How Agencies Are Disrupting The Publisher Branded Content Business

September 10, 2018

Mark Reed took the helm officially of WPP, the world’s largest advertising firm, last week and in his opening remarks to shareholders, he mentioned two points that caught my attention. First, running an agency efficiently has become more challenging than ever and second, WPP intends to invest more in their creative capabilities as a point of differentiation.

WPP’s Stock Price This Year

If you pay attention to how the biggest marketers, like P&G and Unilever, speak about their agencies in public, it is clear that the relationships are increasingly strained. Due to the traditional agency business structure and practices feeling tremendous pressure, many agencies are now moving in on the publisher branded content business. Not necessarily because they feel they can do it better, but because they need more to offer their clients than buying banners and boxes across the dirty web.

Here are the signs we’ve noticed of the agency disruption of the publisher branded content business.

1. Winner Takes All

Previously a big branded content RFP would go to maybe ten publishers and three would get selected. Now it’s become a winner-take-all game where the agency selects only one publisher. Why? Margin. It’s more efficient and less overhead for them to manage one publisher program versus three.

Branded content programs are not easy to execute today. The lack of clarity up-front about the client’s objectives often leads to content that is re-done or off-the-mark. Ownership of distribution is becoming less clear as agencies try to insert themselves into the process. And measurement is a complete mess. It is easier for an agency to “delegate” the entire mess to a single publisher than to try and calibrate three different publisher processes and KPIs into one that they can explain back to their client.

2. Content Agencies

Most media agencies have created their own content agencies now to increase margin and attempt to offer some differentiation. As a by-product, they are disintermediating publishers. Content may be high on the client’s agenda but a publisher is not the first stop to create it or distribute it anymore.

Publishers are getting lost in the build vs buy. There has also been an increase in ‘fake RFPs’, where agencies are fishing for creative ideas from publisher studios, and then turning around to execute those creative ideas in-house. Agencies then buy distribution across native ad networks (often getting to appear on the same publisher websites that would have charged them an arm-and-a-leg) or social networks, cutting out publishers completely.

3. No Loyalty

Publisher renewal rates are low, which means that agencies are not loyal to publishers (likely a trickle down from clients not being loyal to agencies). It’s like going to a food court. Today I had a falafel. It was great. And tomorrow, I am going to have Thai food. Even though the falafel vendor gave me a great meal that I enjoyed and was deeply satisfying, I am conditioned to think that variety is good and I want something new.

This is how agencies are viewing branded content. Even when a publisher hits it out of the park on a campaign, the agency will still choose another publisher for the next campaign, for the sake of trying someone new.

[DOWNLOAD WHITEPAPER] The Future Of Branded Content

I invite you to join me in this conversation about the future of branded content,

Kunal Gupta

Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar, a technology platform provider whose mission is to enable a business model for the Trusted Web. Polar’s partners include major global publishers and the business has offices in Toronto, New York, London and Sydney.

Kunal is passionate about finding calm and focus in a modern era. Kunal is on the board for CAMH, Canada’s leading mental health hospital and research organization. He writes regularly on the topics of leadership, mindfulness and technology culture on his blog at

You can connect with him on LinkedIn.



Insights about the future of branded content, with a warning about the current reality, as well as a variety of tactics and strategies for a different future for branded content.