Dirk Standen Explains Condé Nast's Approach to Branded Content

He joined the company's in-house content studio, 23 Stories, as editor-in-chief in August.
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Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

When Style.com shuttered in April, one of the biggest questions among industry folk was what would happen to its longtime editor-in-chief, Dirk Standen. Initially he made a move to W where he took on the role of digital creative director, but by August, Condé Nast made a surprising announcement: Standen had been appointed editor-in-chief of 23 Stories, the in-house branded content studio established in January 2015. 

At the American Magazine Media Conference on Tuesday, Standen explained how 23 Stories works with advertisers — specifically, how Condé Nast's approach differs from that of competing publishing companies. He was joined on stage by Lee Sosin, senior vice president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media, as well as executives from both Meredith and Time Inc. There was a consensus among the panelists that magazine brands are the ultimate creative agencies for consumer brands because they can leverage their own editors and writers to produce content that readers trust. All with Federal Trade Commission (FTA) mandated labelling, of course.

"I came over from the editorial side and I think one of the reasons they wanted me was because we're set up to work not only closely, but directly with the editors and writers of the individual Condé Nast titles," said Standen. "We'll get their input on [ideas] — is this crazy, would you ever do this? We'll get specific suggestions from editors to make the ideas stronger and more aligned with what that publication would be doing in any case." But unlike at Hearst, where a separate team actually produces the branded content, Condé Nast's editors and writers almost always produce it themselves. "There are other instances where it makes more sense for our unit to create the content, but in that case we also work very closely with their editorial teams to make sure that it aligns."

Though editorial teams generally resist the task of creating sponsored content themselves — whether to avoid a conflict of interest or to maintain the highest standards of journalistic integrity — Standen says Condé Nast set 23 Stories up this way on purpose. "We really want it to be a direct relationship and to give advertisers access to the world-class creative talent that Condé Nast can offer," said Standen. "Those editors are the people who know best what works for their publications and what they feel makes sense for their readers." He added that an internal group with representatives from 23 Stories, editorial and Condé Nast's legal team meets regularly to make sure the projects are in line with FTC regulations. "Most of the time our editors are policing that way more closely than anyone else would," he said.

Standen added that many of the projects 23 Stories initiates last a period of several months and feature a range of types of content, with varying degrees of integration of the advertiser's product. He used an ongoing project with Chevrolet and its new Malibu as an example. "Their whole national ad campaign ... is that they are going beyond what you expect from a car of this class," said Standen. "So we came up with this idea: Condé Nast and Chevrolet team up to bring you a year of the unexpected." Over twelve months, five titles (Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Self and GQ) will publish monthly columns that "somehow speak to the idea of the unexpected." The editorial teams have the freedom to choose the topic and execution, and Chevrolet does not see or approve the content before it is published. "But it does say, 'This is part of the 'unexpected series' and it's brought to you by Malibu,'" he said.

In addition, the titles will publish digital content that speaks "more directly to theme" and 23 Stories will produce a video series that incorporates the car in a way that's "very entertaining and aligns with our brands," he explained. "The idea is this combination of different kinds of storytelling, different levels of integration, over the period of the next few months [and] hopefully we'll get our readers associating Chevrolet with being unexpected."

Meanwhile at Hearst, the editorial teams are closely involved with branded content even though they don't produce it themselves. "The nice thing about being a part of the digital media organization is [editors] are getting feedback from their audiences 300 times a day," said Sosin. "They can help pick topics and headlines that we know are going to resonate with the audience; from the editorial side, they want to be involved because that piece of content is living in their environment, it's a reflection [of] their brand. It's all part of one experience for the reader and that experience has to be high quality." 

It goes without saying that creating this high-quality experience for both readers and advertisers has the potential to be extremely lucrative for publishing companies. According to Time Inc.'s Erik Moreno, executive vice president of business development, branded content is currently a $3- to $4-billion-dollar business in the U.S. and will grow to $9 billion by 2019.