Last year, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver of Daily Show fame suggested that native advertising was “repurposed bovine waste.” But despite the fact that millions watched his 11 plus minute rant, spending on native ads continues to skyrocket. 

Was Oliver wrong? Scott Donaton, chief content officer at DigitasLBi North America, believes so.

As he wrote last week in an AdAge piece

It’s increasingly clear that audiences don’t care as much about the source of the material they consume as they do about its value. They care whether that piece of information or entertainment is worthy of their time.

Pointing to Intel’s Beauty Inside series, which won an Emmy and the Grand Prix at Cannes, Donaton argues that brands do have important stories to tell that are worthy of consumers’ time, but they have to be careful about who is crafting those stories.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as an agency executive, Donation suggests that agencies, not publishers, are best positioned to help brands create compelling content. “Publishers deal with brands on a more transactional basis, with sales teams incentivized to sell pre-existing ideas. There’s a reason agencies all get the same packaged opportunities with brand logos swapped out,” he explains. “Publishers are simply not built to engage with brands at a high-touch level on a continuous basis.”

That, he says, “is the primary purpose of agencies.”

Donaton’s perspective is an interesting one, and worthy of consideration. Many publishers are retooling in an effort to capitalize on soaring native advertising spend.

But just how many of them are capable of delivering more than just packaged opportunities that are sold to everybody — “repurposed bovine waste”?

Most publishers, of course, would argue that they’re not selling repurposed anything, and some might even argue that they function like agencies themselves.

Mashable, for instance, has its own BrandLab division dedicated to “[helping] our clients become content creators and amplify their social media assets.”

Last year, Lauren Drell, then Mashable’s Branded Content Editor, revealed:

Mashable’s branded content exceeds benchmarks for shares and page views, indicating readers find the content just as or more compelling than any other content on the site. Time spent on branded content is 50% higher than that of the average Mashable article, and CTR on display ads around branded content is 2x that of the average article.

Numbers don’t lie and ultimately numbers are everything. But when it comes to native advertising, brands need to think about the numbers associated with campaigns, not just pieces of content in a particular channel.

Donation makes his most compelling argument from this angle:

If a brand works with a publisher to develop a custom content idea but doesn’t renew it, that same concept can be sold to a competitor. And if a media buy goes dark, the audience disappears. In the agency model, audiences are developed around a brand, not a channel.

He goes on:

Agencies develop custom content ideas and then work across production and distribution partners to find the best ways to tell and share those stories – stories that are unique to and owned by the brands.

Native advertising is here to stay, and brands shouldn’t be scared of content. But if they do want to avoid the bovine waste label, they need to make sure there’s a real strategy behind their native advertising campaigns no matter who is developing and executing them.