Gannett CRO Kevin Gentzel’s Vision: Branded Content Across Hometown Newspapers

Kevin Gentzel GannettAfter Gannett CRO Kevin Gentzel reads his hometown newspaper, the Pensacola News Journal, he puts on his sales hat.

Local papers are a “powerful environment” and Gentzel’s first order of business, as Gannett’s new sales chief, is to harness that power with branded content.

If he has his way, that content will appear not just in the Pensacola News Journal, but across all of Gannett’s properties, both in print and digital. But that sort of plan first requires technology to both create and measure new content assets – especially on mobile.

That chosen strategy to unite Gannett through branded content, technology and scale builds on what he’s done and overseen at top sales positions at Forbes, The Washington Post and Yahoo.

As CRO of Forbes, he was on the team that envisioned and launched BrandVoice, the sponsored content division that’s built up a stable of advertisers by allowing them to create direct relationships with audience through content.

When Gentzel joined the Post as CRO, Jeff Bezos acquired it and embedded engineers everywhere, including in the sales organization.

At Gannett, Gentzel wants to hire engineers to be part of the content studio. He also understands technology will be key to getting mobile advertising off the ground by solving marketer roadblocks like cross-device IDs, driving KPIs on mobile and creating compelling mobile products.

And at Yahoo – well, Gentzel wouldn’t talk about his six months at Yahoo, when he held the title of head of sales amid two other key hires and fires, Lisa Utzschneider and Ned Brody. But there he seems to have learned something about how important scale is to advertisers, and what Gannett’s 88 million monthly unique users mean to brands in search of massive reach.

Gentzel spoke to AdExchanger about his first 30 days at Gannett and how he plans to steer Gannett and USA Today’s advertising.

AdExchanger: What’s ahead for you?

KEVIN GENTZEL: Into the first 90 days, it’s accelerating the build out of our branded content efforts. With our scale, and our unified content management system that goes across 94 sites, we’re in a unique position to put brands on common ground with readers in exciting ways.

We’re also laser-focused on prioritizing technical elements that will allow us to turbocharge our mobile sales efforts: showing how advertiser can drive their KPIs across Gannett digital platforms, cross-device IDs and mobile products advertisers can get excited about. There are dramatic shifts in the way people are consuming media right now, and we haven’t yet seen an equal shift in media dollars allocation.

What are your goals for Gannett’s advertising business in 2016?

In 2016, it’s about prioritizing what will give us the greatest chance of success: branded content and programmatic.

We see advertising media budgets bifurcating. On one hand, dollars are running to highly bespoke, branded custom content and distribution tactics. And on the other hand, you’re seeing more money moving into programmatic, for advertisers to target audiences across sites and the Internet.

Then in the middle ground – the battle for the RFP – the value that a media company like Gannett and USA Today has is to match audience with a contextual environment and an idea that wraps an advertiser around it. It’s almost like you’re in real estate development. The way we tie print and digital together is by packaging up this amazing journalism, like the athletes’ road to Rio, or NASCAR or the Country Music Awards, and giving advertisers a way to wrap around it. That’s the vital role media can play for brands.

You’re coming into Gannett as it finishes spinning off other parts of its business, namely the broadcast television unit. How does that streamlining change what you’re out to accomplish?

It’s allowed us to have a pure focus on our media companies. One of the many reasons I joined Gannett was the scale of the audience. We’re one of the few to have 100 million uniques. [ComScore rounds down to 88 million.] For tech platforms, 1 billion users is the high mark and number to hit. Only a handful have ever achieved it. For media companies, it’s 100 million. You have HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Gannett Digital.

[That scale] doesn’t mean you’re going to grow in extreme ways, but it gives you the chance to put serious growth in the business over time.

How do you see digital and print fitting together? Is Time Inc.’s experiment with programmatic print something that would make sense for Gannett or USA Today?

I think it’s a very interesting idea, I’ve been studying it and following it, and we’re certainly open to it. The distribution strategy of USA Today is a powerful and unique one. We insert a condensed version of USA Today into 93 local editions we call Butterfly, and relevantly feed that into local markets. Our circulation for USA Today local edition is 2.6 million copies a day across the US. That gives us a big audience from which to build out specific targets or sets. We’re rolling that out to advertisers, so they can reach 93 local markets with one insertion order.

In digital, how do you see direct sales and programmatic sales fitting together?

Direct sales and programmatic definitely exist together. It doesn’t require less selling, it actually requires more. Building private marketplaces with brands and agencies is an important part of our business, and we’re doing more and more programmatic guaranteed deals.

That wasn’t a case a year ago. Among salespeople 18 to 24 months ago, there was a well-founded fear of programmatic: what it was doing to their jobs, the value of their audience and the CPM you’re deriving from your audience.

We have seen not only increases in the amount of budget being allocated to programmatic, but the premium nature of the deals being done. You’re going to see in almost any deal elements of native, elements of programmatic and an idea that might fuse those two together.

How has Gannett changed or how does it need to change to serve these buyers?

There’s so much affinity for USA Today among Gen Xers, late-stage millennials.

One of the things we’re doing, and it’s led out of our Sports Media Group, is a product set called FTW. We’re developing the next set of products that tell stories in social way, that use a different tone and rely on Snapchat. We can take that GenX demographic that’s core to our business now and expand to millennials. [FTW] is going to test products in new content verticals beyond sports.

Also, really important, and it’s something of an emerging phenomenon in digital, is the importance of partnerships that can add to capabilities and the brand halo. That gives advertisers a way to think about and partner with you differently. It could be with a tech company, a consumer retailer or with a messaging service. We’re exploring different types of partnerships so we can align forces with our brands.

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