Branded Content forum highlights authenticity as the key to success

By Rakhal Ebeli, Newsmodo CEO.

I was fortunate enough to recently join some of the best in the content business on a panel at the ‘New News’ conference at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, where we explored the exciting intersection of editorial and brand journalism.

Alongside me were Amanda Gome, who has taken ANZ BlueNotes to new heights, and the man charged with heading up AFL Media, Matthew Pinkney. We were also joined by one of Australia’s leading editors, Emily Wilson from The Guardian Australia.


In an often passionate discussion, we navigated the differences between branded content or owned media and native advertising, before then taking the debate deeper. We wanted to understand the reason behind the dramatic growth of branded content and what impact that’s had on legacy media publishers.

Our host, award-winning veteran journalist, Jim Middleton posing the question to Wilson “Do you see any net benefit from organisations like Newsmodo and BlueNotes that support freelancers and give them more opportunities? Does it make things more difficult for traditional publishers, or take away their resources in any way? ” 

The Guardian’s Editor-In-Chief Emily Wilson responded;  “No, I don’t think it disadvantages us. It gives the journalists more opportunity and extends their ability to work and stay employed. It doesn’t take them away from the papers and magazines”. 

Ms Gome, who heads up Digital and Social media at ANZ also added that the ANZ Bank, through BlueNotes, said their publication was ‘all for’ supporting the journalism industry, in particular, the shrinking pool of specialist journalists in the field of finance.

“There used to be four journalists at the Australian Financial Review who might have covered the area, but now there might be one,” she said.

“Our aim is to do deeper stories and inform the conversation, but everybody always knows it’s from the ANZ perspective.”

At the heart of the conversation we questioned what produces great branded content that keeps audiences coming back. I proposed that the most important ingredient is credibility and that ultimately  comes down to the nature of the people working in or for that particular branded newsroom. 

Amanda Gome added that brands shouldn’t set up content platforms about something that will give them a conflict of interests or put them in a position where the audience won’t trust them. They should have clear topic pillars and objectives, like ANZ BlueNotes. It doesn’t have content about banking/finance products, or advice on what people should do with their money. It focuses on thought leadership, the future of cities, financial hubs, market trends, technology and so on. These things can be commented on with some objectivity.

Matt Pinkney, who manages to balance the commercial imperatives of the AFL along with his experienced editorial drive said that the site’s audience was very good at sniffing out branded or commercially driven content, particularly via social.

“If we start pushing that sort of stuff, we will hear about it through social media, which is a great feedback channel for us if we are doing stuff the audience doesn’t like.” Pinkney adding that he actually takes offense to the term ‘branded content’ as he works tirelessly to run his ship independently of the League. So much so that he took his point to backers at Telstra, telling them that if they wanted to build a massive audience then they’d have to be able to criticise themselves. That meant, that if someone (like the CEO or AFL Administrators) was not doing a good job, they would have the editorial license to say that.

A great tip for other companies embracing brand journalism is to write an editorial charter. Pinkney did so, and takes pride in growing the media house behind it. Although he admitted “Sometimes I feel we’ve nailed it and we’re virtually independent and other times I feel we’re being leant on.” Adding that such influences were also not uncommon in legacy newsrooms, such as News Corp, where he said the team often felt commercial pressures from other departments within the organisation.

A point that was reiterated by The Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief  “Obviously everyone in-house says ‘we really clearly label’, but the labels are confusing,” she said. “We work hard at The Guardian to have really clear labels, but it gets complicated.” Going on to say “Sometimes the money comes from foundations, sometimes it’s completely editorially independent, sometimes it isn’t — so it is a really complicated area.”

Personally, I found it refreshing to hear that editors, regardless of whether they reside in ‘church or state’ are all at times influenced by commercial imperatives. As those expectations on content publishers continue to evolve, I believe it will be the credibility, quality and transparency of the editorial lens that will separate the best from the rest. And, with so much competition for audience attention, no one wants to be left in the latter.