How publishers navigate ‘bullshit briefs’ from agencies

Publishers growing their content studios in the last few years have had to hone their work processes and margins to keep it economically viable. But, among other sticking points, the landscape is getting more competitive, compressing win rates and renewal rates, while the branded content pitching process also needs to improve.

Publishing execs say that it comes with the territory that a number of briefs sent their way by agencies are intended to fish for ideas in order to then sell into their own clients, cutting out the publisher. Spotting these briefs and getting smarter about efficiently allocating time has been an ongoing problem. While the number of publishers spotting their work executed by others has gone up, according to publisher sources.

Telltale signs in spotting “bullshit briefs” — as one publishing exec described it — are unusually high budgets: In the U.K., £1 million ($1.2 million) briefs arouse suspicion. Also typical are even tighter than usual turnaround times, like three or fewer days for an original idea.

“We certainly receive many briefs like this. It is suspect,” said James Lamon, head of content at BuzzFeed UK, estimating it receives briefs like this twice a month. Although, he added that he is yet to see an idea from a BuzzFeed pitch stolen and activated. One-pager responses suffice for these request for proposals, he said.

Briefs that don’t exactly fit the publishers’ audience ring alarm bells too, making it easier for media companies with highly targeted audiences to root these out.

“Challenging the brief is really important, that’s been easier for us since we’ve focused on Stylist, we can be more clear about who we are and ask them if they’re sure we’re the right fit,” said Owen Wyatt, managing director at Stylist. The female-focused publisher prioritizes briefs that fall between the £50,000 ($60,700) and £100,000 ($121,000) mark to focus resource into projects with a much higher win rate for the publisher. Out of about 10 briefs a week Stylist receives, two will be speculative or not based on real budgets, he added.

“We all want to stimulate spend on effective content marketing,” added Wyatt. “We are always working on proactive ideas and happy to submit responses to briefs intended to stimulate budget but only if we know we are the right partner. That work always pays back over time.”

Another publisher content studio has a three-tier system for the briefs they are likely to win and allocate resources accordingly. Templates and one-pager responses are simple ways of saving time. Ideas that don’t end up winning can be used at a later date.

Even so, the number of publishers seeing their work executed by others has “definitely increased,” according to Kunal Gupta, CEO of Polar, an ad tech firm for branded content. “Publisher branded content studios are seen as free idea generation,” he said. “The ideas become more valuable than the execution. The execution is commoditized because anyone can create content.”

Branded content revenue is growing but not at the rate it used to, according to research from Polar. Brands, media agencies and influencers all compete for branded content budgets. Win rate is down to around 20% having dropped from 40% three years ago, according to the publishers Polar speaks with, added Gupta. Renewal rates are also down, ranging between 20% and 40%. All these issues lead to compressed margins which can mean branded content studios can easily burn through money.

Custom content projects are naturally more complicated than display ads, cost more and require more people. Agencies have had longer at the game and, while the agency model is under pressure on many fronts, they haven’t had to weather the drastic decline in print ad sales that have prompted diversifying revenues into content.

“Branded content has become more of a showhorse than a workhorse,” said Gupta. “Display is a workhorse, it gets the job done. Showhorses might win prizes, but they require a lot more effort and attention.” Unfortunately, showhorses aren’t so scalable.

Collaborating with other media owners on the RFPs can give publishers more of a winning chance, as has been the case for The Guardian Labs, which has partnered on briefs with audio broadcaster Global Radio.

“Combined scale like that can help to de-risk a proposal and make it easier for a client to sign off,” said Adam Foley, director of sales and strategy at Guardian Labs.

Yet the tight turnaround, another ongoing problem often complained about, can limit the likelihood of this working. “For big-budget RFPs with a tight turnaround, there’s a suggestion the client would ‘love to see ways in which you can partner with other media owners,'” said Lamon. “But within three days, how can you get in touch with someone? It’s a non-starter. It’s ironic how consistently that’s asked for.”

Despite the publisher preference toward fewer, bigger branded content campaigns, Guardian Labs, which has been growing branded content revenue of the last few years, has done so through a larger number of smaller deals rather than a few big tent-pole-wins. These have their own project management challenges and can be as much work as larger-scale productions.

“Smaller, well-managed deals that can gradually build consideration for a brand among an important audience will still have a role,” added Foley. “It’s a great opportunity to show a client what we can do — and we often find that at the second or third time of asking, something will happen — whether on that specific client or something else the agency has in mind.”

Another factor boosting the likelihood of winning the brief depends on where it comes from. Publishers that have a client team dealing directly with the advertiser, rather than sales teams dealing with agencies, can have regular, proactive conversations with marketers.

Of course, there will always be instances where briefs don’t materialize into campaigns. Publishing exec sources estimate between 30% and 40% of briefs that pass through their doors don’t ever see the light of day. It’s par for the course that briefs change while they are out due to budget shifts, last-minute changes in direction or late approvals. And it’s the publisher at the end of the line left with a tight turnaround. Increasingly, more publishers want to ditch the “much-hated” RFP for longer partnerships.

“RFP’s are an effective way of letting everyone know at once,” said Lamon. “It answers the problem of organizing dozens of different outlets. But the RFP is inferior to true consultancy-style ways of working.”

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