James Brown on how his destination site inspired a very successful branded content agency

And one of the more unlikely content marketing success stories of recent time is Sabotagency, which was formed a few years ago by James Brown.

A visionary editor Brown pretty much invented lad’s magazine culture by launching loaded for IPC Media (now Time Inc,.) in 1994. He then went on to edit GQ, and later launched the innovative, but sadly slightly overlooked serious magazine Jack.

Sabotagency followed the launch of Sabotage Times, one of the few British men’s lifestyle websites to attract readers in the millions, and has become the key source of income for the company.

Here he talks about how the agency model works for him, the problems with relying too much on display advertising and the future for both paid for and free printed magazines.

Can you briefly explain the concept behind both ST and the agency?

Sabotagency is a content agency that works with brands to create unique and attractive content that sits on their own platforms. We use our own publishing and social platforms to seed the material. 

Sabotage ()

The biggest platform we have is Sabotage Times – essentially a super blog – that reached 2m unique monthly page views this Autumn. Sabotage Times has over 20,000 pieces published by over 7,000 writers around the world. The content features humour, opinion, sport, fashion and is read by an equal balance of men and women. Sabotage Times sits on the Tempest platform owned by Say Media in the States.

Brands we’ve worked with recently include Enterprise Car Hire, Scotts, JD Sports, Original Penguin Munsingwear, Stella Artois, Paddy Power and Top Man. We have also worked with MSN, T-Mobile, PUMA, Wall’s, N-Power, adidas, Bauer, Philips Gaggia, Thomsons, Aston Martin, talkSPORT and many more.

When you started ST did you ever imagine that the agency would be so successful and become so central to the business?

My original intention was to use the Sabotage Times site purely as a publishing syndication window. Different editorial budgets around the world made that an inconsistent business. You could spend three emails selling an interview with Real Madrid footballer Ronaldo to an Australian football title for $400 and then spend three weeks trying to negotiate a deal with an Indian newspaper publisher who wanted to buy 100 articles a month at 16 pence a go. Note that’s 16p an article not even a word.

What became apparent pretty quickly was that advertising agencies were steering brands towards being content publishers themselves, and we began working with them for the simple reason we were very good at content and they had decent budgets and they genuinely wanted credible content rather than advertorials. They wanted the same sort of content we had previously published in magazines like GQ, loaded, 442, Hotdog, Jack and so on. We use the contributors to Sabotage Times to generate the content.

The first project we worked on like this was with the agency Fallon for Cadburys and the guy who gave us that moved over to run Saatchi & Saatchi and asked us to work alongside them for T-Mobile for a year. We put together a 5 month gap-fill project for PUMA and then the ball just started rolling and we found ourselves working with all sorts of ad agencies including Steak 360i, Carat, BMB, Mother, Work Club and leading PR agencies like Frank and Exposure.

Is it still possible for UK based content websites to be purely funded by advertising? Or have those days gone forever?

Sabotage Times has always carried advertising but it’s never been enough to do anything but cover the costs of hosting and editing. From the very beginning it seemed unlikely we could compete with titles like Google, The Guardian, MSN, AOL for traffic and ads so we knew that advertising would just be the little silver balls on the icing on the cake. For the Sabotagency, the Sabotage Times title is just a shop window to say ‘Look a couple of us can hit a couple of million page views by being a platform for all these interesting writers and we can group them together and match them to whatever brand project you’re working on’.

Sabotage Times ()

Do you have plans to monetise ST in other ways? Events etc?

We’ve hosted three exhibitions for the artists Modern Toss which have all been successful and we’ve a party coming up with Evisu. We did a very good book with adidas here republishing a cult British fanzine called The End. That sold over 4000 copies at £20 a go, which meant for that period we could take more people on to work across the title.

There have been many launches in the UK by US companies from BuzzFeed to Politico, but not many British content sites have gained much traction in the US? Do you think that it is now hard for UK publishers to go global?

Aren’t the Daily Mail and Guardian the biggest digital newspapers in the world? If they’d started from scratch like Buzzfeed did they’d be getting the same coverage the start-ups are. There are a lot of smaller independent titles like Squawka and LadBible that are growing rapidly through social and building up huge traffic. I guess the hunger to start up more mainstream content titles isn’t as big in the UK as it was during the initial broadband boom when a whole generation of senior editorial staff left magazines for online startups which failed because no-one had broadband or mobile yet. I guess American tech investors are more patient and internet use there was ahead of what was happening here.  Most content titles I see expanding are doing it through social rather than traditional desktop publishing and they’re smaller propositions.

Do you think that native advertising is going to be the saviour of some content websites?

I think for an online title to exist and at least break even they’ve got to bring in as a many different revenue streams as possible whether that’s paid for tweets, content for brands, paid for articles, ads, events, Native content. The key has to be the ability to create content that really works for the clients. 

Who do you see as carrying the mantle of Loaded/Jack etc in the online world? Just Sabotage Times or are there others? Vice?

Well one of the predominant tones of voice on social is the same as I originated at loaded – a combined love of humour, great images, self-deprecation, interesting content, football. Occasionally I photograph a page from loaded, cover-lines or a manipulated image or headline and post it on Twitter and it has gone viral. We were just ahead of the mediums the title would have been perfect for.

Have you ever been tempted to return to print publishing? Do you think that print will survive in the long term? Or will it be all about niche and luxury products? Are you finding an increase in demand for print products from the brands you work with?

Through Sabotagency we’ve done print for a variety of luxury brands including Aston Martin, the Royal Jubilee and The Royal Windsor Horse Show. We created a quarterly title for TopMan when we worked with them for a few years. And we did the book with adidas. The editor of Sabotage Times and I putting together a magazine at the moment which we’ve a good name and content list for. It’s a little like back when I did a fanzine, it’ll be ready when it’s ready but we’ve got some interesting content in already from Africa, Germany and the States.

I’ve had a couple of approaches about being involved in major launches, one from Bauer, when they were trying to do a male Grazia and another that’s still kicking around that may appear at some point in the future. I used to love editing magazines but the speed of the social mobile digital world has robbed print of any immediacy. Also there’s no shortage of sites where you can get lost for hours with in-depth images and words. So the idea that the internet only leads to short attention orientated content is misguided. Go and spend a day looking at the Shed Porn site and tell me there’s nothing interestingly substantial online. We’ve a 15,000 word interview with Brett Easton Ellis on Sabotage Times and some posts that are just a one off GIF or Vine. Effectively you can get everything you want online instantly.

Do you think that the free magazine model as practised by Metro, Vice, Shortlist but now also the NME etc is a genius move or one that undermines the perceived value of content?

Metro proved that you could give away quality publications that weren’t purely based around classified ads like free local evening papers and free secretarial weeklies were. Vice built into an enormous very corporate global brand from a starting point of a give-away street mag that was funny and had quality content. Shortlist, Stylist, Time Out, NME and Coach have all followed into that market and produce very credible free publications. As is the case online the expectation now is that you get decent content for free. The challenge for paid for print brands is to have a relationship the audience values BECAUSE they have to pay for it.

ST was using innovative editorial devices like listicles etc years before sites like BuzzFeed. Do you think that ST hasn’t always had the credit it deserves?

My last publishing business with staff was AIM Listed and had numerous titles and projects working out of a an expensive four story building in Clerkenwell, London. With Sabotage I deliberately wanted something that could grow or shrink organically depending on the work that was coming in. I think of it like Philip Marlowe’s detective agency in the Raymond Chandler novels. He does the work when it comes in. That’s essentially where we are.

When we were working with TopMan, PUMA and a variety of other brands at one time we had an office and 10 staff, more recently we were based out of Saatchis. Right now if we need to put a team together for a project we do so and either work in a news place or out of the agency or just as we did at the beginning using our computers and Skype. We’ve over 7,000 content creators to call on. That’s more effective than having the same 20 people to do all the work for each brand under the same room with the same working practises. 

That’s what allows us to do luxury at one end and street fashion at the other. This explanation of how we work is a long way of saying I’ve never really chased credit for this, it’s more  a case of let’s do the work in a way that allows us to do it where we want, how we want and to be able to do other things too. One of the best rewards is seeing how many writers we’ve discovered and given a platform to as bloggers go on – often on our recommendation – to get jobs with the big media propositions of the day.

How much unsolicited content do you receive? How much do you publish?

We get asked to publish loads of stuff and we’re more likely to look for someone who has more than one story who might have an area of expertise we can utilise for a particular content deal. So for instance a guy just wrote a very good piece about how guilty he feels about switching football clubs when he is 10. He sent that to Sabotage but we’re going to pay him for it and host it on Scotts Menswear Blog we do. He had the ability as a writer that meant we would probably ask him to create more content, significantly – like many of our contributors – he’d never been published before. There’s masses of talent out there.

What advice would you give to someone starting in journalism today? What is the equivalent of starting a fanzine?

Be great on social because it’s your shop window. if you can write a tweet that gets shared 1000 times you can write a headline no problem. You can use Twitter or Instagram as a portfolio to work in journalism, social, advertising, script writing. Be good at social and you’ll find a door opens to you.

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