Digital Agency 'Newsrooms' Brand Oil Spills and Cat Videos

'Brand Journalism' Straddles Blurred Line Between Ads and Edit

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At 10 a.m. on April 15, Deep Focus manager Christina Cooksey gathered a group of social-media managers in the Moment Studio -- the agency's new "digital newsroom" -- for the team's morning editorial meeting. She browsed the morning's headlines while others pitched stories pegged to the day's events.

Moment Studio promoted Purina with a viral cat video on Tax Day.
Moment Studio promoted Purina with a viral cat video on Tax Day.
One staffer suggested running a Vine video of cat pawing at a tax form because it was Tax Day. Ms. Cooksey added it to the editorial calendar, assigned it to a team member and moved on to the next pitch.

While it works a lot like a newsroom, the Moment Studio's mission differs from most news operations': The cat video was made to promote client Purina.

As the lines between advertising and editorial continue to blur online, Moment is just one of the newsrooms sprouting at digital shops. The idea is to marry journalism and marketing to promote clients or themselves, by producing what's sometimes called "brand journalism." The output varies, from videos for marketers to "thought leadership" pieces on digital media.

The question is whether editorial with marketing under the hood can get much mileage with consumers. Complaints about the media don't usually prescribe a bigger role for advertisers.

Agencies say running their own editorial operations can benefit marketers and consumers.

Many employees at Hugehave a natural enthusiasm for exploring technology, audience research and design, said Aaron Shapiro, CEO. "It's a key way for us to continually develop our own expertise and push the quality of the work we do with clients," he said.

Huge has hired former business consultant Ken Allard to head Huge Ideas, which provides blog posts, aggregated news and analysis about digital advertising.

"This will be a resource for the community," Mr. Allard said. "It's not about convincing anybody that we're great at what we do."

Interactive agency Rosetta has an even larger writing operation -- 40 writers who cover health-care, film and TV topics for the agency's clients, and another 12 who create SEO-friendly branded content for clients.

Digitas has found success with Brand Live, which helps clients take advantage of real-time events. It helped Tide create content in 2012 after the detergent was used to clean up an oil spill at the Daytona 500.

Digital agency Possibleearlier this year began a content effort dubbed Quarterly, which will produce three to four digital issues of video, Q&As and articles each year, said Chief Creative Officer Jon McVey. While the primary goal is to create original editorial that presents the agency's perspective on an issue, certain pieces of work will be self-serving, highlighting how well the agency does what it's paid to do.

Touting your agency's own work might seem at odds with creating unbiased editorial, but Mr. Allard said agencies can reconcile the two by being up front.

"Objectivity doesn't matter. Transparency does. ... No one wants us to report. But we can advise on a strategic decision and show you our point of view," he said.

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