Today, plenty of brands and publishers have content studios. But a few years ago, when The New York Times launched T Brand Studio, its native ad shop, the content marketing space still had that new car smell. The Gray Lady took a big risk investing in an unproven model that blended editorial creativity with marketing.
Thus far, that risk has paid off. It’s possible to argue that native advertising became popular, in part, because The New York Times showed that branded content could be just as good as, if not better than, traditional journalism. Cue the inevitable link to Melanie Deziel’s paid post for Netflix and Orange Is the New Black about the female prison system.
To stay one step ahead of other publishers, The New York Times launched T Brand Studio International late last year to scale its native ad efforts beyond the U.S. The expansion brought on more risk. What if the rest of the world wasn’t ready or didn’t care for native content?
To get a pulse on the global venture, I chatted over email with Nelly Gocheva, the editor of T Brand Studio International. Gocheva spoke about getting brands to be brave, the power of storytelling, and how European audiences feel about native advertising.
How do European audiences compare to American audiences when it comes to advertising?
Compared with the U.S., European audiences and advertisers are still relatively new to the concept of native/branded content. The market is smaller, too, purely geographically, which is reflected in many of the companies’ budgets.
In the U.S. every major media company has already launched a content studio. I think the trend in Europe is still to take off, which would respectively affect the audiences. As everywhere, consumers here are tired and annoyed with direct ads popping up in their faces. What great branded content can do is to provide insight and entertainment. It can help advertisers provide value to their audience, improve engagement, and increase brand loyalty.
Do you approach your native content differently than the American studio? If so, how?
Besides the novelty factor mentioned above, it’s more about the logistics. The New York team usually works on U.S.-based projects, while we create content for brands all over the world and have to adapt to a variety of cultures and ad-market needs and expectations.
But the quality of our work, the creative process, and the approach in general are pretty much the same. We all aim to deliver cool content to our readers that reflects the storytelling caliber of our newsroom. There are a lot of high expectations out there in terms of the quality of our work. We all follow the New York Times guidelines about native content and being transparent with our advertising. We clearly mark and label everything that’s paid for and keep church and state unmistakably separate.
How big is your team? What does your creative process look like?
We launched the international arm of T Brand Studio in September 2015 with four people in London and two in Paris. Currently, we have 11 people, with five more to join us soon. And we’re about to set up a mini Asian studio as a part of our global team to help with clients and projects in the Asia Pacific region.
“Consumers here are tired and annoyed with direct ads popping up in their faces.”
The team is made up of editors, designers, producers, and creative strategists. The creative process always starts with good in-depth brainstorm sessions and, in the end, our crew of audience development wizards makes sure the content reaches the right readership. Simply put, our three-step mantra is: find a compelling story, tell this story with expertise, and deliver the story to the target audience.
What were some of the challenges you encountered when bringing T Brand Studio to the rest of the world?
The challenge in catering to still relatively native-ad-shy international markets was to get international brands to be braver and invest in native content. As I mentioned, the European market is comparatively new to this area, and a lot of advertisers needed to get a better idea of their ROI and why branded content and native advertising are worth the spend, especially when compared with traditional display campaigns. Industry-wide, there are still a lot of potential clients out there that are yet to be convinced that branded content is the best use of their budgets. But we’re here to create branded storytelling that’s worth paying for, with benefits like stronger consumer engagement, and better credibility with consumers. Those are key factors in embracing the format.
How do you think T Brand Studio as a whole has evolved strategically since it launched in 2014?
I’d say the process is much more streamlined now. There are more clients and bigger clients. We currently have a staff of around 100 and have done over 200 campaigns globally. This has given us the reassurance not only that obviously we’re doing something right, but also we’ve gained firsthand direction and insights as to what works best and what not so well in terms of markets, industries, and audience engagement. Based on that knowledge, we keep on developing new products and exploring what branded content can do next.
Do you think native content is in danger of reaching a saturation point?
Definitely not anytime soon. There are markets that are more mature when it comes to native advertising and branded content. I recently read that native ad spend in Western Europe is expected to grow by 156 percent to €13 billion by 2020. So the budgets will be higher, there will be more opportunities, and there will certainly be more competition.
“The role of good content studios is not only to ensure high audience engagement and impact, but also to reach the right consumers.”
Great content is expensive and time-consuming, and the role of good content studios is not only to ensure high audience engagement and impact, but also to reach the right consumers. At T Brand, we’re already looking into VR, immersive events, augmented-reality experiences, and so on.
Can you describe an international T Brand Studio project that stands out to you as particularly memorable and/or effective?
Earlier this year, we worked on a big multimedia project for UBS, centered on the emotional side of artificial intelligence. We ended up interviewing top minds in the field who are making progress replicating human traits in AI, and traveled to Osaka to film a leading humanoid researcher. We also managed to incorporate a chatbot named Rose within the page. Topic-wise for me as an editor, this was a fascinating project, and we won a few industry awards for it. So it was the perfect combination of a happy client, overperforming digital content, and an extremely cool project to work on.
What other major publishers do you think do a good job creating native ads? And why do you think so?
I think Quartz and The Atlantic have done a few great projects. I particularly liked what The Atlantic did for Netflix’s “House of Cards” Season 3. The project was called The Ascent, and it was all about the U.S.’s first couples—a very informative, engaging, immersive execution.
On local UK turf, The Telegraph has been doing interesting stuff. I was on the judging panel of the annual UK News Awards this year and loved the campaign The Telegraph submitted for Nikon. It was a combination of digital and print, simply beautiful.
What’s a common misconception that brands have when pursuing native ad sponsorships?
It really depends on the clients. We have brands who come to us and trust our expertise and creative capabilities completely, and there are others who have a very clear and determined vision of what they want.
It’s the amount of direct branding that often challenges us. Companies need to be reminded that successful branded content relies on rich narratives and relatable stories, not direct, in-your-face product placement, which is what display ads are for.
It’s all about great storytelling. Get the story right and the rest will naturally follow. At the end of the day, it’s a collaborative process, and brands come to us because of our expertise. We guide and advise them based on our experience, skills, and benchmarks.
This interview was lightly edited and condensed.