The Weak Link In Branded Content That Everyone Is Scared To Talk About

September 4, 2018

The publisher branded content business has enjoyed a healthy growth ride for the past few years, growing 40% year-over-year. I think the future growth trajectory will go one of the following three ways:

  • Continued growth: rocket ship like growth continues!
  • Stagnation: publishers hit a ceiling and growth starts to slow.
  • Decline: revenue falls off a cliff, unexpectedly, like it did for print and direct-sold display.

Although the market feels frothy right now for publishers, given brands lack of trust towards the Open (Dirty) Web and Social (Closed) Web, I am raising the alarm bell that I think the good times will change quickly if systematic issues are not resolved.

The publisher sales challenge is what’s top-of-mind and most evident to me. I believe this is the weak link in the publisher branded content business today. Here is what I have been observing:

1. Overflowing Sales Bag:

Publishers have so many ad products to sell that sales teams end up going a “mile wide and an inch deep” with respect to their product knowledge. As a result, a buyer of branded content (agency or client) often knows more about content than the publisher sales rep does.

I can empathize with the difficult situation a seller is in. Desperate to find new revenues to differentiate, publishers are introducing new ad products every quarter. On the contrary, if you look at Facebook’s sales bag, it’s fairly simple. They have 4 ad products (3 if you remove app downloads). Google has really just 3 (YouTube, AdSense and DBM).

2. Media Sellers vs. Content Sellers:

Publisher sales reps are trained to sell media. They are offering real estate for rent. Publishers have not done a good job demonstrating the value for a brand to be associated in their trusted content environment versus others. As a result, there is no perceived differentiation from one publisher to the next. The formula to sell media has been simplified to audience reach and advertising rates.

Content is completely different. It has to start by asking a client questions about their objectives, to understand what they want to achieve. Then a rep needs to essentially consult and bring a solution to the table. A Deloitte consultant may have a better shot at selling branded content in the future than a publisher media seller if we’re honest.

3. The 100/20 Reality:

100% of branded content is sold by less than 20% of the sales reps. Even though branded content is a $7 billion digital market today for publishers and it shows up on every RFP from agencies today, not everyone on the team is capable or has experience selling it.

The high churn rates of media sellers is a risk. When a publisher loses one of those branded content sellers, revenue for the quarter is now at risk. With Google and Facebook eating everyone’s lunch, the best ad sales reps are probably not going to be applying for jobs at publishers in the future. They will chase the money.

What to do: awareness of the challenges is the first step. I do not think tweaks to the current publisher sales structures are going to be enough, it will likely take a different strategy. Change may be difficult, but I can guarantee you it’s more fun than obsolescence.

This is the start of a conversation on the Future of Branded Content for publishers. We recently released a market vision brief that goes deeper into the challenges facing the business and plants seeds for strategies to consider in the future.

[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.