Home The Sell Sider WaPo’s New Ads Chief Says AI Can Bring Brands And The News Back Together

WaPo’s New Ads Chief Says AI Can Bring Brands And The News Back Together

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Johanna Mayer-Jones, Chief Advertising Officer, The Washington Post

The Washington Post is at an inflection point.

It saw a surge in traffic from news-hungry audiences during the Trump administration and COVID-19 pandemic. But somewhat less interesting times means smaller audiences, and WaPo’s ad revenue (in addition to its subscription business) has suffered.

The WaPo ad tech unit, called Zeus, which for years has been a focal point, recently ceased third-party licensing. But WaPo does still want to build its own solutions for targeting, measurement, contextual advertising and brand suitability.

WaPo has a turnaround plan, which has meant several new executive appointments this week, including the publication’s first-ever chief advertising officer, Johanna Mayer-Jones.

Mayer-Jones has been WaPo’s head of North American client partnerships since July 2022. And she believes the time is right to capitalize on a resurgence in advertiser interest in news content, and the AI trend, to create new opportunities for brand collaborations.

Mayer-Jones spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: Why did WaPo decide to create the chief advertising officer position at this time?

JOHANNA MAYER-JONES: It’s a reflection of how important advertising is, not just as a revenue source but in how we prioritize client relationships. We also announced our new CRO, Alex MacCallum, and our new CTO, Vineet Khosla. We have an opportunity to combine a client-advertising-first approach with their experience in product development and consumer revenue.

WaPo has been losing subscribers, and impressions are down compared to 2020 for news publishers. Do these recent hires represent a new regime?

Our legacy is policy and politics coverage. But we’ve invested in wellness and travel and put 11,000 recipes online. We have the only dedicated full-time disability and accessibility reporter in America. We have a new style section launching in September.

We’ve had to rethink how we work with partners, whether that’s through affiliate marketing, dedicated verticals or new audience products. Now, it’s not just about how you want to reach our audience. It’s about what can we build together.

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News is a tough sell for some advertisers. How is WaPo overcoming brand safety concerns?

Because of the rise of misinformation, news has a different role to play. Advertisers are looking for trusted environments and quality data, and we’re seeing a flight back to news. We provide qualified audiences and safe adjacencies.

We’re building a new brand suitability tool. The idea of negative keyword targeting is quite rudimentary, and we’re using our ML and AI tools to take this to a more sophisticated level.

How will those tools work?

I’d like to save that for a follow-up conversation. We’re also on the cusp of launching new audience targeting and performance measurement tools.

WaPo discontinued licensing its Zeus ad tech at the end of last year. What’s the current state of Zeus?

The next iteration of Zeus is part of our future story around ad targeting and brand suitability.

Are there still other publishers using Zeus? If so, how many?

I can’t comment on that or share that number.

Where are you seeing the most strength in your ad business?

We’re seeing growth in live events, content and in our international business. Over the last few months, growth in consumer-based audiences has been better than B2B audiences.

We started the year in Davos [at the World Economic Forum], and we could see momentum building around AI. There’s been a rush for trusted information about AI and opportunities for partners to get involved, so we have a new AI subsection, an AI Summit live event and an AI help desk video series.

The pullback in ad spending because of recession fears was a big topic over the past year, but it seems to have dissipated. Have you seen any changes in how advertisers are spending?

We are experiencing challenges in some of our biggest sectors, like tech and finance. That’s consistent across the industry. But we’re seeing green shoots of growth in our consumer sectors, like travel and luxury, and there’s some momentum in our health care sector. We’ve built teams to meet [the demand] in those growth areas.

What we’re experiencing feels in line with the rest of the industry. But we need to innovate on creative ad units and how we use technology.

While WaPo is expanding into new coverage, it also recently disbanded some sections, namely the Sunday print magazine and the gaming vertical Launcher. Were these not viable ad products?

The magazine was shut down, but we’re launching a new style vertical. Our commitment to covering culture, style and fashion continues, but with a digital-first proposition.

Launcher’s content still exists as part of our wider coverage. We’ve also introduced new proprietary games, like Keyword. Our games section is one of our most popular areas, and we see some of our highest engagement there.

How are you monetizing your games?

Given Alex MacCallum’s experience [monetizing The New York Times’ gaming vertical], this is an area I can see us playing with. We’re running display ads. But video, pre-roll, building custom games with partners – all of that is on our road map.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

For more articles featuring Johanna Mayer-Jones, click here.

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