At The Independent, ‘commercial journalists’ join the newsroom

ESI Media, publisher of the Independent and the Evening Standard, isn’t squeamish about mixing marketing and editorial.

Six months ago, it received attention for being one of the few newspaper publishers that was hiring editorial staff to also work on commercial content. For instance, a commercial journalist, who sits within the editorial team and creates content for the ESI Media brands across a vertical like TV and entertainment, will help pitch ideas for a relevant TV client, like broadcaster Sky. They then can recommend other editorial journalists who could write bespoke articles for the branded content. For example, editorial columnist Grace Dent wrote an article on “Game of Thrones” as part of Sky’s much wider branded-content campaign with ESI Media, which was featured in the Independent, the Evening Standard, online and in print.

“It’s a very joined-up business between commercial, commercial journalists and the editorial journalists,” said Jon O’Donnell, managing director at ESI Commercial. “We didn’t want to create a scenario where they were there to write editorial content and then they would write commercial content.”

ESI is currently running around 40 campaigns for brands, double the number that were live in March. Revenue from branded content has grown between 20 and 30 percent year-over-year, although the company wouldn’t give out specific figures.

“Everyone understands where the lines are drawn,” said O’Donnell. “There is respect between editorial and commercial,” he added, saying that because it’s a relatively small media organization with an “entrepreneurial nature,” it hasn’t run into any church-and-state conflicts.

Story Studio, the name ESI has given the unit, now has a core team of about 28 people, including video experts, social managers, project managers and content creators and so can deploy these different skills quickly. “Turning things around quickly without losing the quality has been very important to us,” said Dan Locke, chief agency strategy officer, ESI Media.

Take the work it did during London Fashion Week with McArthurGlen, a designer outlet store which has six different sites across the U.K. Because McArthurGlen doesn’t do e-commerce, the goals were brand building and pushing people to the stores, it’s a role reversal to the popular “see now, buy now” trend brands deploy during Fashion Week. As part of its campaign for McArthurGlen, Story Studio received video content from the previous day’s fashion shows first thing in the morning, and within two hours, it edited and published a cascade format ad that focused on the highlights and trends of the previous day, a video article from ESI’s fashion and beauty editor, 10 short videos for Instagram and three GIFs.

Links at the bottom of the article took readers to find their nearest McArthurGlen store. Here the Story Studio team chose styles from the designer outlet store that would match trends taking place on the runway at Fashion Week, whether that’s coats or party wear. In five days, this page had 35,000 pageviews, usually commercial campaigns that last for three months often get around 45,000 pageviews. Not all results from the campaign are in yet.

Measuring success from branded content campaigns can be fraught. Story Studio is starting to see more clients asking for engagement metrics and linking campaign success to sales. Betting company 888 Sport sponsored ESI Media’s Euro 2016 coverage. As well as gaining the highest metrics of any branded campaign with 10 million unique visitors across the whole campaign, 888 Sports gained 500 new customers. It’s since signed to be ESI’s long-term sponsor for the premiership for the rest of the season.

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