2020s: The Decade For Publishers To Lean In

Paul Bannister headshot

The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is by Paul Bannister, co-founder and executive vice president at CafeMedia.

As we close the chapter on the last decade, congrats to the publishers that are still standing. Now it’s time to take a step in: A fundamentally different approach is needed to prosper in this new decade.

During the 2010s, premium publishers lost ground to the platforms, ad tech companies and low-quality content producers. Advertising revenue dried up for many publishers, as programmatic “pennies” overtook direct dollars. The platforms saw significant growth while many publishers retrenched, merged or went out of business. As marketers prioritized the cheapest impressions rather than the best ones, a window opened for fraudulent or low-quality content creators to flourish.

How did this transpire? Publishers largely sat back and let things happen to them, rather than rising up to control their destiny. To change this course in the next decade, publishers must lean in to actively influence the direction of the industry.

Let the 2020s be the decade where publishers take control.

Standards and trade groups

The first place where publishers need to lean in is with the trade groups and organizations that set industry standards. Ad tech firms and platforms play a large or dominant role in running the IAB, Prebid.org and other standard-setting groups. Publishers either didn’t have a seat at the table or abdicated their responsibilities and let others make decisions. Standards set by these organizations control the way auctions get conducted and dollars are spent, so influence is critical.

Publishers are already starting to join these organizations and contribute in material ways. In the last year, eight publishers joined Prebid.org, with more on the way. The IAB Tech Lab – the main standard-setting group within the IAB – is getting more publishers involved and making their voices heard. As more publishers commit the resources to become active in these groups, their needs will be better served and the standards and practices created will be more favorable for both ends of the advertising spectrum: advertisers and publishers.

Working together

To date, publisher consortiums have been a challenge. Many publisher coops and trade groups have formed and disbanded after accomplishing little. Or others remain niche groups that serve only certain types of publishers or needs. This spotty history makes publishers wary; attempts to work together aren’t seen as worth the effort. While it may not always be easy to work together, there may be some scenarios in which publishers can ally for a greater cause and successfully make progress toward that goal.

A key example is user identity, an area where platforms have dominated. For the next few years, the greatest threat publishers will face is the demise of cross-site tracking. In many cases this will degrade their ability to track users and diminish the value of their first-party data. By working together, publishers may be able to create privacy-centric solutions that allow some data collection to restore a position of strength in the marketplace. These solutions need to combine tech, user experience and privacy compliance to succeed, and different publishers must contribute in the areas where they are most skilled.

Focus on strengths

Another challenge that publishers have faced over the last decade is the growing complexity of their businesses. Ten years ago, it was relatively straightforward to run a profitable portfolio of websites. Now, the level of difficulty has increased significantly, and in areas where publishers aren’t historically strong. Engineering, product development, data science, ad buying (as opposed to selling) and regulatory compliance are hard for a single publisher to scale and excel. Yet these are now table stakes a publisher can’t do without. The investment it takes to build and maintain world-class teams in these areas is sizable – and often exceeds what makes sense for even the largest publishers.

In an ironic twist, for publishers to lean in, they must focus on their strengths and step back from the areas where they can’t compete. Every publisher needs to be great at content creation and audience development. Beyond those core skills, publishers should take a hard look at themselves and decide what they are great at (or can be) and focus all of their attention there. For the rest, they should find great partners they trust and let them fill the gaps. Unlike marketers who are pushing toward in-sourcing, publishers should push toward outsourcing the parts of their business that aren’t their strong suit.

For digital publishers, the next 10 years have the potential to be starkly different than the prior 10. Those who succeed will buck the trends of the last decade and hew to a new course. Holding onto the past is always dangerous, but in these difficult times, it can be suicidal. Publishers can no longer sit back and let others in the industry drive the future. They must lean in and control their own destinies and the direction of the digital advertising ecosystem.

Follow Paul Bannister (@pbannist), CafeMedia (@CafeMedia_) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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