Inside The Atlantic’s in-house creative agency

Simon Owens
Jan 24 · 16 min read
Part of the Atlantic 57 team. Photo credit: Angela Wu/Atlantic 57

The Atlantic may be a 160-year-old institution, but it isn’t shy about experimenting with new things. It was one of the first traditional publications to go all-in on digital media in the late-aughts and managed to achieve profitability from the move pretty quickly. It experimented with brand new verticals like The Atlantic Wire and Quartz. Recently, it was acquired by Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective, which has been investing in forward-thinking media sites.

And since 2012, it’s been running an in-house creative agency called Atlantic 57. The idea is simple: let’s take the editorial insights we’ve gleaned from running a magazine for 160 years and use that to launch online publications for major brands and non-profits.

I recently interview Margaret Myers, a longtime journalist who works on one of these editorial projects for insurance company Allstate. I asked her about her past life as a traditional journalist and how she leverages that expertise in developing content for The Renewal Project, the online publication she manages for Allstate.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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Simon Owens: Hey Margaret, thanks for joining us.

Margaret Myers: Thanks for having me.

You work for something called Atlantic 57. What is it?

Atlantic 57 is the consulting and creative division of The Atlantic. We were founded in 2012. We exist because The Atlantic has built a legacy of telling stories that challenge people to think differently about their world. Even an issue that you might have known, you’re going to go to an Atlantic story, read it, and think differently about it.

Many people know of the magazine, but The Atlantic is also a website that attracts millions of views a month. It’s an events business, a podcasting studio, a video studio, a creative advertising shop, and then us. We’re the digital strategy consultancy.

What we do is work with clients, and draw from the strengths of The Atlantic, a 160-year-old property that has really transformed into a digital media pioneer. We use some of that knowledge to help organizations to attract, inspire, and galvanize their own digital audiences.

When I originally reached out to you I had assumed that Atlantic 57 was responsible for creating the native advertising that appears at The Atlantic. But that’s actually a completely separate shop, right? You guys do something completely different.

Absolutely. We partner with Re:think, which does create custom content for The Atlantic’s audiences. That’s a common misconception. We are a consulting division. We don’t just create campaigns, we work with clients to reshape the way they approach their own content. We can even help structure their teams and help them think about their audiences.

So you guys can be compared more to a creative marketing agency. The stuff you’re creating doesn’t necessarily live on The Atlantic. It could live on a separate website. It could live on the social channels for your clients.

Yes, and we are more. We have a team of researchers. We do audience research. We have businesses strategists. Many of my coworkers have worked for traditional consulting firms. We all work together. I’m on the editorial team. I’m a former journalist. We work together to create not just campaigns, but we help organizations solve some of their digital challenges.

But a big selling point for you guys is you can say that you can take the expertise from 160 years of creating a great editorial product and we can create those kinds of editorial products for you. Your background is in journalism. Talk a little bit about your background.

Yeah, my background and a lot of my coworkers on the editorial side — we have a group of writers and editors that all come from the journalism world. I spent the last 20 years of my career working in newsrooms. I started out as a photojournalist and then I moved into features reporting and editing. That is my expertise: finding stories and bringing them to life. I help brands do that now.

What made you cross over to the brand side?

You know I didn’t think of it as the ‘brand side.’ What I thought when I came here is that I had been working in newsrooms for so many years. It’s very exhilarating. It’s long hours. My last job I was at, PBS Newshour — I can tell you that at the end of the day we felt very satisfied that we had done something useful for our audiences. We’ve created a product that’s helped people translate some of the stuff going on in the world. Very satisfying, but very challenging work. And I really wanted to expand my own knowledge of how to work in a space where I wasn’t just creating content, but I was also understanding the business side.

And I think this job where I sit is kind of perfect. In my day to day, I do create content and I’m immersed in storytelling. But I sit near and collaborate with my business partners at Atlantic 57, and strategists who think differently than I do. When you bring all of us together, it creates something pretty magical, and I think that is why we attract the brands and corporations and nonprofits that we do attract.

You kind of touch on a debate within the native advertising and content marketing world: can you create content for a brand that has the same integrity and quality that you would see on a traditional editorial operation? Do you feel that that’s achievable?

I do think it’s achievable. I bring the exact same skills that I was using when I worked at PBS Newshour and ESPN before that and newspapers before that. So I’m approaching my storytelling work the exact same way. The only difference is I collaborate with my clients. They give me feedback, but they look to me for my editorial expertise. I happen to work with clients currently that aren’t in the media space. They want me to tell the stories the best way I know how. We do have media clients. We work with a lot of public media. We’ve worked with PBS in the past. That’s a lot of fun because we’re working with folks who do understand the editorial and media world.

How many people work at Atlantic 57?

We’re about 50. We’re growing. We are hiring. Please check us out at atlantic57.com. It’s a pretty exciting time. I’m always fielding questions from friends and people who are looking at our careers page, because there’s a lot of growth happening.

Tell me a little bit more about the talent you have. You said you have an audience development team. You have a consulting team. I’m guessing you have a design team. Do you have a video team?

I’ll talk about editorial first, because that’s what I do. I think our editorial team is probably the most robust in size. We are writers, content strategists, growth editors. These are folks who are using social media to help develop audiences, and they’re experts in understanding how to grow those audiences. We have a team of business strategists. A lot of them come from traditional consulting firms. We have a product team with UX experts, developers, engineers, designers. And researchers. These folks are helping identifying shared audience needs for our clients.

You currently work on a brand partnership with Allstate, which is an insurance company. What are you doing for them?

I run therenewalproject.com. This is a platform to share stories about innovative ideas, people who are solving problems in their communities. I’m looking for stories across the country of how folks are finding some of the new ideas and solutions for their communities’ specific challenges. It’s really fun. In one of my past lives I was a features editor. I bring the same idea to my job every day where I look for the best stories. They are not hard to find, because it’s a national audience, we tell stories about folks across the country. I follow local newspapers. Shoutout to local newspapers. I find some of our best stories from the papers, and they’re sharing stories of their residents and how they’re doing something really innovative and creative.

Why would a brand like Allstate find value in something like this? Can you walk me through it? It’s not a publication about insurance. It’s not trying to sell people on buying from Allstate. So what kind of value does Allstate derive from something like this?

I think people think of Allstate as this huge corporation. And it is, it’s a company. But it’s more than that. They think of themselves as a network of 10,000 small business owners across the country, and these are the insurance agents in your local community. As a result, these folks are on the ground, and they’re in tune with the needs of the individuals in their towns. The great thing is that I listen to them, and they sometimes give me some of our best stories. I know that community service is very important to these folks and to Allstate as a corporation. We’ve written a little bit about Allstate’s CEO Tom Wilson, and he’s talked about how corporations have an opportunity to step up and be problem solvers in their own community. I’m helping to share that message with our readers and our audience. And I’m doing that by telling the stories of people who are innovating in their home towns.

Is the idea that it engenders good will among the various communities Allstate is operating in? That someone will read this article, derive value from it, and see that Allstate created it, and that will create a positive association in their head?

Absolutely. That’s definitely part of it. When I first started this job, one of our ways of bringing these stories to life was by going out and asking the people in the communities to write about what they’re doing. And so I would reach out to our potential contributors and tell them about the website and how Allstate’s behind it, and I’ve always gotten a positive reaction: ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll go on this journey with you. We are happy to tell the story. And we’re happy that a corporation like Allstate wants to support it.’

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Tell me about the day to day process of managing this project. Are you an editor in chief? A managing editor? What are the analogies to a more traditional newsroom?

Yeah, we do think of ourselves as a mini newsroom. I guess I’d be the editor in chief or managing editor. I build out the editorial calendar. I know some of the events and holidays upcoming, and I plan the content around it. I work with a social engagement editor. And between the two of us — everyone on the team, they all know I’m always looking for stories, so everyone contributes stories. We use a Slack channel. Everyone on the team is sharing links of something they read in a local paper, or even in the New York Times and Washington Post.

So I’m gathering all these ideas. I’m writing pitches. Not everything gets to end up on The Renewal Project, but I write pitches for why this makes a great story, and then I share those pitches with our client. We talk them through and talk about why they would be great for us. And from there, we talk about how to tell the story. It could just be a photo gallery. It could be a very traditional story where I would interview folks and write an 800 to 1,000 word story. Or it could be that I would reach out to someone at the heart of the story and ask them to write their own personal essay. And we’ve done a lot of analytics research, and we’ve found that a lot of these first-person stories are really powerful, and they resonate. That’s definitely part of our strategy.

Are you regularly recruiting writers and freelance journalists? Or is it mainly in-house?

We have a few freelancers. When our schedules get really cramped up, we do attend events with Allstate. We do have freelancers. But for the most part, I am writing, or our social engagement editor is writing. We have folks on staff. It’s not often, everyone is really busy, but once in a while they find a story that they want to write about. Or they find a really interesting person, or maybe it’s someone they know, and they can conduct a Q&A, and they can publish that. I’m at the center of everything. I’m editing, I’m managing, and I’m making sure that the trains are running on time and that everything is together, and I’m managing the homepage to make sure it always looks wonderful and beautiful, and that the messages coming across are very clear.

What are some of the things you’re proud of that you’ve produced for them?

Some of my favorite stories happen to be some of our most trafficked pieces. What they do is they just show a little sliver of some of the creative problem solving that folks are doing. One of my favorites is from a fellow named Tim Rinne in Lincoln, Nebraska. He tore up his lawn because he didn’t want to rely as much on getting his food from other sources. So he tore up his lawn, planted a garden, and one by one, each of his neighbors decided to do the same. He’s at the center of it all, mobilizing everybody, and galvanizing his entire neighborhood. Now his entire neighborhood is a community garden. That was one of our most popular stories.

We have a lot of contributors who write about lifting up their own communities. We have a social entrepreneur who’s writing about creating a grocery store in his neighborhood in Detroit. And this is a neighborhood that hasn’t seen the same levels of revitalization as other parts of Detroit. And once his grocery store is up and running, it’ll be the only black-owned grocery store in a city that is majority African American. And so he writes about why that is so special and why that’s important to him. That story really resonated with people. It was shared widely on Facebook channels, and just listening to their comments, they didn’t necessarily live in Detroit, but this was still important to them.

You mentioned that these are some of your most well trafficked stories. What kind of metrics is your team compiling? Are you guys expected to produce regular reports? What kind of metrics are you judged by?

I look daily. I’m constantly looking at Google Analytics. We produce monthly, quarterly reports. From there we can see the story of what’s resonating with our audience. We do look at website traffic. We obviously look at social media metrics. We have Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And we’re looking at comments, likes, shares. And then when we do see something really bubbling to the top, I’ll read the comments and see why. And try to analyze and give Allstate insight into why some of these stories are resonating.

How much contact and input is coming from Allstate? You mentioned you have to pitch the stories ahead of time. How involved are they in the day to day site?

I speak regularly with Allstate. I have a few people I regularly talk to. Since we established the types of stories we’ve wanted to tell, there’s never been a pushback where I present a story and they’re like, ‘no, no no, that’s not going to work for us.’ Because we have a really good idea of what a Renewal Project story is — I wrote a whole document of this is what a Renewal story has got to have. It has to be about someone doing something in their community, but it has to go a step further and explain why is that creative, or why is that particularly unique, or why is it surprising. Sometimes the simplest story is the most surprising.

We do have that foundation we go from. And from there they just want to hear all the fun stories I find. I was on a call with them a couple weeks ago, and my partner at Allstate just said, ‘You have the funnest job. I want to do what you do.’ I get to talk to cool people who are doing these really neat things in their towns, and that’s super fun.

Tell me about the events component.

We have an events series called The Renewal Series. The series predates TheRenewalProject.com. Allstate has been an advertising partner to The Atlantic for over a decade now. I believe the partnership started back in 2007. Allstate underwrote a series of polls. These polls helped determine the health of the U.S. economy and the well-being of Americans going through the recession. From that work, journalists at The Atlantic wrote stories about what they found.

And so over the years, the partnership has expanded to include this event series and also an awards program called The Renewal Awards. And that’s run as a partnership between The Atlantic and Allstate. It’s really exciting, but there’s so much that goes into this partnership.

Currently we have two events a year, and those are managed by The Atlantic’s in-house events team called AtlanticLIVE. We share a floor over here at the Watergate.

To illustrate this event series, I can talk about one in Houston. The themes are always roughly around renewal and community. The discussions and the guests we have at the events, those are curated and selected by Atlantic journalists. Often times we’ll invite the mayor from the town we’re in. Last year we were both in Houston and New Orleans. And in New Orleans we invited the mayor to speak about the greatest challenges his city has seen since Hurricane Katrina. And we also have speakers and panels that are composed of some of the most innovative thinkers in that town, who can talk about what’s happening in their town and how that informs the national conversation. We had a panel in Houston with some folks who dealt with Hurricane Harvey recovery and what they learned from it. That was really fascinating.

How much of the editorial ethos of The Atlantic bleeds over into what you guys do? Are there real synergies between the two in terms of learnings, camaraderie, or do you guys just operate on your own separate planes?

A little from both. I feel like there are days when we’re all in our own bubble. Frankly, there are a lot of synergies. We invite the different departments to come. We have a weekly insights meeting, an hour long learning time where we program folks from all different parts of The Atlantic come to talk about their case studies and best practices and things they’ve learned. In an upcoming week we’ll have The Atlantic video team to talk to us about their strategy and their best practices and what they’ve learned about their audiences. We’ve definitely had folks talk about The Atlantic’s newsletters. We absolutely work together.

Like I said, that’s kind of what feeds some of the work that we do with our clients. And I think that’s what is attractive about us to our clients, is that we can tap the expertise of some of the leading media and editorial strategists working today.

That dovetails into my next question of what advantages you think Atlantic 57 has over a traditional creative agency. Let’s say there’s this Fortune 100 company, they put out a request for proposal for a new agency. How much do you think that that’s a selling point, that we built a prestige editorial brand through The Atlantic. Creative agency X just doesn’t have that level of expertise. Is that really the kind of differentiating factor that you guys can pitch yourself as?

I’ve never worked at an agency before, but what I have noticed is that we are this very multi disciplinary agency and creative space. The fact that we have such a robust editorial team staffed by former journalists. The fact that we can learn from Atlantic’s journalism. They have been honing and sharpening this brand for 160 years. I think this is what makes us very special, is that we are a team of such wide ranging skills and talents. I’ve never worked with business strategists or researchers before. It makes me a better journalist. It makes me a better writer and storyteller. You bring all of us together and we can create some magic.

There’s all this hand-wringing in journalism circles about the state of the industry and its supposed decline. I’m someone who makes his fulltime living as a writer. I write for traditional publications, but I also do content marketing similar to what you do. I have a mixture of clients. Do you think that’s the future of the journalist, someone who needs to have that kind of flexibility to expand what they consider journalism, what they consider quality content? Should they diversify how they approach their careers?

Are you talking about a journalist or a media organization?

Some journalists who are more old school are like ‘I have to work for a newspaper or magazine, and that is the career or else I’m just completely selling out by going into PR.’ Whereas what you and I do in terms of content marketing — I’m still creating cool content, sometimes it’s behind the scenes, sometimes it’s with my byline on it. I wonder what your thoughts are on that in terms of the future of the profession and where we’re heading in terms of content. Do you think there needs to be that kind of flexibility.

I think there has to be some. I still firmly believe in the power and the necessity of local journalism. Just looking at some of the most important stories from the last few years, they’re coming from local journalists understanding their communities and uncovering some of the injustices in their own communities and informing the rest of us as to why these are important. I’ll always stand by that. We need journalism. We need newspapers. I’m still such a strong supporter. I subscribe to like five newspapers.

But I will say that, yes, for the profession, absolutely. There is a need for storytelling. There is a need for folks that have our skills. I happen to be the president this year of the Society for Features Journalism. And I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the organization who is no longer a strictly professional journalist. I’m helping to plan our conference this year, and we’re talking about themes and what’s important. Storytelling is at the heart of what I do, and how we tell stories and how we share those stories and how we get these stories to the audiences that need and want to see them, that’s still at the core of what I do.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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Tech and media journalist. Email me: simonowens@gmail.com

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The podcast about how publishers create, distribute, and monetize digital content.