Condé Nast dives deep into native ads

Some would consider Condé Nast, its lifestyle magazines fat with sumptuous fashion and beauty ads, an originator of native advertising — or at least advertising that blends in seamlessly with its editorial content.

But in fact, the publishing house has only just now embraced native ads in earnest. Its first corporate-wide native ad, for Pantene, is live on four of the company’s women’s sites (Self, Glamour, Style and Lucky), and a template for its men’s titles is in the works.

Glamour Native@Scale Screenshot

In going native, Condé Nast may seem, once again, a little behind the times. Rivals like The New York Times, Time Inc. and Hearst have been out with native ad offerings for a while. Condé also was slow to create standalone websites for its titles and embrace other changes that threatened its core business, like the rise of programmatic ad buying.

But Condé has rarely been a company to take a top-down approach, and Lou Cona, president of the Condé Nast Media Group, pointed out that brands at the company like Vanity Fair and Wired have already been creating their own native ads.

“The individual [Condé] brands have been doing this for a while — this is the first time we’re doing it at scale,” he said. “It’s more important to get it right than to be first.”

And the key word there is scale. While Condé historically has given its titles free rein, digital scrambles that equation. The race for scale and its close cousin, efficiency, means publishing companies must increasingly act at a broader level. It’s a similar story in programmatic advertising, where Condé Nast organizes at a corporate level.

The problem for Condé is the market is now chock full of native ad opportunities. Publishers aren’t ignorant of the opportunity to wring premium pricing out of brands in return for custom programs that are bestowed with the “native” label.

Craig Atkinson, chief digital officer for the Omnicom agency PHD, said that as native ads go, this one is “a fairly standard sponsored content model” that could help Condé upsell its existing advertisers. Consumers have come to be able to identify sponsored content as separate from editorial content, and they interact more with ads that are placed directly in the editorial stream, if their link to driving purchase is still unproven.

That said, he added that he’d hope to see more elaborate treatments from the publisher over time, given its tradition of editorial excellence. “What is the Vogue version of this?” Atkinson said. “They’re one of the few purveyors that can do something really deep.”

The native ads are the latest product to come out of the media group’s Condé Nast Studio and Solutions Group, the company’s ad and content development arm. Like other publishers, Condé has had to answer the demand for ads that are part of the editorial experience rather than interruptive as it tries to make up for declining print advertising and digital display ad rates.

The challenge for Condé is to ensure that its native ads are as good as the editorial content surrounding it — without tricking readers into thinking they’re looking at actual editorial content. The templates also have to work on an array of sites, from the staid New Yorker to sassier Glamour, which is why a few different versions are being created. (In reality, the ads will most likely be used against groups of sites or specific audiences and not all 21 sites.) Equally important will be getting buy-in from all the company titles, which are used to operating autonomously.

That caution comes across in the somewhat conservative execution of the first ad, which Condé is calling a beta version. Clicking on the ad takes the viewer to a series of short makeover videos. With input from corporate editorial director Tom Wallace, the module carries a “sponsor content” label and background shade to set it off from the editorial content that surrounds it, although publications may use other labels.

Also notably, Condé hired an editorial vet to take care of the native ads. Nathan Lump, newly named director of branded content, most recently was brand development director for Condé Nast Traveler. He previously has had stints on the editorial side of Travel + Leisure and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, as well as in content marketing at JWT and Hill Holiday.

“Native advertising needs to work, and the performance of the content aligns with the quality of the content that you make,” Lump said. “At the end of the day, when a user clicks on a native placement, the most important thing is that they come away having found something that’s interesting, entertaining to them. Their reaction should be the same as if they clicked on editorial content.”