Melanie Deziel | Branded Content Consultant & Speaker

Tag: t brand studio

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?”

Introducing “Studio Spotlight,” with launch partner T Brand Studio

Several months ago, I started to think about ways that I could bring even more value to the subscribers of my native advertising newsletter, The Overlap League. Up until now, the list had been entirely un-monetized and un-marketed to—a pure passion project focused on educating and connecting people in the native ad industry. But with limited resources and time, I wasn’t sure if I could expand the offering without support from advertisers.

The Overlap League audience is savvy and has very specific interests, which limited the number of sponsors who would be a fit, and I didn’t want to validate their trust by providing anything off-topic or off-brand.

The only way I could introduce sponsorships or marketing opportunities to this audience—I knew—would be to do it transparently and in a way that brought as much value as the regular issues of the newsletter. It had to be the perfect marriage of advertisers that my audience wanted to learn more about, and information that would provide them value.

The solution needed to be truly native. And I believe it is.

A Studio Spotlight is a sponsored issue of the newsletter, wherein all the news, examples, jobs and other information are curated in partnership and with a focus on a single content studio. The goal: To provide the knowledge-hungry TOL audience with insider information about the teams, creators and work they know and respect, while giving those same teams and creators a chance to speak directly to the audience most interested in learning more about their process, achievements and the myriad ways to work with them.

Let’s face it — To have anyone but T Brand Studio as the sponsor of the first “Studio Spotlight” Special Issue would have been unnatural. You can check out the web version of T Brand Studio’s “Studio Spotlight” issue here.

(And if you’re not yet subscribed to the newsletter, be sure to sign up here so you get future issues.)

As many of you know, I got my start as an Editor of Branded Content at T Brand Studio, where I wrote the “Women Inmates” piece for Netflix and the “Grit & Grace” piece for Cole Haan, among others. I felt honored to work with and learn from the talented folks at NYT, many of whom are still there today.

It’s been incredible to see the continued growth of both the studio itself and its body of work, and to watch as the T Brand Studio team continuously raises the bar on what great native advertising should be.

To learn more about sponsoring a Studio Spotlight issue, check out the sponsorship details page, watch the video walk-though of a sponsored issue, and reach out at

The latest and greatest

It’s been a while, as it always seems to have been when I finally get around to updating, but here’s the latest:

Rock the vote:

OK, so maybe this is a slightly different campaign, but my team’s piece, “Women Inmates,” (which I blogged about here!) is up for a OMMA Members’ Choice Award, and we need your vote! Go here, create a free account (which takes less than 5 minutes!), and then submit your vote for our piece under the “Native Advertising — Single Execution” category, like this:

OMMA Vote for NYT

When you create your account— fair warning —you’ll have to select which of MediaPost’s newsletters you want to receive, and you have to select at least one. But here’s how to set up a filter in GMail if you aren’t in the industry and don’t need those in your inbox all the time. 🙂


What I’ve been reading:

I’ve had a busy few weeks with lots of assorted subway time and train time, and that usually translates into lots of reading, usually a mix of social science and some lighter humor. In the last month or so, I’ve finished Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, and Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. Currently in the works, because I can never seem to read one at a time, is The Gift of Adversity: The Unexpected Benefits of Life’s Difficulties, Setbacks and Imperfections, and The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight In The Age of Information Overload.

If you’re into this sort of thing, feel free to find me on Goodreads, where I’m always updating on what I’m reading, what I’ve read, and what I’m adding to my ever-growing queue.


Other tidbits:

Our audience development team took some steps to get involved in native advertising on other publishers, and Poynter talked about the big step. The pieces on Mashable, like this one, should help get the word out to different audiences about the NYT’s offerings. I was lucky enough to be a part of early discussions with the team that put this program together and I’m excited to see the next few pieces live once they’re published. I was also honored to be profiled by my graduate school, The Newhouse School, in this alumni feature, and a few weekends back, I had a great opportunity to head back to my alma mater and give a keynote presentation and several workshops for the first annual Daily Campus Conference. It was great to meet the next generation of Daily Campus editors and share some knowledge, and the lovely flowers they got me as a thank you kept me smiling back at my office all week!


On to the next con:

As I blogged about earlier (here!) I’m headed to Florida on Saturday so that I can spend early next week participating in and presenting at the Florida Governor’s Conference on Tourism. My speech, “Social Media: What Do People Share—Or Not Share—and Why?”, is Tuesday at 11 a.m., but I’ll get to spend this weekend soaking up some sun (hopefully!) and enjoying the beautiful Boca Raton Resort & Club.

You can check out the full schedule for the conference here, and follow the conference hashtag, #GC14, on Twitter. To see what I’m up to on my trip, check out my Instagram (user: meldeziel) and follow me on Twitter: