman Sachs decided to house on their own site in addition to on the Times.
“The dream that all these brands want to achieve is rather than getting their content to an audience, have an audience seek it,” he said. “The only way to do that is if you have some sort of domain or destination with every campaign that they execute has built more and more equity.”
In early October, T Brand Studio released what might have been their best piece of work yet: “Grit and Grace,” a captivating story of the struggles and successes of three ballerinas told through a beautiful essay and stunning short videos.
In a memo to Times staff at the beginning of October, Chairman Sulzberger and CEO Mark Thompson reported the company’s digital advertising revenue had grown 16 percent in Q3, the biggest jump since 2010, directly attributing paid posts as a key factor. Indeed, the future of native advertising at The New York Times appears strong—as long as they keep differentiating themselves with quality.
“We’ve proven that we can do this,” Tomich said. “It’s new. It’s exciting. It’s cool. We have this gut feeling. We’ve got to prove it.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dell created their inaugural paid post with Group SJR; Group SJR was actually contracted by The Times.