From a young age, a kernel of creativity germinated inside Megan Gilbert’s brain.
She loved to consume books, magazines, and TV – and welcomed even the commercial messages in and around them. “I was obsessed with ad messaging as well as editorial storytelling,” she says.
But it wasn’t until 2009 that the kernel fully popped into a content marketing opportunity. That’s when Gawker Media hired her as a freelancer to write blog posts for a branded content project.
Megan wrote 92 articles for HBO’s True Blood content campaign in three weeks. “I thought, ‘This is the death knell in my career, or this is going to make me have a career,’” she says.
It ended up being the latter. She spent 6.5 years at Gawker, rising to content director of Studio@Gawker. Later, she did a stint at VICE as its director of branded editorial and initiatives, which eventually led to her joining FORTUNE Brand Studio in 2019. This year, her work for the studio earned her a place on the 2023 Content Marketer of the Year finalist list.
Building a mega-successful content marketing studio
When Megan arrived at FORTUNE, the content studio didn’t exist. It was a true startup venture. “We came up with a name, created a logo, built the team, and managed to build revenue,” Megan says.
Four years later, FORTUNE Brand Studio has seen revenue go from $400,000 to $16 million, and its content has earned industry honors, including the 2023 Content Marketing Project of the Year for Ecopreneurs, a content partnership with Salesforce. And Megan, who joined as director of editorial, is now vice president of FORTUNE Brand Studio.
FORTUNE Brand Studio operates similarly to a traditional content studio or agency. The full-time and freelance team of 20 handles design, project management, strategy, production, and editorial. But, unlike content creators at traditional FORTUNE media properties, they don’t just execute the content.
Some team members work closely with the sales side. They help with pitches and proposals, but they also think proactively. “We regularly hold brainstorms … What are our new offerings as FORTUNE Brand Studio? What can we bring our existing clients? How can we renew businesses?” Megan explains.
The holistic approach also means the FORTUNE Brand Studio team works with the wider company’s account management, integrated marketing, and research departments.
Similar to an agency structure, the studio dedicates work teams to clients. Smaller clients, for example, have a dedicated strategist and editor and a couple of designers working on the assets. If the client program involves audio-visual content, the team also includes production folks. Clients with larger programs, such as Salesforce’s The Ecopreneurs series, work with almost everyone in the studio.
But they are all treated similarly. “A client that has one piece of content with us gets white-glove service just like somebody who’s a five-year multimillion-dollar service,” Megan says.
Dreaming up client opportunities, not checklists
How do they provide that exceptional service? Well, they don’t follow a check-the-box, assembly-line strategy. “It’s more nuanced than that, more collaborative than that,” Megan says, noting they work closely with clients to understand their goals and work together on innovative ideas to achieve them.
The FORTUNE Brand Studio team looks at what they’ve produced for the client in past programs and discusses what more they could do in the future. They discuss fresh ideas that they could bring to the client’s table. Of course, they also keep in mind the budget parameters because whatever programs they propose must work financially for both the client and the studio.
“We really understand the business and know how to be efficient. And we love to not nickel-and-dime clients. We tend to overdeliver and try to make their lives easier,” Megan says.
That’s likely one of the reasons Salesforce hired FORTUNE Brand Studio to produce a new program for its Salesforce+ streaming product.
What would become The Ecopreneur series started with a quick conversation between the CEOs of Fortune and Salesforce about the need for media partners for shows at the yet-to-debut Salesforce+.
Salesforce already had a strong relationship with Fortune, working together on sponsorships, conferences, and other programs across the company. The studio team had done a few branded campaigns with different business units at Salesforce.
FORTUNE Brand Studio had an almost-ready-to-go idea to pitch Salesforce. It evolved from Sustainability Inc., a 13-episode podcast it partnered with Boston Consulting Group to create. That series talked about pillars of sustainability and business in the world, challenges, and potential solutions. But it was audio-only content because they had to do all the interviews remotely during the pandemic. When that project was in post-production, the studio team had discussed how great it would have been to film the places and the people.
“We’re very passionate about telling these types of stories. It’s a fascinating topic,” Megan says. So they pitched their Sustainability Inc.-inspired video series idea – showing some of the studio’s documentary-style filmmaking shot just before the pandemic – and got a quick yes from Salesforce.
Hitting the production water in 43 days
Salesforce and FORTUNE Brand Studio worked together quickly. They arrived at the first shoot just six weeks after that first conversation. Together, they traveled the world to shoot all 11 episodes with a small traveling crew, local production assistants, and sound techs.
But the FORTUNE Brand Studio idea didn’t stay just a video series. They turned The Ecopreneurs into a content powerhouse – creating content hubs for each episode featuring the ecopreneur that went far beyond the 10-minute videos. They did long-form question-and-answer and behind-the-scenes content. They used animated explainers to discuss the climate impacts and unique attributes of the ecopreneur and their work.
At every shoot, the Salesforce and FORTUNE Brand Studio teams collaborated on the possibilities. But getting all that content from every video shoot took a lot of planning and preparation. They often had to juggle multiple stages of multiple episodes at the same time. “If we didn’t have a FORTUNE Brand Studio producer and our program manager keeping us on track, I don’t know how we would’ve done it,” Megan says.
For every content initiative, the program team keeps the FORTUNE Brand Studio team on track and works closely with the client on deliverables, approvals, asset management, delivery, etc. They also ensure the client’s feedback and strategy get incorporated into the new content. “This is one of the best program management teams I’ve ever worked with,” Megan says.
Lesson for all content marketers
The FORTUNE Brand Studio team model can be a lesson to brand teams as well as individual content marketers.
Megan encourages marketers to carve out a niche – something you’re good at and like doing – but also have a generalist background. You can bring your expertise to the position and help other areas of the team as needed.
To find your content inspiration, stay fresh and focus on the story. Think about how people make stories, and don’t limit your exploration to branded content. Surround yourself with storytellers, artists, and people who have a vision without parameters.
That outside influence will let you pop the edge of that proverbial box for your brand or clients. As Megan says, “If you have that infectious inspiration and desire to tell stories, it’s going to take you a long way.”
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute