What Publications Need to Think About Before Going the Consultancy Route

Get advice from those who have been there

(L to r.) Spencer Baim, Anja Winikka, Sebastian Tomich and Amy Emmerich
Raquel Beauchamp for Adweek

With in-house branded content studios becoming a standard part of any publication’s business model, some may be looking to the next step, graduating from creating one-off campaigns to going full-blown consultancy. For Wednesday’s Elevate summit, Adweek gathered a panel of five execs from media companies that have set out on that journey. Panelists shared their experiences and provided valuable insights into what other organizations should think about and plan for before making the jump.

“I don’t think anyone has found the perfect model yet,” said Sebastian Tomich, svp of advertising and innovation at The New York Times. That’s a sentiment that has long been clear for anyone working in media in the digital age, but it comes this time with a reminder that there is a lot of room to experiment.

Spencer Baim, Vice Media’s chief strategy officer and founder of its creative agency, Virtue, agrees.

“The system itself is in need of a big shake-up to benefit everyone,” Baim said—even with the attendant risks. “If Vice and the brand come together to work on something, we’re not hidden, and we’re putting ourselves on the line every single time. Every time we do something, the world knows we’re doing it.”

For some publications, the evolution feels like an organic complement to their core audience and coverage areas. Wedding site The Knot, for example, is responding to the needs of wedding vendors across the country.

“We were in the listings business,” said Anja Winikka, director of education and industry innovation at XO Group, owner of The Knot. “Now we’ve inserted ourselves in a marketplace model kind of way.” Winikka said The Knot’s service provides businesses with capabilities they might not be able to execute on their own. “A lot of them don’t have the skills to connect to [potential customers] through Instagram, Facebook—we do,” she said.

Many of the panelists agreed that if publishers want to move toward a consultancy model, there’s a lot of learning to be done. Sometimes, that learning comes from stepping away from an opportunity. When the Times’ branded content shop, T Brand Studio, was offered a chance to bid for the Times’ “Truth Is Hard to Find” campaign, a move that would have pitted the studio against Droga5, Tomich declined. He felt it was more valuable for T Brand to use the opportunity as a learning experience, a chance to get an inside view into how agencies develop their proposals.

And when the proposal was in, he said, “I went and reviewed the brief and I was blown away.” Tomich was surprised both by the quality and nature of what was in the brief, like a brand manifesto and dozens of slides, and by what was left out. “Nothing had to do with media placement,” he said.

“There is an inverse relationship between our challenges and agency challenges,” said Eli Pakier, executive director of strategy at Bloomberg Media.

The same could be said for advantages. One of the major ones is subject-matter expertise. “Agencies don’t want to specialize in energy policy,” Pakier said. “You have to go to publishers.” Bloomberg Media’s consultancy has the work and knowledge of thousands of journalists in its reach.

How to staff a consultancy, how to attract staff and what kind of staff to attract are all interesting challenges for publications. Amy Emmerich, chief content officer at Refinery29, said she believes the ideal is a mix of agency expertise and outsider magic.

“I think we need the leaders at the top to come in with an agency background,” Emmerich said. But outside of that upper tier, “we try to hire innovators for tomorrow,” she said. That means looking for people with unique backgrounds, which can potentially result in “more interesting work.”

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