While The Guardian’s editorial team was shaking things up with a historic scoop on digital spying, courtesy of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, the feisty British newspaper’s business side has been quietly working away on new ad products for its online operations in the U.S. and UK. This week, The Guardian previewed a new “bespoke” branded content platform for Unilever, highlighting the consumer packaged goods giant’s commitment to a environmentally friendly, sustainable business model.
In 2010, Unilever publicly stated that it hopes to double its profits while cutting its environmental impact by half over the next 10 years. To showcase this mission, The Guardian has created a multichannel digital hub integrating original content with social-media engagement and live events, all with the overarching goal of spurring discussion of sustainability issues and ultimately encouraging people to adopt more sustainable lifestyles.
The Unilever program will take advantage of The Guardian’s “open journalism” model, making its content free to all, and will also feature a strong interactive element, engaging readers with personal challenges and invitations for user-generated content.
The year-long campaign, scheduled to begin in March, required nine months of negotiation and preparation, and is supposed to carry a price tag in the seven-figure range; The Guardian would not share precise numbers. It will debut on The Guardian’s U.K. Web site and then (if all goes well) will likely migrate to the U.S. not too long after.
The Unilever campaign marks the official debut of Guardian Labs, the newspaper’s new branded content operation, which boasts a staff of 133, including creatives, strategists, designers, video and content specialists. Guardian Labs can also draw on the expertise of the newspaper’s editorial staff, although no reporters participate in actual content creation.
Guardian deputy CEO David Pemsel said the paper’s “bespoke” branded content strategy (he eschews “native advertising,” as this frequently simply means a particular format or look) hinges on the quality of the ideas presented as the key to engaging smart, informed consumers. That’s why it’s important to pick the brains of Guardian journos, even if they aren’t writing articles themselves: “We would never ask the journalists to write these articles, because they would never do it…. Journalists don’t come to the Guardian to write content on behalf of our clients, but they do have really interesting ideas.”
Looking to the future, Pemsel positioned “bespoke” branded content at the thoughtful (and more human) end of the emerging advertising spectrum, opposite the increasing mechanization represented by programmatic buying: “The way that advertising is going with programmatic, if you don’t have something like Guardian Labs, essentially the intersection of clients and agencies will just become about managing yields.”
He added that publishers like The Guardian can play a role facilitating this kind of creativity: “I’ve worked in ad agencies, and their model is getting terribly disrupted. When the client says ‘we’d like to discuss the role of content with you,’ they don’t know how to respond to that. ... But with the right content strategy and the right buying strategy, publishers can sit somewhere between the ad agency and the media agency, helping them create these programs.”