Talking with Trendsetters: Deanna Zammit, Director, Digiday Content Studio

Article ImageHaving helped Digiday launch its Content Studio, Deanna Zammit knows better than anyone what it takes to create a successful native advertising department. After starting her career in journalism--complete with a stint at Adweek--and a turn at freelancing, Zammit happened to see a post on Facebook that announced Digiday was looking to find someone to head up its new Content Studio and said, "I can do that!"

While she was freelancing, Zammit started doing some work for J. Walter Thompson (JWT)--a 150-year-old marketing communications firm--as a sort of trends reporter. That work, combined with her experience at Adweek, set her up for success in the hybrid world of brand journalism, where marketing and journalism collide. While her experience on the content side of things has been invaluable, there are still some parts of the business that Zammit is getting used to. When you're a reporter, it's easy to ignore bad pitches and tell off pesky PR flaks-but when you have clients, things change. "For clients, you have to be responsive, you have to cater to their needs, you have to do something called education," she says.

While a background in marketing might be necessary to help launch an entire branded content studio, Zammit says she looks for journalists when she's hiring. "The kind of storytelling you do through marketing and advertising is different from the kind of storytelling you do through journalism," she says. "I look for flexibility. I look for lack of ego. ... I look for someone who has business sensibility."

When you're writing from a marketing point of view, Zammit says your stories originate from questions such as, "What do we want to tell people? Who do we want to be in front of people?" she says. "For content marketing, you have to start from the other point of view. What does the audience want? What is going to feed the audience's curiosity?"

However, not just any reporter will do. "It's important to find journalists who have a particular sensibility," she says. "They need to understand business needs. ... You have to be able to see both sides of the coin and don't mind it."

"A lot of journalists go into journalism because they feel a burning passion for truth-telling," Zammit says. "It's wonderful, and it's laudable. ... Certainly, as content marketers, we don't want to compromise that, but you also do have to thread in things like client services."

One of the ways to make those client interactions run more smoothly is to lay out ground rules for your clients. "We have a set of sponsored content guidelines that are pretty immutable," she says. "One of our No. 1 rules is that we don't discuss the client's products in the content we produce. The one exception is when the client is a consumer-facing brand that we feel our audience would be interested in." The key to enforcing those guidelines is putting them in a contract.

"We get people who push back, and we try to push back in as gentle a way as possible," says Zammit. "We reach a compromise. We can't change a quote, but maybe we can change this other line to be more palatable." This is where the line between journalism and brand journalism "gets a little murky," as Zammit puts it. "Ultimately, at the end of the day, it is a marketing and advertising product and [the clients] are paying for it, but you want to hew as close as possible to what the real story is," she adds.

But as content marketing and native advertising gain steam and become more a part of the mainstream, conflicts between editorial standards and client needs are few and far between, Zammit says. She jokes, "I haven't found someone in a while who wants to insert an executive quote."

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