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'Church and State' in Native Advertising. Drawing a line between brand and publisher content.

Aug 22, 2014 / by Vitaly Pecherskiy

Many of you may have seen the recent piece about Native Advertising presented by John Oliver on the Last Week Tonight show. During this impassioned 11-minute segment, John Oliver is very critical of Native Advertising, claiming that “ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie. Except it’s actually like raisins in a cookie – because who really wants raisins in their cookie?”

In other words, he is concerned that readers find it difficult to distinguish between what is editorial and sponsored content. To strengthen his argument, he cites an IAB study which shows that less than half of internet readers can distinguish between the two.


The term 'Native Advertising' is loosely used nowadays to encompass all forms of advertising that is blended into the publisher's original content.

The existence of sponsored content that is jointly created with publisher's editorial staff is not new -- 'advertorials' have been around virtually for as long as the press itself. Haven gotten a facelift of being called 'Native Advertising', advertorials are getting a fresh wave of criticism and are scrutinized over disclosure policies. Although all content is marked as 'Sponsored', often it does not seem to be enough for an average consumer to tell apart what is brand content and what is not.

Hence, the question is how can we separate the two while preserving the main premise of native advertising -- a seamless transition between editorial and sponsored or branded content while consumer is in a content consumption mode? The question is often aligned with the term of Church and State in Native Advertising debate.

In my mind the solution lies in picking where the content is hosted. There are two options -- Native Ads (advertorials) that are hosted on publisher's site (think Netflix's sponsored content 'Orange Is the New Black' on New York Times), and In-Stream Native Ads that drive users to the content that lives on brand-owned properties (blog, microsite etc.). (see visual examples of branded vs sponsored content here)

With rapid adoption of programmatic approach to deliver Native Ads to users, it is no longer a speculation whether Native Advertising can be scaled through technologies such as real time bidding. A more difficult question is whether content production can be scaled through technology -- which I think is very difficult, if not impossible given that every brand and publisher has a unique voice that they deserve to preserve.

Producing high quality content when brand's message resonates with the audience and is written with a stylistic tone of the publication is very resource-heavy. There is certainly a place for it, but I think it should be considered for 'mega' deals such Netflix's example from before. For all other campaigns, sponsored content should be hosted on brand's page and In-Stream Native Ads should drive user to the brand owned media. Doing so would positively affect all parties involved, as I outline below:

Benefits to Publishers

Publishers' voice and content is the bread and butter of their business model; it’s what forms their reputation. And yet, their reputation can be tarnished in an instant. Indeed, publishers that host brand content (unless it was carefully developed between the two teams) risk making their voice heterogeneous and inconsistent. The problem is the “guilty by association one.” In other words, if a brands’ message doesn’t resonate with the publisher’s audience, then you might have a catastrophic public relations crisis on your hands. I am sure at this point all have heard about the sponsored piece on The Atlantic.

Producing and hosting sponsored content on publisher's site is very resource-heavy and costly. Selling Native Advertisements programmatically would mean cost savings that can be used to hire top quality content-producers and sales people for large direct deals with brands.

Benefits to Advertisers

Since the value chain originates from advertisers, publishers need to ensure that advertisers are getting a sufficient ROI from their ad campaigns in both the long and short term.

Short Term

There is a reason why programmatic channels already account for majority of the media buying in display advertising (eMarketer). Efficiencies of the diminishing need of having to involve sales team to sell of advertisements, and ability to bid on impression-by-impression basis to pay only for the audience you are after -- are some of the main reasons for the rapid adoption of programmatic buying and selling of ad inventory. Programmatic Native Advertising is ramping up and it will undeniably follow the trend of being fully technology-powered.

When hosting content on brand-owned properties, advertisers can tap into multiple channels to drive users to the content. This gives them an ability to leverage the advanced targeting capabilities of real time bidding (RTB), such as behavioural targeting and retargeting, to reach users virtually anywhere on the web and drive them to their site. This merit explains the rapid adoption of programmatic buying and selling of Native Ad inventory.

Long Term

Advertisers hosting content on their properties have an opportunity to capture first-party data, and to recruit social media followers and email subscribers alike. Such personal information can be harnessed to communicate with the client on a more personal level in the future.

World's most innovate brands, such as Intel, understand that building a library of content on their properties allows them to become a publisher in their own right, creating a knowledge base/portal for consumer engagement.


The most prominent players in the Native Advertising space, such as Facebook, have adopted the model of taking the user off of the property, which has accustomed consumers to the flow of clicking on a Native Ad and being redirected to brand property. Emulating the model of migrating users to brand-owned media is something most users are already accustomed with.

Drawing on the points earlier in the discussion, hosting sponsored content on brand properties adds an additional layer of certainty that users won't confuse brand message with opinion of a publisher.

Publishing titans such as New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Forbes adopt Native Advertising; it is becoming increasingly harder to argue that it is here to stay. We, pioneers of the 'future web' have a unique opportunity to shape what brand communication with consumers will be like in the coming years. Creating content that brings value to consumers, clear disclosure policies, and transparency on all levels of the value chain -- all form the foundation for the successful growth in the content marketing and Native Advertising space.

Topics: Blog Posts

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