Branded Content: In Vogue... Vanity Fair and GQ too
In January, when Nathan Lump assumed his role as Condé Nast’s director of branded content, the position was new, but to Condé, Lump was not. A former editor at Condé Nast Traveller who went on to agency work at JWT and Hill Holiday, Lump rejoined Condé in 2013 as the magazine’s brand development director. With his elevation to company-wide branded content director, the challenge is that much larger: creating branded content suitable to fly under the flags of Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ and everything else in the empire that S.I. Newhouse built.
We visited Nathan and talked about his mission and the rise of branded content.
Content: You started off in publishing, then went to the agency side for three years and now you’re back in publishing. Tell us about your journey.
Nathan Lump: I left The New York Times in 2009, partially because I felt like media companies were not being as strategic as I thought they could be in terms of how they were monetizing content. It wasn’t being approached in a very creative way. So I came back to Condé Nast in an editorial capacity at one of the brands. I’d originally been exploring corporate level positions but then ended up at Condé Nast Traveller, where I had worked in the ’90s, and was really brought on specifically to do that, to merge a strategic mindset with an understanding of quality editorial content creation, and to help the edit team and the editor-in-chief be more purposeful across channels.
How have you experienced the evolution of content marketing in recent years?
NL: Someone was saying to me the other day that in the last eighteen months, content marketing has really gotten real. Everyone’s playing in it, to varying degrees. The media companies are, to a certain extent, creative agencies are, media agencies are, PR agencies are, there are small independent shops, and brands are building their own in-house capabilities. I would expect over time we would start to see some of those options come to the forefront a bit more than others.
Can you give us a forecast about how important this role and this division is to the company today and how important it will be in 2015?
NL: Right now I’m part of a nascent initiative to build something within the company. So to put it in some context, the company has always had creative services teams, both at the brand level and at the corporate level, who have traditionally been charged with making advertorial products and traditional advertising. That is a particular skill set and is still important to our business.
Likewise, the brands have to varying degrees at Condé Nast—and when I say the brands I mean the individual magazine titles, or digital brands, in some cases—also engaged in this kind of work in bits and pieces. So, the need is growing. That’s why I’m in this newly created position. Right now I would say that it is a relatively small piece of the puzzle, but I would say by this time next year, I would expect this to be potentially an important part of the bottom line in terms of how we satisfy our clients. What we see is increasing requests for branded content, increasing requests for ways to distribute branded content and to do so at scale.
“To me the greatest growth area is in digitally distributed content that is more of an 'always-on' kind of approach rather than episodic.”
What percentage of that kind of material is going to live on Condé websites or in publications, and what percentage will you distribute through iTunes or elsewhere?
NL: The short answer to that question is I don’t know. We are a media company so we view our own distribution network as important and valuable. So we certainly tend to begin our conversations there. That said, I believe that the brands that we work with increasingly understand that if they are going to make content, or be involved in the making of content, that they should distribute it to all kinds of places and I think an evolution for Condé Nast as a company would be to say, “That’s OK, that’s great, and you know, you should still work with us potentially as the content creation engine for your efforts and you would hopefully distribute that content on our properties.”
What about stand-alone products, like Red Bull Magazine, are salespeople equipped to sell that kind of product?
NL: We have always done some, what I would consider to be, true custom publishing. Condé Nast has a long history of doing that. I won’t say that it’s ever been a gigantic part of our business. We still do it, we still get requests for that sort of thing. I tend to think that that is not necessarily the growth area. What I see, with the explosion of opportunities around native advertising, on publisher sites, the greatest growth area is in digitally distributed content that is more of a “always-on” kind of approach rather than episodic.
There’s a very relevant recent history of some of the biggest legacy media companies in the world with the best publishers and the best salespeople unable to get it together in this space. What do you take away from that?
NL: I think that the reason why you see a lot of failure or diminishing returns in the way that publishers have approached this, is because they have clung to the traditional way of doing it. And also I think there has been a really firm desire to keep this all in print. Not that there is not a place for print, print is still a wonderful engagement tool, it’s a huge piece of our business, it’s really important, but I think for a lot of brands that are waking up to the opportunities around content marketing, print is not going to be their primary vehicle, and you have a lot of departments, a lot of teams, that were set up at media companies that were designed to do this in print, really.
If you approach things from a print-first mentality, it will often take you in a direction that isn’t particularly sustainable for the new models—the way that brands want to do this, and the resources they are willing to put against it. I think that most custom publishing units of most of the media companies were designed to do the advertorial model.
“The way that I like to approach this is that if you took the brand out, you took the brand’s name off of it, and you never mentioned it by name, the content would still be valuable to the user.”
Is traditional advertising under threat?
NL: I don’t think traditional advertising is going to go away because everybody has decided that content marketing is cool. There will always be a place for traditional ads that tell straight up story or communicate in a very explicit way what a brand thinks its value proposition is for their constituency or their audience, their user or consumer.
Has the app magazine had its moment?
NL: I don’t want to say that it’s come and gone, but as we all know, publishers have had a lot of trouble getting traction with the tablet specifically as a delivery vehicle for magazine content. I personally—and I’m speaking personally, this is not necessarily the opinion of the company—I think that what we will see with tablets is a convergence between web and print, as opposed to the idea of a print replica or an interactive version of print on the tablets. I think that a tablet device could combine what is interesting and quick and real-time about the web with some of the more thoughtfully and carefully produced content that comes out of our print products; that would be my own prediction for where that will go from a product perspective.
Will you tap editors and writers from the editorial ranks?
NL: Condé Nast is really in the process of establishing very clear guidelines about what the relationship between the kind of work that I’m doing and editorial can be, and there’s kind of a pretty strict line.
Where you do see us able to leverage the expertise of our brands is in working with many of the same content creators that our brands themselves work with. So for Condé Nast brands—unlike, for instance, a New York Times or a Wall Street Journal—the majority of our content is ultimately made by people who are not on staff at our magazines. We work with freelancers by and large, writers, photographers, stylists, artists, and illustrators who are not in the full-time employ of Condé Nast. We have relationships with them, we work with them, but we don’t own them. And they are often folks who have great expertise in various topics.
And you’re doing strategy and vision.
NL: That’s very much what editors do, right? What editors at our brands do as well is that in many cases they are not making the content; they’re coming up with the ideas for the content and then they are helping to structure and shape that content so that it meets what the brand feels that it needs to do on behalf of the end user. And that’s a role that I and hopefully my team will be taking; we will be like the editors at the brands.
What would you want people to know about your philosophy, this vision, this division?
NL: I really believe fundamentally that branded content done the right way must be approached from an editorial perspective, but then move back towards the brand. By that I mean that all forms of brand-initiated communications begin with the idea “what do we want to say.” Editorial ideas fundamentally start in the opposite place. They begin with “what do they want to hear.” It sounds simple but that is an extraordinarily different mind-set. I want the end expression of our work to be a legitimate and true expression of that—of a user-centric mindset.
The way that I like to approach this is that if you took the brand out, you took the brand’s name off of it, and you never mentioned it by name, the content would still be valuable to the user. It would still mean something to them, they would learn something from it, they would be entertained by it. That means that it is fundamentally editorial content whatever else happens around it. And that’s what I want us to be making; it’s what I believe we should be making as an editorial company, as a company that is built on editorial products.
“What we see is increasing requests for branded content, increasing requests for ways to distribute branded content and to do so at scale.”
Talk to us about measurement.
NL: Content is notoriously hard to measure beyond some really basic metrics, but I fundamentally believe that we have to set the bar relatively high for what we make. So that’s what I’m here to do.