T Brand Studio’s Adam Aston Is Pumped About Virtual Reality

Adam Aston, VP and editorial director of The New York Times Co.’s branded content unit, T Brand Studio, is stoked about virtual reality (VR) and the potential it offers the Studio’s clients.  And with good reason: Goldman Sachs projects that VR could become an $80 billion market by 2025. Research shows that audiences have an 80% retention rate from VR experiences a year after having the experience, versus 20% retention with merely reading content.

Last fall, the Times dove into VR in a big way, creating a VR app through which to view a dozen films. Aston, speaking at NewsCred’s #ThinkContent event earlier this month, said the VR app represented the fastest download of an app in the paper’s history.

To date, there have been 600,000 downloads of the app since October 2015, more than two million views of the films in the VR app, and an average of six minutes spent viewing each film. Consumers can view the films via Google cardboard headsets (1.3 million were distributed by the Times to the paper’s subscribers, or through their smartphones). And this week, The New York Times hit another milestone with virtual reality: it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Festival for Creativity for its VR app that incorporates stories from the Times as well as branded content from GE and Mini.

Adam Aston, a journalist who joined the Times’ branded content operation more than two years ago, now presides over a 100-person team of writers, data visualization and video experts, audience development and account personnel, among other roles.

Since April 2014, T Brand Studio has produced 157 campaigns, Aston said. T Brand Studio’s work will also help The New York Times Co. prop up the rest of its business. The unit is on track to generate some $60 million in revenue this year, according to the Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson, who spoke on Monday at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Aston about native advertising and other topics.

Tobi Elkin: Can you describe the virtual reality experience?

Adam Aston: We’re actively exploring how virtual reality works. Right now, VR is at a stage like film was in the early 20th century. Our newsroom also works with VR on editorial pieces. For example, a camera was shipped to Paris after the attacks—VR offered more visibility for readers than a single camera could. We worked with GE to debut the VR app.

Tobi: What have you learned from experimenting with VR?

Aston: For one thing, we’ve learned that VR is a medium that’s different than conventional film.  Film can zoom in on emotions. But with VR, you can’t intensify emotions, so the story has to do more work. Voices come from various directions. Quick cuts or edits can leave viewers nauseous.

We’ve also learned that viewers lose interest if there’s a narrative with the visuals. In an era of fractured attention spans, we ask people to stay tuned in for two, five or seven minutes with VR, so the story has to be really good!

Brands should only do VR if it’s worth it. A good film might be a better option for telling a story—it depends on the marketer’s goals. With VR, you enter a space, but your curiosity will pull you away to look at other stuff. So the narrative has to be clear—there’s not a lot of room for nuance with VR.

Tobi: What would the Times do differently?

Aston: We’re in conversations to do more live-action VR work. It’s harder to do than computer graphics. With computer graphics you control the story down to the pixel but on live VR, you have less control over what’s being shown in the frame. The storytelling is, as I mentioned, different.

VR can be about walking through an experience or discovery. For example, fashion and luxury brands might be more interested in a live shoot with VR because they’re interested in showing off their goods. We have at least three times more clients that will use VR in their branded content programs in 2016. Three clients are currently in production with VR programs.

Tobi: What are T Brand Studio clients asking for?

Aston: Clients are thinking more holistically beyond paid posts. They want to know  where all the elements [of a campaign] can live, and they also want to drive people to their home pages. They ask if we can create more content for their home pages so they can go deeper into storytelling. We also have a special team that does white-label content, essentially creating content for marketers that doesn’t live on their sites.

Sophisticated brands see us as one of the main gears, and that we’re a great place to get good content.  Many brands also will repurpose the content that we created for them.

Tobi: What is native advertising to you?

Aston: ‘Native’ lives under the branded content umbrella. Brands want native advertising, but they’re speaking to us about larger campaigns and want us to live in their social networks and on all the different platforms—Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.

Things have evolved since 2014 when we started T Brand Studio. We produced no more than a few dozen paid posts that year. The market was obsessed with the emergence of native. Our campaign for Netflix was the perfect storm. There was very organic social promotion with that campaign.

Tobi: What branded content programs have you admired?

Aston: I admire what the Wall Street Journal’s content studio is doing—the design and quality of their stories. The Cocainenomicscampaign for Netflix was ambitious. I keep an eye on Quartz and Refinery29.

Tobi: How do you see clients’ needs evolving?

Aston: The programs are getting more complicated. Today, we’re having conversations about content and social distribution and how we’re going to target content. Also, we are talking about how we’re going to design all the pieces of the story so that they live on various platforms.

We want to give brands the best guidance we can for works on our site with our readers. There’s often a tug of war. We have endless debates over how branded content works. There can be tension between our creative vision and brands that have disciplined strategies. We want them to reach beyond their vision and to experiment.

Editor’s note: The piece was slightly edited from the original for NAI. The original appeared on MediaPost.

Photo credits: Phil Roeder, Flickr

About the author

Tobi Elkin is Editor of MediaPost’s Native Insider and Real-Time Daily email newsletter where she reports on developments within the native/branded content spaces, along with programmatic media and real-time marketing trends. Tobi also has many interests as a freelance journalist and interviewer including podcasting, intergenerational storytelling and creativity–where it comes from and what sustains it. For more information, visit: www.mediapost.com and www.tobielkin.com

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