Media Column: How The New York Times has turned 'paid for' content into a lucrative art

If this takes hold it won’t just be the new black – it could help save the news business

The suffocating environment of a women’s prison, where natural light is scarce and laughter scarcer still, is not the sort of set we associate with the advertising sector. We are accustomed to visions of luxury cars on wide open roads, of dreamlike luxury holiday destinations and make-believe immaculate homes with smiling children and gleaming fast-moving consumer goods. T Brand Studio, owned by The New York Times, is not in the business of fantasy, and is happy to tell a story amid the grim reality of the Los Angeles County Jail, where women speak their truths of pain and humiliation in a combination of video, text, audio, graphics and illustration.

The client for this piece of multimedia content marketing was the film and television streaming giant Netflix and the subject of its campaign was the second season of the women’s prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black.

When Netflix planned its advertising promotion around the series it turned not to a traditional ad agency but to The New York Times. Such thinking could be an answer to the growing frustration of digital users with the intrusive nature of online advertising, reflected by the extraordinary rise of ad blockers (now deployed by 47 per cent of 18-24-year-olds and 22 per cent of UK adults, according to research last week by YouGov for the Interactive Advertising Bureau). For news providers this transformation of the old “advertorial” concept offers hope of a new revenue stream to support serious journalism.

A report by Enders Analysis last week showed that native advertising (which sits within the content of a website rather than the display ads that run alongside it) will grow by 156 per cent by 2020. Content marketing is expected to be a key driver in this process.

When she was given the Netflix brief, Kaylee King-Balentine, the director of T Brand Studio International, says she immediately thought “if the newsroom were to do a piece about women in prison, how would they do it?” The answer seemed obvious: “The newsroom would go to prison.”

King-Balentine, based at the paper’s London bureau in Bloomsbury, is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker. The three short films she co-directed exposed the myth that all female inmates are hardened serial offenders. Patty, serving eight years for drugs offences, said she was inducted to prison wearing a Hermès scarf and high heels. “That is not really conducive to shackles,” she reflected.

So compelling was the package of video clips, stylish illustrations and an accompanying 1,500-word essay by Melanie Deziel that author Piper Kerman – whose jail memoir inspired the Netflix hit show – agreed to appear on camera.

Kerman even tweeted out the finished content, which appeared as unobtrusive “native advertising” on The New York Times website, though bookended by a “paid post” notice and the disclaimer that “The news and editorial staffs of The New York Times had no role in this post’s preparation”.

In the two years it has been going, T Brand Studio’s output has consistently dealt with gritty themes. Its work for security company Tanium highlighted the risks of cyber-attacks. “The States of Forced Labour”, a piece made for the charity Aware, tackled the “modern day slavery” of migrant workers in the Middle East, with a graphic showing that Bangladesh has an average monthly wage of $33 (£23).

But this is not editorial. “We keep that church and state line very strong and clear,” says King-Balentine. “We are not trying to hide at all that we are making branded content and have a team dedicated to it. The second you start blurring the line you get in a hell of a lot of trouble and lose a hell of a lot of credibility.”

The UK market for digital branded content, she says, has just reached “where we were two years ago” when she was one of the three originators of T Brand Studio in New York (the US team has grown to more than 50). King-Balentine is one of four in London, where the International arm opened in September, with two colleagues in the paper’s Paris bureau.

The NYT is among a number of serious news providers competing for business in the UK, from digital-only business specialist Quartz to older players including the Financial Times, which launched its “FT2” (FT Squared) content marketing suite in September. The Guardian began its “Guardian Labs” service in 2014 boasting a 133-strong team, “including creative, strategists, designers, video and content specialists”. 

King-Balentine admits the sector has yet to convince the client world that branded content is the best use of its budget. “I think we need some big wins… some pieces that everyone looks to as great examples of how it’s done and done well,” she says. 

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Kaylee King-Balentine, of T Brand Studio, is driving the New York Times’s content marketing strategy

Firms such as T Brand Studio, as they share the content across the key platforms of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, need to be able to lay out the stats that show the work is getting eyeballs. “You can tell the best story there is but if nobody sees it and nobody is engaging with it then there’s no point in doing it. That’s a big challenge for us.” But the brands themselves also need to have the courage to engage in a process which T Brand names “story-mining”, when it decides that, for example, Volvo’s dedication to car safety can best be explained through a narrative around the dedication of its crash-test specialists.

She can also point to “Grit and Grace”, a film made for shoe manufacturer Cole Haan featuring young stars from the New York City Ballet, or a film for Philips in which professional cyclist Guillaume Bonnafond rode an Alpine climb in a facemask designed to replicate the debilitating effects of lung disease. The stories were widely shared by the dancing and cycling communities. Such paid posts are the only ads that appear on NYT Now, The New York Times phone app. The paper claims that readers spend as long on these pieces as they do with editorial stories.

When the Netflix work was published, under the headline “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work”, the NYT’s revered former media writer David Carr, a severe critic of journalistic compromise, tweeted support of the project: “All brand-sponsored journalism does not suck.” It was a confidence boost to the T Brand team. “It meant a lot for us,” says King-Balentine. 

The regal sound of her name is reflected by a tattoo of a crown on the inside of her wrist and she dons a black Harrington jacket, with a Mickey Mouse badge, for the photo shoot – but she is clear that this is serious business. 

Mark Thompson, the former long-standing BBC Director-General who is now chief executive of The New York Times company, reiterated last month his determination that the organisation would be the market leader in branded storytelling and would “create content that is worth paying for”.

If this takes hold it won’t just be the new black – it could help save the news business.

The folly of online advertising

A blogger known as “The Ad Contrarian” was the unexpected star of Shift 2016, a news industry conference staged at the British Library last week.

Bob Hoffman, an ad industry insider based in San Francisco, deployed the wit of a good stand-up and the wisdom of a forensic analyst as he systematically shredded the seductive veil that has for over a decade hidden the deceit of online advertising. Hoffman is author of Marketers are from Mars, Consumers are from New Jersey, which contrasts media psychobabble with what ordinary people actually think.

He says botnets (robot networks) have become so important in generating false page impressions most online display ads are “never seen by a live human being”. You are more likely to qualify as a US Navy Seal than to click on an online display ad.

Hoffman ridiculed the folly of chasing the under-30 audience when it’s the ignored over-50 market which has “over 70 per cent of all the wealth” and the “74 to dead” demographic is more likely to buy a new car than the millennials who appear behind the wheel in motoring ads.

Life is good on other side of the ‘Mirror’

When the Sunday Mirror parted company with TV reviewer Kevin O’Sullivan last month he promptly took his work to his own new website: TV Kev.

O’Sullivan’s reviews are funny and excoriating. His assessment of Davina McCall’s new ITV wildlife show Davina McCall: Life at the Extreme ridicules the vacuous presenting style of the “foghorn-voiced heroine” before dryly concluding: “I fear the search for the next David Attenborough continues.”

His departure prompted a mass protest from Sunday Mirror readers and even TV celebrities who had previously been in his crosshairs, such as Deborah Meaden and Eamonn Holmes. 

O’Sullivan updates TV Kev with daily reviews and recommendations and matches his newspaper rhythm by dropping 10 pieces at the weekend for that “lazy Sunday read”. The site already has a loyal following of 27,000. “A substantial number of my Sunday Mirror readers have come with me,” he says. 

He needs only enough income to support himself but hopes, with investment, to grow TV Kev into a stable of quality reviewers. Newspapers should be concerned that the internet allows its former specialist writers to rebuild the industry from the ground up, without being troubled by the burden of buildings and back offices.

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