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Exec From The Atlantic Discusses Modern-Day Content Creation

When it comes to long-standing American news publications, The Atlantic stands out as one of the most storied and respected. Founded in Boston in 1857, the magazine (then named The Atlantic Monthly) was founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others. It has thrived for more than 150 years, but as media evolves, so must journalistic stalwarts.

Ten years ago, The Atlantic was well respected yet under-read, says Jean Ellen Cowgill, who leads Atlantic Media’s in-house creative agency Atlantic Media Strategies (AMS). Atlantic Media—which also owns a handful of other political, business and general interest publications including Quartz, National Journal and City Lab—had to evolve to reach people where they’re reading content. Fewer readers are reading news in print, and fewer even are going directly to publications’ home pages to get news online. Instead, many are bouncing to individual articles through social referrals and e-mails. Atlantic Media adapted by expanding its portfolio of digital and in-person content like an event series and original videos—and succeeded at rejuvenating its editorial content lineup.

Advertisers began asking for Atlantic Media’s advice on content creation and branding, and Cowgill saw a business opportunity. In 2012, after creating the business plan for Atlantic Media’s in-house creative consulting arm—which provides brand and Web property consulting, digital design and content marketing services for nonprofit and Fortune 500 clients—Cowgill was appointed president of AMS.

Marketing News Weekly sat down with Cowgill at Techweek Chicago on June 25 to discuss content creation, media consumption and the expanding role of publishers as creative consultants.

Q: You began as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. What drew you to media?

A: When I first went to McKinsey, I wanted to get a broad range of organizational work under my belt, so I worked across private, nonprofit and government clients. That was wonderful because I got to do a lot of growth and investment strategy across all of these different industries, but I knew that I wanted to dive into an industry that I really cared a lot about. Media has always been a personal passion of mine, so I was intentionally looking to get into media and take the work that I had learned functionally at McKinsey into the media space.

Q: When you first started at Atlantic Media in 2010, what were you tasked with, and how has your role changed?

A: I started at the corporate level. I came in right as the president of The Atlantic was lifting up to be president of Atlantic Media as a whole, so we were looking to continue the growth path of The Atlantic, create a corporate strategy for growth across [the rest of] our properties, and also launch new businesses. I was responsible for writing the business plans for Quartz—our global business brand—City Lab and a number of other different efforts, some of which were wonderful ideas and others dropped to the cutting room floor. I did that for two years.

As I was moving into the second year, we were receiving a lot of requests from some of our top advertising clients, event partners and other organizations that were watching what we were doing, saying: ‘Wow, you guys seem to really get something about the digital environment, creating substantive and interesting content that still travels across the social Web. Can you talk to our digital and marketing and brand communications teams? We need to figure out how to do a better job of playing in this new environment.’ You get enough of those requests and you realize, wow, there’s a real opportunity to take everything that we’ve learned from our own experience in this changing media world and from our own properties, and put that to work for external organizations. That was really the impetus for launching what has become Atlantic Media Strategies. I wrote the business plan for it because that was part of my job. I didn’t know that our president and owner would then turn around and say, ‘You should run it.’ That was a delightful surprise. I’ve now been running that business for three years.

Q: What are your thoughts on the organic growth of good content marketing, and storied publications like The Atlantic becoming content marketing creators in varying degrees? It’s happening within organizations that have always had separate advertising and content creators. Talk about the dovetailing of content and marketing, especially within a publishing company.

A: The reason that organizations were interested in working with us, and the reason that AMS was an attractive proposition, was that a lot of historic organizations—whether that be a long standing nonprofit or foundation like the American Cancer Society, or a Fortune 100 with lots of data and research and science, or even a startup—have some mission that they’re trying to share with the world. They have a brand, a message. But they feel like that’s [falling] on deaf ears. And what they saw The Atlantic doing was not rejecting its history and heritage and original mission, but rather delving into that and using it as fuel for what has made it vibrant today. That’s an exciting proposition, because if you’re another 100-year-old organization, then you are trying to figure out how to do something very similar. The story of what The Atlantic had accomplished was very exciting to these organizations.

One of the things that makes AMS different is we’re not the branded content shop of The Atlantic, which obviously The Atlantic does and we have a team that does that, but AMS takes it to the next step and says, ‘Yes, you can create really interesting branded content that lives on our properties, but we can also help you figure out your brand identity. We can help you go through the same transformation process that we went through. We can help you with your organizational alignment.’ It’s taking it farther in terms of how we work together.

Q: Why, then, would a Fortune 100 or big nonprofit come to you as opposed to a successful digital or creative agency like Ogilvy or Mother that’s gone through massive transformations of its own?

A: We play in a really interesting space because we’re not looking to do exactly what a lot of those traditional agencies do. We don’t do any media buying and we’re not a traditional PR shop. What we do bring to the table is the lens that modern media brings, which is pulling together design and development, editorial, wonderful user experience and a sharp understanding of brand. We can create experiences that pull all of those different backgrounds and capabilities together in an interesting way. When an organization needs help that transcends a lot of the traditional divisions of work, that’s an interesting place for us to play. We’ve been able to partner alongside other agencies, so we might work alongside a brand’s agency of record or their traditional design and development shop. But we bring an interesting perspective to the table that can help advance the work that’s already being done.

Q: Talk about the murky waters of journalism dovetailing with content marketing. It’s clear that this practice isn’t going away, so how have you seen it shake out within AMS?

A: It all stems from [the question of whether] you can speak to a certain subject from a place of authenticity. Are you sharing content that’s based on substantive research that your organization has done as a result of having to be in business, or sharply aligned with the reason you’re in business? Are you speaking from an expert perspective because of the work your organization does? Or are you really just writing an advertorial? That to me is the heart of the challenge.

The good news is that when organizations put out bad content, it doesn’t do very well because people won’t share it. They can do it if they want to, but people will get upset about it. I’m not saying that there won’t be mistakes along the way, but I do think that audiences tend to punish organizations that put out fluff or put out things that are mis-characterized. Most organizations have a really valuable voice that they can bring to the table based on what they do. That’s the best place to start.

Q: Talk about the organizational structure for where you do this actual work. A lot of organizations are very siloed in terms of what’s being created: editorial or advertising or content for a client. What does that look like for your team?

A: We are not siloed, or certainly we try not to be. We do have different functional teams: We have brand strategy team, a design and development team and an editorial team, but on any given project we’re pulling people from across those teams to put together the project team. Every client is getting a truly multidisciplinary approach, and that, again, is one of our strengths because it mirrors the way that our properties work. One of the things that has made The Atlantic or Quartz successful is that the developers are right there in the newsroom and they’re working closely with the writers. The marketers and the editorial side are thinking about big ideas together. That type of collaboration is something that we want to bring over to our work with our clients.

Q: How do you keep The Atlantic’s journalistic integrity intact and its content creation separate from that of AMS?

A: We maintain a wall for journalism and editorial independence of our editorial teams. We would never want to, in any way, confuse that or hurt the integrity of those teams. That said, the organization as a whole is a very collaborative place that really fosters learning across different divisions. While we’re our own divisions in the company, we’re able to draw upon the lessons and what the analytics is telling us, and the best practices that are coming out of our brands. All of us have good friends across the divisions. We really benefit from the natural learning that comes out of all being under the same roof.

Q: What are your thoughts on the role of a publisher as a creative partner for a brand?

A: It’s been really interesting over the past three years to figure out what role we can play. While we do execution for clients—we help them think through the content they can create and the digital properties that they could launch—one of the things that makes us special is that upfront strategic work. We also provide support on organizational alignment. Many organizations right now are going through a transformational process from an organizational perspective. They’re pulling apart the traditional silos across marketing, branding, PR, media, and thinking about how they can make that more seamless, because that’s how the user is going to experience their brand anyway. With that comes a lot of opportunity but also a lot of challenges. The media organizations are at the forefront of that can bring a lot of insights to a client not only on what kinds of content that they can create, but also what it looks like and how they can do it. How can they organize their teams and their workflows and their processes in a way that’s going to set them up for success? That’s where we come in.

This article was originally published in the June 30, 2015, issue of Marketing News Weekly​.​​

Author Bio: Molly Soat is a staff writer for Marketing News and Marketing News Weekly. E-mail her at

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