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.
In 2014 Vox Media decided to set up their own in-house creative studio, Vox Creative. Vox Creative builds custom advertising experiences for clients across Vox Media. The studio leverages the same data, insights and tools as its eight editorial partners to go deeper across food, sports, gaming, tech, politics and more.
Vox Media has over 1 billion content views per month and 500 million video minutes watched per month.
Today, we speak with Armando Turco, General Manager of Vox Creative. Armando leads the creative excellence, business growth, and strategic focus of Vox Media’s growing branded content practice. Armando has over 15 years of experience in the advertising and marketing industry.
When and why did Vox Creative come to life?
If there’s one true thing about Vox Media, it’s that we’re always iterating and innovating to deliver the best possible experience, both for audiences and for our brand partners. Even before we launched Vox Creative, we built an ad platform that bucked the industry’s crappy standard formats in favor of ads that people actually pay attention to.
We realized that people were demanding a better experience than even the most beautiful display ad could deliver.
In 2014 we realized that people were demanding a better experience than even the most beautiful display ad could deliver. And as our house of editorial brands grew, we knew there was an opportunity to more deeply connect brands and audiences across more dimensions of culture – through stories and experiences, not just ads.
So, with that, we took a page from our own brand book. We applied all of the company’s tools, insights and storytelling expertise in creating branded content that was as good and smart as anything that we publish editorially. Hence, Vox Creative was born.
A brief description of your role within Vox Creative?
I’m the General Manager of Vox Creative. There are many parts to the job, but, to put it simply, it’s my role to create all of the conditions that must exist for great branded content to happen. From nurturing our talent, to growing our capabilities, to partnering closely with our clients, it’s my job to lead the practice toward great creative that works. Some days, I’m looking at the industry and our business from 30,000 feet, and some days I’m waist-deep in the work itself, which definitely keeps things interesting.
Our clients are increasingly asking for efficient, proven content formats that can scale easily across platforms.
What’s trending right now in terms of native advertising on Vox Media?
Right now, we’re having lots of fun obsessing over formats. In a world where brands need more and more content, but resources and attention are inevitably constrained, our clients are increasingly asking for efficient, proven content formats that can scale easily across platforms. Similarly, we know that audiences gravitate toward series, formats and franchises that feel familiar.
And so, we are investing a good amount of talent and energy in growing audiences around signature formats that have been proven to work editorially – like the popular “Explainer” video that has been perfected by Vox.com – then adapting those formats for branded content. So far, this approach has been enormously popular.
This video shows an example of an “Explainer” video about Fantasy Football.
Why should brands invest time, creativity and budgets in Vox Creative?
The whole purpose of branded content is to engage people in stories or experiences relating to the things they care most about, and to do that with a voice of trust, authority and relatability. The best content says “we get you, we get what you’re interested in, and we’re just as obsessed with the same stuff.”
When a media company can go that deep across many different consumer passion points, from sports to food to technology and culture, you get a combination of depth and scale that very few others can match. Layer on our tools, insights, craft and speed, and you have a pretty compelling value prop.
I like to say that our editorial staff make Vox Creative better, but they don’t make Vox Creative content.
Is the editorial staff involved in the development of the native advertising you make?
I like to say that our editorial staff make Vox Creative better, but they don’t make Vox Creative content. One of the biggest advantages of working with Vox Creative is getting access to an aggregate of audience insights and trends from across the portfolio of brands. It’s at that level that we’re most connected to editorial.
Because Vox Creative sits horizontally across the company, we can then go off and translate all of that insight into branded content programs that intersect multiple verticals. We’re connecting dots in ways that no single editorial brand can do.
We clearly label content that is supported in any way by advertisers.
How do you make sure the readers know and understand the difference between the editorial and the commercial content created by Vox Creative?
Our audience happens to be particularly curious, smart and aware, so we take this especially seriously. We clearly label content that is supported in any way by advertisers. We make clear distinctions between sponsored editorial content and custom content, and we apply the same labels consistently (which is key for building understanding over time). We then regularly revisit those practices based on the changing regulation, platform policies and audience feedback to ensure we’re doing it right.
How do you grow your branded content practice and ensure a proper education for your staff?
Very quickly! One of the biggest challenges we face in growing so rapidly is preserving the same ambition, ingenuity and standards that made Vox Media what it is. Education plays a role. Building a culture where people freely share ideas, news and practices play a role.
But the most critical factor of success is diversity. Not just demographic diversity, but diversity of experience. We make it a point to hire people who come from different kinds of companies, business models and cultures. People with different creative POV’s. And I’ve never been at a company that so strongly encourages its people to move horizontally across different departments and roles. That’s really the best way to transfer knowledge and best practice organically.
It doesn’t matter what we think about the content if no one’s going to spend time with it, so spend more time listening to your audience than anyone else.
Which (if any) mistakes have you learned from regarding creating branded content/native advertising?
I don’t know that I’d necessarily call this a mistake as much as a rule of thumb that we have to relearn all the time. REMEMBER WHO THE CONTENT IS FOR. As marketers, we often project our own tastes onto the creative work or we become more focused on what the brand manager wants than we are on what the audience wants. It doesn’t matter what we think about the content if no one’s going to spend time with it, so spend more time listening to your audience than anyone else.
Could you mention an example of a piece of branded content, created by Vox Creative, that you’ve been especially proud of?
I mentioned our obsession with formats, and so our recent Explainer video for Spotify is one that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s the perfect marriage of consistency and customization. Consistency in that it leverages a storytelling approach that Vox Media has applied several times over (which means we know it works and we know how to replicate it successfully). Custom in that it feels totally, distinctly Spotify. That little video has sparked a movement within Vox Creative that is already paying off in big ways.
Make the kind of content you’d want to spend time with. Otherwise, what’s the point?
What important learnings would you pass on to other media companies who are considering setting up branded content studios?
Content can be long, it can be short, it can be expensive, it can be cheap, it can be branded, it can be unbranded, it can be mass or it can be niche, it can be custom or it can be time-tested. Content can be many things, but the only thing it must be is good. Focus on quality. Focus on the audience. Make the kind of content you’d want to spend time with. Otherwise, what’s the point?