When it comes to blending sponsored content in traditional editorial, brands aren’t the only ones walking the fine line. At AFAR Magazine, this has served up an opportunity rather than an obstacle. The travel magazine is known not only for its beautiful editorial content, but for its highly attended experience events that take attendees off the beaten path in coveted destinations like Sydney, Cairo, and Charleston.

We at Big were curious how the magazine develops their signature brand/reader experience, so we chatted up Grace Montgomery, Associate Marketing Manager at AFAR Magazine, to learn how they brainstorm, brand, and cultivate this process.

Describe a day in the life for your position.

Most days I split my time between developing proactive custom ideas for advertising clients and activating them once they sell. On the activation side, this includes creating timelines and ensuring they are being followed, working with clients and our team to develop campaign content, and monitoring campaign performance to ensure we’re meeting KPIs (key performance indicators) and optimizing where needed to reach goals. On the pitch side, I’ll partner with the sales team to create proposals, presentations and other collateral. These tools help clients understand AFAR, our capabilities, and the benefits of partnering with us.

Brainstorming content ideas is a different process for everyone. How do you get the gears turning?

It’s an ever-changing process. To start, I always try to gain a thorough understanding of whatever problem our client is trying to solve or what action the advertiser is trying to drive consumers toward. This might mean helping a hotel brand raise awareness for their properties, or it could mean inspiring consumers to purchase a specific brand or product through storytelling. AFAR’s mission is to inspire, guide and enable travelers to have deeper, richer, and more fulfilling travel experiences. We’re all travelers at AFAR, so it’s not difficult to think about our audience as ourselves and consider what drives us to take action.

How often do you collaborate with teammates when brainstorming?

We collaborate with team members every step of the way starting with pitching marketing campaigns and throughout program execution. Fortunately, the AFAR team is very collaborative and we’ll have members across multiple departments join brainstorms whenever possible. For example, our digital team can help come up with new ways to present content on the site, and our editorial team is open to sharing ideas that inspire them, which always gets wheels turning.

What happens when the ideas just aren’t flowing?

It definitely happens. Sometimes I look at past ideas that got me excited and see if there’s a similar thread or way that I can revamp or rethink to fit the current campaign. Our team also makes it a point to do “show and tell” during our weekly meetings to share campaigns that catch our attention while we’re out and about. This could be anything—a spread in another magazine, a Buzzfeed video, the latest Madewell catalog, etc. Paying attention to what else is happening in the market helps me stay inspired and encourages me to approach campaigns from a different perspective to present content in a fresh light.

What’s the first step in execution once you’ve decided on the right idea?

It really depends on the client and the type of content. AFAR often works with our network of AFAR Ambassadors, writers and photographers around the globe, to create content and we often begin by tapping into their expertise. AFAR also has a robust content licensing program, where partners can utilize created content on their own channels. Activating these programs can mean assembling a team of editors, writers, and photo researchers to create content, whether it’s articles, slideshows, videos, infographics, etc.

Afar Headshot

How does the execution differ among your clients?

Some partners prefer to let us take the reigns and others prefer to be more involved throughout this process. I think there are pros and cons to each approach. I appreciate when clients trust us to know our audience and create what we think will most interest them and drive engagement. But having clients stay involved as we create content certainly helps us meet expectations and can often help us better understand the topic—whether it’s a guide to Florence, a Q&A with a local designer, or an itinerary to explore Switzerland, that improves the content. The ideal is of course to collaborate and allow both groups to be inspired.

The term content”—is this still mainly an industry term, or is it part of the public lexicon?

That’s a great question. I think content is becoming more publicly known, and certainly the way we communicate encourages everyone to be content creators. Whether posting a status on Facebook or a perfectly-edited Instagram, everyone has the opportunity to create content and develop a distinct voice. I think it’s particularly interesting as we see brands like Airbnb create city guides, or even seeing how brands utilize Instagram influencers to share their message.

What makes a great piece of sponsored content?

Great sponsored content comes from treating it like any other piece of content, and holding it to the same high standards we set for our editorial. Our branded content director is a crucial part of our team and her insights always elevate pieces by chiming in on the overall idea of a piece or ensuring we are using the best art, formatting, etc.

What do you wish more agencies with clients understood about your job?

On a day-to-day level, I find many clients are surprised we don’t have a huge library of images to support campaigns. As a travel magazine, we’ve covered destinations around the globe, but we aren’t guaranteed to have photos to suit the specific needs of a campaign. I find agencies are often surprised when we look to them for additional resources.

On a macro-level for AFAR overall, I feel our team is committed to client success and to our readers. People who work here are passionate about its vision, and we want to create the strongest campaigns for our clients and the best experience for our readers. I think it’s a more custom, personalized experience than you’ll see with other publications today.