Can Quality Publishers Finally Sell Quality?

After 20 years advertisers and publishers are finally waking up to the fact that the quality of the ad environment matters.


The storyline in advertising in the last few weeks is how advertisers are running away from toxic adjacencies on YouTube, and how Facebook is getting hit for the reliability of its content and measurement, and how the long tail of programmatic advertising sometimes puts reputable marketers in quite nasty places. The natural subtext of that storyline is that digital advertisers are finally embracing quality environments, branding metrics, accountability, and engagement over clicks. Predictably, this has spurred the usual talk among legacy media brands about how quality will win out.

It’s true about Facebook and YouTube, but the facts don’t support the other part of this—that advertisers will gravitate to quality—at least not yet. More than half of all digital advertising goes to Google and Facebook, and more than 90 percent of ad growth goes to the duopoly, and that trend doesn’t seem to be abating. So the question at this point is: Are premium publishers effectively arguing the case for premium? Can they get beyond bromides about “quality will win out” and actually craft ad products, positioning, research and metrics that finally, effectively, sell advertisers on the value of “quality?” Will advertisers choose, say, 100 carefully selected sites, and not vast impressions on tens of thousands of sites? Well, maybe…this time.

“Premium publishers have done a poor job of selling value,” says Ryan Pauley, VP of revenue operations at Vox Media. “No one asks what quality means.”

Pauley is GM of Vox’s ad platform, Concert, which pools inventory from the company’s eight properties along with NBC/U, and most recently Condé Nast. Pooling branded media content to offer safety at scale is one of the ways marquee media is addressing the duopoly challenge. But these cross-publisher inventory consortiums have been tried before—namely with multiple failed attempts by the newspaper industry.

Still, both Pauley and Jason Kint, CEO at Digital Content Next, argue the environment may be different now. Indeed, a report last month in The New York Times told how JP Morgan Chase was running ads on 400,000 sites per month, including fake news and unsafe YouTube videos. Then Chase cut way back, and found that its costs and and views didn’t change. The lesson for publishers: There’s a golden opportunity right now to get smarter about creating ad products that address media buyers’ anxieties. “Right now for Vox the conversation with advertisers starts with the premium content,” Pauley says. “We see 4x to 5x the performance from an engagement standpoint—including video completion rates and time spent with content. “That’s the argument.”

It’s not just about demonstrating the superior ad performance and safety in high quality contexts with hard metrics. It’s also about focusing those metrics and accountability on the playing field where media brands actually have an advantage. “We won’t win the conversion game,” Pauley says. Concert’s positioning is to hard sell engagement—often with selling guarantees against user behaviors like video completion rates and time-spent metrics. Pauley say he thinks advertisers are finally ready to get beyond “scale of impressions and conversions and clicks. Pure scale isn’t going to get it done anymore. That is how we got to where we are now.”

He’s likely right that in order to gain some market share, media brands have to change the conversation more forcefully and with metrics and guarantees against branding values.

“Engagement” is also the keyword for Jon Werther, president of Meredith’s National Media Group. He tells min that his company’s traditional emphasis on the superior impact of premium content is backed up by product—“including native technologies that put the right content in front of our consumers; shopper marketing technologies that put the right product in front of our consumers; and influencer-marketing platforms that put the right people in front of our consumers.” As important, however, is back-end accountability. Meredith not only uses third parties for measurement and performance validation but offers a guarantee to major advertisers for sales lifts. Werther points out that whatever the value of premium O&O environments, Meredith sees an ongoing role for partnerships across platforms like Google and Facebook.

Of course, it is still an open question whether media buyers are serious about the qualities of quality this time.

Digital Content Next’s Kint argues that the industry has finally come to a point where advertisers themselves need digital to be more than a microtargeted DR/DM vehicle. “Maybe it’s because TV is declining slowly and print is falling off a cliff. They need digital to fill [a different] role.” What’s exceptional this time is that C-level executives like P&G CMO Marc Pritchard are publicly disenchanted with the laser segmentation and retargeting of channels like Facebook, and suggest that overall branding suffers as a result. “So it’s time to grow up,” Kint says.

One DCN response has been its subsidiary, TrustX initiative, a programmatic platform with 32 premium inventory partners specifically designed to appeal to advertisers’ love of scale and automation, while directly addressing reticence about accountability. Media buyers will know where ads are running, only pay for verified human ad views and see more of their money go to media rather than tech. The platform will be transparent about costs and not operate for a profit.

At least on some level, brand media are waking up to the realization that quality doesn’t sell itself. This ad environment requires ad models, research, metrics and, of course, results that prove (or remind everyone) how media works. Quality can’t just be a pleasant concept. It needs to be a product.


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