How The New York Times Is Building the Ideal Branded Content Studio

T Brand Studio is a business within a business

Photo by Griffin Lipson for The New York Times

Like other news and media companies, The New York Times has its own branded content studio: T Brand Studio.

Unlike those other studios, T Brand is essentially a fully formed business within a business, all thanks to some strategic acquisitions.

T Brand launched in 2014, but the project that quickly earned it a ton of notoriety was an engaging and intellectual piece that shed new light on women’s prisons. It was a partnership with Netflix’s hit show, Orange Is The New Black. The piece was dynamic, visually engaging, and highly researched; it was “true to the Times,” said Sebastian Tomich, the svp of advertising and innovation for the Times.

Tomich, who led the launch of T Brand in 2014, is pushing his team, which has grown to over 100 employees thanks to multiple international offices, to stay ahead of the curve.

This includes working with new technologies, like AR, VR and 360 degree video, in order to go from a “scrappy start-up to a real driving force of ad business” at the Times. In its first year, T Brand earned $13 million in revenue; in 2015, the studio took in $35 million.

The goal was to transform the studio into its own business.

To further achieve that, in 2016, T Brand somewhat quietly acquired two smaller companies: HelloSociety, whose network of social influencers supplies the social marketing arm of the studio; and Fake Love, which specializes in using technology in unique ways and developing one-of-a-kind live experiences.

“Those mind-blowing live activations would’ve been a stretch for us if we didn’t have Fake Love,” said Tomich.

In its latest activation, T Brand partnered with Kia to bring its new Cadenza model to life in a series of three live events, all across the country. Kia wanted each event to have a theme tied to a different message, with the goal being to introduce new audiences to the luxurious-yet-affordable Cadenza.

A look at the innovative ways T Brand Studio featured the Kia Cadenza's music capabilities.
T Brand Studio

“It really does take a partnership of every team to pull something like this off,” said Kevin Sayles, the general manager for T Brand. “It wouldn’t be possible without them.”

In its early days, T Brand would focus on creating native advertising, à la the Orange Is The New Black partnership, while explicitly separating itself from Times’ editorial offerings; with the acquisitions of Fake Love and HelloSociety last year, the studio was able to embrace a new direction for their creative work.

“Initially, paid content from social influencers, wasn’t a part of the conversation,” said Adam Aston, vp and editorial director for T Brand. “Now, it’s front and center.”

“When we first launched T Brand, it took some work to get the editorial team comfortable with this idea of the studio,” he said. “With our team of more than 100 people, we’ve got a really hybrid group of people.”

Some of those people have agency experience, while others have a background in journalism.

That’s the difference between T Brand Studio and some of the other media companies who’ve created their own in-house teams to produce branded content: the history of the organization behind it.

“Unfairly,” said Tomich, “any media company with a print business behind it is seen as ‘legacy’ or ‘old school.’ But we look for change, and we embrace change.”

“That’s required as a business model,” he said.

John Legend and Jon Pareles, the chief popular–music critic in the arts section of The NYT, at a Times Talks event.
Photo by Griffin Lipson for The New York Times

The latest series of events tied to the Kia Cadenza were also tied to Times Talks, live editorial interviews that audiences can attend; the different teams, of course, keep the content separate. Times Talks events are set apart from any T Brand events, even if some of the speakers might overlap. The point is never to blur the lines between partner-created content and editorial content.

“We see the strength and integrity of the newsroom as a huge advantage,” said Aston.