'Sponsored editorial' is blurring the boundaries between journalism and advertorial. Simon Rogers asks, does it matter?
That article on international construction work by a well-known City practice, how is it paid for? Readers might guess that the law firm had provided it free of charge to the magazine at the editor's request from a recognised expert, or that the magazine had paid the writer.
But would that reader realise the firm had paid the magazine to place the article? This practice is commonplace in the new world of 'sponsored editorial'.
The food marketing industry has been doing it for years. It is impossible to read a copy of Checkout or The Grocer without having to wade through advertorials extolling the virtues of various products.
The national press has followed suit and a recent guidance note has been produced about the issue by industry watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
And now the legal press has climbed aboard the gravy train. The market abounds with publications which consist wholly or in part of sponsored editorial.
Euphemisms are the currency of the new editorial emporium. 'Co-published' is a favourite, followed by magazines which have an 'editorial board'. Occasionally a publication will admit to 'sponsored editorial', but the word 'advertorial' is rare.
Big money changes hands in this topsy-turvy arena where magazines will pay a freelance journalist around u150 for a standard piece, yet firms will pay magazines over u1,000 to place an individual article.
According to one law firm marketeer, Legalese's top company magazine, In-House Lawyer, charges up to u10,000 per firm for a standard year's commitment by the practice to write 10 articles.
Articles in Euromoney's International Financial Law Review supplements are said to cost around u5,000 each, while another international magazine charges $12,000 for 'placing' a three-page article.
Legalese head John Pritchard says In House Lawyer is a response to a market which would not otherwise subscribe to magazines. “For this particular market that hasn't got library budgets, then it's a good way to do it,” he says.
Pritchard's argument is over editorial quality, which he says is more important than who pays for an article. “I don't care how this is financed. What I judge a publication by is the quality of editorial,” he says. He adds that In House Lawyer articles are edited by the magazine and contributors have been thrown off the editorial board and money refunded.
Pritchard's position illustrates the paradox of sponsored editorial. The firms are not writing about themselves, so why should it matter if they pay for the space to write about employment law, or changes in intellectual property law?
The rules are unclear. Alison Crawley, of the Law Society's professional ethics division, says there is not widespread concern over the practice.
“We are in deregulatory mode here and if nobody else thinks it's improper I don't see why we should regard it as improper,” she says. “If it is misleading, what are you misleading people about?”
The ASA says readers should not be confused about whether writing is advertising or editorial. But open a copy of International Corporate Law and the reader may see a list of firms under the title 'editorial board' rather than 'sponsors of this magazine'. But is what they are writing advertising or simply 'product placement'?
Media consultant Nick Horswell, of Pattison Horswell Durden, says it is advertising by association. “It is very clearly in the grey area,” he says. “To a certain extent, what they're doing is borrowing the credibility of the title.”
Why do firms bother? It may have something to do with a Maister-esque philosophy of getting the firm's name known in the right circles. In a recent article in International Law Firm Management, US consultant and guru David Maister wrote: “The life of a well-written, reader-friendly article can be many years.” For Maister, articles are a vital aspect of marketing a service.
Coincidentally, International Law Firm Management publisher Euromoney is also behind many of the sponsored editorial publications that land on lawyers' desks all around the globe. It publishes International Corporate Law Review, International Financial Law Review (which produces sponsored supplements) and Asia Law & Practice.
International Financial Law Review publisher, Dominic Carman, says the arrangement works by approaching a good firm and giving them an “exclusive right to write”. The magazine publishes sponsored supplements, which Carman says are clearly labelled as sponsored editorial.
“Law firms are demonstrating their expertise by the best means possible, which is by writing an article,” he says. “There is no advertising for the law firm beyond what is in the article. We are providing a conduit for that expertise.”
Do readers agree? Esso legal head and In House Lawyer reader, Julian Armstrong, says he was not aware of the finances behind the editorial, but that he didn't really care. “My starting point is, is the material of use to me?” he says. “The fact that the firms are choosing to advertise in that way, well, at least it's in a way that is useful to me.”
Law firm marketeers have mixed feelings about its effectiveness. “Keep your hand in your pocket,” advises one top firm marketing director. “As a marketeer I avoid them like the plague,” says another.
City firm Allen & Overy has its fingers in most sponsored editorial pies, including In House Lawyer, International Corporate Lawyer and International Financial Law Review. Marketing director James Broomfield is a fan of sponsored editorial. “By giving a vehicle for partners to demonstrate their expertise we put them in a stronger position,” he says.
And he sees no moral dilemma in paying for space. “In the legal market, there is a general understanding that people who co-publish and have articles in supplements have paid in some way for that to be in.”
The views of Denton Hall's marketing director John Griffith-Jones match those of most lawyers on this subject. Griffith-Jones's firm is involved with In House Lawyer, but, he says: “I do not regard sponsored features as one of the more effective marketing tactics. It can be a relevant medium, but I treat it with great care.”
Simmons & Simmons marketeer Peter Dratkin agrees. “We don't like doing this sort of thing and are very selective about how we do it.”
Other legal magazines, such as The Lawyer and Law Society Gazette, do not carry sponsored editorial at present. Gazette editor Sheila Pratt says sponsored magazines should make public how the editorial is financed.
“If there's an editorial board, people should know what that means,” she says. The issue is one of identity – readers should be aware of who pays for what they are reading. “That's the honest approach,” she says.
Alternatively, firms could just take out an advert. But, as one publisher says, “who wants to read adverts?”