Advertising on news content has become a third rail that many brands won’t touch. Hundreds of brands block words like “Trump,” and others use broad keyword blocks that catch innocent articles in the crossfire.
Joy Robins dove into this skittish advertiser environment in March, when she started at The Washington Post as chief revenue officer. She held the same title at Quartz, the business-focused site acquired by Uzabase in 2018.
In her new role, she’s trying to flip the narrative about news. As brands increasingly align themselves with causes and take a stand, she wants advertising on a news site to register with readers as a way to support journalism – a kind of inverse of Sleeping Giants, an activist group that outs brands for advertising on controversial sites like Breitbart.
“Brands ultimately have the responsibility to support the free press, and we as publishers need to help them understand how they do it more safely,” Robins said.
The Post helps brands align with news – but avoid topics like “disasters” that don’t work for their brand – through technology. In July, The Washington Post’s Research, Experimentation and Development (RED) engineering team unveiled the contextual targeting tool Zeus Insights.
Zeus Insights tackles brand safety but also solves for broader contextual alignment. Brands can choose topics to elevate their brand, such as tech and innovation, and avoid topics that don’t. Since it doesn’t require cookies, it can add value to impressions without user data in a privacy-safe way.
Robins talked to AdExchanger about why she joined the Post, owner Jeff Bezos’ effect on company culture and how she’s thinking about brand safety and news.
AdExchanger: Why did you want to work for the Post?
JOY ROBINS: When it came up, it was one of those way-too-hard-to-pass-up opportunities. I’ve always been in awe of what they’ve accomplished. The past five years have been transformational, not only for the Post but the industry at large. And the Post gets not only scale, but loyalty at scale combined with superior technology and innovation. I wanted to be part of, and steer to, that future.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Inclusive, and built on trust and passion. I care deeply about success but also about how we get there.
What is the Bezos effect?
It gives us a license and mandate to experiment. We can invest without thinking about the very, very short term. That’s why we’re on the bleeding edge. Speed is something you can feel in the company. There’s the idea of “disagree and commit,” where we move forward fast once we decide where we are going.
What’s different about selling advertising at a publication with a large subscriber base?
That [subscriber base] is a cornerstone of what the Post is about. Sometimes subscriptions get mischaracterized as an either/or. But there is a whole host of benefits we can bring to our brand advertisers because of the ownable insights we have about our audience.
Where do you see most opportunity to unlock growth?
Having all the revenue streams work together and the ability for them to complement each other. For instance, we worked with Chevy on unlocking the paywall. We’re proactively looking at how a brand can unlock something of value.
How are you planning for election 2020?
It’s our Super Bowl, our World Cup. We think that this election is the tale of two tables: the boardroom table and the kitchen table. The policies that are at the heart of the election will have a significant impact on both. We can identify policies that a brand is passionate about and ensure that they are safely aligned in the conversation.
News publishers are bearing the brunt of advertisers’ vigilance around brand safety. How are you experiencing that at the Post?
You are seeing blocklists of hundreds of keyword terms. Rather than just looking at the keyword term, getting it in context is important. We are using a tool via Zeus Insights to keep them in brand-safe areas. We go beyond the word to look at the context of those words. We’re educating one marketer at a time.
What does this brand safety focus mean going into an election, when many marketers block terms like “Trump?”
There is unsafe content like “disaster,” and that’s always been a challenge. We’ve always protected brands against that. Something like the word “Trump” will come up if you’re reading about the news and pop culture – and that’s why we have proactively created these contextual understandings, so it doesn’t block everything.
The Post and the Times each had 83.9 million unique visitors in July. The New York Times has increased its evergreen content and service journalism dramatically. How are you thinking about diversifying beyond politics?
We have diversified quite a bit. One of the things that came out of our reader survey was an interest in travel and authentic experiences. We launched By the Way,” and it has had incredible growth in readership. And we launched Voraciously a year ago, which is our epicurean content. The respect and trust our readers have for us gives us license to go into new places.
Why should brands advertise on the Post?
There is a strong recognition that brands should stand for something, and that they need to support what they are passionate about. We’ve done so much work on behalf of partners that highlights and brings to life their brand purpose and how they are doing well by doing good. How we are able to help elevate brands is exciting for me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.