Guardian MD says lack of shareholder pressure allows it to pick and choose ad partners

The Guardian logoThe Guardian Australia’s managing director Ian McClelland has claimed unlike competitors the publication is able to walk away from “millions of dollars” of revenue from potential content marketing partners because it does not have to answer to shareholders.

At a breakfast discussion on content marketing McClelland said being owned by a trust – unlike other media organisations which are privately owned or answerable to shareholders – ensured it could remain “absolutely independent and free from commercial and political interference”, allowing it to walk away from potential partners like “fast food” outlets it does not deem suitable.

While McClellend did not mention News Corp or Fairfax by name during a debate on content marketing and brand journalism organised by PR firm Text100, both major competitors are listed companies.

The discussion heard how brand-led content can work and add value, but only if the reader does not feel duped or hoodwinked.

McClelland insisted The Guardian was “totally transparent” with its branded content and was under no pressure to work with brands or sectors that did not resonate with its readership. While the publication needed to be financially independent, money is injected back into the business to “make sure it remains independent”.

“We are selective who we work with,” he said. “The good thing about not being owned by private company or by shareholders who demand a dividend is that we can take a longer term look at this.

“If we take a fast food product and try and make content and sell it to our audience we could make millions of dollars. But we are lucky that we are just not under pressure from shareholders to take the money. Instead we can pick and choose and find brands that are in areas of say, data or innovation, technology or science and that is great.”

McClelland added that The Guardian is “absolutely clear” with its readers over what has been produced solely by its editorial team and what content has been created in partnership with a brand.

“We label the content that is created with a brand as an ‘advertisement feature’ and have a description about who has paid for that,” he said. “That distinction has to be absolutely clear with the reader, and particularly with our reader because The Guardian audience is smart, generally well educated and they don’t appreciate being hoodwinked.

“They can probably tell the difference anyway. They are a bit more of a sophisticated reader so it just doesn’t work for us, the audience or the brand to disguise marketing as content.”

Branded content will fail if there is a “blatant sales message”, he added.

Adam Carroll, senior brands and agencies director for content marketing platform Outbrain, said brands are becoming increasingly savvy in how they use branded content and brand journalism.

No longer do they overtly push their product but they are creating content that is genuinely engaging and useful, he said.

“Two years ago…everything that went out as branded content generally had some kind of call to action or contained a more traditional advertising message,” Carroll said. “People would call it content marketing but really it was advertising dressed up as content.

“Over the last six months we have seen this huge shift where brands are genuinely taking that publisher mentality and approach to their content.”

Carroll highlighted NRMA’s lifestyle site,, as containing “subtle branding and with high quality content produced by journalists”.

“You don’t feel like you are on a brand site,” he said. “This gets stronger engagement, trust, credibility and brand affinity.”

Carroll added that Outbrain has “strict guidelines” about what it will run on its platform, with anything too focused on a product or special offer, blocked.

Every piece of content is scanned by “human eyes”, but he admitted it was a grey area.

“There was a famous legal case in the US where they were trying to figure whether something was porn or not,” Carroll said. “The judge said ‘I don’t know what the definition of porn is or what it isn’t but I know it when I see it’. It’s the same with content. You can smell it when it’s an ad. It’s a grey area but it comes down to a gut feeling.”

Quizzed about how brands can track their return on investment of working with Outbrain, which shares revenue with the publishers based on brands paying for the clicks, Carroll said it could help companies measure their ROI but admitted it was also a “leap of faith”.

“It’s about generating trust and credibility….but there is no perfect science to it,” he said.

Freelance journalist Brad Howarth said media companies must tread a fine line between carrying branded content and maintaining editorial integrity with the repercussions of getting it wrong likely to be “devastating”.

“Audiences don’t like having the wool pulled over their eyes,” he said. “We need to be transparent in what we are doing and that the audience understands the motivations and mechanics behind what they are consuming.

“The central conflict that still exists is understanding how does branded content and sponsored content fit into an editorial flow and how do you balance that against editorial integrity.”

Steve Jones


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