A buyer’s view on native advertising and transparency

Attitudes toward native advertising in its various forms continue to divide the industry. Some view it as publishing’s savior while others see it as the final nail in journalism’s coffin.

Nick Cohen is managing partner and head of content at MediaCom U.K. and oversees content-led campaigns for its clients, some of which include GlaxoSmithKline, Volkswagen and Procter & Gamble. Cohen gave Digiday his view on the native advertising debate, how it’s being managed, and he told us what he made of that nowinfamous John Oliver skit lambasting the tactic.

nick cohenWhat did you make of John Oliver’s critique of native advertising?
I thought it was very funny. He very astutely highlighted the shoddy end of it. It’s easy for people in advertising to lose a sense of perspective. It’s right that we constantly question things.

What’s your take on native?
Personally, I think the term “native advertising” has been a bit unhelpful. It confuses more than it illuminates. We don’t really actively go out to clients and say, “You should be doing native advertising.” We just talk about content and how it can be used effectively to meet their business objectives.

Which campaigns have you been impressed by recently?
There was a nice example from MediaCom, which I don’t take credit for, where Audi and the Telegraph filmed a race to Le Mans. It’s great content and one of those where it makes sense for the publisher and for the brand: It’s not a square peg for a round hole.

All brands need to be thinking about how they can use content — be it on their website and social channels, through their physical distribution channels or through sponsored content with an external media brand. And there are ways of doing it well, and there’s ways of doing it badly. Focus on doing something everybody would be proud of.

Some publishers draw on journalists to help write ads, others have a completely separate studio and some let brands publish through a self-service model. What are the most typical approaches to sponsored content you’re seeing?
It’s mostly a studio model which we see, where it’s sales people involved in the process of pitching. I think for most publishers there’s still a separation between the sales and those on the editorial side, though as part of a commercial piece of work publishers might commission someone who also writes on the editorial side. For the likes of the Guardian and The Telegraph, who are very active in this space, I’d say the separate-studio model prevails. The likes of BuzzFeed, who we’ve been doing work with recently, use a separate team for commercial content too. AOL and the Huffington Post say that divide needs to evolve, but I think there is a realization that you do need to maintain a separation between the two things.

How overtly should advertorial be labeled as advertising?
If you’re reading a commissioned by-lined piece and it’s written by someone who is CEO of company X, you’d see that and understand that someone’s coming from a particular perspective and is coming from their specialist, informed opinion, rather than offering a completely unbiased perspective. As long as it’s properly labeled and transparent, I don’t think there’s a problem with it.

We always advise our clients that there’s a shared interest between the brand and the publisher, and those are typically around three areas of transparency, relevancy and quality. In terms of transparency, if you’re creating content that’s similar to other work produced by a publisher, you want it to be clearly labeled so it doesn’t look like you’re being underhanded. There’s also the need to abide by the Advertising Standards Authority guidelines, which has been pretty clear about this stuff. It’s not in the brand’s or the publishers’ interest to mislead people.

The content has to be relevant to the brand and something they’re legitimately able to talk about. It’s got to be relevant to the audience, and it has to be relevant to the publisher’s agenda. The last point is quality: making sure anything produced by a brand is as good a quality as what would be produced for that site anyway.

Have some publishers gone outside their comfort zone when it comes to posting commercial content on social channels?
If for whatever reason a publisher feels like they shouldn’t promote something, there are plenty of other ways of doing that through content-amplification services. It’s about having a really clear, honest discussion with the advertiser. If a publisher feels bad about doing something, they shouldn’t do it. Be clear with the client and the agency, and don’t do something you’re not completely comfortable with when it comes to branded content.

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