The buyer’s perspective on CBC’s branded content arm

Tandem has drawn opposition from staff and advocacy group, but will those concerns reach advertisers?
CBC Tandem

CBC Tandem, the public broadcaster’s yet-to-be launched branded content division, has raised the eyebrows and ire of many journalists and members of the public alike, but those in the know are doubtful as to whether that is going to lessen the appeal among media buyers.

In an effort to allay fears over the launch of CBC Tandem and its branded content plans, Canada’s public broadcaster issued new guidelines last month to establish a clear division between its news and advertising content.

But the opposition has remained strong among current and former staff. Advocacy group Friends Of Canadian Broadcasting has gone so far as to call for Tandem’s outright cancelation through a petition, and the CRTC has received calls to investigate, though the regulator has said it may be limited in what it can do. As of press time, Tandem remained under construction and inactive.

While this start-and-stop launch was probably far from what CBC hoped for, media strategy experts who spoke with MiC say Tandem holds a lot of potential. While they ponder the effect of so much criticism on Tandem’s advertiser appeal, they say it likely won’t affect CBC’s journalistic integrity to the extent the reporters, editors and producers in its news division fear.

In a November statement, Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s rallying cry declared that “the CBC’s credibility is not for sale,” and it says it will be intervening in the CRTC’s January hearings on CBC’s licence renewal. The group has long-standing objections to what it deems the “over-commercialization” of the CBC, having opposed paywalling digital content or creating paid ad-free tiers it believes undermine universal access, a fundamental principal of public broadcasting. To that end, the group believes branded content undermines the credibility of all news media, but that it is especially inappropriate for the country’s national public broadcaster.

“I think all the fuss is a bit strange, really,” says Scott Stewart, general manager of Glassroom. “A team like Tandem is nothing new on either the publishing or the broadcast side of industry.” If branded content inherently affected journalistic integrity, he says, it would have been noticed at The Globe and Mail, Corus, Rogers, Bell Media or any other national organization “that have been producing strategic content solutions for their advertising clients for years — and doing a really good job at it, frankly.”

However, those outlets have recently faced some backlash for their branded content practices. In September, The Globe and Mail ran paid content from state-owned China Daily, which publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley admitted “should have been more clearly marked.” In November, Canadaland obtained a document suggesting that several op-eds in the Vancouver Sun written by senior officials at the University of British Columbia were part of an advertising deal with the school, despite not being marked as such, though Postmedia has said the op-eds were published independently of that deal.

Regardless, Stewart says the creation of Tandem adds bench strength to an existing service that is increasing in advertiser demand. While the name Tandem is new, CBC has been offering branded content services to advertisers for several years. In 2020, it created paid content features for the Shaw Festival, Government of Ontario, National Gallery of Canada, and Prince Edward Island Tourism, among others.

With that in mind, if working with the CBC makes sense contextually for an advertiser, Stewart says he can’t see the halting launch diverting a brand strategy or creating an aversion to working with Tandem.

However, Heidi McLeod, national account director at MediaTonik, says the controversy could be a deterrent for clients who are new to content marketing. But if the content is relevant, relatable, and offers information and insights, she says branded content with the pubcaster is an excellent option for clients as part of their media mix.

“At the end of the day, people tend to remember stories more than other ways of presenting information,” McLeod says. “In a digital format, content also allows publishers to build an audience segment that the client can re-target against, and this is where the opportunity becomes lower in the funnel and even more valuable. I think it is an antiquated notion to say that the audience is confusing true editorial with custom content when it is properly labelled and transparent.”

According to CBC’s new December guidelines, branded content’s placement would be restricted to digital platforms, and no CBC/Radio-Canada journalists or hosts would be involved in its creation or presentation. In addition, branded content would be clearly labeled as “paid content,” rather than the more common (and somewhat more opaque) “sponsored content.” It would not appear on national news digital pages.

On local digital pages, branded content already appears in designated areas marked with separate borders and shading to clearly indicate it is different from other content on the page. Until this design format is ready on, branded content will be restricted to entertainment and lifestyle pages.