Vox Media Beats the ‘Branded’ Buzz

At AdMonsters, we’re wont to say, “Branded is the new premium.”

That’s more than just a catchy slogan. As we’re told by Armando Turco, who heads up Vox Media’s branded content shop as General Manager of Vox Creative, the volume of branded content being developed by top publishers rivals what creative agencies are putting out in the world. And Armando should know—he came to Vox Media in early 2017 following years of working with a variety of creative agencies.

To hear him tell it, leading publishers’ branded content studios are where the action is right now. Publishers have unique opportunities to create “integrated” experiences–which Armando will be talking about, along with Erica Osher (Senior Director of Sponsorship Products and NPM Creative at NPR) and Fergal Carr (SVP, Consumer Product at Hearst), in a panel focused on forward-looking branded content initiatives at Ops in New York on June 5.

I put quotation marks around “integrated” in that last sentence because, as with any white-hot topic in digital media, a buzz word’s meaning can become amorphous really fast. Armando answered some of our questions about the substance, and the steps publishers can actually take right now, beyond the branded buzz.

Armando Turco_Vox Media cropYou published an op-ed this past fall about jumping to Vox Media from the creative agency life, where you said, “In nine months I’ve touched more content for clients than I may have in the past five years.” What are the best publisher in-house creative shops doing now that agencies aren’t (or can’t)?

I think the North Star for most marketers and marketing services companies today is convergence (which is really just another way of saying “integration,” a term so overused that it has unfortunately lost some of its meaning).

How do you converge more insights, more tools and more capabilities into fewer teams that can achieve greater impact more efficiently? Best-in-class companies like Vox Media are converging data, technology, audience, creativity and production at a scale and speed that no agency or collection of agencies can do.

Not every pub has the resources to set up a full creative shop for branded content, of course. For those who can’t, can you share some guidelines for how pubs and agencies can work together on branded content campaigns, to make the best use of each side’s core capabilities (and to avoid maxing out either side’s bandwidth)?

In today’s media landscape, it’s more important than ever that marketers behave more like publishers if they want to build trustworthy brands that can engage audiences with valuable content and experiences that build loyalty over time (in a way that advertising campaigns alone can’t do).

We consult for a number of advertising partners who are starting to think more and more like editors, and therefore have as much to gain from Vox Media’s editorial expertise as they do from our branded content capability. That’s a good place for any publisher to start, regardless of the scope of their creative resources.

As branded content has become better integrated, there’s been some concern about users’ ability to distinguish editorial content from sponsored content. Is this a concern to you? To what degree are publishers or brands responsible for this aspect of users’ media literacy?

It’s a concern in the sense that we take trust and transparency seriously. While we are proud of the quality of all of our content, we think it’s important that our audience understands which of that content is directly funded by, and co-created with, our advertising brand partners. And so we carefully disclose when content is editorial versus branded versus sponsored.

But we also think it’s important to educate the audience on our business model, and help them understand that the growth of our business and the support of our advertisers helps to fund the great, unbiased, independent journalism and storytelling that our editorial networks deliver. We’re committed to providing more of that education and tapping our audience for feedback on their advertising experience, and our branded content, starting with videos and surveys like this.