Say Media's Sanchez: Strategy Bends Toward 'Traditional' Sales Models, Not Exchanges

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Say MediaOver the past two years, blog network Say Media has attempted to evolve from its origins as an ad network into something resembling a traditional media company. It has developed broad content brands like the female-focused XOJane and bought others, such as the generalist digital tech news site ReadWriteWeb. For those properties in its immediate portfolio, Say Media emphasizes one-to-one relationships over automation and algorithmic ad serving.

As it looks to recreate the traditional model for digital content, the San Francisco company has brought in Kim Kelleher as president. Kelleher is well-known in agency ad circles from her days at Condé Nast and, more recently, Time Inc., which she just departed, as AdAge's Nat Ives and Kunur Patel reported yesterday. With that big hire and her placement in New York, we checked in with Say Media CEO Matt Sanchez about the company's ad strategy and how Kelleher fits into it.

AdExchanger: Unlike blog networks that tend to gather a multitude of sites around a particular demographic profile, like young women or sports enthusiasts, Say Media seems to be all over the place, XOJane, Dogster and ReadWriteWeb are very different kinds of sites and attract, I assume, different kinds of audiences. What’s the focus of Say Media?

MS: We’re trying to build a broad-based, lifestyle media property that’s about people’s passions in the consumer portfolio. We can publish across a set of channels and that gives us more options with audiences and advertisers. We’re not just a tech vertical or a women’s vertical.

As we continue to grow in terms of the number of number of channels and kinds of verticals, that will strengthen the ties with our advertising partners. After all, the same person who is into tech could also be into pets or fashion. And through sites like ReadWriteWeb to Dogster to XOJane, we have a wide, multifaceted audience.

For the most part, since VideoEgg – an ad network – acquired Six Apart – a blog network – to form Say Media two years ago, the ad model has emphasized more of the Federated Media “conversational marketing” idea of using affinity and social media to create packages for advertisers. Has any of the ad network DNA remained? What’s your approach to ad sales?

Our conversations with brands are changing into looking at what their marketing objectives are and how can we match our content against that. That might mean a content program or a deep integration into a site. It might mean that we create really authentic content that creates a story that we can syndicate across our network. We’re moving out of the bucket conversation of, are you this kind of network or that kind of network. It’s much bigger than that.

Is there any role for automated ad serving in Say Media’s network?

When you really get down into these media properties, the value is the strength of the communities and the point of view of every site. The question for them is how do they extend that authenticity of those sites to having a genuine relationship with its audience. That’s not something that happens through a trading desk. It’s about bringing in the expertise of our editors to shape a connection with our readers and provide a solid foundation for traditional ad salesmanship.

We will do yield optimization for our network partners, but on our portfolio sites, there is no exchange activity. We published our view on ad sales last fall, called The Clean Campaign, which was about how to think holistically about the user experience and what that means to premium advertisers across digital: the PC, the smartphone, the tablet. How do you find the right balance between advertising and content, while integrating social in the middle? The goal is to make vertical online media as premium as traditional media.

And is that why you brought in a traditional media veteran like Kim Kelleher as Say Media’s president?

We are at a stage in our development where bringing in that kind of senior leadership in New York is really going to help build our presence there and expand our relationship with brands. There are a lot of new lessons to learn as consumers change their behavior. And there are a lot of lessons to be learned over and over and over again when it comes to media and ad sales. Kim has such deep experience in media and she can bring that learning and a certain perspective from traditional media that she can impart to us as we grow the company.

You’ve done a number of acquisitions in the past two years on the content side. Any other M&A plans this year? And any plans for acquisitions on the ad tech side, in terms of promoting the network side of Say Media’s business?

We’ll continue to do content acquisitions that fit seamlessly into the portfolio. I see that continuing for a number of years to come. As for ad tech, it’s something we continue to evaluate, but it’s not central to our business development strategy at this point.

By David Kaplan

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