The New York Times Reinvents the Boring Banner Ad

Just don't call it 'native'

Behind a nondescript door on the 15th floor of the Times’ imposing headquarters on Manhattan’s West Side, programmers, technologists and product people play matchmaker between content and advertisers. The Idea Lab itself is sleek and spare. Most of its inhabitants gather around sofas as opposed to conference tables. There’s a giant whiteboard for scribbling down ideas for ads based on editorial features. Another wall serves as a screen for presenting prototypes to advertisers.

At a moment when the Times is striving to shake off its stodgy image, Haskell, who previously oversaw digital advertising for, comes off as breezy and decidedly unstuffy. “We’ll literally lock people in for hours at a time to work on ideas,” he cracks. When asked about the wall between advertising and editorial, Haskell proposes that those who toil in the Idea Lab “sit on the wall,” a Game of Thrones reference. “It’s not rocket science. We see what works for readers, and we shamelessly rip it off.”

To date, the Idea Lab has created dozens of customized campaigns (an online hub demos 42 campaigns that have appeared since 2010, including a dozen in 2011, 19 in 2012 and seven so far this year). For the insurance and investment company Prudential, the Lab created an ad unit that allows the user to type in his date of birth to see the front page of the Times on the day he was born.

Another ad borrows from the site’s popular editorial slide show feature to promote Thomson Reuters’ coverage of the 2012 London Olympics. To explain the complicated healthcare debate, the Times employed various interactive rectangles, each representing a different issue. The same approach was coopted to promote Chevron’s support of World AIDS Day, using what the Lab now refers to as the “bento box.” To promote a collaboration between Target and Neiman Marcus, the Times created a time line inspired by the same tool it uses to explain complex news stories.

The Times is not alone in trying to get out of the CPM pricing hole. Other publishers—among them, The Atlantic, Forbes and BuzzFeed—are also experimenting with the banner unit, though not in exactly the same way. Rather, these and other media brands are attempting to combat banner blindness by pushing sponsored posts or native ads that mimic editorial content. Thus, Forbes’ BrandVoice clients publish editorial look-alike blogs alongside news stories. Famously, the pop culture and news site BuzzFeed creates enticing slide shows for marketers that are hardly distinguishable from its addictive editorial content. For its clients, The Atlantic produces info-rich graphics that it hopes will appeal to its brainy readership.

The Times hasn’t gone quite so far (executive editor Jill Abramson recently dismissed native advertising as a buzzword for the conference set), though some would argue that its units are native ads, if native is defined as something merely natural to the reader experience. That particular selling point is, after all, what appealed to Prudential. “You’re on the Times, so you’re leveraging the natural resources and environment,” says Colin McConnell, vp, head of advertising for the company. “We thought, why not just harness the natural environment instead of create something synthetic?”

There’s no confusion that the creations coming out of the Idea Lab are very clearly advertising, though.

“Church and state is absolutely fundamental,” Haskell affirms. “We are not going to fall into an Atlantic Scientology trap, but we don’t think we need to.” (In an infamous incident this past January, The Atlantic stepped in it big time when it ran on its website a sponsored post from the Church of Scientology that clashed horribly with the magazine’s intellectual sensibility. The magazine made matters worse when it censored negative reader comments. The Atlantic has since instituted fresh guidelines for native ads in the hopes of avoiding another dustup.)

As debate persists over the degree to which the edit side should be involved, if at all, in creating native ads, the Idea Lab appears to offer an elegant solution: letting advertisers reap the benefits of the newsroom’s expertise without compromising its journalistic integrity. That means limiting communication between the Lab and the newsroom, and entirely rebuilding technological applications as opposed to simply tweaking them.

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