Church-State Wall Should Protect Integrity, Not Block Innovation

Viewpoint: Brands Can Help Deliver Valuable Content -- and Revenue

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Scott Donaton
Scott Donaton
The publisher of a successful glossy women's monthly buttonholed me with a question I've heard at least once a week since starting a branded-content operation three months ago: "Is there a place for magazines in this?"

My answer -- surprising even me, given that I spent most of my career as a journalist: "There will be if your editors wrap their brains around the idea that brands, without deceiving audiences, can deliver information and entertainment that is as worthy of your readers' time as anything else in the magazine."

The fabled church-state wall, constructed to guard editorial integrity, somewhere along the way instead became a barrier to innovation.

DEXTER: Wired's 'cover boy.'
DEXTER: Wired's 'cover boy.'
I'm not suggesting it be pulled down; as a protector of credibility and the consumer trust that advertisers rely on, it remains incredibly valuable. But as the magazine industry confronts larger systemic challenges, it can at least try to avoid self-inflected wounds that further hamper its ability to transition to new-media realities.

There have been aggressive assaults on the wall over the years that make its blind defense against any and all who approach somewhat understandable. As an editor and a publisher, I've dealt with marketers who've tried to erase the line. "You don't want to deceive my readers," I once said to a client, who admitted, "Sure I do."

That's not OK, and won't ever be. It destroys the very relationship brands leverage to their benefit when they advertise in a magazine. It hurts the advertiser as much as it does the magazine and its readers.

But there is a place for brands to provide valuable, contextual content that is clearly delineated yet enhances the reader experience. (Think Showtime's playful "Dexter" ads from last year that re-imagined magazine covers.) Still, that's something many editors -- out of habit, fear or ego -- refuse to acknowledge. (Esquire's David Granger is among the more prominent exceptions, regularly deploying innovations that benefit editorial and marketing.)

So what's the real issue separating the magazine industry from other media segments -- TV, digital video, film, music, gaming -- that have recognized brands as content providers? Why would publishers limit their access to a revenue stream (branded content) forecast to grow at a 9% compound annual growth rate over the next five years?

One of the easiest analogies is to broadcast-TV networks, which divide their entertainment and news operations. What they'll do in one division they mostly avoid in the other (with the exception of morning shows, which merrily blur the line, particularly when it comes to company-owned assets). But in the magazine industry, every title considers itself to be produced by the news division, a dangerous conceit. There is a difference between a news magazine and a beauty title, between a business book and a celebrity gossip weekly, between The New Yorker and Los Angeles Confidential. It's not (necessarily) about quality or reader value. It's about the role in the lives of their audiences.

Brands aren't developing original content to trick consumers. To the contrary, they use narrative to deliver information to audiences and engage them more deeply. It moves us past interruptive advertising to invitational messages that provide a fair value exchange.

There's no reason an entertainment company can't provide clearly labeled content such as behind-the-scenes glimpses to the audience of an entertainment magazine. There's no reason a food brand can't provide cooking tips to the readers of an epicurean title. And those are among the least creative examples. We already know readers expect, even seek, ads in the pages of magazines. Providing beautifully designed, contextual content will only strengthen that bond.

Guard the wall from those who would destroy it. But find a way to recognize those who can help drive your medium forward, and let them pass.

Scott Donaton is president-CEO of Ensemble, a branded-entertainment agency formed through an alliance between Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mediabrands unit and Medialink. He is a former publisher at Ad Age and Entertainment Weekly.
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