It is unfortunate for Telegraph Media Group that, less than a week after it launched a shiny branded content division, Spark, everyone is talking about the relationship between its commercial and editorial teams. Peter Oborne’s claims that the Telegraph, of which he was until recently the chief political commentator, has discouraged negative stories about HSBC because of the importance of its ad revenue has rightly caused a stir.
It is a big accusation. Oborne cites examples of HSBC stories being unpublished, spiked and sidelined in support of his case. The Telegraph’s subdued reporting of the recent Swiss controversy was the trigger for him to make everything public. The story has added a new free-speech angle to enable other newspapers and broadcasters to extend their coverage of the bank while also kicking a rival. TMG denies all the claims, of course, and says the distinction between editorial and commercial is "fundamental" to its business.
Many brands do not want their ads next to anything negative, never mind stories that are critical of their actual company. It is not new for marketers or their media agencies to pull spend from papers that carry negative stories about them for a time. But avoiding advertising holidays the week after a plane crash is quite different from putting pressure on media companies ahead of publication or getting a web story taken down.
Many brands do not want adds next to anything negative, never mind stories that are critical of the actual company
At a time when the future of newspapers is under scrutiny, it is great that they’re finding increasingly innovative ways to make money, but they need to bring their readers along with them. The Guardian, which has led much of the reporting about the activities of HSBC’s Swiss arm, is at the forefront of this brave new world with its commercial content arm, Guardian Labs, which has signed major deals with the likes of EE and Unilever.
Speaking to people this week, I learned there was concern that the Telegraph is letting its commercial team control its editorial pen. Yet other interested third parties said it has the balance right. But even if there is no issue in practice, there is the perception of a problem. And that could have implications for the ad and media industry.
As the topic of content floods our conferences and native advertising distracts our executives, the industry needs to make sure its audience understands how it is changing. Maybe we should be putting as much effort into educating people about the way the media industry works as we do navel-gazing among ourselves. People are more scared about things they don’t understand.
There is a lot of talk about advertising’s place in the world at the moment. Maybe the commercial part of the industry needs to be more proactive too.