On Thursday, Contently, a hot little company, held a buzzy conference at the Bowery Hotel on a very of-the-moment topic.
But as Tomas Kellner, managing editor of GE Reports, a publication put out by General Electric, reminded people, the trend of the moment has been around for a long time. In 1947, General Electric had an in-house reporter telling the company’s stories — a guy named Kurt Vonnegut.
The founders of Contently like that anecdote a lot. Three young men — Joe Coleman, Dave Goldberg and Shane Snow — started the company in 2010 after the rise and crash of so-called content farms. They believed there was room for a company that enabled high-quality stories told on behalf of commercial clients, what is now known as branded content.
Over the years, this content has had an unsavory reputation — most have been infomercials masquerading as editorial content. But the bar has been raised by companies like Red Bull, whose incredibly popular extreme sports videos almost make it seem like a media company that sells beverages on the side.
Contently, which grew out of the TechStars incubator program in New York, developed a roster of writers and journalists for hire and a software application that helps companies tell their own stories as well. Three years later, the company has raised $2.3 million in financing, developed a roster of 27,000 writers, grown to 24 employees and has 40 Fortune 500 companies among its clients. Some of its customers include American Express, Anheuser-Busch and PepsiCo.
When you walk into the Contently office in SoHo, as I did on Tuesday, you can’t help noticing the large slogan on the wall: “Those who tell the stories rule the world.” There’s a wall of books as well — the company gave employees $20 each and turned them loose at the Strand bookstore — and another wall with photos of famous writers, including Oscar Wilde, Philip K. Dick and Hunter S. Thompson. The company also produces a print magazine called Contently Quarterly.
A cynic might suggest the furnishings are just a way to drape a cravenly commercial enterprise in the trappings of literature — akin to a Williamsburg hipster in a fedora — but part of the company’s mission is to help people who type for a living actually make a living at it.
Mr. Snow, the chief creative officer, is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and a writer for Wired and Fast Company magazines, among others. He suggested that in the thriving mix of custom-sponsored content, there was one way to stick out.
“We decided to plant a flag on quality, get good writers to buy in and make sure they are paid well,” Mr. Snow said. “We wanted to be the anticontent farm.”
Now Contently is helping companies produce articles that appear on their own websites, are used in native ad placements and are spread through social media — in essence helping their clients compete in a cluttered media environment.
Scott Roen, vice president of American Express Open, a small-business network, used Contently to produce high-end coverage about its online forums.
“By working with them, you get access to a network of really good writers, but they also help manage the work and integrate it into what we do,” Mr. Roen said. “We’ve learned a lot about publishing from working with them.”
Sitting with Mr. Coleman, the chief executive of Contently, and Sam Slaughter, the vice president for content, in a conference room decorated with tiny robots, Mr. Snow said that when he attended Columbia the most persistent question was building a sustainable business model for journalism.
“It was clear with the fragmentation of traditional media, we were in a kind of freelance revolution and it was also clear that brands wanted to connect directly with their audience,” he said.
About the same time, Mr. Coleman, who has known Mr. Snow since their days in middle school in Idaho Falls, Idaho, was working on a start-up he founded in Las Vegas called CashCrate. He needed some high-quality content. “I could find you a developer in Russia pretty easily, but I had no idea where to go to find a good writer,” he said.
He called Mr. Snow, an idea was born, and Mr. Goldberg built a platform for story-telling — for both clients and writers. At a time when advertising is achieving diminishing returns and public relations has trouble breaking through, companies are learning the value of putting their names around — but not in the middle — of memorable stories.
Bank of America sponsored an article written by a Contently freelancer about the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and ran a sponsored post that was distributed by The Associated Press. BMW sponsors a series about innovation on the media and technology site Mashable written by Contently writers, with the explicit mandate to not promote cars. (It’s not just brands that are doing this: Media companies like Gawker and The Huffington Post have used Contently to produce native advertising without using their own newsrooms.)
Contently provides two fundamental capabilities built on the same platform. Writers can put up a portfolio for free and many have, including 8,000 writers the company has designated as “pros” because of their credentials. Writers for hire include people who have been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many top magazines.
When writers receive a project, Contently takes an agency fee of 15 percent and pays writers upon acceptance of the work at 50 cents to $1 a word and sometimes more. And companies use Contently’s software to create projects, track workflow and export content to their platform. That software, which companies lease for $3,000 to $25,000 a month, is where Contently makes 80 percent of its money.
“People in technology ask us if we are a marketplace for talent or a software company,” Mr. Coleman said. “That is not a question that Pepsi asks.”
Chris Perry is president for digital communications at Weber Shandwick, a public relations firm that was early to the business of helping brands become media companies. He has done a fair amount of work with Contently.
“This is not a fad,” he said, pointing out that both corporate money (advertising) and venture money (backing) were pouring into brand publishing. “These guys stand out because they bring a depth of understanding to the economic proposition and know that for it to work, it has to be done right.”
A number of other nascent companies are rushing into the space, but Contently has a leg up because it is already there. Mr. Snow says the company revenue is up 300 percent over the last two years and should pass $10 million annually sometime early next year. Mr. Coleman says he thinks he and his co-founders are building a business, not riding a trend.
“We want to build something real and solid, the kind of company where we end up with the name on the side of our building,” he said. For now, it’s a crowded little office in SoHo jammed cheek-to-jowl with common tables and portraits of literary giants looming over them.
If it happens, it would be a good story to tell.