Why In-house Publishers Are Becoming Attractive Alternatives for Advertisers and Creatives

Brands are shifting more resources from traditional marketing to branded content

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Once seen more as an added-value proposition for media placements, publishers’ branded-content labs have expanded to meet growing client demand. Publishing studios increasingly have become an appealing option for creatives at agencies that must regularly churn out work for reviews and struggle to retain talent.

Ark Advisors partner Ken Robinson, who specializes in managing agency reviews and talent searches, said that publishers’ in-house marketing divisions are “becoming more proactive in their prospecting efforts” and winning more client-side assignments.

These creative teams are “packaging and promoting themselves as viable ‘alternative’ resources, joining the list of other encroaching factions fighting for a share of increasingly diminishing agency revenue,” added Robinson.

With the price of traditional display ads “sinking, if not plummeting,” as content “gains traction over pure advertising,” Rebecca Lieb, founding partner and analyst at advisory firm Kaleido Insights, said in-house content studios are becoming an increasingly important part of business for many publishers.

“It’s kind of a dogfight out there in terms of who creates content. It’s all kind of up for grabs out there and everybody wants a piece of that pie,” she added. “Publishers are uniquely positioned to create content on behalf of advertisers because they are, in fact, content creators,” while also able to leverage and repackage existing content to a built-in audience.

Publishers’ in-house content studios are differentiating themselves via unique data sets, reputation, production capacity and cultural cachet. 

One such example is Cornerstone, the agency associated with hip-hop-focused publication The Fader. Cornerstone is competing with agencies for clients and was recently named AOR for Major League Soccer following a review. R/GA vet and chief creative officer Trevor Eld attributes the win to Cornerstone and The Fader’s “connection to culture on an authentic level.”

“If your mission is to insinuate your client’s brand with a message … and you need to use this fragmented media landscape,” Eld added, “then a media shop” with a full-service in-house agencyin many ways is going to be one of your best partners.”

Otto Bell, CCO of CNN’s Courageous studio, said the goal isn’t to supplant agencies; his team routinely collaborates with partners such as Grey on Volvo and Johannes Leonardo on MassMutual. Bell said Courageous’ complete in-house production capabilities lead to a “great level of personal investment” from teams guiding the work from creative development to postproduction, providing a “great differentiator” for brands seeking custom content. 

“It used to be about dipping a toe in,” Bell added. “There are a lot more people wading up to their waist now,” and this trend has resulted in rapid growth for Courageous. Bell, who previously served as creative director for Ogilvy’s OgilvyEntertainment studio, said “there wasn’t much of an in-house offering” when he arrived at CNN less than three years ago. But his team has since grown to a full-time staff of 35.

The Washington Post’s BrandStudio has also expanded. Paul Tsigrikes, vp of marketing, estimated that while “75 percent or so” of such client revenue might have been spent on a traditional ad buy with 25 percent going to branded content, “in the last year and a half it’s almost reversed.”

Clients, who are finding dwindling results from paid social, approach WP BrandStudio to promote existing content. The team then uses its proprietary RED advertising technology and Clavis data-targeting technology to amplify that content on Washington Post’s platforms—another aspect of its business that has grown in the past year.

In a campaign for Harry’s Razors, WP BrandStudio created a live event and other content while also distributing a video created by GSD&M. T. Rowe Price also recently turned to WP BrandStudio for a custom finance podcast.

They could have gone to their own agency, they could have done it in-house, they could have gone to a traditional podcast company, but they came to us to execute it and promote it,” Tsigrikes said. “That intimate knowledge of the audience is something that an outside agency is not going to be able to gather.”

As WP BrandStudio has grown, it has attracted talent from creative and branded-content agencies.

Cornerstone has also been more aggressively recruiting from agencies, attracting talent from shops including AKQA, CP+B, McCann, R/GA and Wieden + Kennedy.

“They felt they weren’t making work that was really going to resonate in culture as much as if they were at a place like The Fader,” Eld said. “It’s the media shops that are making the things that people pay attention to and that push the culture.”

This story first appeared in the April 9, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.