Leaner, Meaner Media Finally Ready to Invade Agency Turf

In a Bid for Survival, Press Cozies Up to the Client Side

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Everyone loves a Cinderella story. Whether it's David slaying Goliath or a college basketball team's unlikely journey from dark horse to Final Four contender, it's hard not to root for an underdog.

There's one particular comeback, however, that some agencies may be none too happy to see.

As more brands ramp up their efforts to become storytellers in their own right, some are choosing to bypass certain agencies in favor of working directly with media owners. This slow shift, I believe, positions the press for a dramatic resurgence, one that could help it grab a significant share of the marketing-services landscape in the years ahead.

Understandably, this may sound far-fetched. After all, on one level, things look quite dire.

The press has long struggled to offset the loss of analog dollars with digital pennies. Now, however, it faces additional margin pressures thanks to the rise of highly efficient advertising trading desks. To make matters worse, this crunch comes just as many publishers find they are unable to either move to higher CPM inventory, like video, or charge consumers for content.

But that's only one side of the story -- and exactly why change is afoot.

The other side, which is harder to see, is that the media has emerged from its ongoing struggles far leaner and driven to survive. As a result, it is far more willing to do what it wouldn't before -- namely, cozy up to client-side marketers to help them create and/or amplify their content right alongside the editorial product.

All of this comes as marketers have an intense desire to scale and to tell their stories their own way.

The early manifestations of these efforts fall under the banner of native advertising and paid content distribution. These all emulate older models. Some, like The Atlantic, have adopted a syndication model that resembles advertorials. Others, like BuzzFeed, are choosing to emulate product placements by integrating brands into the storyline. A third group, like Forbes, is creating site sponsorships that allow brands to fund/shape the development of new editorial sections.

The bigger shift, however, is a change in the media's posture. It's now moving from defense to offense and quietly disintermediating parts of the agency ecosystem -- all in a quest for survival.

You can see evidence of this change in at least three ways.

First, many media owners have recently formed content studios that work directly with clients. Some won't call themselves agencies, but that's what they are. Meredith Marketing Solutions, for example, is "content agency of record" for Kraft, according to its website.

Second, the press is slowly realizing that the rising tide helps all boats. So the large media companies are forming alliances. For example, The New York Times' innovative Ricochet advertising product -- a reinvention of the reprint -- is also used by this publication, People magazine and Conde Nast.

Last but not least, the Fourth Estate is rapidly instilling a marketing ethos in the newsroom just as marketers are pivoting toward a more real-time, editorial approach to the way they produce content. The most savvy journalists today recognize that they are indirectly linked to sales, even as they maintain a hard church-state line. (I find that many of our initial conversations with the press around branded-content distribution start with editorial types who then pass the baton to the sales side.)

When taken together, I believe that this bodes equally well for media owners and brand marketers. Sure, many questions remain about whether audiences will engage with and/or trust branded content. However, what's unmistakable is that the media -- driven by survival -- has its game on in new ways. This means that some parts of the agency ecosystem need to be on notice and develop ways to add value in the middle.

Steve Rubel is chief content strategist at Edelman. Reach him at [email protected]

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