Debating Brands as Publishers
As a former journalist who now develops content strategies and content for brands, I am not surprised by how vehemently many journalists feel about what I do. There’s a lot of misunderstanding, of course, but at a basic level I get it: many traditional media companies are in decline, and journalists feel threatened by anything that somehow could marginalize the importance of their role in society and thus their jobs.
At a lively SXSW panel today, “Brave New World: Debating Brands as Publishers,” this attitude was on fine display. As my colleague Abby Leber noted to me on Twitter, the conversation was much less about the content of content — what could brands make that would be meaningful or effective? — but the transparency of content, with moderator Tom Ashbrook of NPR and journalist Laura Kolodny of Techcrunch leading the charge that consumers may be not up to the challenge of approaching content with a skeptical eye, and therefore are in danger of being lied to, confused, distracted or otherwise misled by branded content. Something that apparently they do not have to worry about with content produced by media companies.
To me this paternalism sells people short, but also betrays a suspicion that because brands have a business objective at the heart of their marketing efforts, branded content must somehow have a hidden, nefarious purpose, rather than simply being an honest attempt to engage people by providing them with something that is genuinely useful or entertaining. Kolodny suggested that brands could do great journalism but also that the world would be better off if they continued to support the work of media companies by relying on the old advertising model and not diverting portions of their marketing budgets to content creation and publishing. (Side note: she questioned branded content evangelist Joe Pulizzi‘s assertion that 25 percent of marketing budgets are now going to branded content and I must say that although this is a growing phenomenon I think that figure sounds high. I don’t see marketers wanting to devote such funds to these efforts yet, and I think numbers like that are partially what strikes such fear into the heart of journalists.)
It’s worth noting that much of branded content is being produced by current and former journalists like myself, and I balk at the assumption that when we work for brands we somehow check our integrity and training at the door. Or that the media companies are so pure. Kolodny and Pulizzi alike noted that much branded content is currently bad, and that’s true. A big part of what I and my team at JWT are trying to do is elevate–and therefore legitimize–branded content by applying our editorial skills to its development and creation. Content that works is content that’s good. Seems to me that there might be less hand-wringing about this subject on all sides if there were more examples of branded content that reflected high journalistic/editorial standards. It’s hard to argue with quality, right?