In-house branded content agency The Kit proves a creative revenue stream for Torstar

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


At The Kit Collab, team members are strictly focused on creating the most innovative, collaborative, and authentic opportunities for their partners and clients. As the in-house integrated marketing and sales agency of The Kit (a division of Toronto Star), the agency is a modern team for modern media needs.

On Wednesday, two Kit executives presented a Webinar for INMA members, sharing their experience shifting from an ad-based revenue model to a media company focused on sponsored content opportunities.

Started in 2010 as a solely digital product, The Kit was quickly approached by the Toronto Star to produce a special fashion and beauty section in its newspaper. By 2011, Torstar had acquired The Kit, which moved from being digital-only to also creating print products.

“Today we are digital, first and foremost, with a very active Web site, a solid newsletter database, and a very solid social following,” said Giorgina Bigioni, publisher of The Kit. The newspaper section publishes monthly, on average, and distributed in newspapers throughout Canada, not just the Toronto Star.

Not only do they publish in English, but they also have a Chinese version that is distributed through a sister company in Toronto and Vancouver. This edition attracts luxury advertisers.

The Kit includes portfolios across digital, social, print, and other.
The Kit includes portfolios across digital, social, print, and other.

“We also have another side to us as well,” Bigioni said. “We host conferences, for instance. We also have an influencer network, things like that. The Kit is super nimble. We try new things all the time. We get into them quickly — and we get out quickly if they’re not working — and rarely do we make a large investment.”

The Kit’s role in Torstar

The Kit acts as a fashion and beauty content hub for all of Torstar publications, providing synergistic national content in those verticals that create a premium lifestyle environment for readers.

For advertising clients, The Kit provides fashion and beauty sponsored content that tells their brand stories.

“First and foremost, we’re storytellers,” Bigioni said. “We pride ourselves on telling stories that matter to women, and we help our clients tell stories that connect them to women. Together, we help women shape their own stories.”

 That clear value proposition is The Kit’s strength and what it takes to market when they speak to clients. Its first foray into sponsored content was in 2012, helping clients tell Torstar readers more about its products in an editorial way.

The Kit began working in sponsored content in 2012 and has evolved since then.
The Kit began working in sponsored content in 2012 and has evolved since then.

“Their brand ads just weren’t sufficiently doing that,” Bigioni said. “So they asked us to help them put together lovely, full-page brand stories that would run in our papers and across our sites.”

The Kit’s evolution

Since that time, The Kit has continued to evolve, helping brands tell deeper stories to the readers.

“This is super important to audiences today,” Bigioni said. “They want more information, they want context as it pertains to potentially making a purchase.”

In 2020, 80% of The Kit’s ad revenue was attributed to sponsored content, with only 20% being brand ads.

“I also want to point out that two years ago that was 50-50, and four years ago it was completely the reverse,” she added.

On the digital side, this is even starker, with 97% of revenue coming from sponsored content and only 3% from ads.

Unique selling proposition

“So, what are we really selling?” Bigioni asked. “I think it really comes down to years of building. Definitely our clients are buying into the credibility and the authority that we provide — but also, the trust and the power that we have in order to tell their story to hundreds of thousands of readers. They want to be a part of our environment.”

Bigioni and Begy both feel very strongly this environment is key. The editorial content, design, positioning, storytelling, and packaging are the most important aspects.

“Start there," Bigioni said. “Take a look at what’s unique about you and about what you offer and what you bring to your clients with respect to the environment, to helping them tell their stories and reach your audience.”

Publishers should understand the authority they've built and what that means for clients.
Publishers should understand the authority they've built and what that means for clients.

The key takeaway is for publishers to really understand what they’ve built and the authority they have, while also considering how their clients want to be a part of that.

How The Kit sells content today

Evie Begy, Collab director, said the way the team sells today is quite different in its approach from the early years. The approach to sales comes down to two core buckets:

  • Proactive: Content that is creative, idea-driven, inspirational, flexible, and synergistic.
  • Reactive: Content that is objective-driven, platform-provided, pre-set plan and budget, and RFP-driven.

“Occasionally, clients do still come to us with clear objectives about the stories they want to tell,” Begy said. “Very pre-set, pre-defined ideas. They come to us with an idea, and it’s up to us to develop a media plan around that and determine how best to tell that story.”

Reactive client campaigns

As an example, she shared a recent RFP example with Tena, a women’s health brand that came to The Kit with a very clear objective and ask. They wanted to destigmatise incontinence and inspire confidence.

The Kit’s response was to create an entire storytelling theme around “incontinence — the last taboo.”

“On The Kit in particular, one thing that’s become very important to us from an editorial perspective are content buckets,” Begy said. “Understanding what stories we like to tell, and how we’re going to tell them within. One of those buckets is ‘helps me feel seen,’ and that bucket tends to be one of the highest performers on our site.”

For Tena, the team came up with a plan to deliver the content through the lens of five real women with incontinence, to normalise the conversation around this very normal women’s health concern. The strategy consisted of:

  • Adjectives and mood board: positive, relatable, confident, ownership, powerful.
  • Talent: source real women who would be open to sharing their stories, and use a writer who would thoughtfully communicate those stories with respect.
  • Assets: no visual assets were available, they had to be created.
  • Requirements: content needed to go live during National Bladder Awareness Month, which was November.

The key objectives were to align the message to The Kit’s content buckets, provide inspiration and relatability for readers, and create turnkey content that would be managed from start to finish by their own team.

“We leveraged the full power of our portfolio for maximum reach and efficiency,” Begy reported. “What this meant was in print in particular, we ran it as a really high-impact execution, we ran it as a DPS. From there we delineated it across the Web site.”

Taking each of the stories of the five women, they spread the stories across the course of a week. They also did a Kit newsletter takeover for the client, exclusively containing all of the articles together, and promoted each of the articles on social media.

Because there were no existing creative assets, the team used original illustrations.

The Kit's work for Tena project on incontinence.
The Kit's work for Tena project on incontinence.

“We had a really beautiful project with original assets,” Begy said. “In addition to this, we also had fantastic reader results and feedback. The digital articles performed five times better than we had even benchmarked.”

The team began getting e-mails from other clients within the women’s health space asking to have something similar done. Begy said the Tena campaign illustrated how a challenging subject matter can still be converted into meaningful content and beautiful design.

Proactive strategy

More frequently, however, The Kit comes up with ideas and pitches those to the client, rather than the reactive approach in the Tena example. Begy said these campaigns have very high sell-through because if the partner chooses the idea, they are automatically choosing The Kit as the agency that came up with the campaign.

“They’re convinced of the great work you can do and you have that relationship. This is one thing you can offer your partners that no one else can.”

One strategy that the team has found very helpful is having a pre-established, white label content business. They have three of these that are common go-tos for both Torstar and its clients, enabling them to see how the piece will visually look and come together. These are Ask The Expert, Travel Diaries, and The Lookbook.

The Kit also reviews its editorial line-up and build on the themes for custom ideas.

Begy broke down the proactive process into a series of steps the team takes:

  1. Needs assessment. Understanding the environment, content considerations, and key selling period.
  2. Team ideation and collaboration. They do Friday brainstorms to come up with three ideas for the week.
  3. Building a viable pipeline of clients. This means making a client list, and key considerations are relevant categories and verticals, relationships, existing clients, and who is active in the landscape.
  4. Format. Developing the pitch strategy and presenting it as a mock-up. They do not send pricing at this stage, but rather develop the media plan around the client’s budget.
  5. Make it happen!

“The key takeaway is don’t be afraid to put ideas in front of clients,” Begy said.

The Kit’s process

Bigioni discussed the team’s process once they’ve pitched the idea and sold the project. The execution journey looks like this:

  • Project management: workback, content brief, communication, kick-off call.
  • Communications: relationship, kick-off call.
  • Editor: content theme, copy direction.
  • Approval: drafts, live content.
  • Labelling: trust, transparency.
The project process for The Kit is broken down into several stages.
The project process for The Kit is broken down into several stages.

“We see absolutely every opportunity as a content opportunity,” Bigioni said. These can include store openings, press trips, events, launches, and occasions.

The Collab team operates in a structure that ensures it can fulfil client projects. The team ideates and packages, and are selected as the most creatively-driven salespeople. They are plugged into what is happening in their respective verticals and have cross-functional relationships with editorial, sales, and clients.

The Collab does the following:

  • Packages custom content offerings into RFP opportunities for the various sales teams.
  • Creates and packages new proactive content opportunities for reps to pitch.
  • Directly pitches amongst its direct client base in both proactive and reactive opportunities.
An example of The Kit's work for a Nordstrom campaign.
An example of The Kit's work for a Nordstrom campaign.

“We don’t want sponsored content to go the way of digital ads 15 years ago, where we were giving them away and now we’re still trying to recover,” Bigioni said. “We always are transparent about the cost of the creative. We never hide it or build it into a media rate. We show it, and we never give it away as value-added. It’s a real benefit, and our clients are accustomed to paying for creative — and handsomely.”

The key takeaway here, she said, is to structure your team for qualitative and quantitative success. As well, leverage all your platforms for maximum reach and client efficiency.

Hero image courtesy of Pexels from Pixabay.

About Shelley Seale

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