The New York Times To Loosen RTB Restrictions, Expand Programmatic Initiatives

zimbalistWhat’s up with The New York Times Co. and programmatic? We’ve pondered that question before, but the publishing giant declined to speak at the time.

Since then, Times SVP of Ad Products and R&D Michael Zimbalist has revealed to AdExchanger that the company intends to release more inventory cautiously into the RTB space. It also is planning an expansion of non-RTB programmatic initiatives. One such area the Times is considering is developing an audience extension buy.

Much has changed at the Times in recent months.

“We had a change of leadership in our sales department,” Zimbalist said. “Meredith Levien came in to head sales after a long search, and we’ve reorganized the whole department. In doing that, I stepped in and took on, in addition to my role as head of R&D, a new role in the company, which is head of ad products. We never had a formal head of ad products function before.”

As part of this restructuring, the Times has consolidated a number of functions: ad ops, ad systems, product management, some of its custom development work and, of course, programmatic.

Zimbalist spoke with AdExchanger on the changes.

AdExchanger: What elements of programmatic has The New York Times embraced, and what elements has it decided to forego?

MICHAEL ZIMBALIST: There’s no area of programmatic we’re philosophically opposed to going forward with. Programmatic is now part of an overall practice. We’ve recast our thinking around programmatic as part of a total yield-management practice, which is part of ad products. So it reframed our view in the marketplace to incorporate total yield both in our direct-sold and in our overall market.

That’s the setting. At the present time, we’re leaning into programmatic through our partnership with Google and Google AdX.

What specifically is The New York Times doing in programmatic?

In that regard, we’re doing preferred deals, we’re doing private exchange deals and we’re doing some open-market RTB.

There’s no part of programmatic we don’t see as part of our programmatic future. We’re leaning into it and expect to do more. It’s bifurcating into the classic barbell where on one end of the spectrum you have premium programs uniquely accessible through The New York Times and the assets we bring to market. On the other side, you have an increasing amount of machine-to-machine transactions taking place.

Do you work with other ad exchanges besides Google’s?

At the present time, that’s the exchange we’re working with.

Will you grow your list of exchanges on which New York Times inventory is available?

I can’t comment on what we’re doing in the future specifically other than to say we expect to be a full and hearty player in the programmatic space. So when it comes to different kinds of deals and demand pools, we’re open to conversations.

Will the Times set up a private exchange?

I would say nothing is off the table for us in programmatic going forward.

The Times has voiced its reluctance to fully embrace the real-time bidding (RTB) element of programmatic because advertisers can bid down the price of inventory. Is that still a fear and what is the Times doing as a preventative measure?

We’re very cautiously in the coming months going to be opening up much more of our inventory to the real-time marketplaces and we’re going to watch very closely what sort of impact that may or may not have on our direct business. We are very cautious and protective of our pricing power in the market. We’re approaching it with a more nuanced view.

What changed?

We’re beginning to realize, like other premium publishers, that buyers themselves see programmatic differently in their media mix. In the early days there was a fear all business would flow to programmatic. The realities of the market are much more nuanced than that. We’re finding advertisers see programmatic as one tactic they use in the market for certain kinds of products or acquisition campaigns. I haven’t heard nor do I foresee advertisers getting to a place where all transactions are going programmatic.

When will the Times open up more inventory to RTB?

I can’t forecast or say where or when, but our first forays have been mediated by many restrictions and we’re going to be testing by category and placement the removal of certain restrictions in the coming months. We want to see in the coming months how open we’re comfortable becoming. We can, going forward, be much more open than we have in the past.

As we understand the market more, we realize that programmatic will not be [advertisers’] only foray working with publishers like The New York Times in the future.

What restrictions have been lifted?

They haven’t been lifted. We’re testing lifting restrictions. We do a lot of premium business at very high CPMs so we’ve been cautious about making too much inventory directly accessible via RTB. We’re at a place where we’re much more open to the possibility of making that inventory accessible, and we’re going to be testing categories, placements, etc. in the coming months.

How else will the Times expand its programmatic advertising?

We’ve also started thinking about doing some audience extension buys via the exchange. Those are early stages.

What percentage of inventory is available via RTB, and is it strictly display?

Right now it’s primarily Web display. I can’t tell you a percentage.

What sort of traction has The New York Times seen in programmatic direct?

On the direct-deal side where we set up for advertisers to buy programmatically, those deals have been increasing quite a bit, as sellers realize this is a benefit we can offer our best customers.

What does the Times offer?

It’s the Deal ID idea. It’s a one-to-one relationship between a buyer and our inventory and we set up terms and let it run. So it removes friction from the process. That’s the one element of programmatic that’s often lumped into RTB, but I want to make the point we’re doing both.

How has your veteran sales staff taken to these programmatic concepts?

People are more aware that it’s part of the online ecosystem, and a part that is increasingly important. There’s a growing awareness of programmatic’s role in an advertiser’s mix. I think of programmatic as divided into an operational efficiency play to remove friction from the buying process on the one hand and an RTB bidding auction piece in the other hand. They’re generally lumped together as programmatic, but they are two very different parts of programmatic.

How are sales incentives structured between direct sales and programmatic?

I won’t comment on how we compensate sales people relative to this channel. We don’t talk about that.

Is the entire sales team able to sell in a programmatic environment, or is there a specific programmatic-focused sales team with the Times?

It’s the total sales team. The sales team is empowered to offer Deal ID kind of things, but the RTB part is a secondary market for us. So it’s looking at inventory after we fulfill our direct sales.

How do you deal with channel conflict issues?

That’s sort of tied up in the historical position we’ve had, which was to be cautious in the open market. We’re now going through and reviewing our guidelines with respect to that. We do foresee a near future state where we’re less restricted provided we have the confidence we’re not negatively impacting our direct-sold business. Check back on that in a few months.

Does the Times work with a supply-side platform (SSP)?

At present, we do not. But we’re again looking to expand our programmatic presence. So there are conversations we’re initiating with many different partners in this space as we start to expand. We work with Krux as a data-management platform (DMP) and we have used them both onsite and as a DMP for offsite as well.

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  1. What I got out of this:

    1) The NYT is in the same position, finally, as every other publisher out there: Creating a strategy with RTB/programmatic and offering products that the buy side is clamoring for. Good. Finally.

    2) They’re late and trying to make up lost ground.

    3) See #1 and #2

    I mean seriously. While an informative read, it basically paints the picture that NYT thought they could stick their nose up at where the money was flowing because it didn’t fit well into the board room discussion. Thing is, it doesn’t matter if it fits well. You cannot ignore where the money is flowing (economics 101) and now NYT is considerably behind. One might argue how that matters, seeing as how they are one of the foremost aggressive publishers in the industry. And while that my be true to a certain extent, do not underestimate the need to get your staff trained and educated on all things programmatic. It might be that NYT can flip a switch and start seeing immediate ROI from enabling programmatic offerings, but their entire staff now considerably lags expertise, compared to other publishers that adopted programmatic early on.

    And that absolutely hurt(s) them.

    And now that I’m off my rant, I would like to say congratulations for seeing the light, NYT!

  2. I’d like to understand how they’re running programmatic without the use of an SSP? If it’s on a tag basis, is it like a network buy? And isn’t AdX an SSP?

  3. Adam,

    I think it would be fair to call AdX an SSP. My position is that the distinction between SSP and exchange is a historical one; SSPs came from a place of offering yield optimization of ad networks for publishers and grew into RTB; exchanges started off from more neutral position of facilitating transactions between buy side and sell side and tended to have ad networks as their initial sell-side clients rather than publishers directly. Those who position themselves as an SSP tend to offer fancier tools for publisher controls, but ultimately I would consider it a matter of branding now rather than technical difference.