T Brand Studio

Background

T Brand Studio is an advertising firm owned by The New York Times and operating within the New York Times’ New York offices.1About,” New York Times Advertising. Archived April 3, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.is/ax1GN T Brand Studio specializes in native advertising within the New York Times, in which an advertisement mimics the newspaper’s news articles and graphics.2Dr. Michelle A. Amazeen. “Content Confusion: Navigating the Media in an Era of Misinformation [Event],” Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School, November 2, 2022. Archived November 29, 2022. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/P10PU Much of its work appears across New York Times platforms as “Paid Posts” and on social media. 

On T Brand Studio’s advertisements, a disclaimer pops up when a New York Times reader scrolls over a small question mark next to the “Paid Post” banner at the top of the advertisement. “This content was paid for by Shell and created by T Brand Studio, the brand marketing arm of The New York Times. The news and editorial staffs of The New York Times had no role in this post’s creation,” reads the disclaimer over a 2021 advertisement from Shell.3Moving Forward: A Path to Net Zero Emissions by 2070 [Paid Post],” The New York Times. Archived May 23, 2020. 

A 2021 study published in the Internal Journal of Communication which analyzed branded content, another term for native advertising, in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post found that the newspaper’s coverage of companies paying for native advertising was “mildly suppressed.”4Christopher Joseph Vargo and Michelle A. Amazeen. “Agenda-Cutting Versus Agenda-Building: Does Sponsored Content Influence Corporate News Coverage in U.S. Media?International Journal of Communication, 2021. Archived February 4, 2022. Archive URL: https://archive.is/mQUrJ  Other studies have found that readers have a hard time discerning between “native advertisements” and actual news articles.5Howe, Patrick & Teufel, Brady. “Native advertising and digital natives: The effects of age and advertisement format on news website credibility judgments,” ISOJ (2014). Archived December 14, 2020. Archived copy available at DeSmog.

In 2021, T Brand Studio’s creative team had more than 70 staff members.6T Brand Studio’s Sydney Levin-Antonelli on ‘Listening to Everyone’,” Ad Age, October 4, 2021. Archived April 19, 2022. Archived copy available at DeSmog.

“Unexpected Energy” campaign for ExxonMobil

In 2022, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee obtained a Telly Awards submission for ExxonMobil’s “Unexpected Energy” campaign, which emphasized ExxonMobil’s renewable energy investments across all platforms of the New York Times.7 “The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change,” House Natural Resources Committee Staff Hearing Report, September 14, 2022. Archived March 15, 2023. Archived copy available at DeSmog. T Brand Studio and Universal McCann, another public relations firm, created this campaign in 20188Andrew Revkin. “The New York Times Company Should Stop Creating Fossil Fuel Ads,” State of the Planet blog, Columbia Climate School, September 1, 2021. Archived January 27, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/Q30Sz and applied for a Telly Award for their work, which they later won.9Gold Winner: Craft — Branded Content,” The Telly Awards, 2019. Archived May 20, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/Ug0xR 

The awards submission from Universal McCann and T Brand Studio for the Unexpected Energy campaign began with “The general population has developed preconceived notions about ExxonMobil without truly understanding the breadth and depth of the company’s commitments to climate solutions.”

In order to fix the public’s misunderstanding of Exxon’s climate commitments, Universal McCann turned to T Brand Studio “to reach our target audience where content would be in a ‘Timesian’ voice.” This involved an ExxonMobil takeover of the science section of the New York Times print edition, ads in the New York Times’ popular “The Daily” podcast, one-minute videos, and longform, journalistic-style advertisements.10T Brand Studio, Universal McCann and ExxonMobil. “The Future of Energy? It May Come From Where You Least Expect [Paid Post],”  The New York Times. Archived January 15, 2019. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/Fy0Jr

While the ExxonMobil campaign includes a disclaimer that the editorial and news staff did not contribute to the ads, the award submission noted that the campaign was able to benefit from the New York Times’ credibility: “Working with the NYT to create compelling and engaging content that mirrored the award-winning journalism of the world-renowned publication ensured authenticity, credibility and relevance, and was ultimately more impactful to the audience.”

T Brand Studio relied heavily on the idea that ExxonMobil was investing in renewable energy. Despite ExxonMobil’s claims it was increasing investment in this area, the company did not disclose any money spent on clean energy between 2009 to 2020.11Mei Li, Gregory Trencher, and Jusen Asuka. “The clean energy claims of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell: A mismatch between discourse, actions and investments,” PLoS ONE 17(2): e0263596, 2022. Archived February 26, 2022. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/qvQrE The awards submission noted that T Brand Studio worked specifically on the narrative that ExxonMobil was researching how to make clean energy from algae: 

“T Brand’s first-ever stop-motion production featured a futuristic world with 3D-printed objects and laser-cut acrylic backgrounds showcasing how algae and farm waste could one day fuel a sustainable energy future. The high-tech creative approach enacted across the multiplatform program mirrored the innovation of ExxonMobil’s advanced biofuels agenda and ensured that content would stand out in a crowded communications space.” 

In February 2023, Bloomberg reported that ExxonMobil had abandoned its algae research.12Ben Elgin and Kevin Crowley. “Exxon Retreats From Major Climate Effort to Make Biofuels From Algae,” Bloomberg, February 10, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.is/1CjtV

The campaign successfully improved ExxonMobil’s corporate image; after the advertising deluge, audience brand favorability increased 10 percent.13The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change,”House Natural Resources Committee Staff Hearing Report, September 14, 2022. Archived March 15, 2023. Archived copy available at DeSmog.

Stance on Climate Change

“At The Times, we recognize the effects of climate change, and we are taking action to reduce our own impact,” writes the New York Times Company on its website.14Environmental, Social and Governance,” The New York Times Company. Archived March 1, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.li/pjwcW The New York Times Company committed to net-zero Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2030.15Environmental Impact,” The New York Times Company. Archived March 31, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.is/LtoM8

The New York Times has not committed to stopping fossil fuel advertising.16“‘Ads Not Fit to Print’ Campaign Urges New York Times to Ditch Fossil Dollars,” The Energy Mix, September 9, 2021. Archived December 5, 2021. Archived copy available on DeSmog. Clean Creatives, an initiative of Fossil Free Media, put T Brand Studio on its 2022 F-List for its work for ExxonMobil.17 “The Complete List of F-List Award Winners–and What’s Next,” Clean Creatives, March 2, 2022. Archived March 5, 2022. Archive URL: https://archive.is/l3Skw

Select Clients

Key People

Raquel Bubar 

Bubar is the managing director at T Brand Studio International. According to her LinkedIn profile, she previously worked on the Shell account at Edelman.18“Raquel Bubar,” LinkedIn. Archvied May 21, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/hh5W4 

Sydney Levin-Antonelli

Levin-Antonelli is the executive video producer and creative director at T Brand Studio.19Sydney Levin-Antonelli,” New York Times Company. Archived July 8, 2022. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/aeGKc 

Sebastian Tomich

Tomich has worked for the New York Times Company since 201320Sebastian Tomich,” The New York Times Company. Archived May 20, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.li/ateJR, including helping build out T Brand Studio.21The Times’ T Brand Studio Aims to Stand Out Amid Crowded Branded Content Battleground,” POLITICO, January 31, 2017. Archived July 31, 2017. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/mDUxZ As of May 2023 worked as chief commercial officer for the Times’ Athletic.22Sebastian Tomich,” The New York Times Company. Archived May 20, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.li/ateJR

Vida Cornelious

As of May 2023, Cornelious is the vice president of Creative for NYT Advertising & T Brand Studio.23“Vida M. Cornelious,” LinkedIn. Archived July 14, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/Id41Q 

Nathan Reese

Reese has been with T Brand Studio since March 2015 in various roles. Since March 2023, he has been the director of the creative team at T Brand Studio, according to his LinkedIn.24Nathan Reese,” LinkedIn, Accessed May 21, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.is/g7wS

Adam Aston

Aston helped launch T Brand Studio.25Lucia Moses. “Inside T Brand Studio, The New York Times’ native ad unit,” DigiDay, December 2, 2014. Archived March 10, 2017. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/8FaUn According to his LinkedIn, he helped grow T Brand Studio to $100 million in revenue over three years.26Adam Aston,” LinkedIn, Archived May 21, 2023. Archived copy available on DeSmog He left T Brand Studio in 2020 and joined the Rocky Mountain Institute in 2022.27Staff: Adam Aston,” Rocky Mountain Institute. Archived February 1, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/2soey Aston is credited on a 2014 T Brand Studio advertisement for Chevron, “How Our Energy Needs Are Changing.”28Adam Aston, Riley Davis, Michael Ryterband and Ben Erwin. “How Our Energy Needs Are Changing [Paid Post],” The New York Times. Archived April 11, 2021. Archived copy available on DeSmog.

In the early days of T Brand Studio, Aston addressed the controversy around “native advertising” or “branded content” confusing the New York Times’ readers, who may believe T Brand Studio’s work is actually New York Times news articles. “Media watchers are rightly concerned that this content could potentially confuse readers. That’s why The New York Times has labored to demark T Brand Studio’s work from newsroom content,” Aston told POLITICO in 2014.29 “The 60-second interview: Adam Aston, editorial director for the New York Times’ T Brand Studio,” POLITICO, June 27, 2014. Archived May 22, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.is/VsYs1 

Actions

2022

In September, the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee published a report, “The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change,” which described the role of T Brand Studio in advancing ExxonMobil’s greenwashing campaign.30The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change,” House Natural Resources Committee Staff Hearing Report, September 14, 2022. Archived March 15, 2023. Archived copy available at DeSmog. The Natural Resources Committee obtained an awards submission sent by T Brand Studio and the public relations firm Universal McCann to The Telly Awards, an advertising awards organization, describing their work on the ExxonMobil campaign. 

2021

In September 2021, the campaign Ads Not Fit to Print launched to pressure The New York Times to drop its fossil fuel advertising.31“‘Ads Not Fit to Print’ Campaign Urges New York Times to Ditch Fossil Dollars,” The Energy Mix, September 9, 2021. Archived December 5, 2021. Archived copy available on DeSmog. The New York Times’ communications director, Nicole Taylor, responded to the campaign with an email comment: “Those advertising dollars are essential to our ability to provide journalists with the resources to do important, time-consuming work, including the climate reporting that is read by millions of users per week.”

On April 22, 2021, New York City filed a lawsuit accusing Exxon, BP, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute of systematically misleading consumers in New York City about the role fossil fuels play in climate change. Several ads created by T Brand Studio are included in the legal complaint as examples of deceptive greenwashing by the defendants.32 “The City of New York v. Exxon Mobil Corp., ExxonMobil Oil Corporation, Royal Dutch Shell plc, Shell Oil Company, BP p.l.c., BP America Inc., and American Petroleum Institute [Summons],” Supreme Court Of The State Of New York County Of New York, April 22, 2021. Archived January 11, 2022. Archived copy available at DeSmog. Ads included in the complaint were “The Future of Energy? It May Come From Where You Least Expect” and “From Farm Waste to Fuel,” both of which were part of T Brand Studio’s 2018 Unexpected Energy campaign. “Moving Forward: A Path to Net- Zero Emissions by 2070,” an ad created by T Brand Studio for Shell, was also included in the complaint. 

In March 2021, a New York Times article revealed that the New York Times Company had prohibited fossil fuel clients from sponsoring its climate summit, its climate newsletter, and the popular podcast “The Daily.”33Tiffany Hsu. “Ad Agencies Step Away From Oil and Gas in Echo of Cigarette Exodus,” The New York Times, March 25, 2021. Archived December 25, 2021. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/uyKiW

2019

T Brand Studio won a Gold Telly Award for its work for ExxonMobil, “The Future of Energy? It May Come From Where You Least Expect.”34Gold Winner: Craft — Branded Content,” The Telly Awards, 2019. Archived May 20, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/Ug0xR Universal McCann worked with T Brand Studio on this campaign, which ran for 12 weeks from September to December 2018. The inner workings of this $5 million campaign were made public when the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee requested the award submission from the Telly Awards organization.35The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change,” House Natural Resources Committee Staff Hearing Report, September 14, 2022. Archived March 15, 2023. Archived copy available at DeSmog.

In the fall of 2019, T Brand Studio launched “Chevron Energy Progress,” a campaign for Chevron that partnered with Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa.36Chevron and T Brand Studio.”Chevron Energy Challenge,” Chevron Facebook Account, November 14, 2019. Archived copy available at DeSmog. In an October 2019 Brand Lab Series podcast, Chevron Corporate Brand Advertising executive Andrea Donatucci explained why Chevron chose T Brand Studio after approaching other advertising firms.37“​​Chevron Corporate Brand Advertising Executive On Ar, Voice And Growth-Mindset [Podcast],” A E Marketing Group, October 22, 2019. Archived September 30, 2022. Chevron chose T Brand Studio in part because T Brand Studio proposed a partnership with Alexa, the Amazon virtual assistant technology. T Brand Studio’s “Chevron Energy Challenge” ads prompted New York Times readers to ask Alexa to play the Chevron Energy Challenge in order to answer a quiz about natural gas production.38Chevron and T Brand Studio.”Chevron Energy Challenge,” Chevron Facebook Account, November 14, 2019. Archived copy available at DeSmog. 

2018

In September, T Brand Studio launched the “Unexpected Energy” campaign for ExxonMobil, which focused on the oil corporation’s investments in renewable energy.39Andrew Revkin. “The New York Times Company Should Stop Creating Fossil Fuel Ads,” State of the Planet blog, Columbia Climate School, September 1, 2021. Archived January 27, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/Q30Sz A study published in 2022 found that ExxonMobil did not disclose any money spent on clean energy development from 2009 to 2020.40Mei Li, Gregory Trencher, Jusen Asuka. “The clean energy claims of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell: A mismatch between discourse, actions and investments,” PLoS ONE 17(2): e0263596, 2022. Archived February 26, 2022. Archive URL: https://archive.is/qvQrE. 

The campaign successfully improved ExxonMobil’s corporate image; after the advertising deluge, audience brand favorability increased 10 percent.41The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change,”House Natural Resources Committee Staff Hearing Report, September 14, 2022. Archived March 15, 2023. Archived copy available at DeSmog.

In September, T Brand Studio launched a campaign highlighting General Electric’s renewable energy business.42NYT Mag Takes Its Audience on a Sonic Journey for Voyages Issue,” The New York Times Company, September 20, 2018. Archived June 19, 2019. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/tUc5a As part of this campaign, General Electric was the sole sponsor of the New York Times’ “Voyages” issue, which featured almost no text over vivid images, along with an audio guide.

2017

In September, T Brand Studio created an advertisement for University of California, Davis, called “How Protecting Water Helps Industry and Nature.”43 UC Davis and T Brand Studio. “Here’s what happens when a cattle rancher, an engineer and an environmentalist put their heads together [Tweet],” T Brand Studio Twitter account, September 5, 2017. Archived May 23, 2023. Archive URL: https://archive.is/gwcKJ The ad promotes a cattle ranch’s sustainability efforts and partnership with UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences. At the bottom of the paid post is a suggestion for readers to click on a New York Times news article featuring an interview with the director of UC’ Davis’s Center for Watershed Sciences.44T Brand Studio and UC Davis. “How Protecting Water Helps Industry and Nature [Paid Post],” The New York Times. Archived August 12, 2020. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/3PwqJ 

2016 

In November, T Brand Studio’s London office won a CSS Award for its campaign for Statoil (now Equinor), “A Different Look at Energy.”45“A Different Look At Energy,” CSSWinner, 2016. Archived November 3, 2016. Archive URL: https://archive.ph/Bx4cZ The digital campaign was also nominated for an Awww Award. The paid post opened with “Across the U.S. and Europe, groundbreaking oil and gas initiatives rooted in collaboration and sustainability uncover new ways to drive innovation and efficiency while reducing environmental impact.” In a video advertisement created by T Brand Studio, a female scientist asks “how do we keep the planet healthy enough to sustain us?” and her research for Statoil is compared to a ballet.46Lisa Lynch. “Big Oil and Soft Power: from paid op-eds to native ads,” Native Advertising: Advertorial Disruption in the 21st-Century News Feed, 2018. Archived .pdf of chapter available at DeSmog.

A T Brand Studio ad for Chevron described natural gas as a “cleaner-burning fossil fuel.”47Lisa Lynch. “Big Oil and Soft Power: from paid op-eds to native ads,” Native Advertising: Advertorial Disruption in the 21st-Century News Feed, 2018. Archived .pdf of chapter available at DeSmog

2015

T Brand Studio launched a campaign for Shell called “Powering Human Progress,” which promoted the oil corporation’s investment in clean energy technologies.48Lisa Lynch. “Big Oil and Soft Power: from paid op-eds to native ads,” Native Advertising: Advertorial Disruption in the 21st-Century News Feed, 2018. Archived .pdf of chapter available at DeSmog

The New York Times launched virtual reality storytelling as part of its November 7-8 Weekend print edition, which included cardboard virtual reality glasses.49The New York Times Launches NYT VR; Delivers Over One Million Google Cardboard Viewers,” Business Wire, October 20, 2015. Archived May 16, 2022. Archive URL: https://archive.is/e8yhD. T Brand Studio created a campaign for General Electric called “How Nature Is Shaping Our Industrial Future” that also used virtual reality. This campaign ran alongside the VR news articles and discussed General Electric’s understanding of nature to build better technology, with a focus on wind energy.50T Brand Studio and GE. “How Nature is Inspiring Our Industrial Future [Paid Post],” The New York Times, November 7, 2015. Archived October 19, 2022. Archive URL: https://archive.is/2MGLK

2014 

T Brand Studio created the “Energized Cities” campaign for Shell, which included videos and interactive graphics on the New York Times website and ads in the New York Times print edition.51Tessa Wegert. “The NYT Launches Its First Paid Post in Print—With Augmented Reality,” Contently, November 20, 2014. Archived November 12, 2020. Archive URL: https://archive.is/kwJP2 This campaign was the first time T Brand Studio had created advertisements for a client that went in the print edition of The New York Times. In one ad, Shell executive Jeremy Bentham described the cooperation between corporations and governments to create sustainable cities.52 Lisa Lynch. “Big Oil and Soft Power: from paid op-eds to native ads,” Native Advertising: Advertorial Disruption in the 21st-Century News Feed, 2018. Archived .pdf of chapter available at DeSmog. 

T Brand Studio was founded as New York Times’ branded content unit, with the goal of increasing revenue for the New York Times Company through digital advertisements.53Jordan Teicher. “How T Brand Studio created a culture of reinvention,” IBM, April 20, 2018. Archived September 21, 2021. Archive URL: https://archive.is/YDYsv When T Brand Studio was introduced, revenue from print advertising was declining.

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