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Publishers Are Trying to Become Ad Agencies. They Shouldn't.

Media companies should conduct more experiments with alternative revenue streams rather than churning out mediocre content for brands, argues Amy Odell.
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By
  • Amy Odell

NEW YORK, United States — If a brand asked me if they should invest money in white label content from a publisher, I would say no.

Publishers like Condé Nast, Meredith, Hearst and others have been selling white label content that doesn’t run on their properties along with their branded content programmes for years. It’s easy to see why. In the face of declining print advertising sales, offering agency-like services can provide a desperately needed revenue boost.

But the approach is ultimately little more than a Band-Aid on the underlying problem of monetising digital content as eyeballs continue to shift online. As for the client, it’s money that would more wisely be spent elsewhere.

I can understand why a brand might be tempted to buy white label content from a publisher. Companies need more and more content to tell their brand stories these days, feeding social feeds as well as their websites. And who better to make this content than those in the content creation business?

But publishers charge a large mark-up for this kind of content. And brands could easily end up spending what would be an editor’s salary — or a few editors’ salaries — on a video or two.

Hiring in-house content creators with experience in the world of digital publishing would be a more worthwhile investment for most brands. A couple of editors who know what they're doing could create some content themselves, or use a lean freelance budget to commission articles, videos and photography. With greater resources, a brand could build a bigger and more robust team, essentially becoming its own agency.

The reason brands should do this for themselves is simple. It’s also the same reason that magazines have their own editors and writers on staff. You get a better product when it’s made by the people who live and breathe your brand, rather than an agency or studio who has to try to serve dozens of brands.

It also happens to be a great time for brands to recruit editorial talent from publishers. In my more than a dozen years working as a writer and editor for digital publications, I have never seen greater willingness amongst editors and journalists to work for brands. So many digital editors feel deeply insecure about the longevity of their positions at failing companies and burnt out on running click farms that going to a stable brand can be a more appealing option than staying in publishing.

That said, brands shouldn’t ignore publishers entirely when it comes to their marketing needs. They should simply use publishers for what they do well, which is reaching a specific audience. Spending money on a branded content campaign that runs on the publisher’s platform is a much better investment than buying white label content: the publisher is creating a unique offering tailored to its audience, which it knows intimately. Plus, the investment comes with guaranteed exposure.

The best branded content is a perfect combination of publisher, brand, audience and storytelling in a harmonious feedback loop where no single voice overpowers the others. Publishers have to listen to brands about their needs, but brands also have to listen to publishers about what their audience will respond to.

The best branded content is a perfect combination of publisher, brand, audience and storytelling.

On the flipside, if the content isn’t running on their properties, publishers often have little incentive to engage the brand in a tedious discussion about what will and won’t perform. It’s much easier to simply create whatever a brand wants rather than trying to align the brand’s vision with what performs for that publisher.

Taking a step back, I wish the publisher-as-agency model was a solution to the revenue woes of media titles. I love magazines and don’t want to see them die. But more often than not, the approach simply masks a lack of new revenue streams.

I recently met with the creator of one of the world’s most popular apps for millennials. The founder described trying to get a publisher at a legacy media brand to enter a deal where they’d split revenue on new users driven by that publication’s web and social channels. I didn’t think his prediction that both the app and the publisher would have made millions sounded far-fetched.

Yet I could see why the publisher didn’t bite. This kind of deal wasn’t on their set menu of offerings, it didn’t include an advertiser and the publisher probably didn’t completely understand it.

But these are the very deals that could help offset the decline in advertising revenue, especially for publishers unwilling to invest in content people will pay for.

Publishers would be wise to experiment with these alternative revenue streams rather than churning out mediocre content for brands that doesn’t move the needle.

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