Digital Reboot? Check. Time Inc.’s Next Big Push Will Involve Mobile And Data

Jen-Wong-Time-IncSince Time Inc.’s spinoff from Time Warner two years ago, CEO Joe Ripp has been beating the drum of transformation. That push is now starting to bear fruit. The company just reported its strongest quarter yet as an independent company, including digital ad revenue growth of 23%.

Part of that success comes from a shift in Time Inc.’s culture, such as hiring people intent on change rather than maintaining the status quo. Jen Wong, Time Inc.’s new president of digital and a vet of PopSugar, AOL and McKinsey, is emblematic of that change.

Wong joined Time in January, and on Monday she was given responsibility over product and engineering duties that were previously overseen by the CTO.

Since joining Time, Wong embarked on an unsexy but necessary project to streamline operations. That included paring down to just two content management systems and creating a universal ad call to improve yield management and help advertisers quickly buy at scale across the portfolio.

Wong also is leading the charge on another, still unannounced initiative, which will change the way Time Inc. tells stories on mobile web.

“I wouldn’t say Snapchat-like,” Wong said from Time Inc.’s headquarters, but the project nonetheless will enable richer storytelling (and better branded content and units) on a format that’s undermonetized across the board among premium publishers.

Plus, with the February acquisition of Viant, Time Inc. will be able to append marketer data onto its mobile advertising. Marketers who want the data of a platform but the content of Time Inc. won’t have to choose.

Wong spoke to AdExchanger about what Time Inc. is up to from its new, glass-paneled downtown Manhattan offices at 225 Liberty St. – miles and decades from the Time-Life Building in Midtown, which housed the operations of the storied publisher and provided one of the backdrops for “Mad Men.”

AdExchanger: Why did you join Time Inc.?

JEN WONG: Time Inc. has incredible brands, and brands are more important than ever. It’s grown traffic nearly two times over the past two years, which is a big deal. Growing traffic is harder than ever, and that speaks to the transformation of the business.

Time Inc. is set to hit the “revenue crossover” point, where digital growth overtakes print declines, this year. Why is this such a big deal for traditional media companies?

It’s a big milestone. A company that’s had declining revenues for a while is viewed differently. When you can get the topline to grow, it shows vitality and the long-term viability of the business, and more certainty about its future. It’s a big deal for the business and psychologically for the company.

Time Inc. bought Viant. What’s a practical example of how Viant will change what Time Inc. can do with a marketer?

Let’s say you have your own CRM, you have customer emails and you decide to upsell those customers. You can onboard that data and bump it against Viant’s database, match the actual person. You can go and buy actual advertising against that actual person, not a segment like “women aged 35 to 50.” The core of our data is deterministic. Instead of lookalike cookie-based models, you get the actual person.

Deterministic data sets are a capability more associated with platforms like Facebook or Google.

Joe [Ripp] has said that data is important to us. But all data is not equal. We are very interested in people-based data: device IDs and device profiles, specifically on mobile and TV.

How has programmatic affected your business?

It’s a material part of our business. I was pleasantly surprised by our ability to create audience segments and plug into SSPs and our ability to deliver. With the addition of Viant, we have a very strong programmatic infrastructure. Because we’ve built out a corporate sales team, it’s now much easier to buy Time Inc. as a portfolio, especially in digital.

How are you approaching platform publishing, as well as thinking about the monetization opportunities offsite?

We are close partners with all of them. It’s early days, in terms of seeing what actual engagement and behavior is on these sites. We are not going to do something that’s bad for the business. For me, the question is what the hosted platforms’ storytelling capabilities look like. If we upgrade our mobile web owned-and-operated experiences, what [of those] features are going to be there? How good is the storytelling? Because today, it’s fast, but the storytelling is limited.

Facebook recently made a big change, loosening its rules on branded content, which must affect Time Inc.’s large branded content business.

We always want to be an alpha partner with platforms, and we have that across the board. That allows us to test out things and give input into product and revenue decisions. Ultimately, we are Time Inc. We have a business and we are always mindful about how the platforms affect our business. I do believe we can settle into a partnership that is good for everyone. That requires a constant dialogue. I don’t think we’ve necessarily settled into a decision of value that we’re satisfied by in the long term. We’d be seeking more value out of the relationship in the future.

Because Time Inc. creates content. Facebook doesn’t.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. If your Facebook feed was all friends, would it be as valuable? Would you search as much if you weren’t searching for content? I believe we remain important to them.

What’s going on with Time Inc.’s native business?

For many years it was church and state, and when Joe came that’s one of the first things he addressed. It’s about the advertiser’s message interlaced with the voice and sensibility of the brand. We are operating at scale, so when an advertiser comes to us and says, “I want to make content with you,” we can take that on and make videos for an advertiser at a much lower cost than if they had to write a script, hire a crew and do post-production themselves, and then they still haven’t even gotten to distribution. They don’t have the distribution channels, which are free for us to use because we are Time Inc.

What will the media climate look like a year from now?

The trends say native and content will grow. Data and targeting will grow. Those two segments we know about. Obviously, video will be enormously important, and that’s a fascinating one – you don’t have the infinite inventory effect in video. Quality online video inventory is incredibly demanded and valued. My hope is that mobile CPMs will start to match desktop CPMs, especially with really full ad formats coming into mobile.

What’s changing about how buyers are working with sellers?

Agencies were very focused on efficiency and reach, direct response and data and targeting for the past couple of years. That drove an entire industry to run into pockets of issues, where you see fraud. You start getting lower-quality inventory in your mix because of the hunger for efficiency.

Speaking to agencies this year, there is a wind toward premium content and co-creation versus the grind-down for efficiency. There is a return to quality and quality partnership from agency to client and agency to media partners, and a dialogue that is tonally different from the past couple of years when it was efficiency-focused.

BuzzFeed reportedly missed a revenue target recently. Are companies like BuzzFeed and Vox valued correctly?

What pegged those [$1 billion valuations] was the TV investment from Comcast. It’s in the eye of the beholder. I could argue that for TV companies, which don’t have any material owned-and-operated properties, the concept of writing a post and driving traffic is pretty foreign to them. Most cable companies also don’t have a direct-to-consumer offering, because they went through MSOs [multisystem operators such as Comcast, Dish Network and Time Warner Cable].

The lack of capability [for these investors] is substantial, whereas Time Inc. has been writing posts for years. But the gap between where digital media companies are and where we are, a traditional player coming up in digital, is not far. They are probably ahead in technology, but I think we are very close behind them.

Where are other publishers making missteps?

The only place I would think folks would move faster, given what’s happening, is TV. That ship is really starting to get some holes in it. Those in the TV business never had to get consumer feedback before. They sold through the cable providers. Having to run a potentially direct-to-consumer business is a big leap.

Does Time Inc. see opportunity in pay-for-content models?

We are testing [content] meters and testing unlocking premium content. If we had to pick the one where there is more opportunity, it’s unlocking specific parts of premium content because we have distinctive franchises and must-see, must-want content.

Like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue?

You got it. And the VR [virtual reality] edition. The experiences that are attached to the unique franchise.

This is part of an interview series with media leaders about the future of digital advertising. Check out previous interviews with The AtlanticEvolve MediaForbesMicThe New York TimesPurch, Refinery29The Washington Post and Ziff Davis – and more to come.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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