Food Innovation Group CRO: In A Noisy Space, Quality Content Wins Over Cheap Scale

Pamela Drucker Mann FIGWhen Condé Nast created its Food Innovation Group 14 months ago by combining Bon Appétit and Epicurious, the move gave it enough scale to take on AllRecipes and the Food Network.

The group recently sensed an opportunity in the market to focus on short food videos designed for mobile and social audiences. It quickly pounced, growing its unique video viewers by 411% to 1.9 million between May and November, according to comScore. The Food Innovation Group outpaced its competitors in the category and sold out its ad inventory for Q4.

A maneuver like this makes the fast-growing Food Innovation Group resemble a quick-footed startup. But unlike most startups, it enjoys the advantages of a well-financed and powerful parent company.

For example, the food videos gained scale in part by leaning on big agreements Condé Nast had put in place for The Scene, which gave it distribution on over-the-top channels such as Xbox, Roku and Apple TV.

That unique combination of old media power and new media nimbleness also plays out at the Food Innovation Group offices in the largely vacant One World Trade Center in Manhattan.

While many digital publishing offices today are hive-like, with employees crowded around standing desks or huddled in glass conference rooms in packed offices they’ve long outgrown, the Food Innovation Group occupies a vast and expansive space in the tower.

From her office overlooking the Statue of Liberty and lower Manhattan, Bon Appétit and Epicurious publisher and CRO Pamela Drucker Mann spoke to AdExchanger about what’s ahead for the Food Innovation Group (FIG). Recently named Condé Nast’s 2015 CRO of the Year, she has led the group since its inception.

AdExchanger: What’s behind FIG’s recent traffic growth in video?

DRUCKER MANN:  We found that with TV and video, you have different objectives. TV is about searching, figuring out when the next season of “House of Cards” or “Girls” is.

In video, you find out through discovery. When you’re in your social stream, think of all the things you’ve clicked on that you weren’t looking for. We focused on good content that was also shareable and delivered on our brand promise.

You founded FIG just over a year ago. What’s that been like?

FIG came to fruition because we were trying to think differently about media, content and marketing. We wanted to bring a resource to advertisers, where if having premium content and scale is important to you, we can help you do it.

We launched The Farm, our branded content division. We started working with TripleLift doing native at scale, which was a first, and shopper marketing with PopCart and AmazonFresh. We, and the advertisers we work with, want to be first to market, not “thoughtful to market” or “last to market” or “guaranteed to be successful to market.” To be first, you have to take a risk. 

What’s your take on the investor interest in the media space lately, which has seen a lot of funding and acquisitions?

From a publisher’s perspective, it’s an exciting time. From a user’s perspective, it’s a noisy time. It’s so much harder to decide what to watch now: There’s Netflix, Showtime, Amazon.

I’m a big believer in the pendulum theory, and I think users like myself are going to get even more discerning. For a moment in time, the best content wasn’t the winner. To some advertisers, it became about how many people I want to reach. But the quality of content is going to go back to being No. 1. That’s of course not moving away from platforms, or technology, but ultimately you’re going to have to stand up against your content. At some point it will get less noisy.

What happens then, when it becomes less noisy?

You’ll see the brands creating good content with a good distribution strategy, and defined user will matter more in a way that until now it hasn’t mattered much. That’s different than what you’ve seen with ad networks, and even with programmatic. There’s all this fraud happening, and you [have] ads running where they weren’t approved. Well, you kind of did approve it.

I know programmatic is getting better and there are more filters in place, but hey, just a year ago that wasn’t happening and you had unhappy advertisers who thought they approved one thing and found out they had another.

Digital-only publications are often able to succeed because they’re only focusing on one medium. What’s your counter to that as someone who leads a print, digital and now digital video organization?

People say, “You have a magazine, what’s that like?” I’m happy to have a magazine. The fact is, consumers are in so many places. Sure, they’re in video, but they’re still spending time with the magazines, which I think are having a renaissance right now. There are more options and places to reach users. The idea is that FIG is a one-stop shop: An advertiser can come here and get needs met and we have multiple platforms we can put out content on.

What’s different about how advertisers want to buy with you today?  

I had two meetings with major CPG clients recently – one beverage, one food. One meeting was “We’re all about video, we want to create content, and we’re interested in shopper marketing but specifically brick-and-mortar.”

Whereas the other one said, “We’re very into online commerce and not spending much time in video, but what we’re really interested in native.” Being a good partner is recognizing what their needs are and working with them. That’s what we call consultative selling.

Many food publishers see opportunity tapping into shopper marketing budgets, taking advantage of the fact that people might be looking up recipes on their phone while they’re shopping. Where have you found success with that so far?

Going after those budgets is the hardest part. The people we work with control media. They don’t control shopper marketing budgets – those people are in Arkansas. Shopper marketing makes media people assume it’s not in their purview.

So the way we approach it is different. It’s content to commerce. You take that content, thread it through multiple platforms like video and native and close the loop in the store.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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