How T Brand Studio created a culture of reinvention

By | 3 minute read | April 20, 2018

If you’re looking for a study in how to disrupt your own organization, look no further than T Brand Studio.

When The New York Times first debuted T Brand Studio, its branded content unit, in 2014, branded content didn’t exactly have the best reputation in the industry. Other publishers generating branded content at the time had a tendency to confuse readers by failing to clearly differentiate between content from the newsroom and content from advertisers. Some would further muddy the waters by using newsroom editors and writers to create that content.

Newsroom leadership was initially “very anxious” about the new unit, said T Brand Vice President and Executive Editorial Director Adam Aston. But the need to create a new revenue stream in the organization was clear. The Times had to move from a print sales-based ad model to a digital-first model, and they had to get it right.

“We were watching our print advertising on a linear straight path down, which is where most publishers up to that point were getting most of their revenue and profit. That undermined the economics of subsidizing a news operation. And if you’re cutting back on getting news it’s a vicious cycle. For many of our peers it was a death cycle,” Aston said.

The studio started small, with just a handful of employees producing content hosted on the New York Times website. But it soon proved its mettle with the release of “Women Inmates: Why The Male Model Doesn’t Work,” a beautiful interactive piece for Netflix to promote the second season of “Orange Is the New Black.” This, clearly, was not branded content as usual.

Four years later, T Brand Studio has grown 25-fold, employing more than 100 people across offices in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong. In 2016, it acquired HelloSociety, an influencer marketing agency, and FakeLove, a Brooklyn-based experiential agency. (IBM’s “Outthink Hidden” campaign was T Brand’s first project with the agency.)

And it has expanded beyond producing native branded content to providing a whole suite of creative services for companies on their own platforms. T Brand Studio is not simply an in-house creative unit, it’s an agency—and it’s successful, growing both production and media revenue by double digits every year.

If you’re looking for a study in how to disrupt your own organization, look no further than T Brand Studio.

“Even when sitting on an incredible foundation of writing, reputation, and loyal customers, change isn’t easy,” Aston said. “The Studio’s success is part of a much larger digital transformation across the Times’ newsroom and business operations that’s accelerated in the past five years.”

A crucial ingredient in T Brand’s success has been its mix of personnel. While similar content organizations essentially hired the usual cast of characters one might find at a creative agency, Aston said, T Brand looked for content makers who were “a little bit different than your standard marketing copywriter creative type.” In hiring, he said, the intent was to “borrow the best of the Times journalism and fuse it with the kind of goals brands would be pursuing.”

“That’s a rule of thumb for all business—you’ve got to master the best of disciplines and bring them together in ways that haven’t been done before. Getting the chemistry right can be hard and getting the casting right can take time,” Aston said.

Another crucial differentiator for T Brand has been its use of new technology, including VR, AR and 360 video. But while the studio has been an early adopter—and in some cases, a first adopter—of those technologies at the Times, Aston said it’s just as important to know when not to use a new technology as it is to know when to use it. VR, AR, and 360 video are incredible storytelling tools, he said, but they’re not right for every project.

“You don’t want to add gratuitous technology to something just because it’s neat,” Aston said.

Once a source of anxiety within its organization, T Brand is now a source of inspiration as it drives innovation within the Times while contributing to a viable new business model. As T Brand gears up to launch its 400th paid post this quarter, it’s intent on carrying that spirit of innovation into the future.

“The more we experiment and the more it’s successful, the more comfortable the Times has gotten at experimenting,” Aston said. “The organization is more confident knowing, ‘Hey you can try this. It may be complicated, it may be hard, it might not always be a home run, but you have to experiment,’” Aston said.