How News UK’s branded-content shop shows how ads work

News UK is taking inspiration from agencies on how to create branded content. In the last year, the publisher’s branded-content arm, Bridge Studio, has worked closely with agencies to build a framework around how it creates content.

Most publishers’ branded-content arms think audience first, rather than through the lens of their own brands. Bridge Studio believes it differentiates itself by overlaying emotion profiles onto the target audience, partly through tools from companies acquired by News UK, like video distribution company Unruly and social news agency Storyful. In the last year, Bridge Studio has started running post-campaign analysis on every campaign to prove the ads work.

Bridge Studio’s revenue has increased each quarter in the last year, with 25 percent of revenue now coming from digital, according to Mark Field, director of Bridge Studio. “That’s more than doubled from the same period last year because our approach is leaning more toward a central idea,” he said. The publisher couldn’t share specific figures.

Over the next few weeks, Bridge Studio is explaining its approach to U.K. agencies to try to show how it can compete in a crowded branded-content arena. It hopes to create more effective work by aligning with the way agencies plan and brief campaigns.

“There’s always been a connection between content and emotion, but we’re connecting that with understanding the user journey,” said Field. “We can bring layers of data together and proprietary tools to direct the travel of the creative. It’s incumbent on us as content teams not just to create content but to show the client how we got there and give them more confidence this idea will work.”

Bridge Studio has access to first-party data from The Sun and The Times of London, data from Unruly’s emotion-tracking tool Pulse, social sentiment data from Storyful, other proprietary tools as well as more easily available data sets like Google Analytics. For a campaign in May for car brand Škoda and Omnicom agency Phd, Bridge Studio identified the important emotions in the target audience were knowledge, pride and inspiration.

It then created The Alternative Rich List, a spin on the Sunday Times’ Rich List, featuring people who were wealthy in non-monetary ways, like a living organ donor. The campaign ran in print, video, online and audio, and because it was published in the Sunday Times’ Rich List, it needed a standard of journalistic integrity, said Field. Post-campaign analysis found a 41 percent uplift in the perception of Škoda as an inspiring brand, according to News UK, and 11 percent increase in purchase consideration.

As demand for branded content has increased, with more brands embedding content in their communications strategies, publishers have spotted additional revenue opportunities and been more vocal about solutions they offer.

When Field joined News UK in November 2016 from Trinity Mirror, his responsibility was to restructure and simplify News UK’s branded-content offering. Last year, three areas of News UK’s commercial team — Method, where commercial journalists worked with advertisers; the campaign management team, consisting of project managers tasked with pricing campaigns; and the creative solutions account management team — all operated separately. Unsurprisingly, branded content lacked a consistent look and tone, and it sometimes led to overpromising on what campaigns it could deliver, said Field. “We were thinking very brand-centric internally first, so perhaps not stretching the creative opportunity.”

Besides print and digital, News UK’s portfolio has expanded to include audio after its acquisition of audio media company Wireless Group in September 2016. Field is also in the process of hiring seven people since last year across editorial and strategic planning, an additional fourth area in Bridge Studio’s team, bringing Bridge Studio’s head count to 42.

Bridge Studio receives roughly 25 briefs a week, up 25 percent from 12 months ago. This could be due to increased demand in the market, but Bridge Studio appears to be winning more business, too: Field said it’s signing more seven-figure campaign deals, including a 12-month campaign with Barclays bank in March 2017. Bridge Studio works with roughly 50 clients a month, including car brand Kia and Pilgrims Cheese, up 10 percent from last year, although this varies by season.

The increased competition in the market has put more emphasis on proving ads work, and the need is growing for more longer-term partnerships and repeat clients. “All media owners say, ‘We want to work further upstream with agencies,'” said Field. “We are getting closer to the strategy and to clients directly, but 98 percent of our work is through media agencies; it’s not for us to disintermediate agencies.”

Field said the industry as a whole must work together to prove branded content’s effectiveness, as it’s common for no one to win the pitch. “Proving the value and worth is what we’re trying to figure out.”

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