This article is part of a series of interviews that NAI has conducted with the directors of publisher’s Native Ad Studios around the world. Please reach out if you want to add your Native Ad Studio to the series.
How does Axel Springer work with native advertising as part of their commercial product and service portfolio? How has their latest studio merger affected the organization in-house structure? What are their predictions for the future of native advertising and what have they learned so far in the becoming of the Axel Springer Brand Studio?
We asked Director of Axel Springer Brand Studio, Juliane Sydow, to let us in on the secret sauces that make this German native ad studio a unique entity in the global native advertising landscape.
The Axel Springer Brand Studio came to life after a fusion between BILD and WELT and other brands. When did that happen and why did this fusion come about?
The Axel Springer Brand Studio launched in January 2018. Previously, we were offering native advertising solutions to clients already since 2016.
Back then, two dedicated branded content units at BILD and WELT established themselves very successfully in the market. However, in the course of a recent restructuring at Axel Springer and the merger of all digital activities under one roof, it made sense to install a joint division like ours.
This makes our offerings more scalable and increasingly efficient. Both internally for our sales force which now has only one unit to contact with briefs and also externally for brand clients who know that we are the experts in charge of “everything native”. In addition, we can respond even more closely to the goals of our customers by leveraging our broad brand portfolio and invention of new tech products.
This is a classic win-win situation and of course, it’s also a lot of fun to work with great talents focusing on one goal.
You are the director of the new studio. What does your role entail?
At the moment, my main focus is to grow the team and create the best possible conditions for all team members, who are all experts in their own field. They aim high to deliver top creative solutions. In addition, we want to grow and expand our unit with more innovative new topics, like VR or AR experiences, podcasts, live brand stories and projects that build on Axel Springer as Europe’s leading digital publishing house.
My colleagues Yvonne Beister and Dirk Nolde lead the editorial teams for the brands BILD and WELT. This is an area where I do not interfere. However, I accompany larger, cross-brand campaigns and sales appointments.
Of course, internal stakeholder management is also an important topic for a creative unit that consistently pushes the bar at Axel Springer. Interdisciplinary exchange and involving other units early on in our processes is also on my agenda to get the most output out of our unit. In fact, collaborations are immensely important to achieve the best results for both our brand partners and users. And I report our results and processes to the management.
What are the biggest challenges you have come across because of this fusion & how did you overcome these challenges?
Changes almost always cause uncertainty and at the same time unleash unsuspected energies. Managing and properly dosing these two movements has certainly been a challenge.
In addition, with BILD and WELT, we have two strong media brands with completely different storytelling approaches and culture overall. Building new structures and processes together is very time-consuming and challenging while keeping the growing day-to-day business running. I tried to give the team the time to workshop and discuss new processes. Also, communication within the team is very important in that case.
And finally, it is always very interesting to see what happens when 15 creative people, some of whom have not known each other before, suddenly move into a new office and work together. In our case, it worked out very fast and we grew together very well as a team.
The performance of every team member and the willingness to never be satisfied with 100% were two important factors. And sometimes it just helps to spend a round of pizza and beer and let work be work.
What have been your most important learnings so far?
Internally, you have to create a strong unity between teams that live and breathe for the specific media brands and audiences they previously worked for. You have to align them with the superior mission of delivering the best solutions for users on every platform.
Externally, ensuring a great level of commitment from our brand partners. The more intense the creative and strategic exchange of a cooperation is, the better we can steer our campaigns.
How does Axel Springer Brand Studio set itself apart from other brand studios?
I believe each content studio of a publishing house is as unique as its media brands are. Strong media brands with a clearly defined voice that users identify with are as crucial today as never before. Given our extensive and diverse portfolio of 20+ media brands that we now offer our solutions for, this is what makes us stand out.
We cater to an online audience of more than 43 million unique users monthly with unique media brands. Each of our brands creates great value for a certain area of life and entails highly engaged audiences: If you look at BILD, WELT and our special interest verticals, for example, you have to think of our studio as a trusted partner to reach these audiences in the tone and style of these publications. A tone and style they truly love – be it in lifestyle, fashion, travel or sports.
Besides our broad media brand portfolio, it’s also our unique talent mix that makes us stand out. We have native editors and digital strategists in our brand studio that previously worked in editorial and business units of our strongest media brands. They are passionate media and content professionals that know their game of crafting user-centric content experiences like no one else.
Which skills do you believe are important when setting up a content studio?
In order to be successful with native advertising, you really have to flex your creative muscles. Regardless of your role, I believe a strong understanding of audiences, content in general and social communities is key – paired with the ability to translate brand client goals into strategies that sell.
We search on all channels for such talents. Personal contacts help us a lot or colleagues with whom we have already worked on a freelance basis. And of course, our Axel Springer personnel department is also involved in our recruiting process.
What is your secret to creating great native advertising at Axel Springer Brand Studio?
With the tempting monetary growth taking place, we still put quality and users first. We see ourselves as supporters of both: brand clients who want to get their messages across and online audiences which want to be entertained. The fact that we are constantly optimizing our campaigns for clients as well as users is an intense process, but also very satisfying. And it doesn’t stop here.
Even after the end of a campaign, we are working hard on showcasing our results to clients, educating them on what worked well and which areas we should tackle in the following collaborations. The fact that we are on the right track here is shown by a number of partnerships that are now entering their second or third year. Building long-term cooperations with our partners are the best-case-scenario for everyone involved in the native advertising arena.
Is the editorial staff involved in the native advertising production? Why/why not?
We believe in journalistic independence, which is why the colleagues from the editorial offices are not involved in the production of the campaigns.
But of course, we are in direct contact with the colleagues, when it comes to teaser placements, for example. And not least because most of our native journalists have previously worked in these editorial offices.
How do you label your native advertising?
We make it as transparent as possible and make use of several options. Be it a traditional “ads” label on teaser placements, tagging brand partners in social sponsored posts or a brand logo integration in articles, quizzes, and videos. We want our users to perceive our content as “branded”.
This is consistent with our mission: We only did a good job if users feel thankful that a brand has brought them the content experience we crafted. Our experience shows that a particularly transparent approach to labeling leads to high user acceptance and engagement.
Do you have your own separate sales team for native advertising or who sells it and How do you train the sales staff?
Like all of our marketable products, native advertising is also marketed by the marketing unit of Axel Springer, Media Impact. In addition, we have a sales & marketing manager in our team to fill this role, ensuring that we deliver the sales colleagues exactly what they need in terms of material and information.
Good communication is the key to success here. We visit the sales bureaus regularly, assist in appointments in person or keep the team up to date via newsletter updates. Last but not least, practice is the best training. The sales colleagues who have already implemented campaigns with us, of course, present our products differently to a potential customer.
And over time, we also have partners with whom we have a direct exchange. Of course, our sales colleagues are involved in this communication as well.
What do you believe will be the future of native advertising? Is it here to stay? And how?
I do not believe in the future of native advertising. I believe that the future of advertising will be native.
Which learnings would you pass on to other publishers setting up or improving their native ad studio?
Theory and practice are two completely different pairs of shoes, meaning: Do not work on complex theoretical solutions for hypothetical questions for too long. Instead, develop smart strategies that result in showcases and best practices that position you as a thought leader right away. You have to think ahead of time. This is our mindset. We are first-movers in many fields, such as dominating new traffic channels like Snapchat where we find highly engaged and young audiences.
That said, I would advise any other brand studio to put content quality and monetary growth into a healthy relationship. This requires that different teams work hand-in-hand: editorial, product, sales, and platform. In order to grow fast and high-quality, you should create a consensus about where you want to head with “Native”.
Another important factor: you have to value different kinds of “customers”. Not only accommodating brand partners but also target audiences with their specific needs. It’s incredibly fun to implement cool and high-quality campaigns for customers and users! Campaigns that are not just tolerated but instead loved by all stakeholders involved.
What is the goal of the new Axel Springer Brand Studio and what are the next steps for you?
All in all, our roadmap and future initiatives align with our strategic definition of native advertising as the consistent approach of user-centricity in a data-driven era of native digital advertising. We want to be the thought leader in that particular arena and guide brands through the challenge of activating users for their communicational goals.
We witness that budgets for branded content are rising overall and a lot of marketers do not look at native advertising solely as just another tactic but as an integral part of their marketing mix. On the one hand, it is great to see that our value proposition gains traction and is of high interest in the market.
On the other hand, we follow the conviction that we have to adapt and develop our services to best align them with the challenges that marketers will face in the future. Therefore, we’ll spend a great portion of our time investigating how to take the measurement of effectiveness to the next level – for example by inventing a sophisticated effectiveness index for native advertising campaigns on our own as well as external platforms.
Additionally, data and audience insights, as well as new user targeting solutions, are both key areas for further developing our products and are a priority for us as well. The integration of native advertising with other marketing disciplines, such as influencer marketing is also included in our roadmap.
This June, Axel Springer’s marketer Media Impact rolled out its strategic partnership with INTERMATE, a market-leading influencer marketing agency in Germany, that functions both as a creative studio as well as a tech company. We are currently working on the first integrated Native-Influencer-campaigns with top-tier personalities on social media. We see huge potential for joint products, combining the best of both worlds: storytelling with the DNA of our publishing brands and influencer marketing on social media.
The vertical video format will also play an exponentially important role for our offerings and we’ll put great emphasis on growing our partnerships with production houses that want to master the future of mobile content with us.
Axel Springer Studio is the official German partner at the Native Advertising Institute. They are sponsoring the Native Advertising DAYS 2018, hosting the official ‘Meet & Greet’ pre-event as well as the native advertising masterclasses on Nov. 8. Moreover, you’ll meet them as speakers at the conference.