Melanie Deziel | Branded Content Consultant & Speaker

Category: For Journalists

A Journalist’s Love Affair: The Rise of Sponsored Content

This article was written by Ayelet Abitbul, a student at the Arthur J. Carter Institute of Journalism at New York University. She shared her completed project with me and I’ve offered to host it here on my blog. To learn more about Aya and her work, check out her website


As the fourth fiscal quarter approaches, it marks nearly nine years Americans have spent recovering from the aftermath of Wall Street’s 2008 negligence, from the perilous matchbox of subprime mortgages, faulty loan ratings, and lax lending standards, which was detonated by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, and which exploded into the worst American financial crisis since the Great Depression. Though nearly every industry spent the past near-decade inching towards recovery, with employees yearning to get back into their routines of gilded 2007, some have paved new routes, creating jobs never before occupied in their industries, transforming and redefining their entire trade. The media industry is one, as journalists have found opportunity and reward applying their skills in a new kind of work: sponsored content.

Melanie Deziel is one such journalist. When Deziel graduated in 2013, she, like thousands of hopeful others with Master’s degrees, faced a barren job market. She earned a traditional editorial education, graduating in 2012 from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor’s in Journalism, and in 2013 from Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications with an M.A. in Arts Journalism. But unlike many other Master’s students headed for the ranks of high finance or the cradles of bureaucratic academia, Deziel was dedicated to a line of work that financially recovered slower than nearly any other: the media industry.

According to Pew Research Center, from 2007-2012, fourteen-thousand six-hundred news journalists lost their jobs, and magazine writers were cut by thirty-five thousand. For few references, the Tribune Co., corporate owner of the Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune, declared bankruptcy, the entire photography staff at the Chicago Sun-Times was discharged, and the largest circulating daily in New Jersey, The Star-Ledger, laid off 45% of its editorial team, all by 2012. The few journalists still employed worked for a pittance, as tight budgets and low salaries were compounded with the rise in online media, which drove subscription revenue down while demand for traditionally printed, paid content became freer.

On entering the recovering economy, Deziel reflected: “I was looking how to put my [investigative and editing] skills to use in a different industry or in another context. And that’s how I ended up on the brand-story telling side.”

Deziel working as Editor-in-Chief at the Daily Campus, UConn’s student paper, in 2012. Credit: Rachel Weiss/The Daily Campus

In 2013, Deziel began as one of the first journalists experimenting with sponsored content, hired by the Huffington Post to create pieces for brands like Nature Valley, Citi, and American Express.

Advertiser-backed media created by journalists, or sponsored content, had been around for some time in the form of advertorials. But around 2013, Deziel explains that brands began ditching copywriters and in-house marketing staff as their primary story-tellers in their ads, replacing them with classically-trained ones—journalists.

“The Greatest Story Ever Told,” Sponsored by Netflix

“Brand-story telling,” or the practice of “helping advertisers tell better stories” according to Deziel’s definition, has seen a steady increase in the past five years since the recession. Essentially, it’s when advertisements are written in the form of articles, in the “voice” of the publication, and laid out, either in the paper or on the news site’s homepage, alongside regular editorial content. Brand-sponsored content falls under a larger umbrella of “native advertising,” as the advertisements appear “native” to the environment in which they’re displayed.

In 2014, Deziel was then recruited to launch the sponsored content team for The New York Times, building today’s T Brand Studio team. Deziel explained that her team was “set up like a mini-newsroom” with the same goal as HuffPost Partner Studios: “to help advertisers tell stories that live on, write in a way and create content in a way that would appeal to the New York Times audience.”

There, she wrote what became a pedagogical piece of sponsored content, titled “Women Inmates: Why the Male Model Doesn’t Work.” Commissioned by Netflix for their upcoming season of Orange is the New Black, Deziel used video, infographics, digital illustration, and traditional type to describe the inequalities female prisoners face in a system logistically designed for men. The piece climbed to the top 2% of all content viewed on the New York Times’ website in 2014, and won the Online Marketing and Media Award (OMMA) for Best Native Advertising Execution.

Advertorial in Disguise?

When asked about the difference between the infamous “advertorial” and sponsored content, Deziel says, “I think there’s a lot of people who see them as the same thing, and in many cases they are.” She explains that advertorials are exclusively brand created, where companies are “buying a full page ad and happen to fill it with words instead of pictures.”

According to a New York Times audience-traffic report, there’s a quantitative difference between the two, too. By the end of T Brand’s first year, the New York Times reported that there were 632% more visits to T Brand Studio-produced content than advertiser-produced content, and users spent 526% more time with the former. On Facebook, T Brand content outperformed that of advertisers by 1,613%. According to the Times’ 2016 year-end reports to its investors, the T

Brand campaigns generated 6% of all ad revenue from only 50 brands, which totaled $33.6 million—double the studio’s revenue earnings of 2014.

That a single campaign price begins at around $50,000 and can reach into the multi-millions provides further financial incentive to grow the Studio, says Sebastian Tomich, VP of T Brand Studios. “This business is not easily replicable,” he reflects, but “it’s something The New York Times can be the best at.”

This reconfiguration of journalistic talents inspired other publishers to jump on the sponsored- content bandwagon, too. Today, in addition to T Brand and HuffPost Brand studios, journalists have found work in the Washington Post’s WP Brand Studio, Conde Nast’s 23 Stories, and Forbes’ BrandVoice, among others.

But financial incentives are not exclusive to publishers. Grace Gold, a freelance beauty journalist, believes that higher compensation for brand-sponsored content can provide a journalist with “the financial freedom to write the editorial stories you actually want to write, instead of cranking out a ton of low-paying editorial stories you don’t feel very passionate about, just to pay your bills.”

What’s Left for the Watchdog

Unlike Deziel, not all are so quick to welcome branded content on the same pages as their news.

Dr. David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, asks, “Does it make the place better or worse?” He continues, “I’m fine with feisty advocacy marketing in which a company makes a claim as honestly as it can. I’d just be happier if the company posted it on their own site.” The biggest problem in sponsored content, he believes, is that “readers may mistake it for actual journalism if the label is too small or unclear. The wall can be too thin.”

Deziel emphasizes, however, that at the New York Times, the “wall” between branded and editorial content production involves two separate wings and “literally two separate elevator banks, one for editorial and one for business.”

“We don’t go each other’s floors, we don’t sit next to each other, we don’t talk to each other. There’s no mingling whatsoever” she says. “Most of the folks that I’ve seen with strong, visceral, anti-content reactions are usually coming from a place of not understanding that the editors don’t have anything to do with it.”

Still, this answer doesn’t satisfy Dr. Weinberger’s primary concern, that putting “partisan work that looks like journalism literally next to actual journalism” is ethically contentious, for “even when it is properly labeled as paid for by a company, the proximity of actual journalism can elevate the seriousness with which the paid content is taken.”

Indeed, a study conducted by the American Press Institute (API) on graduates with a degree in journalism or communications found that 66% believe “sponsored content crosses ethical boundaries and will damage news organizations’ credibility.”

But despite these ethical concerns, Gold explains an attitude towards sponsored content she believes many journalists must share anyway: “ When you see editorial pay rates nosedive in half or in quarter over a few years, and you see sponsored content rates only increase, your perception changes.”

In “The Rest Is Advertising: Confessions of a Sponsored Content Writer” Jacob Silverman, who purposely wrote without a byline for Atlantic’s Re:think Brand Studio, admits “It was money that got me into the sponsored content rack.” For the “glossiest” pieces, he explains, some advertisers are willing to pay up to four dollars a word. His perception on branded content, though, hasn’t changed. He believes that “the line between what’s sponsored and what isn’t—between advertising and journalism—has already been rubbed away.”

Despite the media industry’s alleged poor financials, Silverman believes “the truth, after all, is that there is money in journalism. It’s just woefully misallocated.” While media companies are paying the highest salaries to in-house brand writers, he says, Silverman reminds his readers that “a mass of freelancers—whose work is necessary to the functioning of many publications—cadge whatever assignments they can and don’t complain when the checks take six months to arrive.”

He concludes, “such is the anticlimax of sponsored content: it promises to know the future of news, but in the end, all it’s got is cash.” Gold has some advice for these ethically-conscious readers: “subscribe to publications like the New York Times, to support good old fashion journalism.” A testament to Deziel’s defense of the separate editorial and sponsored content wings of the Times, Gold says, “The New York Times does sponsored content, but you can see it doesn’t influence what the rest of the publication covers.”

The Rise of the Content Guru

After she set up shop at T Brand, Deziel transferred to Time Inc. as the Head of Creative Strategy. She then set out on her own, working now as a private consultant for brands looking to get their content strategies off the ground. She’s an educator in this fairly new world too, frequently traveling to teach content strategy workshops to corporate staffs. She spoke in 2016 at over sixty events to more than twelve-thousand people, according to her blog. She also launched a native advertising industry newsletter, The Overlap League, that offers news and strategy tips in the blossoming native ad world.

In an interview, Deziel asks, “Perhaps we have yet to really see them. imagine the impact and the benefits for readers, publishers and advertisers once some of these big brands are able to shift their mindset and can begin putting resources toward telling great stories that may not yet have been told?”

I’ve Seen Advertisers Struggle to Tell Authentic Stories

This Q&A originally appeared on the Native Advertising Institute Blog, as part of the ‘meet the speakers at Native Advertising Days 2016’ series. Join me at the conference, November 16-17 in Berlin!


Reluctance or maybe even downright skepticism is apparently still what publishers risk facing when producing native advertising solutions for clients.

‘Convincing advertisers to tell real stories’ is seen as the biggest challenge regarding native advertising in a survey by Native Advertising Institute and FIPP among 140 magazine executives from across the globe.

How do you overcome that challenge – and are advertisers sometimes right not to go on the storytelling? We asked these and other questions to Melanie Deziel, award-winning branded content strategist, and author and the founder of The Overlap League, the native advertising industry newsletter. She also served as the first editor of branded content at The New York Times – AND she will be speaking at Native Advertising Days.

Do you recognize the challenge of convincing advertisers to tell real stories from your own experiences?

I’ve absolutely seen advertisers struggle to tell authentic stories before. It’s certainly a real challenge, and most often for those advertisers who are new to native advertising or those who have. But it’s rare that they don’t see the value in stories; more often it’s the processes or priorities that take the lead in more direct response marketing programs such as banner ads, direct mail, coupon promotions, etc. carry over to native ad programs and get in the way of letting the story take the lead.

The need to see conversions can create a “salesy” feel.

Sometimes when the budgets for native ad programs come from a product launch, or are led by a sales-focused team, the need to see conversions can force the product to a more prominent — and perhaps less natural —place in the story creating a forced and “salesy” feeling. Other times, particularly in heavily regulated industries like finance or pharmacy legal concerns or risks about privacy are of the utmost concern to marketers; as a result, the natural flow of the story sometimes falls to the wayside in favor of ultra-clear disclosures, asterisks, and fine print.

How do you suggest that publishers go about the ‘convincing’ of advertisers?

I think it’s important for publishers and publishing-side content studios to feel empowered by being honest and open with their brand partners on the impact that their requests for more branding can have on a piece. Advertisers partner with publishers because they are specifically looking for storytelling expertise, so we’d be remiss if we sidestepped our storytelling best practices without warning them first simply because we didn’t want to rock the boat.

Let them know that you can, for example, make that logo bigger or include another reference to the brand, but that readers will likely find it unnatural and you recommend keeping it as is. Most often, advertisers will appreciate your honesty and come to trust your instinct, but at least if they choose not to take your advice, they’re doing it with the correct information and an understanding of the potential consequences for performance.

Not every native ad program calls for an edgy piece with minimal branding and a story at the center.

Ultimately, though, not every native ad program calls for an edgy piece with minimal branding and a story at the center. More branded “advertorial” pieces are still a huge business — especially in technical and highly regulated fields where advertisers are more comfortable retaining control and in local publishing markets where publishers may not have resources to create bespoke content. These advertorial pieces allow advertisers who are not yet ready or able to step outside their own story to have a hand at speaking to readers directly. And while that content is not always the most engaging, compelling, or differentiated, it does help marketers start to think about the role that storytelling can play in their efforts. Hopefully it helps them increase their comfort levels so that they can begin to tell less and less branded stories (that focus more on their consumers) down the line.

Are there even products or brands who are not fit for native advertising, in your opinion?

Personally, I think any brand is capable of telling a compelling story that provides new and interesting information to their consumers. That said, I recognize it is much more difficult for some types of brand to accomplish these programs than others such as:

– Advertisers in heavily regulated industries like finance, pharmacy, and health care have strict limits to the things they can say, the information they can share, and the recommendations they can make; these limits can sometimes make “natural” storytelling difficult—or at the very least; complicated.
– For brands that do work on behalf of other groups or brands—such as tourism boards, unions, non-profits, political groups and other collectives—coordinating a single content piece and getting buy-in from all stakeholders may be more difficult than for other brands.
– Alcohol advertisers and others that have the be aware of age restrictions on their content viewing, may be rightfully weary about certain types of content, certain stories, or promoting their content in certain contexts.

Training of sales team is mentioned as the second biggest challenge by magazine executives regarding native advertising in the survey. Training is a costly affair – especially if you’re a small publisher. Are there in your opinion ways to go about this that doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of spending on the part of the publishers?

I have conducted this type of training as a content studio staffer, and more recently as a consultant as well. Coordinating such trainings can be difficult and expensive, as any large meetings and training sessions can be, but the insights gained from these sessions are so valuable for sales teams and can have a tremendous impact on that bottom line for the publisher.

For some publishers there may be an internal content advocate who can conduct such trainings, such as a head of content, a copy director, or a lead strategist. If this person is capable of explaining their process in an articulate way that resonates with a sales team; this is a great solution for sharing insights across departments and reducing the costs of hiring an outside expert.

But for many publishers no single internal expert has emerged with both the deep knowledge of content sales strategies and best practices AND the ability to clearly convey those insights to a sales team in a way that resonates with them. A specialist can often “speak the language” of sales in a way that allows them to more clearly convey the sales advantages of a content-first and quality-first mindset, helping a sales team to understand the content team’s vision and better understand the role that content can play in helping them to achieve their client’s marketing goals.

The easiest way to create an effective branded content strategy is to critically examine what is working editorially and model your native offerings and best practices around that.

Thirdly, magazine executives mention the ‘creation of effective strategies’ as a challenge in native. It’s a big question – but do you have a quick fix for this?

This is indeed a big question. The easiest way to create an effective branded content strategy, in many cases, is to critically examine what is working editorially, and model your native offerings and best practices around that. What formats perform best for your newsroom? What topics are most engaged in by your audience? What social networks tend to drive the most traffic to your site? These learnings fro your editorial team should be ingested and applied to your recommendations on the branded side as well.

And of course, there are outside experts and consultants who can help publishers do these types of analysis and work together with sales, marketing and content teams to create repeatable strategic frameworks that can be adjusted and implemented for different types of clients in the future, based on their needs.

What is the biggest challenge for native advertising in your personal opinion?

I do think that telling authentic stories, as was cited in the study, is one of the biggest challenges, for most advertisers. When you’re used to programs that are more direct-response, many of the best practices of native advertising seem counter-intuitive by comparison. It can often be a big shift in mindset and it does take time. But I also think it’s a huge opportunity. If we know that this is the biggest challenge for advertisers, imagine the impact and the benefits for readers, publishers and advertisers once some of these big brands are able to shift their mindset and can begin putting resources toward telling great stories that may not yet have been told?


Meet me at Native Advertising Days on November 16th-17th .Jesper Laursen, CEO of Native Advertising Institute, will talk in depth about the findings in the survey. In attending the conference you will also be presented with inspirational cases, solid insights and actionable tools that you can take home and implement right away. Other speakers include Stephanie Losee, Head of Content at VISA, Jason Miller, Global Content Marketing Leader at Linkedin, Michael Villaseñor, Creative Director of Ad Innovation and Marketing at the New York Times, and Rebecca Lieb, Leading Industry Analyst on native Advertising.

Top Podcasts for Native Ad Creators and Strategists

Podcasts for Content Marketers

Whether you’re looking to decrease the learning curve as you enter a new industry, or you just want to keep your marketing and storytelling skills sharp, these podcasts run the gamut — from native advertising and marketing to influencer interviews and top TED Talks — and they’re sure to spark your imagination.

(Check out another version of this list as I wrote it for Inc., here.)


For following content news:

For general marketing insights:

For staying up-to-speed on social:

For freelance/independent/hustling content creators:

Miscellaneous podcasts for creative inspiration:


Have a suggestion for a podcast that should be added? Noticed one is out of commission? Tweet me @mdeziel

Check out the resource page for more helpful tips, tools and tricks.