Inside The Atlantic Media’s Agency Arm

For a publication founded in 1857, The Atlantic is pretty progressive. Its commitment to sponsored content was brought to the forefront with the recent controversy over the Church of Scientology post it ran (for which it later apologized).

Another trend Atlantic Media believes in: publishers acting like agencies. Atlantic Media Strategies is a year-old consultancy that works alongside agencies, both media and creative, to help a brand understand the best ways of reaching its targeted audiences in a fragmented digital landscape.

“We help clients create their own media brand and content marketing strategies, and how to align what they can provide to an audience in an authentic way and help develop content around that,” said Jean Ellen Cowgill, who heads up AMS. “We take knowledge and research and get it out to their audiences in a way that’s engaging and interesting. We’re not trying to pretend it’s not coming from their perspective but is done in a way that’s based on research and data.”

Started at the beginning of last year, AMS has a team of 14 that helps develop digital media strategies for brands, think tanks and non-profits. It takes a very hands-off approach, auditing what a brand is doing and what audience it should be reaching. It stops short of creating content or executing on media buys.

One of the big projects AMS worked on was with GE, helping it craft a strategy for inserting the brand in the conversation around issues like advanced manufacturing, tech, jobs and skills. AMS worked with GE to create a website and hired an editor and writer to help gather content from around the Web on these issues.

“This is an opportunity to marry research and best practices with digital and content and knowledge of what type of content influentials like to read and consume,” Cowgill said. “We created a digital consultancy to help clients lift beyond native advertising campaigns, to do something standalone and have an ongoing strategy on their own to engage their target audience.”

The trick with any of these agency-like offerings from publishers is that there’s an inherent tension. What separates them from the many other agencies and consultancies out there is the editorial expertise of their owners. Yet there’s a need to keep editorial separate. The trick is to create continuity between the two groups so that the knowledge of what works in editorial can somehow be transferred to the agency-like group’s clients.

“We have the company’s DNA to help us understand successful media strategies,” Cowgill said. “Our goal is what a successful digital media enterprise can look like and how that can help the client.”

The Atlantic has shown over the past several years what a publisher can do to create something out of nothing — Scientology mishap aside — when it takes big swings. Indeed, last year, The Atlantic generated 59 percent of its ad revenue from the digital side. Where most of its competitors will gladly sit on the sidelines learning from the mistakes of others, Atlantic Media swings for the fences. Whether it’s launching a new publication like Quartz or creating a digital consultancy, the media company isn’t afraid to take big swings.

“There’s a lot of runway, and I think we see ourselves becoming a pillar of Atlantic Media because the needs of advertisers are changing and we want to be there at the forefront of that and not be left behind,” Cowgill said. “We have lots of strategies — branded content is one of them, and this is another.”

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