Education can be the greatest challenge but also the greatest opportunity for branded content.

The Branded Content Project, funded by the Facebook Journalism Project in partnership with Local Media Association and Local Media Consortium, has challenged the seven alpha teams to test projects with the goal to grow their own revenue while sharing with the rest of the industry.

Graham Media Group’s Taking Off initiative was our first feature; our second was The Dallas Morning News and their FWD > DFW initiative; our third was Shaw Media and their work toward improving reporting for advertisers; and our fourth is WRAL’s multiple branded content initiatives and their efforts toward a re-branding campaign. This fifth feature focuses on McClatchy’s Creative Lab and their efforts towards educating advertisers and account executives in a creative way.

The Creative Lab is McClatchy’s nationwide branded content team. McClatchy has 30 media organizations from coast-to-coast. Our Creative Lab team started out in 2015 as a group of backpack video journalists who could take care of narrative branded content for advertisers. Over the last four years, it has evolved into a nationwide production team that matches the scope and ambition of our parent company. If it’s video storytelling, written work or even immersive video like 360 or augemented reality, the Creative Lab can create it.

But as they learned at the Creative Lab, creating great content isn’t even half the battle anymore. You also must find effective ways to distribute it. And before you do any of that, you must find ways to educate your audience on the value of branded content in order to sell it.

The last necessity – evangelizing about branded content – is what excited the team the most. Eric Brandner, general manager of Creative Lab @McClatchy explains, “Our company has a proud tradition of 163 years of bringing great stories to our communities. But most of that history was written on newsprint. With our market sales teams focusing more deeply on digital every day, and a lot of clients who are just scratching the service of the deep digital and data operations McClatchy has to offer, we wanted to get out to our largest markets to speak with both our partners and sellers about why they needed branded content in their media arsenal.”

Their solution was a series of educational events that do just that. Brandner says, “We wanted to bring our message on the virtues of branded content storytelling to as many of our sales reps and potential clients as possible. We wanted to tell clients about how it sets them up for the long game of establishing a brand identity and creating brand affinity, turning their target audience into not just transactions on a report but lifelong fans. And with a strong in-house production team, we decided to take it a step farther and create something for the people who we couldn’t reach.”


The events were formatted as mingling opportunities with a short educational panel that lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. “The point for us is to educate instead of going in for the hard sell, with the thinking that if someone is interested in coming to hear what our team has to say about branded content, they likely already have a business relationship with our sales team members and at least some interest in deepening that relationship,” Brandner said. 

Their first event was in Sacramento and yielded promising results. They hosted 50 people – including current and prospective clients and nine sales team members. The team was able to use the first event to boost a relationship into a few additional deals with a longtime client and have had multiple follow-up meetings on two other new business opportunities they are hoping to create a partnership on before year’s end.


Of course, it being their first event – and the team having content production backgrounds and not event backgrounds – they learned a lot.

Brandner explained that the best part and the largest opportunity for improvement are actually directly related. “We were able to get a fantastic amount of face time with current and potential clients – even in a 90-minute setting with a short panel. The challenge – again, not being event people – was guest list management. We anticipated having closer to 75 to 100 attendees based on previous events in the space but didn’t have a point person managing the guest list, instead leaving it up to individual reps in the market to recruit. As we got closer, we made the conscious decision not to call any seat-fillers to pad out the guest list. Our thinking was while it’s always great to look impressive visually, we wanted to have meaningful interactions with current and potential partners who did attend. With five Creative Lab team members and nine sales team members, those conversations became natural byproducts of the event and have led to follow-up engagements. Finally, one silver lining was the content harvesting opportunity the panel provided. We recorded it, and plan on sharing some snippets from it and our other events on social media later this year.”

The team recorded snippets from the panel for social media and additional events in 2019, including: 



The Charlotte event kept the same structure and was held in a museum setting with the panel hosted in a large auditorium space where sales teams and advertisers listened to the benefits of branded content.


The highlight of the panel experience was the unveiling of the newest story from the Creative Lab team created for Scott Clark Auto Group’s Driven Campaign. A touching tribute to the “A Chance to Dance” organization, shows how powerful a great story can be and how advertisers of all types can embrace this type of content marketing to position their company with causes in their community.

Watch the heartfelt story called “Driven to Dance” by clicking the picture below.


The last event of the three was held in Miami and had the perfect backdrop, a custom painted mural created for a local Creative Lab client, the Miccosukee Tribe, by artist Bunky Echo-Hawk, as part of an art installation in the world-famous Wynwood area.

Connecting artwork with an event to show advertisers that no project is too large was a fantastic opportunity to educate advertisers and sales teams on how monumental and unique branded content can be. It was such an interesting and artistic event with a great story about the local community, the wall, the tribe and the artist that they made the front page of the Miami Herald.

Follow-up meetings with advertisers are all underway, business is being closed and there is new excitement and enthusiasm for branded content by the sales teams.

The Creative Lab’s education push moves beyond the one-time events and extends to video segments with unlimited sharing capabilities.

“Now, one of the best parts of my job is working with a team that can create great stories. So, we thought ‘why not throw some of our storytelling firepower behind this project, too?’ We decided to use the Branded Content Project as a reason to create a series about content marketing and branded content.” said Brandner.

Creative director, Carolina Esbaile, breaks down the differences between advertising and content marketing.

“And of course, the goal of these events and content marketing videos is to create full campaigns, not just native articles – though we love to create those, too, if anyone’s interested.” Brandner explained that the Creative Lab team has started working with an addiction recovery treatment center in South Florida called Recovery Unplugged. It’s a natural partnership because they have a lot of stories they want told in a compelling, cinematic way and Brandner feels lucky enough to have a team that knows how to pull that off.

Here’s a short teaser.

Brandner offers a little advice for everyone thinking of building a business around branded content. “The last piece I’d like to impress – and most of you know it – is the patience factor. We’ve really begun to turn the corner on branded content this year, but that work was started four years ago, and it’s taken a lot of time to socialize to our regionally based clientele. We’re still nowhere close to being done, but we’ve had enough conversations with brands of all sizes to know that the ones who are truly interested in investing in meaningful, renewable campaigns often go about making their choice to do so meticulously. We believe branded content when done well pays off for everyone involved in the deal. And we’re going to do our best to keep telling anyone who’ll listen about it.”

We will continue to document and share the Creative Lab’s progress with their initiative and the results from all our alpha partners at