Advertising agency Leo Burnett has partnered with digital publisher The Huffington Post to collaborate with brands on both strategy and production of branded content.
The partnership marks the first collaboration between an agency and a digital publisher for content creation. Under the alliance, Leo Burnett will have access to The Huffington Post’s proprietary data engines and real-time trends from all of their social platforms, as well as first-mover access to the publisher’s new social dashboard. In return, a few members of The HuffPost Partner Studio, an editorial team that focuses on sponsored content, will work in Leo Burnett’s Chicago offices several days a week for insider access to the agency’s planning and participation practices.
While agency and publisher partnerships focused on media real estate buying are nothing new, Lauri Baker, vice president of brand strategy and sales at The Huffington Post, believes that collaboration around content is the real future of content marketing.
“So many of the partnerships that have happened between publishers and agencies have been focused on the media buying shops rather than at the real creative strategy level. But [The Huffington Post] has built an entire business around content marketing, and we’ve hired writers, editors, curators, and strategists who all sit on the business side to work with brands. Leo Burnett really knows what a brand wants to say and how they want to be known, so when you combine those two elements, that’s truly a unique value proposition to marketers.”
The partnership aims to remedy an industry-wide lack of planning in terms of content marketing. In a 2015 Content Marketing Association survey, 76 percent of B2C marketers and 86 percent of B2B marketers said that they use content marketing, but only 27 percent of B2C and 35 percent of B2B responders said they had a documented marketing strategy.
“It’s kind of like the wild west in regards to content,” says Baker. “Content deserves a real strategy behind it. It shouldn’t be one-off pieces that are disparate and disconnected to an overarching strategy. So Leo Burnett has access to significant blue chip advertisers at the strategy level, and [The Huffington Post] lends our know-how of content and how content travels across the Web, how it integrates into social, and we wanted to bring all of our brains together in the strategy phase versus the media buying phase.”
As many media outlets, such as The Economist, move away from CPM ad sales models in order to appeal to brands that want assurance that content gets seen, Leo Burnett and The Huffington Post hope to appeal to brands by selling conversations rather than impressions. According to Mark Renshaw, chief innovation officer at Leo Burnett, “Traditionally, what [brands] are buying is reach, or page views, or clicks, things which really go to scale or size, and how many people you reach. But what we want brands to be buying into is this idea of participation.”
Content that fits the brand message, according to Renshaw, is key to participation. He hopes the collaboration with The Huffington Post will lead to the creation of long-form, editorial, video, and infographic content around hot-topic issues like anti-bullying or sustainability that fuel comments and shares rather than stress selling a product. “Obviously there will be advertising experiences around it,” Renshaw says. “We’re clearly communicating that a brand is involved in the point of view, but the idea is that if you have an issue or a topic, you’ve given people some value. It’s fine to have a brand also be featuring something related to that.”
As both publishers and agencies struggle to meet the changing needs of clients who demand that content is shared rather than simply seen, Renshaw sees more future in collaborative content than he does in native advertising. “I think native advertising has come to the floor as a buzzword,” says Renshaw. “Brands want to say something and create participation, which is a much more interesting space than ‘Let’s do the next generation of native advertising.’ Because I’m not sure anyone understands what that is.”