winter / 2015

The magazine of branded content
Mission Control
JWT director explains how branded content has fundamentally changed the way ad agencies think about brands
Dec 8, 2015

David Ogilvy once said that advertising is a business of words, but advertising agencies are infested with men and women who cannot write.

That was a long time ago, before “brand” and “journalism” became intertwined.

As brands continue to migrate to an always-on approach with social media, and embrace branded content, ad agencies have been playing a furious game of catch up. That’s why JWT hired Ingrid Bernstein as director of experience in 2010. With a background in media at News America, she’s seen the ad agency landscape and its “business of words” take on new and different forms of connecting brands with consumers by embracing branded content.

Content Magazine: For brands that produce content to go head-to-head with magazines and publishers, they need a point of difference. How can content providers help brands find that point of difference?
Ingrid Bernstein: Any publication that creates editorial content has a voice, and I think it's really important for brands to realize that they need to find an editorial voice too. That's where I think the point of difference comes from; also, in a sense, there can be a utility to content. Brands can look for under-served themes and topics, provide their audience with something that they need. That's another way to differentiate.

“It's really important for brands to realize that they need to find an editorial voice.”

Would you recommend that a client produce a branded publication?
I’ve not done that in the print world, but on the digital front, we've done it a whole bunch of different ways—a full hub, a standalone, or a section on an existing corporate website, or just completely distributed models not having a hub. I don't think you can say one size fits all. In many of the programs that I've worked on, we've come to see that distributing the content to the places where people already are—as opposed to having to drive people to a hub—can be much better in terms of exposure, impressions and engagement. What we found when we do some hub-based models is that it costs a lot to get people there and it's often hard to keep them there.

From what you're seeing, is there a hunger among brands for brand journalism?
Brand journalism continues to be a way to do a particular kind of thing for clients, which often is driving thought leadership, and to get brands into conversations that they want to get into. It’s also not as reactive as a brand newsroom experience. It relies more on monthly calendars.

We’ve done brand journalism campaigns for Microsoft and for a financial services firm. We also did a campaign for a mobile technology brand, to establish their leadership in the category. We made content that celebrated invention in mobile technology—the implicit takeaway being that the brand was driving the innovation. Brand journalism is really great for that kind of thing. It's not necessarily the right solution for everything.

“Brand journalism can get brands into conversations that they want to get into.”

For brands, social media can be tricky, as critical chatter or a negative event can sometimes take away the ability of the brand to control its own story. How can brands make sure they exert influence?
I think with the profusion of touch points, and therefore the profusion of content-populated touch points, that brands really have to be clear about what their brand behavior should be. Brand behavior is not always sufficiently considered and described in brand strategy, but it's becoming increasingly relevant and I think people are starting to talk about it more. What brands need to do is to know at these different touch points in these different social settings how they should behave—what their tonality should be, what kinds of things they should talk about, who they should talk to, how they should interact with people. Brands need to be more like a human who behaves differently in different settings instead of being single-minded where they say the same thing again and again and again in similar ways.

Ad agencies have historically been very good at illuminating product benefits. Has the influx of content marketing changed the way ad agencies think?
I just read Faris Yakob’s recent book, Paid Attention, which talks about [ad agencies and product benefits]. A long time ago, back when TV and radio were just being developed, ad agencies made the programming for those channels in order to get the product placement. They'd do these single-sponsor shows like Blue Ribbon Bouts or Camel News Reel. It was all product benefits, all the time. But the economics of media and production changed. So I think that yes, with branded content and brand journalism becoming more popular, the advertising field is quite different, it is very different actually.

“Product benefits, like unique selling points, have gone out of fashion.”

Have ad agencies had to play catch-up to reflect the different way that consumers are engaging?
Yeah, definitely. I think there are a few different answers to this. One is that product benefits, like unique selling points, are, I hesitate to say this, but, in a sense, they've gone out of fashion and I think a lot of brands are pursuing much higher-order purposes. So where you have, for example, Always, the "Like a Girl" campaign, which got a lot of awards this year. It's all about getting people to think differently about girls and women and not pigeonholing them as weak or less capable or less strong. That's a much higher purpose than describing why their feminine hygiene products work better. That's one kind of thing that I think is already very much in full swing in ad agency culture. When brands focus on a purpose, brand content becomes an integral part of the expression of that purpose.