March 27, 2014

When an AOL team with an editorial vision joined a video production team with an artistic vision to launch an ambitious 50-week series about people and companies rebuilding America, it was clear they needed a brand to help fund it.

They found a top-dollar one in Ford Trucks.

But despite the sponsorship (worth just under $10 million, Ad Age reports), “This Built America” is journalism through and through, said AOL’s Fara Warner, the project’s editorial director.

“Ford doesn’t see the stories before they go up on the site,” she told Poynter via phone. “There’s no approval process. It is very distinctively a journalistic, editorial venture.”

But it doesn’t exactly feel like one.

Here’s what I mean: the stories, profiles of persevering companies from each U.S. state debuting every Monday, are told unconventionally, with short blurbs of text overlaid on large photos and videos with very high production values.

The video style is cinematic, with an artistic, homegrown American flair. A new studio called Man Made Content was inspired to create it after seeing new companies try to revitalize Cleveland, said Justin Bain, executive director. The style meshed well with Warner’s separate idea to profile towns in America which have been booming despite the recession. The two connected when Bain brought his “This Built America” idea to AOL.

Their second episode, profiling Arizona’s Hayden Flour Mills, was released Monday.

It’s clear why such a romantic vision as American success and perseverance would appeal to a company like Ford. Warner said the sponsor has been mostly hands-off.

“When you look at the sponsorship, it’s not overly branded,” Warner said. “You can do this type of branded piece without shouting from a microphone. You can integrate it really nicely into the stuff that we created.”

In fact, Bain said, Ford even asked for less heavy-handed banner ads during early presentations, “which was a relief, and a little shocking to us.”

Then again, it’s not really surprising that Ford wanted a softer presence. We’re used to top-dollar ads like we see in the Super Bowl where the story rather than the brand is front and center. After all, that’s when we see some of the highest-quality short video storytelling.

Only minor concessions to sponsor

That the editorial and artistic goals were such a good match for the kind of content Ford preferred to align itself with allowed Warner and Man Made Studios to pursue their visions without much compromise.

One area of deference to the sponsor: Warner said just 12 of the 50 state episodes will get “beautiful, lush videos” produced by Man Made Content (see the first one), and AOL picked those states based on key markets for Ford.



Another ask from Ford, which Warner said she found reasonable and ethical: The project won’t profile any alcohol-related companies. Meanwhile, it was never a concern that “This Built America” might want to profile Ford’s competitors because the series is focusing on smaller success stories.

Warner said she has always believed in a separation between editorial and advertising, but she learned the value of having a voice from editorial in the room for business discussions when it comes to projects with sponsors.

“I’m working with a lot of writers across the country, and I want to give them the editorial freedom to write what they want to write,” Warner said. “So I needed to be very clear when I went in that this is journalism. This isn’t branded content, this isn’t an advertorial. This is telling people’s stories.”

Related: As The New York Times debuts its template for native ads, will other newspapers follow?

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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