As Vox Media’s in-house branded content practice Vox Creative launches The Explainer Studio, award-winning branded content producer Graham Nelson takes on the role of Creative Director of the new studio. The Explainer Studio will leverage insights from Vox Media's house of brands, as well as the explainer video format pioneered by our news brand, Vox, to create signature Explainer-style content for advertising partners. Here, Graham Nelson describes what to expect from the new offering, and explains how it paves the way for a future full of better branded content.
There’s a problem with branded content.
If that notion sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because I was inspired by something Ezra Klein — the co-founder and current editor-at-large of Vox Media’s news brand Vox— said about journalism when he launched Vox.com. He lamented that too often journalists ignored the “vegetables” of the story. Those, he explained, are the crucial basics, beyond the day’s fleeting headlines, that give audiences an actual understanding of the world.
According to Ezra, that failure to provide veggies — and not just make them passable, but palatable — is ultimately a failure of the creator. And what’s astounding to me as both fan and Ezra wannabe is how precisely Vox achieved the vision he laid out then. Three years later, I routinely dive into the wonkiest breakdown of [insert your favorite policy acronym here]. I binge videos that answer questions I never even knew I had about the world around me, questions both exotic and prosaic. (So, too, do over 3 million of my fellow subscribers on YouTube!)
It’s a supremely optimistic vision. It never forces “good news” in place of good reporting. It trusts that audiences possess the curiosity, intellect, and attention span to “eat their vegetables,” if prepared by creators who season them well.
Which brings me back to the problem of branded content: cynicism.
I’ve seen it everywhere in branded content. I’ve seen it in media plans that tack on pieces of content — works of sweat and soul — as if content were that “free toaster” handed out with a new checking account. I’ve seen it in briefs and pitches that seek only to bedazzle audiences with the ubiquitous “never-been-done-before,” deploying tech to mask a lack of story, rather than further one. I’ve seen it in decks that hail a scroll-by as some desired metric, and in gray, lonely “native” units that promise answers to questions no one has ever asked.
But maybe the worst part is that I’ve seen it in people — audiences, clients, journalists, and even branded content creators themselves — who just assume that branded content can never actually be good. They consider it an imposition or a threat or a (cheaper) commercial or sheer drudgery. I’ve had formers colleagues say to me, “I mean, it’s good for what it is, which is branded content. But it’s just not ever going to be good as something real.”
It probably won’t come as much of a surprise, but I’m not so much a fan of that — either the quote or the cynicism enveloping it.
I deny it. I dispute it. I disavow it. There’s nothing inherently cynical about branded content. On the contrary, it promises that advertisers can actually reach the audiences that many display ads have failed so spectacularly to sway. It provides digital publishers money to fund real (and free) news, at a time when the fourth estate has never been quite so important and its revenue streams have never been quite so precarious. And it serves to shield journalists — it lets me shield journalists — by freeing them from the temptation to soften for any advertiser.
Last week, Vox Media unveiled The Explainer Studio via The Wall Street Journal. An official new offering within Vox Creative, we are exclusively focused on creating signature Explainer-style videos for our clients. Like this one for Spotify. This one for NFL Fantasy Football. And this one we just released last week for Ben & Jerry’s.
So if there’s one thing I want to say as I launch The Explainer Studio, it’s this: branded content is only bad if we let it be. If it isn’t good on its own merits, then that’s ultimately on us as creators. Topic-by-topic, client-by-client, Explainer-by-Explainer, we’re going to end the cycle of cynical branded content. Here’s how:
By trusting an editorial format proven to work. David Ogilvy — that most famous of ad-men — said, “the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers will stop, look, and read.” We’ll use Vox’s signature Explainer to break down the mysterious, the misunderstood, and the complex topics swirling around your brand’s world. And we’ll be real and factual about it.
By finding topics worthy of explanation. Not every topic a brand comes to us with can sustain an Explainer — a piece that answers what, why, how, and why does it matter. But somewhere within every brand is a topic worthy of an Explainer. We’ll find it for you.
By telling your story with a dollop of personality. Part of why Vox Explainers work is that they’re told through one person’s voice — they’re expertly homemade. At The Explainer Studio’s core will be individuals serving as writers/producers/talent — aided by a cadre of video specialists — who will usher stories through research, writing, and production, before (quite literally) lending their voice to it.
By distributing where it counts. We’ll approach distribution the same way we do everything else: strategically, holistically, and with audience in mind. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, or whatever’s next — Explainers are a format that are inherently and infinitely adaptable (After all, veggies can be a snack just as well as a meal.)
By properly seasoning our vegetables. Your brand is part — a crucial part — of our branded Explainers. But it’s not the only part. If we can’t weave your brand into them in a natural way, then we’re ultimately failing you by alienating our audience.
Look, I’m no messiah of branded content — I’m just a guy from Brooklyn. (With a lot of Captain America quotes at my command.) But I promise you: if I see a piece pointed south, I won’t ignore it. Otherwise, I’d just be letting that same cycle of cynical branded content continue.
Three years from now, where should we be? I want The Explainer Studio to have made content that lets clients understand their own product better than they did before they saw it. I want our Explainers to be immediately distinguishable as branded content — and yet indistinguishable from our editorial offerings in terms of quality. I want us to have fans. In short, I want to put a merciless end to the qualifier: “good … for branded content.”