There's no question that native ads are all the rage these days. According to a recent eMarketer report, spending on native ads could reach $4.57 billion by 2017. That would be quite a jump from last year, when marketers spent an estimated $1.63 billion on native ads.
Of course, the term "native ads" can be somewhat hard to define. The same eMarketer study pointed out that marketers tend to lump a lot of different formats and tactics into the native ads category.
"Most perceive native ads as purchased ads that mimic content in the venues in which they appear," the study said. "They are more entertaining and less interruptive than traditional ads, and hopefully popular enough to get shares. Common examples of native ads include Facebook Sponsored Stories, Twitter Promoted Tweets, branded videos, and other ads that appear in the content streams of media sites such as Forbes.com and BuzzFeed."
Still, the definitional debate rages on. Over at Mashable, Todd Wasserman recently suggested that the term "native ads" is just another way of saying "good advertising." And last year, Wasserman posted an infographic designed to explain what native advertising is and is not. The infographic is worth your time, but once you spend more than a few minutes working through the graphic to determine whether or not your own ads are native, you realize we're a long way from a working definition. That might sound like semantics, but it's important to take the definitional problem with a grain of salt when considering claims that native ads outperform other formats. After all, those claims don't mean much if we're not doing an apples-to-apples comparison.
But for all the hype surrounding the native ad debate, marketers shouldn't lose sight of the fact that today's publishers are offering a range of creative services that complement, and at times rival, those offered by agencies. But unlike with agencies, the creative services advertisers can buy directly from publishers tend to be publisher-specific. That is, each publisher works a little differently. That is why we checked with four leading publishers to find out what kinds of creative they're putting together for brand clients.
When advertisers come to VICE for creative, they're working with a full-service agency inside the company, which is distinct from the publisher's consistently edgy editorial department.
"We're a full-service agency that lives separate from our editorial department," says Jonathan Hunt, global marketing director at VICE. "That said, great content is at our nucleus. As such, we provide clients with creative services, which can include editorial that lives in custom brand environments. Our agency model covers brand strategy, creative development, production, social strategy and activation, distribution, and research."
But that doesn't mean VICE is a replacement for your agency. In fact, VICE often works with a brand client's agency.
"Most times the relationship is completely amicable because you were brought in to fill a gap that another agency just doesn't offer as a client service, which is fine, because it's not territorial or competitive if you divide and conquer a project together," Hunt says.
Typically, the "gap" VICE looks to fill has more to do with style and sensibility than a particular skill set.
"VICE was creating and perfecting its content strategy for over a decade before producing content for its brand partners," Hunt says. "So when brands work with a company who is a publisher first and agency second, they're also tapping into a content ethos that has permeated the entirety of that company."
Ranges from a few weeks to a couple of months.
Client work: Intel
VICE's best example of agency work is a campaign it did for Intel called "The Creators Project." Intel approached VICE looking to build an emotional connection with consumers and, more specifically, to increase the brand's relevance in global youth culture.
"VICE's solution was to take the brand out of the context of computers and put them in the context of interests, ambitious, and lives of global youth," Hunt says. "We picked a passion point that young people inherently care about: creativity. Intel's core offering of technology enables and magnifies creativity."
"The Creators Project" ended up being a multiplatform campaign for video documentaries, events, a content creation studio, and an international grant program that has supported more than 300 artists to date. Since its launch, "The Creators Project" has generated more than 215 million idea views and received 42 million unique visitors. The event series has attracted more than 720,000 attendees overall and won recognition from hundreds of international outlets including The New York Times, CNN, Pitchfork, BBC, Le Monde, and The Guardian, to name a few.
There is no dedicated agency inside of PureWow. Instead, advertisers work with the publisher's editorial, sales, and marketing teams directly, says PureWow CEO Ryan Harwood. Typically, PureWow will work with a brand client and its media agency, but according to Harwood, the publisher is also happy to work on a media plan that targets the PureWow audience. That means extra work for the PureWow team, but Harwood says it pays off for the advertiser in the form of creative content that matches the publisher's editorial voice.
"We offer brands custom ad creative and branded content that are native to our platform, and we know the campaigns will work because we know what resonates best with our audience," Harwood says.
But Harwood also points out that working directly with the brand tends to be more cost efficient. That might ruffle some agency feathers, but Harwood says, "When there is a media relationship, we can price the creative and asset creation in an efficient way for the brand."
But that doesn't mean Harwood is keen to discount agencies altogether. In fact, it's quite common for PureWow to work in conjunction with both the brand client and the agency.
"Working with agencies allows us to be experts on our audience and the agency to be the expert on the brand," Harwood says. "For example, having an agency on board can streamline revisions and approvals because they are more familiar with the client's expectations and processes while we are more familiar with what will actually work on our platform."
The lead time is anywhere from two weeks to two months, depending on the program. (Campaigns with offline events incorporated require a longer lead time.) A typical lead time for a campaign is three to four weeks.
Client work: Hyatt
When Hyatt wanted to educate female travelers about the hotel chain's new amenities that were geared toward women, the brand turned to the PureWow team, which came up with "The Wise Woman's Guide to Travel."
"We created a destination page on our website for the guide, and it was supported by two advertorials that were published on our site and sent via email," Harwood says. "We also created co-branded ads on our site and email editions and promoted across PureWow's social media channels."
PureWow handled all of the content creation, ad creative, design, and technology of the program (which involved coding the destination) from start to finish. The campaign performed extremely well in terms of engagement, with women spending an average of seven minutes with the custom content.
BuzzFeed might be a new experiment in journalism and social media, but the publisher's approach to working with advertisers is actually quite traditional.
"Our creative team is completely separate from our editorial team; we have a strict church and state separation," says Jonathan Perelman, VP of agency strategy and brand development at BuzzFeed. "I wouldn't call it an in-house agency, but it's a creative team."
Perelman likens BuzzFeed's in-house creative team to the early days of television, when the networks often made the ads. "We are working with brands and agencies to create shareable content for clients," he says. "Our teams work hand in hand, and the brand has final sign off on all content before it goes live."
While some agency folks might consider a publisher's in-house team to be the competition, Perelman says he's never seen that situation happen between BuzzFeed and a brand.
"If it's a creative agency, amazing things happen when creatives work together," he says. "If it's a media agency, it's wonderful to fully understand the brand brief and create compelling content. I haven't seen it competitive, and often a creative agency will ask us to be a part of a briefing back to the media agency or client."
Between signing the deal and launching the content, Perelman says BuzzFeed likes to work on about 10 days' lead time.
Client work: ABC
To help drive tune-in for the premiere of ABC's sitcom "How to Live with Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)," the network asked BuzzFeed to develop relevant content. The result was a humorous list (what else would you expect from BuzzFeed?) that was capped off with this video.
"The show is a comedy about moving back in with Mom and Dad," Perelman says. "So our team created funny, shareable content that everyone could relate to. Funny stories about families, things that parents do, and how to survive living at home, again."
But if the promo video at the end of the list feels like a native ad, you're missing the point, Perelman says. "Native ads aren't new," he says. "The ad has to be organic to the site. In our case, it's content. Our traffic is driven by great original reporting on politics, animals, sports, business, and lots more. What makes our ad product native is that it too is content. We hope the ads are just as compelling as the editorial content."
Calling Pandora a publisher is something of a misnomer, says Tony Calzaretta, VP of creative services for the online music discovery tool. In a sense, Pandora publishes audio content. But Pandora sees its mission in terms of engineering a musical experience. Accordingly, Pandora's creative services team is actually housed within the engineering department.
"The idea behind that is to tie creative as deeply as possible into the operation and capabilities of the platform," Calzaretta says. "What we do is create, or help create, campaigns that leverage Pandora's experience for a brand advertiser."
A big part of the challenge, according to Calzaretta, is educating advertisers about the platform's capabilities as well as the expectations of the Pandora community. "Advertisers may want to jump right into their ad, but that's inconsistent with Pandora's goal of delivering music to the user as soon as possible," he says. "So a lot of what we do is show the advertiser how to get their message across without being disruptive."
In some cases, Pandora works directly with the brands. But Calzaretta says Pandora is just as comfortable working with an agency, whether that means heading up creative or falling in as one of several agencies to help launch a larger effort.
Pandora can work fast. In fact, Calzaretta reports lead times as short as a single day. But for larger campaigns, Pandora typically works on lead times that range from a week to a few months.
Client work: T-Mobile
In keeping with the site's experience-driven ethos, Pandora recently launched Pandora Premieres, a new station format that lets listeners enjoy on-demand access to early album releases from a variety of artists before they go on sale. One of those stations features artist Laura Marling and sponsorship by T-Mobile. Click here for a listen.
On the surface, the concept might seem like simple underwriting. But as Peter DeLuca, SVP of marketing at T-Mobile, put it, the campaign is really about bringing users something special.
"Our partnership with Pandora is yet another example of how we are always looking to offer consumers something different," DeLuca says. "Together we have introduced a very unique service, a different way for consumers to experience music."
For Calzaretta, that's the difference that comes from working with an in-house team.
"We know the product; we know how it works," he says. "So we know how to deliver relevant, contextual, and smart branded creative inside the Pandora experience."
Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.
"Eclipse" image via Shutterstock.