Why Branded Content Is Poised to Take Over

IAB's head of brand initiatives discusses native ads, viewability and the future

As more publishers launch branded content divisions, native advertising is taking over a larger part of digital marketing.

Adweek caught up with Peter Minnium, the Interactive Advertising Bureau's head of brand initiatives, to talk about the trend, which was the topic of a panel he recently moderated the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in Phoenix.

The central question he posed to the panel was whether publishers, agencies or brands would create the best ads in the future. We revisited that topic, along with several other hot issues like measuring viewability, in our conversation with Minnium:

Adweek: We're seeing a growth of publishers creating their own in-house agencies.

Minnium: It's absolutely a trend. The IAB sees digital advertising falling into three buckets going forward: concept ads, commerce ads and content ads. Concept ads are upper-funnel, awareness-driving and used to create new desire and demand. Television commercials are a perfect example, as are the more creative uses of the IAB Rising Stars. Commerce ads are the good-old-fashioned universal ad package, bottom-of-the-funnel ads that present a single offer and often live on the margins of the page. Content ads are the ones that are growing like crazy. Native advertising is the biggest form.

Traditional brand agencies "own" concept ads. They know how to tell a story and how to build interactive advertising. New-world digital advertising companies, including a lot of technology companies, know how to do commerce advertising unbelievably. An example would be Criteo. That is direct marketing on steroids, technology- and data-enabled.

The new area that's growing is content advertising. There's a land grab going on because no established player "owns" it. We will absolutely begin to see a shakeout over the next year to 18 months as traditional agencies begin to learn those skills and bring them in house. We're seeing interesting models now: Grey, DigitasLBi and Starcom MediaVest have groups. I think we're going to see a shakeout as publishers who are rushing into this space begin to realize how hard creative services is. Brand agencies have years of understanding how to optimize the process. As we move forward, brands are going to be more selective. They're going to want to put more money into working media, less into content creation. They are going to squeeze the margin of these publishers. It's a difficult, tricky business.

We're also seeing a lot of brands combine concept and content ads into a larger cross-platform campaign.

Absolutely, the best campaigns that are done today are a system of creative assets that work together and find distribution in the most appropriate places. We all know how to tell linear stories, but the creation and distribution adds another dimension. The Skittles Super Bowl story is partially taught by the press conference, by the 30-second commercial and by the website. The IAB is focused on creating actual ad standards in 2015 that enable all of these assets to be brought together into a single standard that enables dynamic combinations of those assets to be distributed to the appropriate places, called the Dynamic Ad Campaign Guidelines. That's our goal in 2015, to be announced at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting in February 2016.

The IAB recommended that the benchmark for viewability be set at 70 percent, since 100 percent viewability measurement is not yet possible. What is it doing to improve that?

Viewability is part of a process that the ANA [Association of National Advertisers], 4A's [American Association of Advertising Agencies] and the IAB are engaged in. We always knew the technical limitation of viewability would be a bump in the road. Publishers are working hard on best practices for viewability, which includes potential things like ads only loading when viewable and dealing with creative file weight issues, which create latency. There was also broad agreement that we need more education, which the IAB, 4A's and ANA are going to work on. There is also a movement for us (IAB and 4A's) to incorporate viewability into the standard terms and conditions.

People now want to think about what's next. If the viewable impression is just a currency, can we use that technology to understand the value of ads? What are the brand metrics that matter beyond one second, 50 percent? We're working together to really get everything set in 2015 because we all know that marketers' patience will end by the end of 2015.

Some view branded content as a way to get around viewability measurements. Is that a good thing?

Putting digital advertising in the user's natural activity stream—where it's been for television and print forever—is the real objective. Any publisher should understand how a user moves through their content and find the appropriate ways to insert advertising into that experience. We've come to accept that there are natural places for commercial breaks; same thing for print. In the digital world, for some strange reason we decided early on to not put advertising in the user's natural activity stream, rather put it around the margins of the page. Essentially, we as an industry need to correct for that.

What is really helping the industry correct—some would say overcorrect—is the notion of native advertising, or what we are deeming content advertising. But that goal is for all ad forms to move into the user's natural activity stream. So, a very happy byproduct of moving advertising into a user's natural activity stream in addition to greater attention and greater effectiveness is also greater viewability.

Some companies have said they still struggle with explaining content advertising to marketers and getting brands on board.

It's going to take a while. I come from traditional creative agencies. On one hand I understand the power of creative storytelling, so when people say, "Don't mess with the fundamental story; take a beautifully crafted Snickers commercial and put it online," I understand that. But I have been in the digital world for the last five years. I moved over because I believe in the Holy Grail of sight, sound, motion plus interaction.

Do you think the line between branded and non-branded content should be removed?

I hope there's always delineation for legal and ethical reasons. We always want any reasonable reader to understand who is behind the story. The IAB has been working hard to proliferate that principle. But, from a consumer's perspective, they are going to care less who is behind the content. Instead, they'll apply the filter of quality.

What do you think we can expect from the Digital Content NewFronts this year?

What is really driving the growth of digital video advertising is the desire to move concept advertising—upper-funnel, television advertising used to drive awareness and demand—into the digital world. One of the only things that's holding back dollars is the availability of quality digital content. There's so much pent up demand that a publisher just needs to create and distribute broadly quality content and simply accept traditional 30-second or 15-second commercials.

The other point of view is, "Oh my God, this is digital. This is interactive. We can do non-linear storytelling. We can do all sorts of new models of integrating brands into content." That's wonderful. However, it's not necessary in my opinion at this stage to get the dollars to move. If you go to any brand or agency and say, "Guess what, I found your millennials. They're really engaged with my content online. I will sell you commercial space within that," that's an easy sell. If you come to them and say, "I've got your millennials engaging with your quality content, but I will require you to custom create a special piece of interactive digital video or brand-integrated content," to some people it's an impediment. I'm excited to see experimentation with brand integration and interactive video, but I think we are a year or two or three away from that being a mainstream way of a brand or media property to work together.

Peter Minnium is the IAB's head of brand initiatives. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterMinnium.