Vox Media: Until Programmatic Shows Brand Value, We’ll Stick With Direct Sales

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Publishers are under pressure to embrace programmatic buying, but Vox Media is resisting the call. The company publishes sports blog network SB Nation, tech news provider The Verge, and video gaming info site Polygon, which made its debut this week.

The introduction of Polygon represents what Vox CEO Jim Bankoff and sales director Joe Purzycki call a “doubling-down” on the company’s male audience demographic.

But where other vertical networks such as Glam and Federated Media have cooked programmatic buying into their systems, Vox is among a large group of publishers that include everyone from male lifestyle publisher Complex Media and the New York Times Co. to view the benefits of programmatic as either insufficient or even inimical to their advertising strategy.

“Our ad strategy is about associating our clients with premium conversations, premium journalists and communities of influencers,” Purzycki told AdExchanger. “We look at two different things with regard to our ad strategy: premium display and branded content. The promise is to drive conversations between marketers and consumers through advertising.”

With Polygon, Vox aims to make the insidery world of gaming accessible to the mainstream. “When we looked at the next vertical to go into after sports with SB Nation, and technology with The Verge, it was an easy decision,” Purzycki said. “There’s a lot of cross-over between sports audiences and tech, especially for that 18 to 34 male demo. In sports, we’re 70 percent male. With The Verge, it’s a 60/40 split between men and women and with Polygon, we’re expecting a similar, male-focused audience. It’s a hard audience for advertisers to get, especially when you think of reaching them around their passions related to sports, tech and games.”

With that kind of audience focus, programmatic buying would seem to have some appeal, especially if it’s the kind of private exchange that “premium-focused” publishers are interested in growing. Apart from building up Vox’s image as a premium brand and sponsorship play, as opposed to a site that can easily aggregate young male readers, Bankoff also wants to ensure that the site is free of clutter, particularly when it comes to ad placements.

“As a company, we’re supportive of what’s going on with the exchanges and understand that there’s a big value in that space,” Bankoff said. “Having said that, it doesn’t play as much into our strategy. I think our value as a premium publisher is predicated on working with marketers and agencies and working directly to craft campaigns that are going to meet their objectives. That often involves a heavy dose of creative services and creative planning. We work closely with agencies in that regard and sometimes with clients directly in that regard. Quite frankly, our clients are looking to form a deep relationship with our audience and a deep relationship with our content. RTB platforms aren’t really set up for that model.”

Last year, after the Vox brand was established as an umbrella for SB Nation and The Verge, the latter publication struck an exclusive sponsorship with Ford for the site’s Consumer Electronics Show coverage. Ford’s role as a “technology news partner” not only included the automaker’s logo and brand message on CES news stories, but The Verge also produced a mini-documentary as well as one-on-one interviews with Ford executives.

“Ford was trying to position themselves not just as a company that sells cars, but as a company that is very mindful of the wider role technology plays in the future of automotive,” Purzycki said. “And that’s a prime example of where our thinking is when it comes to advertising.”

Bankoff also pointed to Vox’s own Chorus content distribution platform as a way it can create integrated marketing campaigns for advertisers. He also noted that Vox uses OpenX to provide ad serving for clients and as proof that the publisher is not averse to availing itself of outside parties’ ad delivery tools.

But when it comes to targeting or segmenting ads to parts of its audience, Bankoff intends to keep Vox off the programmatic path. When pressed about how it conflicts with Vox’s strategy, Bankoff that until he sees proof that audience buying and branding campaigns are not mutually exclusive, he’ll stick with direct sales.

“The online ad industry is bifurcated along the lines of direct response and brand building,” Bankoff said. “We’re squarely...playing the brand building camp, which is a smaller market but a growing one. Digital is going to get more dollars from magazines and broadcast for brand building – if we can prove it works. I think in the case of Vox, we are proving that it works. As we grow to scale, we’ll be able to get more of those budgets. The RTB market is really playing for the same non-premium dollars as Google and, perhaps social. That’s also such a huge market. More power to people in that space, but they serve different needs for marketers than the kind we do.”

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