Home The Sell Sider Turner’s Top Digital Ad Strategist Sees Opportunity In Brand-Safety Push

Turner’s Top Digital Ad Strategist Sees Opportunity In Brand-Safety Push


As the value of long-tail ad inventory supply decreases, Turner wants to be there to grab the budgets of brands moving toward safer environments.

“The murkiness of the long tail in terms of brand safety, along with Safari 11 killing cookies after 24 hours, is going to force a contraction of money that’s spent on the long tail,” predicted Nick Johnson, SVP of digital ad strategy at Turner. “That budget is going to pull back and need to find a place to live.”

One possible spot for those dollars to land is private marketplaces (PMPs), which Johnson has focused on building since joining Turner two years ago.

Brands, for example, can buy private marketplaces with curated sports or lifestyle content across the Turner portfolio. And Turner sells PMPs during the yearly upfronts, pitching brands on programmatic to achieve operational efficiency, not low CPMs.

But Turner’s most strategic programmatic asset, CNN Digital, is not immune to brand safety challenges.

CNN’s standalone political site topped comScore politics rankings with 31 million multiplatform unique visitors in December. The publication has held the lead for 34 months straight.

The election may have boosted traffic of many news publishers, but some brands are now skittish and avoid political content.

CNN alternately tries to accommodate and push back on those concerns.

“We need to make sure advertisers understand we are going to do everything we can to keep them in places that they feel comfortable in,” Johnson said. “On top of that, we are going to continue to show you that brands perform really well, even in a political environment. Consumers care about this topic and are consuming a lot of it.”

The conversations with marketers about political content are critical, he said.

“The reality is, when the president tweets something like ‘covfefe,’ we are going to do a pretty good number against that, and there is nothing political or offensive about that,” Johnson said. “We are still delivering targetable eyeballs, but there is a profound reaction to that topic we are dealing with.”


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Johnson talked with AdExchanger about how Turner is building a programmatic PMP-focused business and why CNN offers an alternative for advertisers seeking brand safety.

AdExchanger: When you joined, you focused on the CNN Digital business first. Why?

NICK JOHNSON: CNN is a very unique brand: On a normal day, it’s a very big website where people engage with the brand multiple times. On an abnormal day, where there is breaking news, the traffic spikes, and that’s largely unanticipated. It’s hard to know how many breaking-news days you will have every week. That’s why getting aligned with programmatic was so important.

How does programmatic help with monetizing these traffic spikes?

Twenty years ago, when you had breaking news you would have to manage the campaigns to make sure they didn’t deliver [in full] in an hour – but after a certain point you would just be firing house ads. As strategic as you wanted to be, it was hard to sell futures around breaking news with traditional agencies.

Today, we have made a strong commitment to become more overweighted on private marketplaces than open. After we deliver our direct business, we roll in our PMP or automated guaranteed business. Then we max that out and can backfill with open.

How do you encourage agencies to take advantage of traffic spikes within their PMPs?

The way the PMPs are set up is to let these guys handle it on the back end. So, if we are overdelivering, they will stop transacting on the back end.

We spend a lot of time trying to flip that paradigm and say, “You should be trying to take advantage of our best days.” If the royal wedding is breaking on CNN, it’s a feel-good, high-traffic opportunity, and you probably want to think about re-expressing budget from the long tail or lower-scaled platforms to take advantage of the spike.

We are going to deliver 10% to 15% more audience on a breaking-news day of people who don’t come to the site every day, and that is a significant amount of people you can take advantage of in an environment you care about.

With brand safety, brands have more control than ever, but they’ve also been skittish not just around fake news or the long tail, but legitimate news. How has that affected your business?

We live in a world where you are just a screen grab away from an ad that runs in perceived objectionable content. Even if we are operating at a 95% success rate, and I’m making this number up, the focus on brand safety is so acute that the 5% gets a significant amount of attention.

The best example of that is Sleeping Giants. The daisy-chaining plumbing of the ad stack powering the long tail gets really murky really quickly. If you are a Fortune 500 marketer, you’ve lost control, and that freaks you out.

I think that’s an opportunity for us.

When you are running a PMP, could you customize it according to the advertiser’s brand safety preferences?

We don’t know exactly what’s happening on the other end a lot of time. We have started to talk about this issue outside of the campaign level and strategically with senior people on the holding company side about their view.

You can become reliant on a [brand safety filtering] tool that is conspiring against you because of the methodology with which it scores the site. On any given day, the home page of CNN could be talking about political issues, North Korea, the royal engagement or the bomb cyclone. Bomb cyclone is a perfect example of something that in theory could be opted out of because it’s a keyword that might create concerns.

I’ve written about publishers getting caught in “brand safety nets.” Does that apply to CNN?

I personally think that brand safety tools right now are blunt force tools versus precision instruments. You can miss big swaths of quality audiences by working with something that isn’t super precise. I want to make it easy to be super precise with audiences and content within CNN.com.

Talking specifically about our PMP business, I want to go to our holding company partners and say, “We are going to take really good care about you, and you are going to miss a lot of opportunity if you are relying on these blunt solutions.”

Do you see value in the open market when strategically it makes sense to focus on PMPs? For example, do some open CPMs exceed PMPs?

Generally speaking, the volume of dollars and pricing we get is better in PMPs than open. For us, it’s about trying to fill the bucket as much as we can with the PMP.

Open [exchange] provides value for us for impressions that we can no longer keep up with. Or, they are decisioning on audiences. Maybe context is less important and there is a greater appetite or threshold for the content they are willing to run in. If all you care about is an in-market car buyer, you may not care about it running on a Matt Lauer story.

What are you seeing in terms of brands and agencies moving budgets from open to private programmatic?

It varies. Open historically has been a very efficient way to buy. The good news for the PMP strategy is that the long tail is now exposed.

Marc Pritchard is talking about eliminating the long tail entirely. Platforms are opting you out of your cookie, so now there is a 24-hour cookie. These are force functions making the open marketplace less easy, less efficient places to buy.

Marketers that have stayed away from PMPs … are going to get forced back into that brand-safe, high-quality environment and have fewer, bigger, better partners. As that universe contracts, that will affect [advertisers’] CPMs. And we will partner up with advertisers to figure out what moves the needle for them.

What are you eyeing in the coming year?

At the upfronts, we want to be ambitious and ask our partners to be ambitious about how we make those commitments over a longer term, and position CNN as a mainstream leader in brand safety. I don’t think we are ready for prime time on how we are doing that yet, but we will be pretty soon. Building solutions that address brand safety are important to us and our partners.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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