Washington Post's Jeff Burkett On The Big Publisher's Data-Driven Ad Strategy

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jeff-burkettWith 12 years experience in digital, Jeff Burkett has seen his share of sell-side ad tech at The Washington Post.  His latest role, senior director of sales operations, is perhaps a sign of the times for the publishing world in general, as Burkett is now building his reach to the print side of “ops” while bringing his “digital native” point of view.

AdExchanger recently spoke to Burkett about The Washington Post’s digital strategy, industry trends and the company’s new owner, Jeff Bezos.

AdExchanger: What is WaPo’s programmatic strategy today?

JEFF BURKETT: We’re doing a lot. I’m on the IAB committee that’s focused on “premium” publishers selling programmatically and, from what I’ve heard, Washington Post is in line with what other “premium” publishers are doing in this space. You have to be very careful about moving too fast and eroding your value, but I think the industry is moving that way. It would be foolish not to pay attention and respond to it.   So, we’re talking to advertisers about programmatic when it’s appropriate, but it’s not a driving force of our growth at this point.

Video advertising has been in the news lately due to M&A and IPOs.  What’s the video-ad opportunity for WaPo? And, is WaPo using video exchanges or video-ad networks?

Video is clearly a huge opportunity with viewability and the online GRP driving it. Attracting TV ad budgets to online will be a huge benefit to the digital segment and ourselves.

As for video exchanges and video-ad networks, we have a relationship, but I would say it isn’t very meaningful in terms of revenue. It’s only filling up spikes in inventory that go well beyond the delivery of the campaigns that we’re selling to our “premium” advertisers. We don’t want to miss opportunities, but if [the video-ad networks and exchanges] weren’t there, it wouldn’t make too much of a difference.

Would you ever consider segmenting inventory according to what could be programmatic video inventory and what is direct?

With video, it’s just about getting inventory. We have put a huge investment into our Post TV product that launched just recently as we try to change the conversation about us as a printed property and getting people to start thinking of us as a video content producer. It’s all about driving more video. The programmatic piece will come and we’ll put a lot more thought into it once we’re in a situation where you can’t sell direct because programmatic is going to be the preference.

Reach extension has been around for a while.  Are you all starting to think more like a buyer? And if so, how?

Absolutely. We have a product called WP Plus that’s been in the marketplace for almost a year. It’s been much more successful than we would have anticipated and it’s taking some of the unique data components that we have here and then applying it to sites around the Web. We use MediaMath as a platform and have a team dedicated to that. We definitely are fitting [buying] in the mix where it’s appropriate.

Switching to mobile, are you concerned about the smaller screen size and potential for less revenue?

I think we have to find ways to get more value out of it compared to what everyone is doing today. Whether that’s finding a way to get native advertising into mobile or finding new, creative ways to tell stories in that small space. Consumers are going to mobile. There’s no doubt about it. It has to be our main focus in terms of figuring out how to make the most out of that channel.

Could the subscription element to Washington Post become increasingly important? Perhaps in response to the move to mobile by the consumer?

There was a lot of analysis initially put into our subscription model and there were people on both sides of the fence as to which way we should go (subscription or not) when the numbers came in. What we really look closely at is subscription revenue and the increase of the data that we have on our subscribers. It has been a no-brainer thus far and that’s why we jumped into subscription. I think a subscription model is here to stay.

What about fraud these days across nonguaranteed inventory sources?  In the past, large publishers have suffered. What are you seeing now?

There are actually a lot of fraud attempts coming direct – such as people impersonating an agency. We’ve seen fraud at that level and, luckily, been able to catch it. We don’t see much fraud through the programmatic indirect channels. If it occurs, it’s not transparent to us.

In terms of the big challenges that still need to be solved in the programmatic space, what comes to mind?

The biggest thing that’s keeping me up at night right now is how this is all going to go down. It is directly related to our experiments with our Superview [ad unit] product and viewability.  We tested multiple vendors and it was amazing in terms of the variety of data that came back depending on who the vendor was.  In some cases, they weren’t measuring anything at all, whereas others were. It’s very concerning to me how agencies are going to attempt to force technologies on us that are broken. From what I’ve seen with these vendors in my own tests, I’m concerned that they may not be ready in time.

How important is display advertising for Washington Post these days?

It’s very important and display is still growing. It’s scary to see other properties reporting that they’re declining in their digital display and blaming things like programmatic etc. Our display advertising business is definitely still in growth mode -- maybe not what it was five years ago, but a lot of today’s growth has to do with the innovation that we’re making on both the advertising front and in the editorial content space. Programmatically, I would say our yields are increasing as we have adopted it, yet the share of our inventory that the channel is receiving is getting smaller. While I like seeing the yield increase, I really don’t want much revenue coming from there due to the success of direct sales.

What about private exchanges? Are you using them?

I had a conversation with somebody recently and I said I thought that the “private-exchange” [phrase] might have run its course. With what we have set up, I’d look at it more as “open programmatic,” where there’s a lot of people buying based on third-party data which is helping lift our yields in that space. Then there is programmatic direct or Deal ID types of situations where our revenue per Deal ID has been very disappointing. I think that’s the case for a lot of publishers. While I think it’s going to increase, I’m not sure what is really holding it back.

Can native advertising be programmatic in your opinion?

It needs to be. It isn’t there today, but it’s absolutely where it is going.

There are a lot of people who want to make native “programmatic,” right? Because that’s their only way to get in on the “native ads” budget. But, native is inherently very custom. Doing native through placing advertorials and ad units -- and clicking through to the blogs that are advertorials -- you could make that programmatic. But I don’t think that’s really what native is.

It’s where you’re intelligently integrating the brand’s content in a way in which it adds to the conversation, which in turn is valuable to the user. It’s still clearly advertising, but in relevant situations with relevant editorial.

Finally, how has the change in ownership at The Washington Post been received – from the Graham family to Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos?

We are definitely going to miss Don Graham and his presence here. It was an amazing presence from a very genuine, intelligent man. It’s a bittersweet departure too because the energy around here -- without Mr. Bezos even stepping in the door -- has been amazing. Everyone is incredibly excited not having any clue what it actually will mean.

All of us have our different opinions on what it means. Some will come true and some will not. But one thing that’s definitely true is that everybody in this building is incredibly ecstatic to be here at this time when he really makes his impact on the organization in the next one to five years.

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