Has paid found its place in PR was the focus of discussion at a recent Gorkana event with News UK commercial content director Tiffanie Darke; The Times,  deputy editor Emma Tucker; and Borkowski.do founder Mark Borkowski.

How has News UK positioned itself for paid?
Tiffanie Darke was appointed commercial content director of News UK in September when the publisher announced it was launching a native advertising division to help brands deepen their engagement with The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times.

She said she always considered herself to be in a very creative role while editor-in-chief of Style, but underestimated just how creative the commercial side of her new role would be, and the broad base of advertising clients she would deal with. She works across digital, video and social, and finds it immensely creative.

Method is a 25-strong team which includes commissioning editors, a creative director, a digital designer and a digital development team. Tiffanie will also bring in specialists as and when is required for a particular campaign.

She believes her journalistic experience has proved invaluable for the role.

Method offers journalistic insight coupled with creative innovation – “if a brand wants to talk to News UK’s audiences within The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun’s platforms, the best people who know these audiences are the journalists who populate these pages each and every day”.

Method also benefits from working in the same building as the papers, and many of the team have strong relationships with members of the editorial team. That said, Tiffanie was keen to stress editorial independence. Tiffanie has her own editorial team, which puts together individual campaigns.

Tiffanie says paid for content created huge debate within the News UK offices in the past. She specifically remembers a time in 2004 when then commercial director Paul Hayes wanted to place an advertorial in The Sunday Times and the editor of the paper at the time was horrified. After initial scepticism, advertorials were well received, as long as they were properly labelled and readers were aware they were in a commercial space. Tiffanie sees that what Method is doing now, is a natural continuation of this.

While Method works with some PRs, Tiffanie says the difficulty is that big brands tend to have several agencies working for them, be it media, digital or creative, as well as PR. The hardest thing is to then streamline a client’s message and deliver it to the audience without it being filtered/distorted as it goes through so many agencies.

Knowing where brands are going to fit is where journalistic oversight is key. Not every brand will work in every platform. It’s the media agency’s job to direct brands to the right platform, but this doesn’t always happen, says Tiffanie. There are times when advertisers approach Method wanting to tell a story the team knows is completely against the newspaper’s editorial position. In this case, it won’t be appropriate for Method to take the brand on board.

Tiffanie cited an example of a breakfast cereal brand which wanted to spend a significant amount of money buying space to talk about its healthy children’s breakfast cereals. As The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times has regularly reported on how unhealthy these cereals were, it was not appropriate for Method to accept the brief.

She says having a small budget does not preclude brands from trying out paid content. The Method team works with budgets ranging from £50,000 to much more and Tiffanie says: “if it’s not about the money, but it is about doing something interesting and new, then we’re okay with that”.

Case studies
Tiffanie talked through three current case studies to show how News UK is working with brands on commercial tie-ups.

Vodafone Ready Business Britain Campaign
The campaign was designed to equip businesses with the knowledge and the tools to ready themselves for business now, in five years and in 2020.

The campaign will kick off with a CEO Summit in July, with the CEOs of the top 2050 companies in the UK, as well as Prime Minister David Cameron, and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, attending. The event will be used as a fixed point to build a story over the next year, across The Times and The Sunday Times, about all the things businesses need to tackle the future. It will also include an events campaign and a mentoring scheme, all of which will integrate Vodafone at every stage.

The Vodafone campaign will be activated in print and tablet on The Times and The Sunday Times. The team will also create a digital hub, which will drive traffic from the internet, Vodafone’s site and The Times and The Sunday Times websites. A social media campaign will also run as part of the activity.

Bicester Village
While Bicester Village has long relied on tourism, particularly Chinese tourism, this has started to fall so the brand was keen to refocus on the domestic market.

The brand’s problem was that they didn’t really have a fashion voice, so Method offered to connect Bicester Village with key influencers in the fashion world, who would create content via a social media campaign. The campaign encouraged customers to show off what they’d bought and use #treatme and #BicesterVillage hashtags.

Method then activated that content across social media channels and through The Sunday Times Style. Activity included a social media competition and events to showcase Bicester Village products.

Macmillan Cancer
The cancer charity worked with Method to reach a larger audience, in particular readers of The Sun. The paper’s long-standing agony aunt, Deidre Sanders, was brought in to help with a nine-month partnership that would see weekly content on the Dear Deidre page, backed up with monthly features in The Sun’s health and lifestyle sections and a competition to nominate an angel of the week.

Paid vs earned
Emma says The Times sits in a far more honest position then it did five years ago, due to the fact that everyone is far more aware of the difference between earned and paid. When native advertising first took off, there was a lot of confusion about what it actually was, from both the commercial and editorial sides. Did this mean a message could be planted and be paid for, but the reader wouldn’t know it was paid for content? How was the difference between paid for and editorial flagged?

There can be lots of different agencies working for a brand at any one time, and Tiffanie thinks the biggest barrier to success is when these agencies are not working together. Campaigns have to be collaborative and the main interest must be the client reaching its target audience. Mark says that a media agency’s first loyalty is not always to the client, but the deals they have made with media outlets.

When Emma was editorial director, the team was a lot less clear about its own guidelines around how content was labelled. Emma said that when The Telegraph and its HSBC content hit the news last year, it proved a great service to the industry to show why publishers needed to be clear about what content was earned and what was paid. A key question for her is now: ‘Does the reader know where they are? For example, if the reader is looking at the Vodafone partnership, do they know that it is paid for commercial space?’

Tiffanie also believes that where once newspapers were nearly apologetic about commercial content, things have now reached a stage where paid content is just as good, if not better.

Mark is encouraged by journalists like Tiffanie moving into the commercial space. In the past you could deal with a marketing department over-promising on a piece of advertorial, which would then see the editorial team doing anything they could “to pull the rug away from that idea”. Mark says it is encouraging that there has been an increase in transparency and authenticity between journalism and paid content.

The PR industry struggles when it comes up against media companies, says Mark, as they have completely different perspectives on how paid should work. Often they will try to fix a brand’s problem by throwing money at newspapers. Publicists have better relationships with newspapers and journalists, and give a much clearer idea of where a brand can fit best.

When thinking about a paid for campaign, you need to consider how readers interact with a newspaper and where they want to be “interrupted”, says Mark, especially in the digital space. People who buy newspapers have a relationship with the paper and the journalists who write for them, and will often not want to see something that will interfere with that interaction.

Tiffanie doesn’t believe advertorials disrupt readers. When reading a newspaper, you can choose whichever part you wish to read and ignore the parts that you don’t, although that is no longer the case when it comes to digital content (be it pop up screens or pre-video ads).

“Creative content should and can still have integrity,” says Tiffanie. PRs will often talk to brands about the values they hold, and will then construct a story around these values. For this to work, it needs integrity, otherwise readers will see straight though an advertorial.

Mark still sees himself as a purest when it comes to PR – “there’s still lots you can do with very little budget”. However, he does see the value of work like the Vodafone campaign, where the brand is positioning itself amongst the network that The Times and The Sunday Times has to offer.

But when it comes down to it, many PR budgets remain very small, which requires far more creative ideas to come up with something that will be effective and generate high levels of conversation around a brand.

Method is working with the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) on a set of guidelines that it believes should be used across the industry. Tiffanie wants the industry to agree on the same labelling to benefit the reader.

Method uses “in association with”, which means a brand has worked with the team to agree what the content should be about, and then give the freedom to the team to create the content in the best possible way.

Who hold the purse strings?
Mark says the industry would like to see more money going into an integrated strategy, with PR taking a lead, rather than going into the hands of the media buyer.

During her days as editorial director, Emma recalls the PRs she dealt with had by far the best ideas, but limited budgets usually meant the end of a good idea. If she was a client, she would push to hear the PR voice first.

Tiffanie has seen a big shift in the ways that PR has been empowered and she believes PRs can see a campaign perspective far more objectively than other agencies:

“You’ve always had to tread that very tricky ground of not burning your journalist contacts whilst keeping your client happy at the same time, which does actually put you in a very unique position to move into this kind of world and to have the best authority in it. Clever clients will hire PRs that are able to advise them like that and listen to them as well.”

Mark cited examples of when an advertising agency has called him with a “great PR idea”. He sees this as a great opportunity for PR to take control, but often it requires PRs to step up and, in some instances, tell a client “no”. Just be sure that “no” is going to be respected.

Which sectors does paid for suit best?

Tech has always been a struggle, says Mark. Tech brands are often driven by a mindset that it’s about selling the product, but brand building is often not at the top of their minds. Problems can also be found with food brands, which tend to have big budgets.

If a brand has a complicated message, or a long story to tell, advertorials are often the best way to get its message across, says Tiffanie. Advertorials first appeared in The Sunday Times beauty section. Beauty products often have huge scientific claims, which can be completely unclear to consumers. Advertorials are able to explain the thinking of the brand and can provide a far better chance of engaging the product with the potential customer. She believes this is often the case for tech products .

Journalists now come up with strong brand ideas in their own right, says Mark – one of the best being the Daily Mirror’s Pride of Britain Awards. It’s very strong and attracts many other brands wanting to be associated with the awards.

Political parties and government departments have also used advertorials. The Times ran a campaign for the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) a few years ago when it wanted to tell people about potential grants they could receive for making their homes more environmentally friendly.

Emma said: “No-one was taking up the funding so they worked with The Times on various half-page advertorials that went into its Bricks and Mortar section.”

Tiffanie: “There’s a similar campaign out to pitch at the moment around the fact that everyone will need to have a smart energy meter in their homes by 2020. The media agency has said it has to go to news titles because they are the only outlets that can potentially reach the entire population.”

While a paper’s pay wall could be seen as a stumbling block for paid for, Emma says that the readership is usually far more engaged and there is a wealth of data about readers and what they visit. Also consider that the tablet apps for The Sunday Times and The Times have a 60-minute and 40-minute dwell time respectively.

Is paid for easier to measure?
Paid for is far easier to measure, say Tiffanie and Mark. There is more control over the messaging, which means you can evaluate this directly back to the brand. Method offers this service with every campaign it undertakes.

Method worked on an 18-month campaign with Santander which included measures around digital activity and events. A lot of research was undertaken before and after the campaign to judge its value and to work out if it had increased people’s perception of Santander as a challenger bank. The campaign’s results led the bank to come back to Method for a second year.

Measurement should be key to any campaign undertaken, says Tiffanie. There always needs to be a proper measurement facility and the people involved should be willing to pivot when they see that the results coming out are not what they should be. Being nimble is key.

Method works with Keller Fay Group, which measures word out mouth. The agency measures how many conversations people who read News UK newspapers have about brands vs people who don’t read News UK titles. From this, Method launched Project Footprint: “It’s a nice way for you to go back to your client and say since we launched this campaign, this number of people have been talking about your brand.”

Great paid for comes from a strong budget, says Mark. If you can take a display space and turn it into something integrated around a bigger campaign over 18 months, there will be far greater value.

That said, Tiffanie believes value can still be garnered from smaller budgets. Method is also developing itself as a content agency and is currently working with brands on creating content for their own platforms. Even if a brand does have a small budget, there are creative ways of being able to repurpose content to create a meaningful campaign.

Paid for journalists
There has been a perception that journalists writing paid content are not as knowledgeable as journalists who specialise in a particular field – something that Tiffanie completely disagrees with. She recently hired a business journalist, who has written for The Times and The Sunday Times, to work on the Vodadfone campaign. If her team didn’t provide the same journalistic expertise as the newspapers, it would be doing the papers, the clients and, most importantly, the readers, a disservice.

While staff journalists at The Times are not allowed to write for a commercial brand, Emma would always help Tiffanie find an appropriate freelancer to work on a particular campaign. Mark believes it’s a shame that staff journalists don’t get a taste of working on the commercial side of things – it could create a far better understanding of what PRs are up against.

Has paid found its place?
Tiffanie has seen the number of PR agencies she deals with increase since starting in the role in September. She enjoys working with PR agencies because they have a far better understanding of what Method is doing compared to other agencies.

Tiffanie believes a PR only has to look around and see where advertorials have proved a success for a brand. There is now enough good work going on across commercial content that it is beginning to gather momentum. It’s no longer just about paid for, it’s about earned and paid media working together.

Mark thinks paid for has always had a place in PR, but now it is more professionalised. PR has a much bigger voice and more respect than it ever has. If it’s the right brand, the right time and the right budget, exciting things can happen.

About the speakers
Tiffanie is founder and director of Method. She is former editor-in-chief of The Sunday Times Style magazine, has written two novels and is a regular on radio on TV.

Emma joined The Times as associate features editor in 2007, before taking over editorship of Times2 a year later. In 2012, she took up a new role as editorial director to build links between the editorial and commercial sides of the newspaper. She was appointed deputy editor of The Times in October 2013.

Mark has been a leader in the British marketing and comms industry for more than 30 years. His career has seen him position, establish, consolidate and manage a huge range of major products and entrainment brands, earning him international recognition as a thought leader and innovator.