Hearst Wants To Narrow The Tech Gap Between Buyers And Sellers

charles-wolrich-hearstHearst’s media encompasses magazines, broadcast networks and newspapers, but tapping into its massive scale means logging deals into 17 separate systems or setting up multiple deal IDs.

Over the past year, Hearst’s Core Audience division has brought its properties onto the same ad server, exchange and data management platform. Hearst also built its own viewability forecasting tools, content management system and data analysis.

As Hearst’s unification project nears completion, the publisher’s data scientists must analyze its data, using ad server logs to map revenue to content. Hearst also wants to get better at video recognition, to analyze videos beyond metadata. And it’s thinking differently about how to leverage partners, as trends like header bidding disrupt how programmatic works for publishers.

Charles Wolrich, who joined Hearst Core Audience this past summer as VP of digital advertising technology, is spearheading these efforts. The longtime Collective employee oversees the data, audience extension and programmatic sales groups at Hearst.

Wolrich talked to AdExchanger about what Hearst is up to and how he sees publishers competing in the age of massively scaled platforms.

AdExchanger: What does the publisher ad stack look like in the future?

CHARLES WOLRICH: A few years back, [Google] AdX was a huge monetization tool, and it still is for publishers. But the marketplace has evolved and become more competitive. Having header bidders and solutions besides AdX is advantageous to the publisher and creates more competition by having one source of buyers.

What is the biggest buying trend among Hearst’s advertisers?

Viewability is one. Beyond that, it’s brand transparency. Because we are Hearst, [advertisers] can check off that box easily. We built an in-house tool that models viewability for all our pages on Hearst properties. Before we serve an ad, we predict the viewability of that ad. Some publishers use above-the-fold or below-the-fold, but you can have above-the-fold ads with low viewability.

Why build a viewability tool versus buy one?

We have so much data ourselves that we can do it better than third parties. We would have to port all our data over to them to do it effectively. Additionally, in house, we can inject into the ad code what the viewability would be, whereas if you did it with a partner there would be an ad call.

Speaking of ad calls, what can publishers do to deal with the tech clutter that impacts user experience?

Pretty much every day we have a new vendor that says they can drive X more dollars; we just need you to pixel your page, or add this code or put us in the header. You need some discipline. You can’t add everyone. Some sites do that and it takes 30 seconds for them to load.

It’s tough to tell in advance how much value these vendors bring to us, so we use tools to try to forecast that. The advantage of having so many sites and properties in Hearst is that we can test on a small subset of properties to see how it works.

What is the role of advertiser data vs. publisher data in programmatic deals?

[Advertiser] first-party data is absolutely critical. Merging that data with Hearst or third-party data can be very advantageous. You can do a lookalike of their data served on our auto enthusiasts and get a cross section of what they are looking for. Because we have so many users, we can scale that. Smaller publishers don’t have that reach once you get to that target audience, and delivery is small.

How does Hearst organize its programmatic sales?

There are three ways we are selling Hearst digitally. Most newspapers, magazines, TV channels have an IO-driven digital sales force. On the flip side, we use header bidders or AdX to make some of our inventory available on the open marketplace. In the middle, there is programmatic direct, which is a lot of the focus of the Core Audience team.

[Advertisers] can pick their audience, but we inject data when needed and give them insight. With private marketplaces, you can sell a lot one day, and very little another day. There is very little understanding of what’s available or not, what’s the sell-through rate, and it is hard to project against that.

So private marketplaces still have hiccups – what are the biggest issues?

Scale is definitely an issue, and beyond that, it’s a technology issue. Operationally, it’s meant to be easy. But between what the buyer has to do and the seller has to do to monitoring each site, it’s still fairly inefficient.

Google is obviously trying to come up with new ways to do this, and I feel like they are rolling out a new product every week to help us monetize. But there are still inefficiencies on the technology front.

Once you set up, a lot of times it’s not serving, or it’s not serving enough. Then the buyer has to do something, then the seller. Changes have to go back and forth. There has to be a way to make it easier for both sides.

How do publishers compete with Facebook’s and Google’s advertiser offerings?

They have a huge advantage over everyone else: scale and data. At Hearst, we have a lot of data, but you can’t compare. If you try to compete at their game, they will destroy you. Hearst can come in with quality domains and inventory. Having the right user at the right place at the right time is critical, and [the need for a] right place is advantageous for premium publishers. 

What will be the role of programmatic at Hearst a year or two from now? 

We will follow the ecosystem to some degree. We’ve seen standard banners become something you can buy pretty easily programmatically. The direct sales force will focus on big ideas, and bigger opportunities with brands, or skins and bigger units they’ll sell directly.

What’s your industry pet peeve? 

A lot of the tools that have been built historically give a lot more leverage to the buy side than the sell side. If you look at the complexity of how you can bid into a DSP versus how a publisher can set up AdX rules, which is fairly limited, buyers have a big advantage, and publishers are at a disadvantage.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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