Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther Kezia Thorpe: Can you tell me about your career background up to this point?

Jo Holdaway: I’ve got a commercial background. So I did a science degree and I’ve always been comfortable with data, but my first job was in ad sales. I joined the Independent selling print space after a spell at what was then IPC magazines for New Scientist.

I rose through the ranks, really, in commercial and moved into digital, I think in 2003, as a general manager and having just done an MBA. At that point, commercial was slightly one-dimensional. I always had a hunger to look at the business as a whole and gain my business experience and the MBA just made that hunger even more acute.

After the birth of my second child, my boss, CEO Zach Leonard, gave me the opportunity to build a data team and a strategy from scratch. Because I’m essentially very nosy, I like being involved in everything, I jumped at that chance, because data at that time and obviously now especially, is at the heart of business.

What that gave me was an overview and a seat at the table for actually forming or helping to shape digital publishing strategy, which it did. I moved into data quite by chance, but we didn’t have a data team at the time and we needed that capability and my boss gave me that opportunity.

But the commercial experience has really stood me in good stead because, even though I haven’t got a data science background, the most important thing in the enormity of the pools of data that is available is knowing what your business objectives are and how to achieve them and how to use the data available at your fingertips to help the business achieve those KPIs.

So sometimes I think it’s a bonus not having a background steeped in data analytics and data science, because I’ve got those experts in the team to do that for me, but you do need to be comfortable with data. So it was sort of an accident, but a very happy accident.

Do you find you end up being a bridge between probably the more commercial side of the business and then the editorial side? Do they come into conflict a bit?

I think we’re quite unique in our setup. So we’ve always had editors that have been very commercially astute. There’s not really been that church and state operations in the Independent particularly. We’ve always had commercially astute editors, and that just makes the whole thing much easier.

So obviously, each side respects the other enormously, but what helps is data facilitating that relationship a little bit more. We’ve always been quite lucky with that, I think and it’s quite uncommon to have that close relationship, I think, in publishing.

Talking about structure actually, it used to be ESI media, it’s now Independent Digital News and Media. I think you were saying that the data team has almost got a services approach to the different publications that the Independent has. So can you talk us through a bit about how that’s structured and why there are benefits to having it that way?

Yes, sure. As I said before, we started from scratch. I just had a senior analyst with me who’s still with the team and he’s absolutely fantastic. It was just the two of us. Now we’re a team of 30 and we’ve divided basically into data analytics and subscription marketing. Both of those wider big teams service the Independent and the Evening Standard. We’re still owned by the same owners, we’re just separating slightly in terms of editorial and commercial and the Standard getting its own identity and the Independent away from ESI Media.

Within the analytics team, we’ve got newsroom specialists. They are either dedicated to the Independent or the Evening Standard. We’ve got a commercial analytics team who works on advertising analytics, and modelling and stitching together revenues from partners and yield management, etc. And that’s across both brands.

Then we have analysts working with a subscription team, so performance trading, predictive modelling, plus anything off-platform and senior management requirements. We basically devolved those analytical teams into three. Then we also have the subscription marketing team, so that covers marketing, CRM, and customer success. We also have a compliance expert who looks at privacy and GDPR. That falls on to my remit, mainly because I’ve got data in my title, much to my joy at the time.

The centralised model works really well, because it’s really important for analysts to have support, and to have like-minded people that they know that they can talk to, a cross-fertilisation of ideas. Because it enables us to have an overview of how the whole business works, data is the heart of everything, whether it’s finance or editorial or commercial or product, it just gives us a unique perspective over what our output could be and how it could affect the business.

I find that central model really handy and it also is really good from a career development perspective for the analysts because they’ve got common paths for development. We use DataCamp and each one has an individual path, but we know that everybody’s acquiring the necessary skills they need to progress.

I find it a really good plus and it avoids that accumulation of silos across the business, which might involve really fantastic specialist knowledge. But that that knowledge doesn’t then disseminate to the rest of the business and having a centralised approach has really helped with that.

Subscriptions have, especially over the last year or two, grown to be a really important part of publishers’ revenue streams. So what does that look like at the Independent?

It’s quite early days for us, I would say. We launched our first digital edition when the newspaper became digital only. That was back in 2016. We transferred our newsprint subscriber base to this product, which is still around now. But we have never been a subscription-heavy brand.

In 2018, we launched a more popular subscription product, which is called Independent Premium. What we were doing then is really experimenting in the subspace. What we’ve found, and what hopefully I’ve driven, is a change of how we approach this. It’s now a serious reader revenue stream. It’s contributing nicely to diversification of our commercial strategy.

But we’re still in early days. Last year, we really concentrated on setting up a solid foundation for subscription success in the future. We had a transformational change in our culture, and our attitude to subscriptions, because before it was very much a marketing focus and responsibility. It’s like, actually no, accountability for this revenue stream crosses multi-disciplines.

So any team who contributes to this revenue stream, whether it’s editorial or product or data or finance, CRM, etc, they all need to have a stake in it. We’ve now got multidisciplinary task forces across the business. It also meant building a really strong team with experience, and experience in subscriptions marketing, particularly CRM, and trading performance. That has made a real difference.

Was that something that was driven by the pandemic or was that all in place before last year?

It was during actually. There was a surge in subscriptions during the pandemic, so we’ve had the cushion of healthy acquisitions while we were getting our strategy together. But one thing that really pushed us was we earned a place on the Google News Initiatives Subscriptions Lab Programme – it’s a bit of a mouthful – for six months during 2021.

We were the only UK publisher to get a place on that and it was recognising we were in the early stages. It gave us that thinking time to really develop our strategy. So we developed our strategy during the pandemic and we were aided admirably, I must say, by FT Strategies, who were working on this Subs Lab programme with Google. It just gave us that space to think about ‘okay, this is our stage of development, let us identify areas where we’re not as strong, areas where we’re ahead of the game, what obstacles can we avoid that other publishers have come up against’.

Although we’ve got a couple of major projects still to push through the next few weeks, we’re changing our landing pages, we’re changing the way we use our subscriptions platform, and we’re improving all our flows. Ultimately, it all comes back to the quality of the editorial and the value exchange with readers.

We’re hoping at the end of this fiscal – and our fiscal ends at the end of September – we’ll be in a position to be able to offer the business, ‘Okay, here are your choices. Depending on the level of content and the quality and mix of content you want to put behind the paywall, this is what we think we can give you as a return,’ because we balance our subs revenues with advertising. That still accounts for 65% of our revenues.

So we can balance that quite nicely because we look at segmentation – we only offer subscriptions to individuals, we think we’re on the cusp of subscribing. And because we segment our audience so heavily, it doesn’t affect the advertising revenue model, particularly the ads.

The articles that we know do really well behind the paywall are not those that are necessarily driving the scale for ad monetization. So it’s been a real learning curve over 2021. We now think we’re in a position to really take control of the subscriptions space.

You mentioned a few things, but what sort of data and metrics is it important to look at when it comes to subscription strategies?

Engagement metrics are really important. I was just listening to a talk earlier this morning, from Lou Gautier from FT Strategies. She said – and it’s really obvious if you think about it – nobody is going to part with their money and and take a subscription out with you unless they’re engaged with your brand, unless they’ve returned to your brand more than once.

It’s very difficult to get someone at first pass and go ‘hey, why don’t you get a subscription for £8.99 a month’. Engagement is really important. If they are interested in the brand and the editorial, they return to the site regularly, then it’s much more easy to then convert them to a registered user and then to a subscriber.

We’ve got an overarching, what we call, an A to K strategy, which is anonymous to known strategy. It’s all about moving readers from an anonymous state to a known state. Reader registrations are a major driver of this. The engagement metrics are super important and we’ve developed a couple of models along the way.

One is what we call the APV scoring model and that helps us identify the likely subscribers using their browsing habits, or their frequency and mix of content read. We use this model to individually score people, and then message them with the right communication at the right time to push them over the edge to convert to a subscriber. That’s born out of engagement metrics.

Another one is quality read score. That helps the editorial team to decide what content to publish. From a subscriptions perspective or registrations perspective, we want content that’s highly engaging. It can be niche, it doesn’t have to be scaled up, but it has to be engaging.

Then the more content we produce of that nature, and the less effort we put in content, which actually when you map it out, could have low scale and low engagement, it gives efficiencies to the editorial team, and it hones their focus on what the output could be to maximise engagement across the whole field. Engagement metrics, even though there’s a lot of talk around those, it’s the right kind of talk, if you see what I mean.

I suppose that’s important as well, when it comes to renewals, because that’ll be the next thing everybody’s worried about.

It’s much better to retain your subscribers than acquire new ones, and it’s much cheaper. So, while we’ve been having a look at our strategy and madly getting as many registered users as we can, like every other premium publisher, the retention metrics that we’ve concentrated on, particularly from a CRM perspective, which is where we’ve really gained from experience people coming into the team, means that our churn rates have been really low.

Whilst we’ve had acquisition spikes during the pandemic, we’ve also experienced acquisition lows. And it’s the retention metrics and the efforts on retention that has saved the day from a revenue perspective.

I can’t talk about data without mentioning, obviously, the phasing out of third party cookies next year, it’s the big topic in publisher data. What are you working on to prepare the company for the changes that are coming up?

So we’ve got a programme of work in play. The first thing that we made sure we did was rebuild all our segments, our audience segments, taking out the third party data and replacing it with just first-party data. They have shifted slightly in terms of the makeup.

There are a lot more behavioural and interest segments in there. But whilst asking people to register, we do pick up a few demographic data points, which we can use, because agency briefs still come in asking for demographic data. So we’ve redone our segments, we’re going to launch them to the agencies, either in the next few weeks or in September.

We’ve productised those now and we’re going to launch those to the market when we think the time is right. But it will enable agencies to buy with us in a much clearer way, and then we’ve accelerated our first party data programme. So we’ve now got a real emphasis on registrations.

We’ve increased monthly registrations fivefold, which is amazing, predominately because we’ve now introduced registration gating. We respectfully ask our readers to register to protect our journalism, but also to give them a more tailored experience.

We’ve revamped all our newsletters, our portfolio has expanded, the quality of those are much better and the prompts are more targeted, encouraging readers to sign up. We’ve got a new communities platform, so we’re partnering with Via Fora to build commenting, but also the other features that they enable us to launch across the site. We’re about a third of the way through that rollout.

But I think, really after taking note of our own first-party data progression, the main thing that we’ve done is to have the thought that we want to widen our opportunity, we want to make sure that our inventory is available to buyers, how they want to buy it. We don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket and go for one approach post-third-party cookie blocking and then go, ‘oh, well, that didn’t work’ and put the whole revenue at risk.

It’s reminding me of when GDPR launched and everyone was milling around panicking without making definitive decisions, and it was all a bit of mess. So we’ve engaged with as wide a partner portfolio as possible. We’re working with Pubmatic, so we’ll be looking at their identity hub tool. That will enable us to trade with a whole selection of ID vendors without necessarily having to contract with them individually.

From a perspective of long-term partnerships and matching of data, we’re in that space. Our DMP is Permutive, it’s a really successful partnership we’ve had with them for a number of years. They’ve got a similar product called Volts now, which will enable agencies to buy those audiences across premium publishers.

Then of course, we’re keeping an eye on Google, we’re a member of Ozone. We’re trying to spread our strategy quite wide so we don’t miss any opportunity without going all in with every single identity partner, because there are now tens of those.

And what about internally, do people in the company understand what’s changing in terms of data and almost have data literacy, I suppose?

They do. I mean, it’s another cultural transformation. And I think, similar to the GDPR exam I cited a bit earlier, there’s so much notice and time to prepare that I think particularly in a fast-paced news organisation that’s got global ambitions – we’re very much a global news organisation now – because we are very fast-paced and it’s all about the revenues, the next week, the next month, the next quarter. The longer the notice period you give people, the more it gets pushed down the list in terms of needing to do it. I’ve experienced a really good buy-in and support internally from the board down.

So I regularly update the board, great support and buy-in from our MD, our CEO and chairman. The next challenge was then to engage the senior managers. We’ve got a task force, basically, with the help of our head of commercial data and insight, who’s amazing. We’ve got ad tech specialists in that team who have been really indispensable in pushing through the development work that we need to have done in order to participate in all the trials that we want to do.

Then the commercial team are now following behind them in terms of they completely understand it. They know the urgency of it, we’ve probably got around six months to go, which seems to be a trigger. So now it’s like, yes, we want to help, we want to get the message out. But it is a real cultural transformation, and it’s quite tough actually. It always takes at least twice the amount of tiny thing to permeate the whole company.

It requires a lot of nagging from me, so I’m probably the last person that they want to see having emailed them. But it does require buy-in at all levels of the company, but it’s great to get that buy-in from the top first, because then it just gives you added weight for the nagging.

Yeah, I suppose it’s just the time as well, because you’re finally settled into GDPR, they’ve put this announcement out, and then the pandemic hit. People have just been trying to process everything that’s going on, you just want three or four years break, almost.

I know exactly, and all credit to the commercial teams, it’s been such a difficult year for revenue generation. So the last thing they want to really be doing is looking six months ahead when it’s been such an immediate type of environment for the last 12, 18 months to go. I’m saying ‘but it’s really important’ and they go, ‘Jo, don’t today, we don’t even know what’s happening’. It does take a lot of effort and goodwill.

Do you have any thoughts on, I know Google’s looking at Flocks, do you have any thoughts on how effective that’s going to be, or are you very much focused on first party data?

We are keeping a very close eye with Google. I mean, we’ve partnered very closely with them on a whole number of initiatives. They’re really good, trusted partner of ours. But the Flock hasn’t really taken off yet. That’s a terrible pun, because it’s not spelt like that. We’re keeping an eye on it. A lot of our business is traded through Google.

I am absolutely sure that, come the time they will have had, they will have developed a solution that works. At the moment, it’s very uncertain. What I’m actually hoping is that more business moves to the more independent players, away from the walled gardens, and perhaps the major players in the market, just to even the playing field up a little bit. But we most certainly will continue to trade a lot of our inventory through Google, so I’m hoping that it takes off, but it’s not looking promising just at the moment, so we’re waiting for some new developments, I think.

Everybody else has said they’re not going to use them, so it’s like, well, great, but what’s the alternative?

No, exactly, if 60% of your advertising revenue is traded through Google, then good luck if you think you’re going to push it all away. But it’s definitely healthy, in my opinion, to look at alternatives.

Yeah. And just as a last question, diversity in media is incredibly important and it’s rightly grown in importance in companies over the last few years. So why is it important to have a diverse team when it comes to working with data?

Having a diverse team in data is the same as having a diverse team in whatever area you work in. So our data team is pretty diverse in terms of age, also gender, ethnicity, culture, interests, etc. I’m really proud of that and, in particular, when I used to go to meetings, and I was the only woman around the room, and it was data and it was digital, I didn’t really notice. But then it suddenly dawned on me that this is quite lopsided.

What I’m seeing within our team is a lot of different cultures represented, there are a lot of different age groups represented, we have more female analysts than male actually, but as you get further up the management ladder, that’s when it’s slowly reverting back to the old norm.

That’s where I think we’ve got some work to do, which I’m really passionate to get right. I think, as a woman in data and as a senior manager within that, it’s a responsibility of mine to make sure that the diversity of the country is reflected in the workforce. We’re making really great strides as a company to remedy that and to really focus on it, which I’m really pleased with.

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