It’s time to change your opinion of Sponsor Content

As quality and design rival editorial, conversations need to shift from dismissal to tactical

content-considerations (1)By Sean Stanleigh, Head of Globe Content Studio

When I made the transition from journalism to content marketing, I wrote a blog post with the headline: “It’s time to take back the word ‘advertorial.’”

“For decades,” it said, “advertorials conjured up visions of poorly written copy, ugly stock photos, terrible headlines and design treatments closer to sales brochures than editorial.”

The aim was to change that perception. Years later, when pitching new business, I still hear “we don’t like Sponsor Content”. It’s a knee-jerk brand reaction that remains stubbornly hard to shake.

Print and digital advertising, social media, video and audio commercials, programmatic and other solutions have their place in the ecosystem. But as earned media gets increasingly difficult to secure, and third-party cookies are being targeted for elimination, content marketing has become an essential brand strategy. You need to tell, not just show.

Which means it’s a mistake to reject sponsored content and working with media partners. The POV needs to shift away from dismissal and move toward tactical. It’s about approach.

There are five key considerations for content marketers working in media:

1. Authenticity

Brand managers often talk a good game about integration at the start of content executions, then they continually add more and more product messaging prior to campaign launches. We know consumers prefer little to no integration. We also know sales requires some degree of mentions. Subtlety is key.

Smart marketers use in-house brand experts to provide information and solutions over heavy-handed pitching, sliding products into a mix of knowledgeable voices on topics of consumer interest.

As an example, Globe Content Studio worked with Chartered Professional Accountants (CPA) to demonstrate how its members are often strategic anchors of a business, not just profiling them, but showcasing how the companies they work for successfully managed growth during COVID-19.

Globe Content Studio partnered with CPA to demonstrate the value of its members’ strategic advice, and to showcase how the companies they work for managed growth during COVID-19.

2. Quality

Perhaps the top concern for brands when it comes to Sponsor Content is the quality of the storytelling. Premium news outlets such as The Globe and Mail have high editorial standards, and if Sponsor Content doesn’t live relatively seamlessly within that environment, it can’t succeed. I say ‘relatively’ because Sponsor Content is not journalism and it’s not trying to be. It’s not breaking news or investigative reporting.

But the end result, in whatever form it takes (text, audio, video), has to be ‘stories told well.’ When the audience moves from editorial content to Sponsor Content, it shouldn’t be a jarring experience.


For HSBC, Globe Content Studio produced a five-part series profiling Canadians on their experiences of home ownership, supported visually with custom illustration and photography.

For HSBC, Globe Content Studio produced a five-part series on mortgages that was anchored by experiences of Canadian home owners, and for RBC a multi-part podcast called Money Moves led listeners on a journey to financial empowerment through industry experts.

3. Packaging

Every brand understands the importance of design. It can attract attention, it can signify value, and it can enhance the user experience. When ‘advertorial’ signified ‘lesser quality’ it was not just in reference to the storytelling, it was a result of weak design.


Lexus wanted to offer Canadians ideas for COVID-safe drives, so the Globe Content Studio created an eye-catching and inviting day trip lifestyle feature.

When Lexus wanted to encourage Canadians to discover COVID-safe destinations within reasonable driving distance of their homes, we chose aesthetically pleasing settings that made photos pop, packaging them within full-width desktop executions that translated nicely to mobile experiences.

4. Transparency

Pulling the wool over the eyes of your audience is not only unfair it’s unethical. When a media organization publishes material that has brand integration and approvals, it has to make the association clear. Globe Content Studio puts a Sponsor Content label on this work, it uses unique font and design styles, and it runs a disclaimer signifying the source of the storytelling.

Transparency maintains trust in both brands: Our own and that of our clients.

5. Promotion

You can produce the best piece of content of all time, but if nobody sees it, who cares? This is where the rubber hits the road. It’s the technology you deploy, and how you deploy it, that ultimately leads to the success or failure of a campaign.

For a media organization, first-party data is king. The Globe and Mail does not share its audience segments with other vendors, and combined with performance strategies such as display ads, native advertising units and paid-social campaigns, advanced contextual optimization drives more users to Sponsor Content than ever before.

Sean Stanleigh heads up the Globe Content Studio, the content-marketing division of The Globe and Mail, focused on elevating brands and driving business results through premium, journalistic-style storytelling. The team of content strategists, designers, video and podcast producers also have expertise in research, data analysis, social media and influencer campaigns. Contact for more info.