Images by John Caserta, Jon Trillana and Simple Icons via The Noun Project.

Images by John Caserta, Jon Trillana and Simple Icons via The Noun Project.

Is native advertising the savior of modern journalism or the Faustian bargain responsible for its eventual demise? You might be tired of the question, but the debate rages on, and if this Google Trends chart is any indication, things are just getting started:

Native advertising, otherwise known as branded content, or as journalist David Carr calls it: “advertising wearing the uniform of journalism, mimicking the storytelling aesthetic of the host site” – isn’t going away any time soon.

The FTC is involved, consumer brands are pouring money into native advertising budgets, and perhaps the biggest tell of them all: Major publishers are investing in content studios.

The rise of in-house content studios

Native advertising must deliver value to the client, usually a brand marketer. The publisher has more skin in the game than with print or banner ads though, because their audience is on the line – and that’s no small thing.

A poorly executed native ad campaign can mean total embarrassment for publishers – just ask The Atlantic or more recently, Shape magazine, both of which were skewered for their efforts.

And while transparency is one thing, quality is another. As Reuters columnist Jack Shafer put it in an opinion piece, “I’m prepared to accept that an advertiser could produce content worthy of my time, though I’ve yet to witness that miracle.”

Sentiments like these (and the promise of revenues) are spurring publishers of all stripes, from Gawker and Digiday to the Guardian and the New York Times to invest in content studios as a way of ensuring a standard is maintained.

Earlier this month, for example, the New York Times rolled out a totally revamped video platform, complete with Branded Playlists, which streams content created by the Times’ advertising department. Luxury real estate company Sotheby’s is one of its first clients.

The publication is taking an ambitious stance on its new offering: “As long as we stick with our labeling, the sky is the limit on what we can produce for a marketer” Meredith Kopit Levien, New York Times’ executive VP, advertising, told Adage.

A Sotheby's branded video on the New York Times website.

A Sotheby’s branded video on the New York Times website.

Is all content made equal?

If the problem with native advertising, especially for publishers, is transparency and quality, then content studios as extensions of those media brands, seems like a no brainer.

Content studios are often composed of ex-journalists who no longer report to the editorial side but understand how to write, how to tell a story, and how to be unbiased. And that’s what these publishers are betting on.

“A combination of our top class editorial, creativity and digital innovation means we can offer something truly… effective,” says Anna Watkins, managing director of the recently launched Guardian Labs. Or, according to the New York Times as quoted by the CMA, “For marketers to get great storytelling, they need to tap into that newsroom experience.”

It’s still early days for these content studios but the long and growing list of publishers that aren’t just outsourcing their platforms but are creating content on behalf of brands is testament enough to this trend’s staying power.

Of course, not everyone is happy with the trend. Guardian Labs faced criticism for its “open journalism” approach that purportedly blurs the line between editorial and advertising.

Unilever branded content, created via Guardian Labs appears in the Partner Zone section of The Guardian online.

Unilever branded content, created via Guardian Labs appears in the Partner Zone section of The Guardian online.

What about the agencies?

The ostensible success of these content studios raises the question: What does this mean for the marketing and advertising agencies that typically create content for brands?

“Major agencies are building content studios and editorial operations but their background is in advertising – content has never really been in their blood.” Says reporter Jack Marshall for Digiday, “That’s why, in the short-term at least, publishers are best placed to fill the gap.”

In a word, publisher-owned content studios are raising the bar for agencies. Journalists, at their core, want answers. They want the whole picture. And they want to communicate in ways that make their readers care. They aren’t focused on sending a message, and they aren’t pushing an agenda (hopefully).

That’s why we should expect to see more editorial-driven agencies pop up in the future. Ray Wert, for example, was the editor-in-chief of the automotive blog Jalopnik before he jumped ship to found Tiny Toy Car, a creative digital content and advertising studio for the automotive industry.

“Basically, we’ll be helping publishers… and automakers tell their stories in a way that’s engaging, authentic, and transparent to readers,” he said in a Q&A for Jalopnik.

Marketing will always have a message to send. But if marketers can take a page from the journalists now heading up content studios across the country, that message might be received with more willingness, and ultimately mean more success.