Anna Watkins London Photograph by David Levene  5/2/14You’ve gone from being a managing director at a media agency to being a managing director at a media agency within a newspaper publishing company. That’s a very 2014 pivot. How goes the transition?

It’s interesting. So many people have asked me if it’s been a culture shock moving over to a media owner where my whole focus has been on setting up a new branded content division.

To my mind it’s not a culture shock because the journalists are some of the most brilliant creatives and storytellers in the business.

Guardian Labs has already enjoyed a few successes, including its most recent tie-in with Unilever’s Project Sunlight sustainable living campaign. Any other examples?

One is the partnership with EE, which is the first 4G mobile telephony company in the U.K.

EE came to us with a really interesting brief: “Can you drive awareness of the launch of EE as a new brand?” They wanted us to help Guardian readers understand the benefits of 4G technology in creating a bigger, better, and more connected world.

The Guardian’s core proposition is its commitment to Open Journalism. In other words, inviting readers in, not being behind a pay wall, Comment is Free – all of that – so we created EE Guardian Witness, the world’s first global citizen journalism app.

We dedicated an editorial team to the app, who then used the app to invite our readers from around the world to contribute to stories.

Assignments sat very highbrow, such as reportage on the ground from Gaza and Iraq, and ran all the way through to more lighthearted fare, like taking pictures of your pets in the rain.

Through this partnership we not only smashed all of EEs targets, but we won a slew of marketing awards for it. But what’s even more interesting is that we won a Press Gazette British Journalism Award for Innovation of the Year for the app.

The Guardian partnered with UK communications company EE to create the award-winning GuardianWitness app.

The Guardian partnered with U.K. telecommunications company EE to create the award-winning GuardianWitness app.

Introducing native advertising in newspapers is an especially tricky enterprise. How does the Guardian protect itself from potential erosion of trust among readers?

We’re incredibly black and white about it. There’s no grey for us.

Independent research shows the Guardian is the most trusted news brand. One of the reasons we are so trusted is because we are absolutely clear to our readers about where our commercial partnerships lie.

We’re clear about what is and isn’t independent, which is why we deliberately avoid using the term “native advertising.” We only use two labels and we are absolutely hard and fast. Doing this does lose us business, because we are not prepared to compromise our editorial integrity.

The Guardian recently reported a significant rise in digital revenue. How much has business from Guardian Labs contributed to the bottom line?

I can’t say. Everyone has been asking but I’m afraid I can’t tell you. It’s a good story though!

The Guardian has declared itself to be a digital-first publication. Is there room for print at Guardian Labs?

If you track the print circulation figures in the U.K., it’s really interesting because a few years ago everyone including the Guardian, was predicting that print circulation would drop off a cliff. It was doom and gloom.

Actually, we’ve been holding circulation figures steady and a couple of quarters ago we saw a rise in circulation. Part of this is because we’ve been launching supplements like Tech Monthly and Do Something. Print is actually a significant part of our revenue.

So yes digital, including mobile, is an absolutely fundamental part of our revenue, particularly globally because in Australia and the U.S. we don’t have a print edition.

Our Unilever branded content is primarily digital but when we’re telling the sustainable brand stories about Unilever brands, a lot of what we’re doing is still print, because if you look at our print circulation figures, it’s a fundamental part of reaching our audience here in the U.K.

Screenshot Unilever project sunlight

Unilever’s Project Sunlight campaign is featured on both the digital and print editions of the Guardian U.K.

How much do you rely on the Guardian’s pre-existing audience to reach people with branded content?

Ideally you’d say both pre-existing and new readers, but here’s the thing: If we’re putting a value to it and in effect selling our audience into a media agency that wants to build the business rational, it tends to be based on our existing audience.

As we’re running campaigns and become better at tracking them, we’ll see that shift towards new audiences.

It goes back to the Guardian’s proposition of open journalism. We’re very clear that yes we create content, whether it’s for Unilever or EE, however we actively encourage our readers to share that content off platform and to enable our clients to take our content and share it across their own channels as well.

What we’re very focused on is figuring out how we can get the best value for our clients and our readers through a paid-owned and owned model.

The debate about paid versus owned media is still a live one. Some brands are creating their own platforms while others are creating branded content for other publications. What do you think is the best route?

It really does depend on the client. If you look at some of the most effective storytelling in terms of the beauty of the story, the strength and power of the story, as well as how that story has been amplified and optimized, you need a combination of skill sets to do that.

You need journalists or expert storytellers, you need SEO managers and you need web editors. It requires significant investment to do it well.

So my question is not whether brands can do it – of course they can do it. The question is whether it’s the right business model for them.

Guardian Labs homepage screenshot

Guardian Labs’ homepage.

A lot of American publications have launched their own content studios, but the U.K. is also considered a leader when it comes to branded content. How do you see the U.K. market evolving?

I think the U.K. market is very advanced. It’s interesting. You can see it in the fact that now a number of media owners are making significant hires from media agencies. They’re hiring senior client service people or planners because they are realizing this is where a real revenue opportunity lies.

A majority of them now have dedicated creative partnership divisions. A number of media agencies here actually have creative directors, which is relatively new. I personally hate this word, but a lot of them have “ideation” directors.

All of them are realizing this is a huge opportunity in terms of winning awards, creating a point of difference, and winning and keeping clients.

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