#DME14: How to stop worrying and love sponsored content

Sponsored content. Native advertising.  Whatever you want to call it, if you do it right, it’s good for the public, good for publishers, and good for brands.

Why are people so nervous about it?

This is the text, more or less, of a talk I gave at the Digital Media Europe 2014 conference in London this afternoon. 

What’s the best piece of sponsored content ever made?

It’s not by Red Bull. It’s not Swedish.

The best piece of sponsored content ever made is Italian.

Many of you have probably seen it.

How many of you have been to Rome?

This is the best piece of sponsored content ever made:

Pictured: brand-building.
Pictured: brand-building.

The best piece of sponsored content ever? The paintings in the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1506. He ordered Michelangelo to paint it. The artist was already famous at the time – mainly as a sculptor – so he didn’t want to do it. But a pope wasn’t the sort of person you said no to back then. Especially not Julius II.

Pope Julius II, a.k.a. "The Warrior Pope"
Pope Julius II, a.k.a. “The Warrior Pope”

See, Pope Julius II was something of a badass. He may look old and downtrodden in this picture, but he was a fierce operator by all accounts. He was elected pope by the near-unanimous vote of the cardinals, almost certainly by means of bribery. He waged war on Venice and on France in a complex web of shifting alliances. He also had at least one child.

This man was one of the most powerful people in the world in his time. Julius had a coat of arms, not a corporate logo. There were no brands, as such, back in the 16th century. There were no logos.There were families, and great houses. The very idea of the modern state was only just beginning. But then, as now, wealth, and power, and reputation, and influence were very, very real. Then, as now, wealth and power have their own logic. Reputation and influence are critical to both.

And what a magnificent piece of sponsored content it is.

This is sponsored content. Its purpose was to erase all doubt that Julius II was the biggest badass in town, or indeed in any town.

First, these frescos are a demonstration of sheer power. “Look what marvels I have called into being!” shouts the pope – still! – after being dead for five hundred years.

There’s also a deeper message in this work. The scenes of Genesis on the ceiling and the Last Judgement on the altar wall are the climactic moments of power and judgement in the bible. These aren’t any love-your-neighbour, blessed-be-the-meek scenes. These are the moments of divine judgement, when all things are made and all souls are judged. The message to viewers is all the more powerful for the subtlety with which it is woven into the content. It speaks of Julius’ limitless power, his infallibility and divine right to rule in judgement over all who come into his sphere.

Crowds flocked to see the chapel almost immediately after it was finished. For illiterate peasants, these scenes were incontrovertible evidence that Julius II was the man.

There’s nothing new about sponsored content or native advertising. This is how we used to do things.

Sponsored content was the model until very recently. Beethoven had Archduke Rudolph the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II. Before him, Mozart had Joseph II, Leopold’s older brother.

These guys were Hapsburgs. They were the super-brand of the day. They needed their status to be obvious and unquestionable. So every time you listen to some good classical music, it’s really brand-building for the Hapsburgs.

The point of this rather long history lesson is to re-set your perspective a little. It’s only recently that we started calling the products of creativity ‘content’. This concept – of content as something singular, that exists to attract people to ‘message’ and around which you can conduct ‘branding’ – leads to some shocking conclusions. But if you’re in a headspace where that particular use of the word ‘content’ makes sense, then you have to concede that much of the best of human culture was produced as ‘sponsored content’.

The point is that sponsored content has been the mainstay of both cultural production and branding throughout history. It can be done in an ethical way that adds value for everyone involved.

Three principles of sponsored content

Good sponsored content:

  1. Adds value for the target. The content must be valuable for its intended recipient. The target is the person formerly known as a reader or member of the audience, categories that don’t exist any more. This point may seem self-evident, but it’s surprisingly often overlooked. If you’re creating something that people are meant to watch, listen to, read or interact with – they need to gain some sort of information or entertainment value from it. The Lipton Cool Cubes game that my colleagues at Edelman Digital made is a great example of this. So is America’s Army.
  2. Aligns to client values. The editorial proposition of sponsored content should grow organically out of client values and interests. Where client values and interests overlap with what interests targets – that’s your editorial opportunity.This is thought leadership, not marketing. Sponsored content is for brand-building, not clickthrough-to-buy. The point is to establish the client brand as an authority in a particular area or topic, where the client has an interest, to make the client a trusted voice in that space.
  3. Is openly sponsored. Sponsored content that’s not obviously accompanied by a client logo or brand name is completely pointless, as well as unethical. Edelman is really clear about this. (That’s one of the things that impressed me about this company when I joined – the strong code of ethics.)
Image by Derek Bridges on Flickr
Image by Derek Bridges on Flickr

The missing question

I’ve been working in digital journalism for a while now – seven years. And I’ve been going to conferences about journalism for most of that time. A lot has changed.

It used to be that I’d be up here on stage talking about what new innovation we’d developed to do journalism better, and the first question would always be the same. “Yeah, that’s nice, but how do you make money off it?”

No one seems to ask that question any more – I’ve been to two journalism conferences so far this year and in multiple sessions no one has uttered it. I think there’s an increasing understanding that this problem is getting cracked.

This is good for everybody.

Sponsored content is one of the ways you can run a publication with integrity and pay the rent.

The thing is that the people who have cracked it, or are cracking it, are too busy making money to talk about how they do it much. And that’s great. It’s good for journalism, because journalists are getting paid to produce journalism. It’s good for the public, because if the three principles above are followed, they get good quality relevant articles or videos or games that are relevant to their interests. And it’s good for the client brands, because they’re getting their name out there and building their brand.

Long live sponsored content.

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