The Guardian’s Unusual Take on Native Ads

Kicking off campaign with Unilever

The Guardian is jumping on the native ad trend—but, in character for the British newspaper, it’s doing so in its own way. Today it announced the first client, Unilever, of Guardian Labs, its in-house branded content unit. For the year-long, seven-figure campaign starting in March, the Guardian will create content to help connect Unilever with sustainability issues. The campaign will initially run in the U.K., although it’s not ruling out migrating it to the U.S.

Native advertising has come to encompass a wide range of ad units and programs, all with the intent of passing, at least initially, as editorial content. David Pemsel, deputy CEO of Guardian News Media, the newspaper’s parent, eschews that term, though—the Guardian doesn't want to get lumped in with the many native ads that just mimic the look and feel of the host publisher. “What the Guardian is doing is really strategic,” he said.

That gets to another difference. Advertisers often want it both ways—they want their content to run in the editorial stream, but don’t necessarily want readers to be able to say anything they want in the comments. That can put publishers in a tricky situation, as The Atlantic saw when it infamously published a post by the Church of Scientology. Not surprisingly, negative reaction filled up the comments stream, which the Atlantic then censored.

Guardian Labs, though, wants readers to participate—it's building its work around the newspaper’s belief in open journalism. Unilever has been at the forefront of creating campaigns that engage with consumers, and with this campaign, readers will be encouraged to contribute their own videos and comments. The idea is that engagement is a more effective way to measure an ad than simple views, Pemsel said. “It’s about creating dialogue,” he said. “Those metrics are more authentic other than the fact you looked at an ad.”

Many news outlets have kept their journalists far away from the native content creation process. However, Guardian Labs will maintain no such separation.

Explained Pemsel: “It’s one thing to say, go to a journalist and say, we’d like you to write that. We would never do that. But we have people working in television and technology and film and general news, and they have ideas. It would be sort of mad not to tap into that knowledge.”

When it comes to its financial goals for the new content unit, the Guardian is like all other media outlets, though—it wants to create a sustainable model for news at a time when automated ad buying is creating a race to the bottom for digital ad rates. The Guardian has been trying to stem its losses by pursuing an aggressive digital growth strategy. That the lab has 133 employees working for it is testimony to the importance the Guardian is putting on sponsored content.

Pemsel said that while the paper continued to need to play in the programmatic space, custom campaigns have been a key driver behind its digital ad growth in the past year.

“As a blend of revenue, I’d want it to be substantial,” he said. “Is that going to be 50 percent or 70 percent? I don’t know. Last year, at the end of March, digital revenue grew 30 percent year on year to 55 million pounds, and this year, we have seen again pretty good year-on-year growth. And a lot of that has come from creating bespoke solutions.”