Native Advertising Is Everybody's Problem

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Have you jumped on board the native advertising train yet?

There are few words more buzzworthy these days than "native advertising" (that’s a lie… "big data" is probably worse). Yesterday morning, I moderated a panel discussion at Content Marketing World in Cleveland titled, The Hottest Term in Content Marketing: The Opportunities in Native Advertising. It was a very fast-paced panel featuring Doug Kessler (Velocity Partners) Brant McLean (Director of Brand Partnerships, Tumblr), Stacy Martinet (Chief Marketing Officer, Mashable) and David Spiegel (VP of Brand Strategy & Social Publishing, Buzzfeed). I was asked to moderate this session, because back in February 2013, I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review titled, We Need a Better Definition of "Native Advertising". In my mind, I figured that this panel discussion would clear the air, and bring everyone – brands, agencies and media players – on to the same page.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

None of the panelists could agree upon a set definition for native advertising. In fact, most of the panelists felt like it’s simply a buzzword. Like we have moved on from social media to content marketing to native advertising in a snap, and all that we are really doing is polishing the advertising turd… as it were. The best description for native advertising that I could come up with – after spending a few hours post panel discussion thinking about it – is this: native advertising is content that is paid for by a brand and published on one, specific, site… the same site that created the content in conjunction with the brand. That’s basically it. As sad as that may seem. No standards. No rules. Anything goes. It’s every brand for themselves. Still, there is an enthusiasm for the advertising opportunity. That by bringing together the brand and the publisher, the results can be pretty amazing. Don’t believe me? Check out what Buzzfeed and Purina pulled off with Dear Kitten:

And you thought the Internet was nothing but cat videos ๐Ÿ˜‰

There’s a bigger question here, of course (there always is): do brands still need agencies if they’re going to partner with the publishers and work together – hand in hand – on the output? For a long while, agencies acted as the outsourced marketing department for brands. This was done, because businesses either couldn’t afford their own, or didn’t feel the need to have the center of excellence within the organization. Over the years, things have shifted. Most brands now have much more sophisticated marketing departments working in conjunction with their respective agencies. As native advertising continues to gain momentum, companies like Buzzfeed, Facebook, Tumblr, Mashable and many others are getting into the creative strategy and services business. Earlier in the week, I also had the chance to be in-conversation with Buzzfeed founder, Jonah Peretti, at a private marketing function. Having him describe to this audience of CMOs the production, editorial and creative offerings that Buzzfeed provides to brands as part of their services, made me realize that now – more than ever – the dynamics of what gets marketing to the consumer is more complex than ever before. Peretti – and the panel at Content Marketing World – all agreed that agencies still play a critical role in making things happen, but they also acknowledged that the relationships are getting more complicated and fuzzy as brands, agencies and publishers have tremendous crossover and overlap in terms of services and offerings.

It’s complicated.

It’s not just the bizarre love triangle of brands, agencies and publishers that exists. As a brand, when you’re playing in the native advertising space, you are spending a whole lot of time, energy and attention on one, specific, publisher trying to figure out what works. Most of the major players on the panel agreed that native advertising is not a silver bullet, but rather much more like an iterative process of trying to figure out what might work for a specific audience, and how to tweak something when a piece of content doesn’t connect. From the brand’s perspective, it’s not just the struggle in getting something like this funded and off the ground, but it’s also a struggle to figure out who should own this process. Is it the brand, the media company, the advertising agency, the digital marketing agency, the PR agency or the production companies who should be leading these types of initiatives? It would be easy (and obvious) for me to raise my hand and request that all such initiatives be driven by the digital marketing agency, but let’s face it: if something is working and gaining traction, everyone is going to make a run at it. In a world like ours, every company is looking for new sources of income and something unique to hang their hat on. So, what’s a brand to do? Two weeks ago, I published a post titled, A Twitch In Time, that was less about Amazon‘s billion dollar acquisition of Twitch and much more about a potentially new way for brands to think. Most brands are looking to build newsrooms as a place to tell more human and real stories. Maybe the opportunity is for brands to not just think about creating and publishing content, but more about how to become their own media network. If brands build their own broadcasting networks, these types of infrastructures will require a bunch of new services and offerings that could bring better client-agency-publisher integration along with it.

This begs the question: is the future less about native advertising and much more about brands becoming a network with their own studio?