How a Colombian drug cartel changed the content marketing game


Few advertisers have a better understanding of the power of content marketing than Netflix. The streaming service has been acclaimed for its branded partnerships with elite publications in the U.S., which includes the New York Times‘ feature on women inmates for Orange Is The New Black, The Atlantic‘s article on first couples for House of Cards, and Wired‘s piece on the future of TV. But, when it teamed up with The Wall Street Journal, it set a new high-water mark for the entire content marketing industry.

When WSJ first pitched the Netflix and MEC Digital teams on a piece for its newest hit Narcos, the international daily newspaper knew it had to harness the historical elements of the series while highlighting the fascinating true story of Pablo Escobar. What they produced was a wide variety of storytelling techniques to explore the cocaine business.


To learn more about its work on “Cocainenomics,” Pressboard spoke with Fara Warner, David Lennon and Jordan Hyman from WSJ Custom Studios. Warner and Hyman will share their work in more detail at our upcoming conference, Marketing Live: The Story Begins, taking place at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on Oct. 20

What made WSJ the right content partner for Netflix?

The short answer is that at first, we weren’t. Netflix and MEC Digital were looking for a traditional thrill seeker audience of young males for Narcos. We had to prove we could tell a unique engaging story about the Medellin Cartel through the lens of WSJ Custom Studios and analyze their business like any Fortune 500 company you’d read about in the Journal.

“Cocainenomics” has a lot of moving parts from a lot of contributors. What was the most challenging part of pulling it all together?

We flew to San Francisco to pitch the MEC Digital and Netflix teams and once they saw a mock of our site experience and how we’d captivate both thrill seekers and the Journal audience, they were sold. The challenge then was that we were only eight weeks to launch day and the clock was ticking.

Did you encounter any obstacles or surprises during production?

We’d heard Escobar was still a cult figure in Medellin, [Colombia] but it was only [by] filming residents of Barrio Pablo Escobar, a town he built for the urban poor, that you realize there were many people that still recognized him as the only public figure that really cared for their families and built them a home.

 What was the best part about working on this program?

It was a unique experience for the team where the skills, abilities and experience of each person involved were tested to the max. We knew we had a great story structure of articles, videos, maps and graphics and it was incredibly exciting to see these elements take shape over time and become real.

Was there a takeaway from the campaign that you’ve been able to apply to other branded pieces or that has shaped the way WSJ Custom Studios approaches projects?

“Cocainenomics” set a high benchmark and helped create a lot of buzz around WSJ Custom Studios, drove new business and we picked up a lot of awards. But, the one thing that really stands out to this day is the way we’d approached an “unwinnable” pitch. We didn’t take no for an answer. We crafted an experience that made Netflix and MEC Digital reconsider how to drive interest in their new show. And we delivered on every single promise we made in the pitch.


The campaign wasn’t just a success for Netflix. “Cocainenomics” won the 2016 Webby Award for Best Branded Editorial Experience, establishing WSJ Custom Studios as a leader in the industry. Netflix was so pleased with the partnership that it returned to WSJ this year with a follow-up campaign called “Follow the Money.” The piece, designed to look like a vintage newspaper (albeit with embedded videos and interactive elements), explores the money flows of the world’s most powerful drug lords.

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