Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 is a documentary about the history of the Air Jordan sneakers. It’s made by Dexton Deboree of Los York, a creative agency associated with Nike. But don’t get it confused with Pepsi’s Uncle Drew project — this film isn’t actually branded content. It’s a documentary Deboree made about the history of these legendary sneakers, with no Nike funding involved (though they did facilitate some interviews and introductions). No denying that probably a lot of love will go into the film that highlights an iconic Nike product that earned $130 million in its first year. But the product’s legacy as shown in the film is also one of high costs and violence surrounding the shoes as a status symbol. As Deboree told AdWeek: “‘My perspective on it — and [Nike] agreed, [was that] the only way for me to tell an unbiased story was to have some distance and go away and do it,’ Deboree said. ‘If they’re paying for it or being my partner in creating it, then it becomes their version of the story. Not to say that’s wrong, but if you were talking about yourself it’s almost hard to be honest and critical that it is for someone else to step in and tell the story.’”
As people become more and more immune to advertising (and the volume of product placements decline but the level of integration increases), perhaps the next big thing for brands is to spread their bets around and act like “content venture capitalists.”
Given the low cost associated with simply facilitating projects, and the resulting output of high quality, authentic, independent storytelling — brands could make multiple simultaneous bets, even if the resulting output is not 100% positive or doesn’t mention the brand directly. It’d be quite different from the meticulous planning that goes into commissioning branded content currently.
This approach would dovetail with previous analysis we’ve done that shows content follows a power law with 10 percent of content driving 90 percent of traffic. It’s only natural to assume that content projects will follow the same pattern — meaning that brands need to spread their bets around and take a proactive approach to seeding a quantity of projects and letting great creators focus on quality.
On the publisher side, many are already rethinking the walls between paid content and editorial. Gary Vaynerchuk launched a new media company called One37pm that isn’t separating paid and editorial teams. Content will still be labeled as sponsored as is legally mandated, but paid content will go alongside standard content and won’t be written by a separate team. As with PureWow (a recent Gary V. acquisition), content will be treated as content no matter who pays for it.
Brands and creators are pushing the envelope regarding what brand content can be — and how “branded” it has to be to be effective. Expect to see brands, creators, and publishers work together to do less “check the box” content creation and more authentic, less promotional storytelling.
With the “pivot to video” myth behind us — e.g. the idea that creating more social video to chase higher CPMs would be a singular successful strategy — video creation is still increasing exponentially, and smarter monetization models are continuing to evolve, particularly for legacy print brands. Time’s merger with Meredith is shaping up to be a perfect test case — Real Simple (a Meredith property that generates 70% of it’s profit from print) is launching a Facebook Live cooking school this week that will monetize with paid placements, a new shopping section, and creating an experiential apartment in Brooklyn to house events and serve as a shooting location for branded video. Likewise, Meredith’s Food & Wine Classic event happening this week is the first time it’s been used to generate content for sponsored or editorial use. A team of 7 is pumping out content while holed up in a house in Aspen sponsored by San Pellegrino.On the broadcast end of things, “America’s Sweetheart” Katie Couric is entering into a short form online video partnership with The Skimm, sponsored by P&G. She told the Wall Street Journal that the partnership allows her “complete editorial independence.” It’s probably a very attractive offer given her previous experience creating Yahoo video content that she described as “being in the witness protection program.”
And even digital native publishers are expanding video distribution — Vox and Buzzfeed are now using Hollywood agencies to sell their content to media platforms, banking on expert advice and connections to place their content most effectively to reach their audience. Insider Inc, the publisher behind Business Insider, is the latest brand to move into OTT. They’re aiming for the long-term audience gain among young people who may not be watching it’s full-length shows on Facebook Watch (and potentially safeguarding their content against yet another algorithm change).
It’s not just the anecdotes making the case. Magna Global announced a study this week forecasting digital global ad sales will grow by 15% to reach $250 billion, with 27% of that amount going toward video alone. When it comes to media budgets, the dollars are only flowing in one direction.
In news that will surprise almost nobody, a new Edelman study out this week revealed that only 41% of users trust social media as a source for news. In the United States, the number was 30%. Bullying, fake news and privacy scandals such as Cambridge Analytica were cited as critical factors for the downturn from 2015 (numbers were 47% and 35%, respectively).
Brands are less trusting too — this week, Keith Weed of Unilever announced the brand will no longer work with influencers that buy followers — or the platforms who abide that behavior. Ebay and Diageo have been narrowing down their definition of “influencer” to ensure that only the people dedicated to the platform (not folks just looking for a quick transaction) will be working with the brand going forward. Everyone’s talking about the backlash at Cannes this week, and The Atlantic had a great look last week at how insta-famous influencers — many with fake followers — are driving luxury hotels crazy.
But the platforms are no less trusting of brands or publishers. Facebook is now requiring brands to name their data sources in 1st party data uploads, all the while alienating publishers publishing legitimate political coverage by accidentally punishing them as if they were improperly labelled political ads. Not the best for building trust, considering their post-GDPR privacy updates (along with those by Google) hinder publishers’ abilities to independently track audiences across platforms. Third party measurement may become the norm in 2018 for publishers designing multi-platform campaigns.
Trust is moving in only one direction: less and less. Audiences don’t trust platforms to deliver content to them without ulterior motives, publishers and brands don’t feel empowered, and platforms are on the alert for those looking to take advantage.
Short term, privacy and allowances around data will be a hot button issue for a while, causing friction between buyers, sellers, creators, and distributors. Laws around regulation will likely shift as we learn more about audiences and their comfort levels.
But long term, this can only lead to good things. Platforms who can verify that publishers get what they pay for will stick around, while bad actors and fraudsters will be chased out of Dodge. A marketing ecosystem that prioritizes verification (of reach and/or results) will only be a good thing. Whoever survives this standoff, consumers will be all the better for it.
Curated and published by Adam Orshan, Brit McGinnis, Janelle Elfar, and Matt Levin in New York City.