How to Overcome the ‘Three-Month Slump’ of Branded Content
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty,” Teddy Roosevelt famously said, when a young journalist transitioning to a role at a branded content studio asked for advice.
Jokes aside, I’ve been lucky enough to experience the upside of the native ad industry’s explosive growth. Shortly after graduating from journalism school, I started as a strategist at HuffPost Partner Studio. A year later, I became the first editor of branded content at The New York Times, where I created some of the industry’s leading work with the talented T Brand Studio team. Then I went on to lead pre-sale ideation for Time Inc.’s more than 35 U.S. magazines as the director of creative strategy. Now, less than five years after graduating, I run my own consulting practice and get to travel the world educating content teams.
I’ve traveled a great distance in a short time and think I’m in an incredible position, but as anyone who has made the switch from editorial reporting to branded content creation can tell you, it’s not always the smoothest ride.
You come to the business world somewhat reluctantly, lured by a salary that rarely exists in the editorial world. Your skills translate to the position, which requires solid writing chops, the ability to generate story ideas, a basic grasp of social media, and a willingness to work on a team. You just need to brush up on the marketing and advertising specifics to keep pace, and they tell you that learning can happen on the job.
Your former editorial colleagues don’t understand your new role, at first. (My Native American heritage added a bonus layer of confusion to my already vague role as a “native ad product manager.”) You respond to retorts about “selling out” by repeatedly explaining you’re going to tell good stories. You haven’t gone to the dark side, just the greener side. You’re going to do good work and get paid for it… right?
The first few weeks are a blur of buzzwords and acronyms—brand lift, line items, CTR, ROI, KPI. You write them in the margins of your notebook to look up later when none of your new tie-clad colleagues are around. You buy a new blazer to blend in and start reading the trade press to try to keep pace with water-cooler conversations.
The first time someone asks about the job, you tell them it’s going well. Your sales colleagues are impressed by the speed at which you come up with story ideas. The marketing team loves the cleanliness of your copy when you turn in concept briefs. Clients seem to be impressed by the publications at which you’ve worked. Your team is nice. The cafeteria is pretty good. (Seriously, guys, the New York Times cafeteria is great.)
But it doesn’t take long before you realize that your journalistic instincts—the same ones that made you a smart fit for the role—also make you stick out. You have to be the one who points that a source is unreliable or explain that there isn’t enough public data to support that infographic. “The format feels forced.” “Why is this interesting to our readers?” “What’s timely about this?” But you’re not in the newsroom anymore, and these questions aren’t always answered.
The confidence in your decision begins to unravel. Maybe you hear someone fudge the truth about a deadline to a client as you sit by silently. Or your boss tells you to stop pushing that big idea of yours and just write what the client wants. This is advertising, they tell you, and the client is king.
You start to wonder if you’ve made a mistake. Can you work with people who care more about the bottom line than the quality of the story? Can you shift your priorities to care more about the deal size? Do you even want to? You shudder, wondering if perhaps you’ve sold out. Maybe you’re not cut out for this.
This is where the road splits. I call it the three-month slump, and it’s a critical moment in the journey for most new converts to branded content. Sometimes you contemplate just walking out—motivated by equal parts frustration and self-doubt—after being pushed too far from your journalistic ethics.
But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you have a breakthrough.
You get that client—the one that trusts your storytelling instincts and lets you create something with integrity that even your former colleagues have to admit is pretty impressive. For me, it was the chance to work with Netflix on the “Women Inmates” article that ultimately won T Brand Studio the Online Marketing Media & Advertising (OMMA) Award for best native advertising execution in 2014.
But it doesn’t have to be an award-winning piece of content that changes your mindset. Sometimes the push comes from something smaller. A fellow journalist joins your team, and you commiserate over coffee, vowing to back each other up. Maybe you hear a episode of a podcast like This Old Marketing or Content Convergence with some magical insight that lights your fire again.
Perhaps one day, when you hear yourself make a statement laced with acronyms and buzzwords, instead of wondering who you’ve become, you feel a pang of pride in having learned to fluently speak sales. You’ve figured out how to make this role work without feeling like you’ve sold your soul.
I’ve seen several journalists fall victim to the first fate, ultimately deciding that this version of storytelling tempered with brand objectives and bottom lines just isn’t for them.
But I’ve heard from newer converts that the transition has become easier in recent years. Editorial colleagues are more likely to understand your new role and less likely to demonize you for taking it. Advertisers are slowly shifting toward more journalistic stories that avoid overt promotion.
Thanks to a combination of great colleagues and a few sophisticated clients at a critical time, I muscled through the cognitive dissonance between what my journalism education prepared me for and the reality of working in branded content.
Like so many of my former colleagues, I ultimately came to call this corner of the industry home. You’re welcome any time; it’s not a long journey to get here, just a bit of a bumpy ride.Image by Getty