Branded_01By Daniel Sellers

At first, I try a direct approach. There are more than 50 editions of the Red Bull website, each one tailored to a different part of the world, but I find less contact information on the main site than I expect; single phone and fax numbers underline an address for the company’s Austrian headquarters alongside the blank fields of a web form. I type out an interview request, wondering whether my search might soon be over. In the month that’s passed since I began my journey to the centre of branded content—a proliferating hybrid of journalism and advertising—I’ve learned that Red Bull is among its acknowledged leading practitioners. I finish typing, hit send and my request disappears, replaced by an automatic expression of thanks.

Later, an emailed reply comes from someone named Cassandra DeGrace. Her spelling references the energy drink’s slogan. “So,” she writes, “you’re looking to cross our t’s, dot our iii’s, and spread the word about our Wiiings?”

Before she can give me any “juicy details,” DeGrace explains, she wants some from me: my deadline, the publication I’m writing for, the nature of my story.

“Cheers to Wiiings” is her dreamy sign-off.

***

“Every brand is going to be like Red Bull in five years,” Sam Slaughter tells me over the phone in October. “Or every brand is going to try.” Slaughter is a vice president at Contently, which employs proprietary software to connect journalists with companies that use branded content. Five weeks after our conversation, I’m standing at Broadway and Houston Street, in Lower Manhattan, outside the Contently office. The elevator doors open at the fourth floor, where chairs and sofas cluster together on faded faux-Persian rugs and a shelving unit, packed haphazardly with books and the occasional potted plant, dominates the far wall. To my left stretches the office’s long, open bulk. With befitting informality, Slaughter shows me around.

We pass a white door that bears framed images of cartoonish dinosaurs and wander into a small conference room. As at many start-ups, Contently’s meeting spaces are themed—Dinosaur, Robot and Grizzly Bear. “Three disparate things,” Slaughter explains, “that were all very cool and would lend themselves to good decor.” But when a design firm consulted on decoration, he says, some of the existing furniture had to go: “They were like, ‘This Ikea stuff is so janky.’”

Next to the kitchen area hang black and white portraits of 20 of the company’s favourite writers—from Jane Austen to Hunter S. Thompson to The New York Times’s David Carr. Under the eyes of these distinguished supervisors, more than 30 Contently employees squeeze in behind rows of computer monitors; a couple more perch at the mammoth table where staff spend their lively shared lunches. Privacy-seekers sometimes make phone calls from a chair in a deep utility closet, surrounded by blinking routers, a circuit breaker panel and a bucket of old paintbrushes. When I visited in November, Contently had more in-house positions to fill than it had available workspaces. Now the company is expanding its office into the space next door.

As Contently has grown, so too has the market for its services. Branded content comes in a range of forms that are known by a handful of other euphemisms—including content marketing, brand journalism and native advertising—and adhere to just as many shadowy codes of ethics. But a single premise underlies them all: brands now have to earn our attention by offering something useful in exchange.

Usually, what they offer bears little resemblance to the advertorial of old—successful branded content eschews a hard sell in favour of subtle association with a compelling narrative that has merit in its own right. “It’s not an advertisement that’s going to sell more detergent,” Slaughter explains. “It’s the image and the story around that detergent.”

In order to help animate their images and tell their stories, brands are enlisting journalists and their publishers. They’re also beginning to think and behave like publishers themselves. Long satisfied to pay for access to audiences, brands now aim to cultivate audiences of their own. What’s more, they’re betting that success in publishing comes more from telling good stories than from the accumulation, over time, of hard-earned trust and credibility. Unfortunately for journalism as we know it, so far, they appear to be right.

***

In 2010, Shane Snow and Joe Coleman were twentysomethings with a friendship dating back to their shared childhood in Idaho Falls, Idaho. When they launched Contently in December of that year with computer science grad Dave Goldberg, they positioned themselves between two groups with compatible interests; today, their company connects advertisers interested in branded content to 30,000 freelance journalists from around the world. In its infancy, Contently decided to accept only work that would yield the highest-quality content, a formula to which the founders now credit their success. “If it comes back to a story, and that’s your true north,” Slaughter says, “you’ll never go too far astray.”

Behind us, tall windows look down onto Broadway; to our left, Those who tell the stories rule the world has been painted on the wall in giant letters. From a coffee table piled high with periodicals, I select something called The Red Bulletin. “A Beyond the Ordinary Magazine” boasts its cover, where two BASE jumpers free-fall in helmets and parachute backpacks toward an idyllic Mediterranean beach. A look inside reveals a feature about a multi-day outrigger canoe race in Hawaii, an interview with actor Matt Damon and 17 pages of the winning images from an action and adventure sports photography contest. The publisher is Red Bull Media House, an arm of the energy drink maker that also operates a feature film studio, TV network, record label and radio station, among other things.

This model has precedent. Magalogues such as Imperial Oil’s The Review, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s Food & Drink and Shoppers Drug Mart’s Glow have existed for decades, and the Michelin Guide—today a definitive international listing of hotels and restaurants—has been published by the French tire manufacturer for more than a hundred years. What’s new is the distribution system: branded content is popping up all across social media. “Sure, you can buy advertising on Facebook,” says Michael Joffe, an associate creative director at international ad agency Mosaic. “Or you can create really compelling content, act as a publisher and engage with your consumers on a daily basis.”

Another young New York-based business helps brands realize that potential engagement. Two days after I was welcomed inside Contently, I visit Newscred, in a second-storey office in the north end of the Flatiron District.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, the office is full of noise and people, and the walls are whiteboards that bear scribbled evidence of brainstorming sessions. Across from the reception desk, likenesses of Newscred’s three founders are sketched in marker—one purple, one black and one red. “They are some of the most innovative people I’ve ever met,” says 25-year-old brand strategist Erika Velazquez. “Their minds are amazing.”

Originally from Bangladesh, Shafqat Islam, Iraj Islam and Asif Rahman all come from tech backgrounds, but when they launched Newscred in 2008, they were motivated by a shared desire to replace what they saw as journalism’s broken business model. “Our larger mission,” Velazquez says, “is making sure that the journalism industry continues to thrive.”

Newscred licenses content from 4,000 publications—including ForbesThe Economist and Fast Company—and sells it to brands eager to communicate with current and potential consumers online. But some brands wanted more, so on October 17, the company launched its own network of journalists, photographers and videographers—The NewsRoom—for hire on customized branded content campaigns.

As at Contently, Newscred employees speak of a commitment to quality, but Velazquez is uncomfortable describing all of what comes out of The NewsRoom as journalism. She doesn’t see it replacing journalism, either. “People talk about that a lot,” she says. “But brands depend on the credibility of publishers and journalists, and I think they always will.”

On this issue, Newscred presents a divided front. Marketing director Alicianne Rand says that people don’t care who produces what they read. “There’s no reason why Red Bull shouldn’t be the best publisher of adventure and extreme-sports content in the world,” she says. “And, in fact, I would argue that they currently are.”

***

Two days after I send DeGrace my details, she responds. “I received your information,” she tells me, “and have sent it soaring on its way to the communications manager.” DeGrace indicates politely that she has given me all the help she can and that this will be the end of our correspondence. “Hey—I can’t do everything,” she writes.

I wait with little optimism; others before me have tried to report on Red Bull Media House and failed. In an article first appearing on Mashable in December 2012, James O’Brien wrote about receiving the runaround during an extended visit to the company’s Watts Street office in Manhattan. But after three weeks without word from the communications manager and unsure how to proceed, I turn up on Watts Street myself.

Trying the third floor, I hope to find a bustling magazine newsroom. Instead, two people work quietly at a table near the elevator. One of them introduces herself as Emily and tells me that The Red Bulletin is published out of Santa Monica, California. But she leads me into a nearby office, where a woman sits behind a desk. “We don’t do many interviews,” the woman says, “but we can definitely send you more information.” I write my email address on a piece of paper.

Emily walks me back to the elevator. “Would you like a Red Bull?” she asks along the way. That’s all O’Brien got, too.

***

Brands less eager than Red Bull to embrace the role of publisher abstain at their own risk; an entire media-literate generation has grown up encountering traditional Internet advertising and ignoring it. “Banner click rates are going down, display ad rates are plummeting, people are getting banner fatigue,” says Tony Vlismas, senior director of marketing at Polar, the Toronto-based maker of a branded content publishing platform. Initially, advertisers reacted by making banners bigger and keeping them on the page longer. “In other words, making them even more obtrusive,” he says. That strategy has fallen out of fashion.

Polar’s MediaVoice, which launched in July, allows publishers to create and present branded content, then reports back to them with a statistical analysis of how popular it has been online. When done right, it’s very popular. Viral media factory BuzzFeed collaborated with advertisers on 265 campaigns in 2012—a number the website expected to increase to 600 or more the following year. Each piece of branded content gets the same careful packaging as the site’s editorial fare, tailor-made to be shared on social media. “Let’s be honest: we all go to BuzzFeed,” Vlismas says. “And we go there all the time.”

If the site’s readers don’t discriminate between what’s sponsored and what’s not, the trivial nature of its offerings may have something to do with it. “There are different standards when you’re writing news content versus more niche content,” says Ashley Carter, publisher of music website Aux and the digital magazine of the same name. “Especially arts and entertainment journalism; you can blur those lines a little better.”

Aux has experience with those lines: it partnered with automaker Scion on a series of band interviews and performance videos; Samsung sponsored the magazine’s June launch on Android as part of an eight-issue collaboration; and, more recently, Budweiser paid to produce half a dozen listicles online.

The Budweiser content doesn’t differ much in appearance from the website’s editorial; a small blue badge beneath the date and byline bears the disclaimer “Partner Content” in yellow letters. Nor does it differ much in nature. Articles like “13 classic Canadian emo bands you might have forgotten about” and an interview with American singer-songwriter Kurt Vile mingle with “8 must-have new music apps” and “7 new dances that aren’t twerking” from the branded campaign. Budweiser’s message is one of encouragement to try something new, and each article it sponsors links thematically to an inconspicuous paragraph at the bottom of the page: “Just as Budweiser is exploring new and flavourful things,” it reads, “so, too, is Aux.” In glowing language, the text describes the brewery’s new craft-style beer. “Click here,” it finally suggests, “to check out what Budweiser Crown has in store for you.”

This disclosure is consistent with a new, contentious principle of journalistic morality, and one that branded content’s proponents regularly advance: publishers can sacrifice a certain amount of editorial independence, so long as they’re transparent about it. But Stephen Ward, former director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics, insists publishers still need both. “You’ve got to be free enough to write independently,” says Ward, who is now at the University of Oregon. “If you’re not, then all the showing in the world doesn’t matter.”

Branded content usually comes up short in the showing department, anyway. “You have to tell us,” Ward says: “Is this different from what appears on other parts of the telecast or the newspaper or the website? And how is it different?”

News outlets are better at answering the first question than the second. If journalists are restricted in what they can and can’t write about sponsors and their competitors, Ward wants that information prominently disclosed. Otherwise, he says, the onus shifts unfairly onto readers to detect bias. But Diane Forrest, a long-time freelance magazine writer, whose advertorial work has appeared in Maclean’s and Canadian Business, thinks it’s likely they can handle that responsibility. “Every time there’s a new medium, there’s moral panic about how we’ll become easily seduced,” she says. “The ultimate protection is and has always been the intelligence and skepticism of the reader.”

Historically, there has been another protection, too. In the 1980s and ’90s, Forrest says, advertorials became increasingly common, but the magazines in which they appeared didn’t take them very seriously, and it showed in the product. “You didn’t feel bad about trying pull the wool over readers’ eyes, because it just wasn’t very well done,” she says. “The real danger comes from the companies that are good at it.”

***

On the second floor of The Globe and Mail’s expansive Toronto home, a hallway, laid in grey and black tiles, stretches out nearly a hundred paces. Gazing down it is like standing atop the wall so often erected in discussions of journalistic ethics; to the right is the advertising department, to the left, a newsroom. At the far end, publisher Phillip Crawley’s offices are noncommittal, capping the hallway behind a glass door and an electronic card reader.

But this separation of departments is not absolute; one Globe employee—editorial director of custom content, Charlene Rooke—reports to overseers on both sides of the hall. “You can’t do my job and talk about a wall. It makes me laugh,” Rooke says, demonstrating.

Her department has multiple lines of business, and the Globe has developed a vocabulary to match. Branded content—produced for Grey Goose, Audi and Sunnybrook Hospital, among others, by an arm of the publisher called Globe Edge—refers to standalone magazines, usually written by freelancers. Custom content, on the other hand, appears in the paper and online as special editorial sections or series, targeting niche readers and backed by brands. Manulife supports the personal finance feature Financial Roadmap, and Telus sponsors a series of small-business stories called The Challenge.

Brands that choose custom content at the Globe are not entitled to all that much. They don’t get to approve the stories or read them before they run. In fact, reporters rarely even know who the sponsors are. What the brands do get, says Rooke, is “advertising adjacency”—the right to place ads next to articles they think will interest the people they’re marketing to. This is all they pay for, too; the Globe offers custom content as a kind of favour to its most committed advertisers. “We produce the content at no charge,” Rooke says. “Therefore, they don’t control it.”

Despite this arrangement, ethical questions remain: the members of Rooke’s team—two other editors, four copy editors and four full-time reporters—have desks in the third-floor newsroom, sandwiched between Features and Report on Business. Although it is not official policy, unwitting references to a story’s sponsor are usually edited out to avoid the appearance of bias. And perhaps most alarmingly, readers can’t identify such custom content—it’s identical in appearance to the rest of the newspaper.

These may be necessary compromises. Brands are harder to satisfy than they used to be, and the Globe needs to offer branded content opportunities in order to keep up with other publishers. “If we don’t do some of this stuff,” Rooke says, “the money marches out of the building.”

In 2016, the whole newspaper will march out of the building and into a tower, now under construction, on the other side of downtown Toronto. Still to be determined is where the advertising department will sit relative to the newsroom, but positioning the two just so is a task the Globe is not taking lightly. “The highest levels of editorial leadership here,” Rooke says, “all believe that the future of our newspaper will be linked to understanding branded content in a very sophisticated way.”

***

When I do manage to get hold of the Red Bull communications manager, it’s early January—nearly two months after my fruitless visit to the company’s Manhattan office—and she bears bad news. “It’s not our policy to do interviews, for media or otherwise,” writes Emily Palley-Samson, who works out of Red Bull Canada headquarters on Toronto’s fashionable Queen Street West. But she adds that she might be able to provide some extra information if I send her my questions. I reply with four.

“Those look a lot like interview questions to me,” she writes later that week, punctuating her sentence with a smiling emoticon. As I read, I consider Rooke’s words. I wonder about the sophistication of my own understanding of branded content—and of Red Bull’s.

“Everything you need should be on the website,” Palley-Samson writes, knowing, I assume, that answers to the questions I posed aren’t there. “Thanks again for supporting the brand!”