When Imogen Fox, executive editor of Guardian Labs, talks about why Guardian News & Media’s branded content arm is special, she likes to use an analogy.
"The content is like the furniture you put in the house," Fox explains. "We live in the house anyway, so we know what is going to look good. If you don’t own the house, then you’re going to get something home and say: ‘Oh, that’s not quite right there, is it?’ And that’s a problem."
It’s a neat way to explain that Guardian Labs is both the creator and distributor on the platform. And it’s important to have a clear message about why The Guardian’s offer is different because it is fighting off competition from all angles – agencies, other publishers, tech platforms and in-house divisions.
We’ve got 190 years of heritage of making great content
Until last year, Fox worked in editorial at the publisher, rising to head of fashion, and she is up for the fight.
"We’ve got 190 years of heritage of making great content," she says confidently in a Bolton accent slightly softened by 13 years at The Guardian. "That might sound a bit arrogant but it’s true. We’ve got props in this."
Coming from a fashion background, Fox says she is comfortable working with brands and dismisses any suggestion that her move to the commercial part of the business represents turning to "the dark side". "You can’t work in fashion without working with brands," she explains. "I’d seen how many people had started to do branded content and it seemed like a fit."
Launched in 2014, Guardian Labs was initially run as an agency by Anna Watkins and Alistair Campbell. Fox joined in September last year and has reformulated the team so that it now mirrors GNM’s editorial model, with a features desk led by former Guardian culture writer Richard Vine. Vine will be speaking at Media360 today (Thursday).
One of the first changes she made was to get the commercial team using GNM’s in-house analytics platform Ophan – which the editorial team is "obsessed with" – to really get to know what works.
The new model has enabled sophisticated deals with the likes of Spotify and Barclays. The Barclays collaboration, estimated to be worth as much as £900,000 to GNM over the next year, started last week with stories on financial fraud and security. It’s part of a campaign also involving Global and News UK.
Sajid Nazir, head of branded content and collaborations at Chorus, which is part of Barclays’ media agency Maxus, said the bank signed up with The Guardian first because of the "dedication they showed" in getting it "over the line".
GNM doesn’t disclose numbers but UK commercial director Nick Hewat says that, combined with programmatic adspend, branded content is "managing to offset any structural declines that we can see in print". Both planks are part of GNM’s new strategy to combat the fact that its digital revenue fell in the 2015-16 financial year amid stiff competition from Google and Facebook.
Another plank is the membership scheme, which Hewat says GNM is "heavily invested in", batting away the idea of introducing a paywall for its free website. Fox says GNM hasn’t got the "credit it deserves" for exploring what Hewat calls "the third way" in digital publishing. "It’s doing really well and ahead of where we expected it to be," she insists.
As the owner of The Guardian prepares to report what is anticipated to be another set of heavy – albeit narrowing – losses in July, it is encouraging that Fox, Hewat and GNM chief revenue officer Hamish Nicklin have a plan.
Given the financial pressures on The Guardian, which is considering relocating from London to its birthplace in Manchester, Guardian Labs needs all the support it can get from advertisers.
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