Branded content has something of a bad reputation for bastardising ‘pure’ editorial output – especially if it’s badly handled and labelled incorrectly. But there are examples of media companies who are demonstrably avoiding that trap, and finding a legitimate way of producing quality journalism that happens to be on behalf of a brand. Meredith Kopit Levien, executive vice president for advertising at the New York Times, thinks this is the future.

The New York Times began using branded content about a year ago, but it took until the launch of its branded content with Cole Haan for them to really get into the business of providing paid content.

It currently has a dedicated group called T Brand Studio, made up of 35 staff that exclusively create paid content. No editorial staff are involved with the creation of branded content, but Levien says T Brand Studio is a team that will “grow and grow and grow again.”

Since then they have published articles sponsored by Netflix, Google and The Imitation Game, but what’s interesting is they’re sponsored news, features or investigations, not just advertorials aimed at selling a product.

Advertorial with engagement

Speaking at Digital Media Strategies 2015, Levien said paid-for posts can generate significant audience engagement on par with editorial content and proved significantly more engaging than content supplied by third parties.

In fact, the post about Alan Turing’s life featuring an interactive Enigma machine had an average viewing time of more than four minutes. Engagement in this way is something Levien says can’t be bought and will be the focus of the New York Times over the coming year. This echoed the views of Vox and the FT, both of whom say there is a need to move away from counting clicks, to measuring engagement.

Drawing upon the recent Daily Telegraph-HSBC scandal as an example of bad practice when it comes to letting financial considerations colour editorial content, Levien said this it “an extreme cautionary tale for all of us” and that it is important that in finding new ways to finance journalism we don’t just end up in a race to the bottom.

Banner ads have got a bad rap in the past as they were adjacent to the page but not a part of it, or interrupted the reader, but they’re far from dead. Levien argues they just have to become more creative and be of a higher quality.

But mobile is “post-adjacent and post-interruptive”, and promises to be the focus of the New York Times in the future. Half their traffic comes from mobile, but much less than half their revenue. Whatever the future for branded content at the New York Times, many publishers could learn from what Levien says is one of their favourite phrases: “You can’t do today’s work, with yesterday’s talent.”