Tina Brown called it a pathetic moment in journalism. Gerard Baker, managing editor at The Wall Street Journal, compared the practice to a deal with the devil. Andrew Sullivan worried that media companies are "destroying the village in order to save it."
Protestations aside, native advertising is the rage -- and storied media institutions like The New York Times and The Washington Post are joining in.
To captain those efforts, both papers sought execs with a Forbes pedigree. Kevin Gentzel, the Post's chief revenue officer, and Meredith Kopit Levien, exec-VP advertising at the Times, learned from Forbes Media's chief product officer, Lewis D'Vorkin, an outspoken proponent and pioneer of native ads.
"We were incubating this whole notion of giving marketers a seat at the table," said Mr. Gentzel, Forbes' chief revenue officer from 2010 to 2012. "It was a powerful experience."
Mr. Gentzel and Ms. Kopit Levien are among a cadre of Forbes alumni helping publishers carve out revenue with native-ad platforms and programmatic buying. The diaspora is influencing the very top of the media world.
"These alumni are the first to actually chip away and transform archaic business practices and begin to modernize the culture, model and conversation," said Robin Steinberg, exec VP-and director of publishing investment and activation at MediaVest. "And they're evolving and restructuring what were once very conservative and traditional organizations."
Some have argued Forbes devalued its overall brand by allowing brands and bloggers to publish under its banner. In the long run that might hurt the value of the company, which is up for sale.
"We're doing what we think is the right thing to do for our audience," Mr. D'Vorkin said in an earlier Ad Age interview.
Mr. Gentzel, who helped Mr. D'Vorkin develop and sell BrandVoice, is now helping the Post ramp up its native-ad platform, called BrandConnect, which lets marketers post content to the Post's website. He has brought on more advertisers and expanded its scope to include print advertorials.
"The experiences around innovation and invention prepared me for the bigger stage at the Post," he said. (Katherine Weymouth, publisher of the Post, has said Mr. Gentzel was not hired because of his native-ad experience.)
Ms. Kopit Levien has gone on to perhaps an even larger stage as exec-VP advertising at The New York Times. (She became Forbes' chief revenue officer after Mr. Gentzel left in 2012.)
She's steering a project fraught with difficulty: introducing a native-advertising platform at the Times, where members of the newsroom will look upon the practice with skepticism. (The Times, like the Post, has stressed that native ads are clearly labeled and not produced by their newsrooms.)
Mike Smith helped develop Forbes' efforts in programmatic buying -- another area where the company was aggressive. Hearst grabbed him in July to shore up its programmatic efforts.
The Forbes alum with perhaps the most understated influence on native advertising might be Lauren Wray, who led the San Francisco sales team. Now VP-sales at Sharethrough, she's helping companies like Time Inc. and USA Today Sports Media Group deliver native ads to their sites and make native advertising scale. If Mr. Gentzel and Ms. Kopit Levien are developing the oil wells, Ms. Wray is building the pipeline.
Joe McCambley, co-founder of New York agency The Wonder Factory, said the publishing world will benefit if these Forbes alumni live up to their expectations, which is to arrive at media companies destined to invent ad products.
"Hopefully, they won't settle to merely copy the Forbes model," he added.
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