AdExchanger: How does BI structure its sales team to include programmatic?
PETE SPANDE: Our salespeople have to be knowledgeable about a lot of different products and offerings and ways of conducting business. Underneath that, we are layering in product expertise that can help facilitate that [heavy bag of products].
A lot of publishers think you have to be an expert in things like data connections for programmatic sales, and that’s not the case at all. In the same way you don’t need to understand the ins and outs of the ad server to the nth degree when you are selling a direct deal, we don’t expect salespeople to understand all the differences between the SSPs [supply-side platform] and how to connect and troubleshoot a PMP.
How do you educate the sales team about programmatic?
The big challenge programmatically is to define terms. Programmatic guaranteed vs. PMP vs. open deals vs. preferred deals have different meanings from one buyer and seller to the next. We spend a lot of time making sure we are speaking the same language with the same definitions behind it – that’s something our sales team does a really good job with.
What about managing private marketplaces?
We are regularly having conversations, both pre- and post-sales, around the downstream KPIs and what success looks like. If they are spending less programmatically this week than last week, we will call and ask. A lot of the conversations are still very technical and specific, but as we start to see more of the programmatic buying happening at the strategic media buyer level, we will talk about how creative will be woven in and if there data signals that we can send them that will complement theirs.
To your point about “containing the crazy,” how varied are the approaches of the buyers you work with?
We have a Fortune 100 client where one division moved exclusively to buying programmatically and has an aggressive cookie-based strategy. Another division, similar in size and budget, is still buying 100% through insertion orders and direct deals. So that same salesperson, calling on that same client, has to configure their approach to the client completely differently depending on the division. The challenges come in the combinations and permutations.
What’s changed since the acquisition by Axel Springer?
This acquisition was very atypical in that Axel Springer wasn’t buying us to merge into something else. They were buying us in part to be a North American beachhead of sorts. We do have a number of corporate siblings now that are addressing the same issues, and we have the ability to work together in a more collaborative way. But we are not in a position where we are aggressively integrating into a larger corporate entity.
What’s an example of where you’ve been helping each other?
Some of our corporate siblings in Germany have been aggressively investigating how to manage the ad-blocking situation, which is much further along in Europe and specifically in Germany than in the US. There have been some interesting tests around encouraging people to whitelist sites, and we have access to all of that thinking and talent and experience.
And what have you shared with them?
We are sharing a lot of the work we’ve done making programmatic a central part of our revenue strategy, and the experiments and mistakes that we’ve made, as well as what we’ve been able to do from an organizational perspective to make programmatic central.
How is the rise of mobile affecting revenue?
Mobile is really important to us because it’s 65 to 70% of inventory, and mostly mobile web. I’d say in the past two years, we have seen most of our clients and our discussions, whether direct or programmatic, become much more platform-agnostic and device-agnostic. We have seen mobile yield, especially in direct deals, on par or in some cases higher than desktop yields. Programmatically, it’s less that way because of the open exchange, which is still lagging because of the lack of cookies and retargeting being a challenge.
How are you looking at the revenue opportunities of Google AMP or Facebook Instant Articles?
We are part of both and Flipboard and Apple News. We are taking the attitude that these are extensions of our websites that we will sell into where it makes sense, and we will let them sell where it doesn’t make sense. It’s almost like another supply-side partner in some sense. In our initial rollout of Facebook Instant Articles, we were having Facebook sell that inventory for us [as] an added demand source. We are very open to that distributed publishing model.
What’s your view on platforms overall?
We are very invested in having multiple distributed partners. That’s the way we continue to have terms and business practices that are favorable to publishers. A lot of peoples’ fear of these platforms is that we are ceding all control to one platform or another. Certainly, every publication has to worry about that to some extent. But what I’m most concerned about is having a single platform win the distributed war and then having our whole strategy tied to that platform winning.
There was a Henry Blodget quote where your CEO said they tried video and the best quality they could achieve was a bad CNBC.
He regularly will say our initial attempts at video were, at best, bad CNBC: a bunch of talking heads at a desk. The early attempts were to port TV and put it in a crappy streaming player with people who aren’t experts at being on camera. Since then, we’ve worked a lot in video. Almost a year ago, we put 15 people in a room and said, “Figure out social storytelling,” for a consumer site to be named later. Cumulatively we are at 2 billion video streams a month across all properties and locations, and we have seen tremendous growth in social-first video.
How can you monetize videos on social platforms?
We are doing 30 million to 50 million video views a month that can accommodate pre-roll, but we can’t scale that part of our video business as quickly as the social video business. With social video, we haven’t cracked the code, but we are far along with getting other ways to insert our advertisers’ message into those formats that aren’t the 15-second or 30-second pre-rolls.
Any harbingers of doom you’re seeing out in the media world?
As digital has gone from primarily contextual to audience buying, that has caused some people to have a false sense of security. They think they can just generate an audience, grow it as big as they can, the money will follow and that’s enough. Companies that have taken a tack of growth at all costs will be presented with problems going forward.
Why doesn’t pure scale work anymore?
The nature of competition has fundamentally changed for most publishers. As we get into the native-first types of sales situations, where you win or lose the buy once you get invited [via RFP], it’s the brand that gets your property in, rather than the comScore number. And while we are in the business news, technology and lifestyle category, very often in a deal you are not just competing with the five to 100 sites in that category, but a set of competitors that may defy categorization. It’s a more multidimensional type of competition, and I don’t think that’s changing any time soon. Publishers are competing against ideas.
This is part of an interview series with media leaders about the future of digital advertising. Check out previous interviews with The Atlantic, Bloomberg Media, Brit + Co, Evolve Media, E.W. Scripps, Forbes, Imgur, Mic, The New York Times, Purch, Refinery29, Thought Catalog, Time Inc., The Washington Post and Ziff Davis – and more to come.
This interview has been condensed and edited.