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In Defense of Brand Journalism (and Bob Garfield’s Involvement)

March 21, 2011

Bob Garfield did a great job moderating our SXSW panel last week: “Brand Journalism: The Rise of Non-Fiction Advertising.” He got called out in Twitter, in blog posts, and in private conversations as one of the better moderators of the whole SXSW show, and I completely agree with the assessment.

We knew when we submitted the panel idea last summer that we would need to explain and perhaps even defend brand journalism—it’s not a practice that many are familiar with, even though we at JWT have done it with huge clients like Microsoft and Ford. And we knew that brand journalism, and branded content in general, would be a hot-button issue at SXSW this year.

As such, our best bet for having a successful, insightful panel would be to find someone like Bob to be an independent, skeptical moderator. The panel needed to incorporate its toughest potential critic, who would serve as the audience’s stand-in, asking questions and poking at the panelists the way the audience would want to. The SXSW crowd is a sophisticated one, able to smell BS a mile away; anything less than an unvarnished look at brand journalism would be called out as such. So we paid an independent expert (Bob) to keep us honest, and we involved Pepsi’s Shiv Singh to provide another perspective. We didn’t ask either one to pull their punches; quite the opposite, in fact.

This panel was brand journalism in action, and the crowd responded accordingly. I was tracking Twitter conversations during the panel, and saw several tweets that praised us for being so open and engaging. I think we drove actual perception shifts, thanks to a great moderator and an attitude of honesty, openness, and a very public search for truth.

Bob, in light of your column today, it’s worth pointing out that Chrysler wasn’t doing brand journalism last week. You were.

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