What’s the best way to tell a story? That something we’re always thinking about here at Scribewise, and it was definitely the focus of the Contently Summit last week.

While I was at the Summit, I had an interesting chat with Alec Morrison, the Custom Content Director at Sports Illustrated (SI). While the concept of brand journalism may feel like a new idea to many of us, Alec has been at this for more than 15 years – and at the same job, no less.

Alec agreed to let me interview him about his view of “custom content” (as SI refers to it – since it often encompasses multiple strategies), and how the evolution of brand journalism looks to him from his seat at one of most recognizable sports titles in the world.

When I was thinking about the best way to tell this story, I realized that there was so much I wanted to share with my fellow content people. Ultimately, I decided to just Alec do the talking.

Here’s our Q&A:

Trish Sammer Johnston (TSJ): You have an interesting perspective on this thing we’re all calling brand journalism. You’ve been doing this longer than most people that I’ve met and you’ve been doing it at the same place. I’d like to get your perspective on the evolution of the whole thing. Can you tell me a little bit about what SI was doing with brand journalism – and what it was called – when you first started working there?

Alec Morrison (AM): I started here in October of ‘98. The group that I came into, back then it was called SI Editorial Projects. Now it’s called Custom Content because we eventually decided the phrase “custom content” made more sense with what we actually do. Editorial projects sounded like a bit of a misnomer. The group came into existence in the early to mid ‘90s. The guy who created it was a guy named Larry Keith. He spent a good 20+ years on the editorial side of the magazine and then moved over to the publishing side. He wanted to create this group that could tap into a lot of sports marketing dollars that advertisers were then spending. He had this idea that you could tell very editorially-minded stories that were then sponsored by various advertisers.

To be honest, we still do the same thing. The way in which we do it and maybe the degree to which we partner with the advertisers has changed over time as content has become more and more customized, but that’s kind of the genesis of the group. By the time I got here, we were doing probably a couple hundred projects a year, almost entirely in print with a little bit of digital mixed in here and there.

TSJ: At that time, what did you feel your place was within the organization? It’s an interesting spot because it’s not quite editorial, not quite marketing … did you have that sense?

AM: Exactly. Yeah. We weren’t crazy about the word advertorial. We never have been.

TSJ: No one likes that word. It’s such a cheap word.

AM: And that’s the thing. We would get these advertisers who would say “We don’t want to do advertorials because they’ve got a negative connotation.” Our attitude was that we didn’t want to do them either. We wanted to create stories that our readers would actually read, about athletes that they were already familiar with.

It’s interesting because there’s such a strong sense of editorial mission in Sports Illustrated. When I got here there was a four-person team with a freelance designer who did all of our stuff. And each role was fairly regimented. [Larry] was the director. He was the editor. We had a full-time writer. We had a guy who would handle the coordination of production full-time and would do a little bit of writing. We had a researcher/fact checker, which was my job when I started here.

All of that was structured so that we would have this really strong editorial skeleton for everything we were doing, so that even though the content was sponsored we still were putting together stories with the same sense of storytelling purpose and accuracy that the editorial side would stick to.

I don’t think the editors were crazy about what we did because in some sense it could be seen as competing with what they did. I think they saw it as kind of a necessary evil because there were advertisers who wanted this type of content. We also were willing to talk to advertisers and partner with them and explore ideas in ways that the editorial team would not do, and they shouldn’t do. They obviously had their own sense of mission, which was to serve our readers as journalistically and fairly as possible.

TSJ: I imagine you had to be very careful about who you were going to work with, since they’re coming in and placing something similar to editorial content. It had to be companies that made sense as a business partner for SI.

AM: Primarily it’s the same list of advertisers that SI is always calling on. As they would work with the sales team to find out how they could work with the magazine, we were kind of a new tool. Well, this was back going on almost 20 years ago now. We were a different type of tool they could use to bring their message to the SI environment.

Obviously anything we did was slugged as a special advertising feature, or if there was a heavy brand presence it was slugged as advertising, so we made the clear distinction for our readers that this wasn’t editorial content. It might have that kind of styling to it, and we wanted to tell the best possible story, but we weren’t a substitute for the actual editorial that was in the magazine.

TSJ: What has changed in the way you work since then? You’re the Director of Custom Content now so your daily duties have changed, but what has changed about the magazine’s approach to this type of content?

AM: To some degree we’re still doing the same thing as when I first started. A few things have changed. For one, we’re in more than just the print space now. And I think we’re more fully integrated with the marketing team, which sometimes changes the overall project we’re part of.

When I first started here we were really off on our own island, I guess. There’s a lot more collaboration between the business side of the title and the editorial side of the title to figure out “How are we going to best put out our editorial platforms so that advertisers can support them and sponsor them?”

It’s a tricky space to work in because the overall mission is to give our audience something they really want to see, watch, or engage with on the website or in the magazine. If we can’t do that, there’s not much point in doing what we do. We’re not much help to an advertiser unless we can come up with a product that our readers actually want. But at the same time, I think these days we have to be much more responsive to an advertiser’s particular message and brand goals than we were when I first started here.

TSJ: Is that because you have more responsibility to bring in revenue at this point?

AM: I think that there’s that, but largely it’s a shift in the industry as a whole. Custom content is such a bigger deal and a more common thing than it was. We saw that at the Contently Summit last week, right? There are so many more people doing this than I ever imagined.

I remember for years when I first started here, feeling like we were the only ones doing this, or at least in the way that we knew we were doing it, if that makes sense. I didn’t know anybody else who worked in the custom content space. We’d have all these conversations about what we would do or what we would not do with an advertiser. How do we best protect our readers, that kind of thing. And now it seems like everybody’s doing it. Brands are doing it themselves, as we saw last week, and as you well know.

What’s interesting is that we are always trying to come up with ideas that will help diversify revenue and create more opportunities to capture it. That’s definitely a change.

TSJ: You were talking about working more with the editorial side to create more possibilities for advertisers. Is that more so you can align advertisers with your editorial calendars or is there more to it than that?

AM: I think that’s part of it and I think also it’s coming up with different platforms that an advertiser can sponsor and support.

For example, just from an editorial perspective, SI has this terrific football writer named Peter King. He was one of the first writers for SI to really embrace having an online presence on SI.com. They really wanted to come up with a new platform about Peter King that they could sell. The Monday Morning Quarterback, or MMQB.SI.com, it’s sort of a spinoff of SI.com, got launched last year. A number of launch partners belong to that website and it’s proven to be really successful for us both from a business perspective and from an editorial perspective. Now Peter has his own site, his own team, and his writers.

Those kinds of ideas to come up with new ways to engage with advertisers while still creating true editorial content, that’s a lot of what’s happening here now.

TSJ: What is your sense of reader response? Is that something you’re measuring? Are you getting any kind of feedback?

That’s a really good question. We’ve been talking about that a lot. How can we measure how our stuff is performing? With print, we would always go by the Starch Reports. It measures what readers would notice in the magazine, how much they engage with it, whether they take any kind of action.

What we’ve found over the years is that our stuff tended to do pretty well. It usually helped elevate an advertiser’s brand ad within the magazine – the left-hand page was the feature and the right-hand page was the brand ad – and if the advertiser worked with us we were able to create a feature that generally got a better response from readers than if the ad page was going to run by itself. Our goal was to help the advertiser get noticed more, and then enhance and deepen their message.

Because we are still building out our digital platforms, we don’t know yet how our readers are responding to what we do. That’s something we’ve talked a lot about trying to figure out.

We recognize that the simple click-through rate is the standard but it’s not necessarily a good measure of what custom content does for people. I think it has a lot more to do with engagement and attention. We’re trying to figure that out as a company as a whole, throughout Time, Inc.

TSJ: What advice would you give all of these corporations who are now secondary publishers – they’re publishers by default – what words of wisdom would you have?

AM: I think it still boils down to “tell a good story,” more than anything else. The best custom content out there is still content that informs or delights a reader in some way. It tells them something they didn’t know, or it gives them a side of a personality that they may not have seen before. At Sports Illustrated, as a brand editorially we’ve always been invested in deeper, more emotional storytelling than the other sports outlets around us, a stronger understanding of the sports that we cover.

A lot of that applies to what we try to do with our custom content as well. I think that that’s the best way for brands to really use content. Certainly within that structure there are ways that they can talk about their brand specifically, but I think that any kind of content that is going to be essentially an ad for the brand isn’t necessarily going to grab an audience the way that true storytelling does. It seems like a lot brands out there get that in terms of storytelling these days.

TSJ: I think there are good stories being told. I don’t know about you, but I walked out of the Contently Summit feeling pretty good. I felt like people are getting this and it’s possible to do really great work and still, you know, make money and be true to journalistic principles. 

AM: I totally agree. I do think that … one of the interesting things is that custom content can mean so many different things now. It could be the thing that The New York Times, their brand studio, did with Netflix for Orange is the New Black, where you’ve got a true journalistic piece about women in prison and different conditions they face, and the ways in which conditions for women inmates could be improved.

That’s very different from an email I got the other day for a custom content piece that was essentially a couple of cats hanging out eating a bowl of Friskies. It was a great piece. It was really funny. I’ve watched it a couple of times just to be entertained. But there was nothing journalistic about it.

Both those things are custom content. And there are a lot of other things that are custom content as well. I think it’s interesting how broadly you can apply the phrase, and have it be something that is going to find a meaningful audience and is going to help shape perceptions of a brand.

It’s an interesting question for brands to figure out what custom content makes the most sense for that audience in that space. That’s where I feel like groups like mine, or whether it’s The Times or Forbes, I think we’re really valuable. Because even as brands become publishers more and more, you need somebody who’s able to help you see the best way to connect with a particular audience.

TSJ: We talked about this a little bit last week, how it’s almost like a game or a puzzle to be solved. You know, “What’s the best way to tell the story?”

AM: Right, exactly!

TSJ: Do you still enjoy your job?

AM: I do. I think it’s radically different than the job I started out with and maybe that I imagined having. When I was in college I was the sports editor at the paper at UNC and I wanted to be a sports writer.

And certainly to work at Sport Illustrated was a dream. I didn’t imagine that I would get into custom content and I didn’t imagine that I would be fascinated at how the business, particularly the marketing side, of this business works.

Solving that puzzle has been totally fascinating at times. Coming up with these different ideas, working with the different groups within SI, working with clients and the agencies to figure out what is the project that we really want to do together is a ton of fun, especially when you’re working with a client or agency that really wants to be a partner with you and think it through.