WSJ’s Trevor Fellows on native: ‘Both parties need to go into it with eyes fully open’ | M&M Global

WSJ’s Trevor Fellows on native: ‘Both parties need to go into it with eyes fully open’

Content marketing is a test of relationship between brand and publisher, not a tick-box exercise, argues Wall Street Journal’s global head of ad sales.

Trevor Fellows

High-quality native advertising can be extraordinarily engaging for both brand and publisher, but should not be considered a “quick to-do” for all advertisers.

So says Trevor Fellows, the Wall Street Journal’s global head of ad sales, and the man tasked with leading WSJ Custom Studios, a global content marketing division promising to “elevate the conversation for brands”.

Speaking to M&M Global a year after the creation of WSJ Custom Studios, Fellows claimed marketers are finding themselves debating “realism versus innovation”, and wondering whether content-led communications can help give their brands a cutting edge.

His answer is positive, but with a warning attached.

“The big learning we’ve had over the last year is how well content can work, but how collaborative an exercise it needs to be between brand and publisher. It’s a lot of work for both parties, and both need to go into it with their eyes fully open,” says Fellows.

“It’s a great test of relationships. You really see where the strong people are within your organisation. It can absolutely cement a great relationship, or it can put a lot of pressure on it.”

Going global

The 32-strong (and growing) WSJ Custom Studios has created over 50 campaigns in its first 12 months, with participating clients including Mercedes-Benz and AIG. What started in New York has expanded to Europe, and a team recently flew to Asia to spread the project to that region.

Videographers and graphic artists, among others, are being recruited to extend the studio’s capabilities. However, Fellows is adamant news team resources will not be borrowed to bolster the quality of native ads: “We’re the most trusted news brand in America. We don’t believe you can maintain that mantle and have journalists writing paid content. There’s a conflict of interest.”

So what does good brand content look like? The former Bloomberg global ad sales boss is keen to discuss a recent campaign for US insurer MetLife, which he believes avoids the “me-too” pitfalls of unoriginal content marketing (“I’ve read an awful lot of content in the last year on the changing face of mobile communications.”)

The MetLife Foundation campaign centres on the topic of ‘financial inclusion’, namely the two billion people globally still denied access to basic financial services such as banking, insurance and credit. The two year project centres on a challenge to recognise the best ideas to address financial exclusion issues.

“The MetLife project is something no other brands are talking about,” says Fellows. “If too many brands are writing about [a topic] it becomes very hard to enjoy any halo from it. There were multiple, deep conversations with senior executives at MetLife about what they wanted to achieve, and that really allowed us to plan as we did.”

Despite enthusiasm for such in-depth partnerships, Fellows is not getting carried away. A client recently told him that – based on projected ROI – his brand would not be bothering with content marketing, instead sticking to more traditional methods.

“There won’t be many times brands only do content advertising. I don’t think it’s going to be the vast majority of advertising any time soon, and it requires a huge investment in both people and process. There will be a time that every brand engages in high-impact display advertising,” he says.

Truly “authentic” native ads, which deliver strong levels of engagement, are often likely to be targeted, he adds: “Not every piece of content will work with every consumer. It’s very hard to reach a huge panoply of people because content done well tends to be for a specific audience.”

Busy year

It has been a busy year to date for WSJ. It kicked off 2015 with a global brand campaign called ‘Make Time’, with luminaries such as music producer and SAP chief executive Bill McDermott conveying the value in pausing from a busy schedule to consumer quality and informative content.

Last month, WSJ rolled out a newly mobile-optimised online platform, as well as a dedicated Apple Watch app, and it is investing heavily in video and graphics to ensure it is ready for “a world where 5G is coming”.

Fellows says several further initiatives are on the way to help increase reader engagement levels – something he believes will become a key battleground for media owners: “We’ve long had a roadmap for a number of products we want to bring to market this year. This is the first part of the journey, and you’re going to see much more from us in the next six to nine months.

“It’s relatively straight-forward to deliver large audience for anything these days. What’s much more difficult is to deliver an audience that is actually really engaged with the content for a significant amount of time.”

At the core is a move from clients to focus marketing strategies around the things which really work, rather than attempting to cover all bases with a more fragmented approach, concludes Fellows.

“With an economic recovery which is not as strong as everybody wants, we’ve got to focus on what actually works. This notion of realism versus innovation is going to be an interesting one over the next year,” he says.

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