Publishers launch sponsored content factories, but ethics are unclear

A number of news organizations, including The Huffington Post and Wired, have recently launched in-house creative agencies to amp up lucrative sponsored content offerings. But the ethics in this new territory are unclear, with some journalists even relaying between editorial departments and these sponsored content generators. WAN-IFRA takes a look at several of these initiatives and explores their ethical backbones.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | August 9, 2013

The Huffington Post

Just last week The Huffington Post launched HuffPost Partner Studio, which will be responsible for creating the site’s sponsored content. According to Digiday, before the launch, the site allowed brands to create topical blogs, for which the social media marketing team curated content from the site. For instance, the team would fill Cisco’s branded blog “Impact X: Where people, technology, and social impact converge” with HuffPost technology articles.

But the launch of HuffPost Partner Studio means the site will now focus on creating original content, specifically tailored to brands’ interests, Digiday reported. The Studio’s staff of 10 is divided between editorial and business workers, with the expectation that some brands will provide their own content and others will rely on the agency to create it. In addition to text-based advertorials, the Studio hopes to hone in on video offerings, particularly mashups and supercuts.

“We’re getting so many inbound requests for native,” HuffPost CEO Jimmy Maymann told Digiday. “Even though native advertising is out there, not many have the hose we have, and that’s important.”

This venture may prove lucrative for HuffPost, with campaigns priced between USD$40,000 and $1 million, Digiday reported.


Condé Nast’s Wired is launching a similar endeavor with Amplifi, its new sponsored content hub, Adweek reported. Wired recruited former editorial writers for Amplifi, though it was careful to leave current staffers off the list to avoid conflicts of interest, according to Adweek. Instead, Wired recruited “high level” journalists with impressive social followings, vice president and publisher Howard Mittman told Adweek.

“We tried to find writers we thought had institutional knowledge of what Wired was about but could help tell brand stories,” Mittman said.

An estimated 30 percent of Wired’s advertising revenue is already related to sponsored content, and such a native advertising hub will only bolster those profits.


Vice’s “creative services team” Virtue was created in 2006, long before sponsored content began trending. The 10-person, video-focused outfit has done campaigns for New EraAbsolutThe North Face and BurtonDigiday reported.

A key campaign was the Creators Project, a collaboration between Virtue and Intel that hinges on YouTube videos that profile artists.


Studio@Gawker, launched in 2007 but recently rebranded, is a team of 13 staffers that creates sponsored content for Gawker Media’s seven sites, Digiday reported. The team, with expertise in design, copy, events, video production and corporate communications, is both physically and metaphorically separated from editorial staff, which is housed on a different floor of Gawker’s offices.

The group puts together packages which can be text-based but often include video, infographics, events and traditional display ads. Studio@Gawker has now created campaigns for MicrosoftIntel and AMC’s Walking Dead, according to Digiday.

“All of our brand partners are attempting to get their story across to our readers in the most authentic manner possible,” said Ray Wert, who leads Studio@Gawker. “And they come to us to tell that story because we know how to authentically talk to our audience.”

The Onion

Satirical “news” site The Onion launched sponsored content hub Onion Labs after a successful campaign for Microsoft in March 2012, Digiday reported. The eight-person crew includes staff and freelance Onion writers, though conflicts of interest may be less of a concern for the parody site. Onion Labs has created content for DoveMTV and Orbitz, among others, with hopes to eventually grow to 50 or 60 campaigns per year.

Grant Jones, director of marketing at The Onion, told Digiday that “making sure The Onion’s voice is maintained” in all campaigns can be difficult, and the site weighs whether sponsored content is better suited on or off The Onion’s site during the creative process.

Ethical concerns

It’s key for these in-house agencies to maintain independence from editorial departments, lest conflicts of interest arise.

“If journalism is not understood to be separate from advertising, then it has lost something incredibly important in a democratic society,” Andrew Sullivan of “The Dish” said.

But Monocle Magazine, with 20 percent of pages in last issue devoted to native ads, has blurred this line without so much as an eyebrow raise from industry commentators, Digiday reported.

While Monocle refuses the term “native advertising” in favor of “advertorials,” the endeavors are seen as a “collaboration” between the brand and editorial staffers, who even go on sales calls. But the final product is ultimately in the hands of the same editorial staffers that fill the rest of the publication’s pages: “This is something that has been produced by us, it’s our photo director, it’s our broadcast director who has overseen this,” editor-in-chief Tyler Brûlé said of Monocle’s campaign for Samsung.

Further battering the advertising/editorial wall, Monocle‘s sponsored content disclosure is merely a vague label that includes the brand’s name followed by “X Monocle” to suggest the collaboration.

The strategy has paid off for the magazine, which, at certain points, has made up to a quarter of its revenue from native advertising, according to Digiday.

But could this process hurt journalists’ credibility? Unless these in-house creative agencies maintain separation from editorial procedures, they could venture into dangerous territory.

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