How BuzzFeed is winning over UK agencies and brands

BuzzFeed has already captured the hearts and wallets of brands and agencies in the U.S. Now, it’s slowly doing the same for their counterparts in the U.K.

Launched in March 2013, BuzzFeed U.K. was charged with taking BuzzFeed’s successful viral-content formula and tweaking for the tastes and sensibilities of British readers. Its commercial arm, now a third of BuzzFeed U.K.’s 50-person operation, had a similar job on the agency and brand side, where it espoused the wonders of highly sharable branded content.

The pitch resonated on both sides. BuzzFeed editorial has been adept at crafting culture stories specifically for U.K. readers (“27 Reasons To Never Go To West London”) and gone deep on U.K. politics (“Beer, Baccy And Crumpet Party Banned From Election Because Its Name Is ‘Offensive’ To Women”). At the same time, its business side has teamed up with big U.K. brands such as Otrivine (“15 Unexpected Upsides To Having A Cold”), Sainsbury’s (“Kids Who’ve Already Done Better Than You Will In Your Entire Life”) and even The National Lottery (“16 Things British People Would Actually Do If They Won The Lottery”) on their campaigns.

“We can go into meetings and say we’re not going to create this half-imagined content solution in order to package that with a ton of banner ads or with some print advertisers,” said BuzzFeed Europe vp Will Hayward. “Content is the only thing we create. That’s the entire value proposition.”

The other side of BuzzFeed’s pitch is scale: The site got 44.9 million monthly desktop globally last month, according to comScore, and 13 million visitors in the U.K., double its traffic from the region a year ago. Those numbers also don’t account for BuzzFeed’s mobile traffic, which represents the majority of its overall readership.

All of this has created a compelling sell for brands and agencies in the U.K.

“They operate in a space that is not quite anyone else’s,” said Angus Wood, head of product development at iProspect UK. “From a lot of angles, they look like a traditional publisher, but the difference is that they, unlike the legacy companies here, have the audience that advertisers want.”

Wood said that BuzzFeed has developed the kind of cachet shared by the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter when they made similar moves overseas. “Clients are actively asking about how they work and what we can do with them,” he said.

BuzzFeed has managed to do that in part because there isn’t much competition. While The Mirror, The Independent and their ilk have taken BuzzFeed-inspired attempts at viral content with initiatives such as i100 and Us Vs Th3m, BuzzFeed’s formula has proven hard to mimic. “BuzzFeed managed to cut through, and they did a good job of waiting until the site was large enough before they went to the advertisers,” said Liam Brennan, digital strategy director at Starcom Mediavest. “It’s been well-received largely because it was already so unique and well-known.”

BuzzFeed’s pitch, however, is still fraught, if only because many U.K. brands still err on the conservative side when it comes to new platforms and marketing strategies. This is particularly true with their reactions to BuzzFeed, whose libertine editorial approach (“When You See Your Friend’s Penis”) is often a turn-off to more skittish brands.

“We’ve tried to get brands to be a little bit braver about it, but there’s still an element of nervousness sometimes,” said Charlotte Tice, head of publishing at Mindshare UK. “Brands here are bit more uncertain about slightly risqué content.”

Brennan said that this is the flipside to the BuzzFeed brand being so strong before it started its conversations with U.K. advertisers. “People already had that point of view of them being about kittens and GIFs, which can scare people off here,” he said. “It’s a cultural thing more than anything else.”

Likewise, BuzzFeed still faces hurdles in adapting its characteristically gleeful sense of humor for the British readership, which tends to be more dry, cynical and reserved. “There are cultural sensitivities. It’s essential that you have the creative team in-market and you’re hiring people who get those sensitivities,” BuzzFeed’s Hayward said.

Tice said she expects all of this to improve, particularly as companies in the U.K. better understand where BuzzFeed fits into their marketing strategies and as BuzzFeed itself gets better at helping brands speak in its voice.

Multiple agency executives also said that BuzzFeed’s pitch will likely get stronger as it makes further inroads into more serious news fare. It has significantly beefed up its U.K. news division over the past few months with big-name hires from the The Guardian and The Telegraph, including well-known Sunday Times investigative journalist Heidi Blake.

“BuzzFeed initially went after the brands that felt right for the platform,” said Brennan. “To grow that, they’re going to have to create more serious stuff to get more people on board.”