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Native: Brands Are the Secret Ingredient, Publishers Are the Chef

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h1 Creativity comes from constraint.

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter

Iron Chef is an amazing platform for culinary creativity: Invite amazing chefs from across cultures and generations to create ‘native’ dishes with only one constraint: a single ingredient that must be expressed in each dish. It’s the perfect analogy to guide us through IAB’s efforts to standardize native advertising. Let me explain...

The essence of Iron Chef is best expressed in the timeless adage (more recently popularized by Twitter founder Biz Stone) that creativity comes from constraint. The secret ingredient of each Iron Chef match gives it focus and direction. Chefs must use the ingredient in their unique style to produce an array of thoughtful, personal and delicious dishes. It’s a great analogy for re-framing the conversation around native ads (or sponsored content if you prefer). By providing the same constraints to publishers, it allows them to express the brand message in a native, and ultimately more scalable, way.

In other words: Brands are the secret ingredient, publishers are the chef.

The IAB recently announced a Native Ad Task Force, an effort to put standard language and definition around this deliberately confusing term. The IAB’s greatest triumph to date has been its efforts to standardize ad sizes and formats - which has paved the way for the growth of display advertising over the past 10 years. While trying to assign a format (whether it’s size, shape, or location) might feel anathema to the very nature of native, there’s an interesting opportunity here if we approach native ads from an asset or 'secret ingredient' standpoint.

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If we break down native ads to their basic, lowest common denominator assets that work across platforms, focusing on guidelines for headlines, body text, sponsor attribution, brand logo, image dimensions, and video aspect ratio, this solves for the basic scalability questions. How do brands run across multiple publishers without headaches? How do agency and brand-side ad servers communicate with multiple content management systems in a single campaign? A standard format could be a game changer for this industry in creating the flexibility for publishers to make truly native experiences - and for supporting scalability to make it a viable model.

The IAB published some basic questions the Native Task Force will be answering, here’s how an asset standard would help crystallize answers to them:

How do we distinguish between native Web advertising and mobile? With assets as the format, you won’t have to - you can leave that decision to the publisher. Publishers can decide how they balance the treatment on each platform for the best user experience - flexible assets for an increasingly responsive world.

Is native allowed to be disruptive? Native is inherently disruptive. It’s about providing a brand a place in the content stream, not creating a new space for readers to ignore. We’ve played that game for far too long with right rail advertising and wound up putting baby in the corner. We should, however be conscious of the nuance: disruption is inherent, intrusion is abhorrent. We recently launched a native product on ReadWrite that carefully considers this dichotomy.

How can we clearly differentiate between native ad content and pure editorial? A few months ago I was watching an episode of The Walking Dead after a long hiatus from TV. I remember a dramatic pan across an old farm estate feeling certain that the commercial pod had ended and we jumped back into content... only to find moments later that it was indeed a commercial for the Bates Motel. In that moment I felt an incredible connection with the Bates Motel as if it were somehow an extension of my favorite show; living in the same physical space. That’s the native effect. Now, don’t get me wrong, transparency is table-stakes - an absolute requirement . But we should be careful to nurture a meritocracy that awards brands that really get it right.

How do we define the measurement and metrics surrounding native? Truth is, as an industry we've dragged our feet on putting standards we all believe to be true into practice - metrics like ad visibility, active time spent, and qualified engagement. We should use this as an opportunity to take the leap, not relapse to click-through rates.

The asset approach provides an additional advantage - by tracking on the asset level we deliver a disaggregated data set ideal for optimization and reporting consistency regardless of the nuance of each execution. Isn’t it about time we adopt flexible metrics that match the medium?

The most interesting upside potential of this native debate is the shift from format thinking to content thinking. For too long our industry has obsessed over size, position and 15 second animation loops. Simplifying native ads to an asset-based standard will push a sea change. Publishers can focus on format, finding a place for brands in their world - while brands and agencies can focus on delivering the right ingredients.

In the end you have publishers and brands working creatively within constraints to connect with audiences. Now that’s something we can get behind.

Ed Urgola is Senior Director at Say Media. Follow him on Twitter @edurgola.

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