Ad technology giant The Trade Desk has grown its brand publication The Current over the past year, hiring high-profile business journalists in an effort to position itself as an editorial resource for the advertising industry. Now, some readers are questioning the objectivity and editorial independence of the publication’s output as it begins to explore more hot-button industry issues.
The Trade Desk has hired prominent advertising industry journalists including former Adweek editor-in-chief Stephanie Paterik and former BBC reporter Damian Fowler. It also expanded its editorial team to Europe and spun The Current off onto its own domain in an effort to make it clear it was attempting to be a standalone resource.
In short, it’s positioned The Current as an advertising trade publication – albeit one backed by a major player in the industry. But some readers say they can’t take The Current seriously as an editorially independent entity, bringing up an important debate on the role of brand publishing and whether brands can ever really produce legitimate, objective journalism.
The Trade Desk did not reply to a request for comment for this piece.
One example arose this week, when The Current covered Macy’s launch of a self-serve option for advertising – available through the Trade Desk. On Twitter, audiences pointed out that the piece served TTD’s own interests and called into question its objectivity. “If TTD is really gonna ‘go for it’ as news (which they seem to want to do given who they’ve hired and how they are investing in it), they should try harder to make it more agnostic / objective. Right now it’s hard to take anything they write seriously,” one reader posted to Twitter.
Another came a couple of weeks ago, when The Current published a piece diving into the demise of BuzzFeed News. The piece argued that one of the biggest drivers of BuzzFeed’s downfall was the dominance of Google and Facebook, which have, over time, slowly chipped away at publishers’ businesses. The piece also interviewed trade groups and journalism professors and focused on a proposed California legislation that’s trying to level the playing field between platforms and publishers.
But as was pointed out on Twitter, The Trade Desk has clear interests at play given its biggest competitors are Google and Facebook.
(To be sure, there are also others who are praising the publication for a fairer and more balanced perspective than is found in “sensationalized” ad trades.)
It’s worth noting that The Current does have an “Opinion” section on its site, which has published multiple pieces by its CEO, Jeff Green, as well as pieces by industry partners that share opinions and perspectives with The Trade Desk.
Whether content published by brands can ever be considered journalism – regardless of its nature or quality – is a matter of debate. Depending on who you ask, some executives inside brands say that their reporting and analysis is closer on the spectrum to journalism than to marketing. Others argue that brands are fundamentally incapable of committing legitimate journalism and shouldn’t attempt to.
Shiv Gupta, the founder of ad tech training company U of Digital, said that generally as a reader he wants something “genuine” to read. “It could be completely biased and opinionated from a brand, but if it is, I want it labeled as such. I want it to be in my face about what it’s trying to persuade me of,” he said. “What I don’t want is ‘subtle’ content marketing.”
The Trade Desk’s editorial mission is to “cut through complexity to tell stories in human terms,” which is how Stephanie Paterik, its GM of editorial put it in an interview early this year. In 2023, its editorial team’s goal was to tell the “story of the open Internet,” to help marketers make the most of their resources.
Speaking earlier this year, Paterik said that TTD had an opportunity to step beyond selling a product to truly serve a community. “We’re creating audience-focused content designed to help people in the industry understand and navigate the greater ecosystem, including the role technology plays in CTV, publishing, and identity. Our editorial content isn’t selling a product, it’s supporting and rallying a community of people who are interested in making the internet an open, transparent place for consumers, publishers and marketers alike,” she said.
Paterik added that The Current focuses on being a resource and thought leader by doing things journalists do well – translating complex ideas, saving people time and providing context. “The same principles that grow loyal audiences for media companies work for brand publishers who are willing to take the leap and focus on their audience,” she said.
Debates are escalating around the concept of editorial independence and what it means in the context of brand publishing. A growing number of brands are touting how “independent” their publications are. At Robinhood, its soon-to-be-launched media arm, Sherwood, operates as a standalone LLC and said it will cover Robinhood itself just the way it would any other company. But while instilling the spirit of independence can potentially lead to more interesting storytelling from a publishing team, true journalistic independence seems unlikely in this context.
Raju Narisetti, who runs global publishing at McKinsey, said that his goal is never to write about news events, so it isn’t journalism: “Companies should aim to do content that is relevant and engaging and useful. For me, yes, we give you new information. We have data that is actually news. Because it’s informing you of the thinking of a bunch of relevant people. And there is breaking of news through some data and interpretation, but not in the conventional sense of writing about news events. That’s the big difference,” he said on an episode of the Brand Publishing Show.