Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe

Chris: So, Director of News Ecosystem Development. You must be the only one in the world with that job title?

Madhav: Yeah. I suspect I might be. But we do a very good line of kind of ridiculous titles.

Chris: I didn’t want to say that, but yeah, it is a very Google job title.

Madhav: Yeah. What it is, is really trying to look at all the things that we do with the news ecosystem overall, and represent the ecosystem, and work with the ecosystem. Beginning of last year we launched something called the Google News Initiative, which was really our big focus to try to help journalism thrive in the digital age. It had been based on a previous thing that we’d done in Europe, which was called DNI, the Digital News Initiative, and my current role is really to work on the innovation side but also the dialogue between publishers, the news ecosystem and Google on the product side as well, to see how we can all collaborate.

A lot of what I do is trying to bring people together to create that environment where good things can happen. What we did in each of those areas is to think, what is Google’s role in this area? What’s the actual problem that we’re trying to solve, and how do we help build helpful products for both publishers and for users? And we looked at the mobile space.

What was being said at the time, and it’s funny to think about this because it was four years ago, but at the time everyone’s going ‘Well everyone’s moving to mobile. Mobile is so complicated. And then we’ve got all these tech companies coming to us and asking for our content whether it’s you know Apple with Apple News’, at the time not Apple News + as it is now.

Chris: So confusing. All of these reiteration of names and everything!

Madhav: Yeah, they had Apple News at that time they were saying they had Instant Articles, you had Snapchat Discover, even at the time you at Google Play Newsstand and they were saying the problem was that all these tech companies were coming and saying, ‘Give us a feed of your content, all different tech feeds, all different tech requirements, and we’ll host them for you and do different things’. Can you help simplify this? And then when the engineers in Mountain View looked at this issue they said, ‘Well, why is this happening?’

And what they realized was that, essentially this was happening because the mobile web was too slow. And when they realized that was the actual heart of the problem, they realized this is not a problem Google can solve. This is an ecosystem issue. And that’s how AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) was developed as an open source form of HTML that really keeps publishers in control, and is optimized for mobile speed.

And when we brought it back to that that group they were a little surprised actually. They said ‘Oh, we thought you’d come up with your version of Instant Articles,’ and the engineer quite rightly said, ‘Well that wouldn’t have solved your problem’. And I really liked that because it showed that when you have this dialogue about the challenges, you may get to good solutions, which you may not have thought about in the first place. In the time that I’ve been at Google, Google has improved in that dialogue.

But let’s be clear on the beginning stages, it was not very good at that at all. And I think we’ve got better. I think we’ve got a way to go. But I do believe that that dialogue and that collaborative approach is the way to help with the sustainability, the news ecosystem that we all love.

Chris: So what then is almost the ultimate goal of your role here? Is to continue to support, or is it to give them the tools to solve their own issues?

Madhav: Well I think it’s a it’s a bit of both, right. I think our commitment to the news ecosystem from a Google perspective, has been going on for over 15 years. I’ve been at Google for about eight years now and I should have confessed in the very beginning. I’m a news person. I started at Associated Press Television, I was on the start-up team for that. I went to the BBC, and let me be crystal clear, I’m the technically dumbest person, but I really am the news person, and I think there are many more news voices at Google which has helped with that that overall dialogue that we’re trying to do.

I think it’s important to understand why Google cares, and the way that I describe it is, that we care really for three reasons. One is around our mission, second is around our products, and third quite pragmatically, is around our business model. Our mission about making the world’s information accessible and useful, news is an important part of that. And we think that an informed public makes for better civil society.

I know that sounds really cheesy, and so that’s my words not official Google words, but I think that news is important, and I think when you talk to any news person, they kind of get a bit shy about saying why news is important, but you dig beneath the surface and they’ll say to you that news is important. And we share that same value, which I think is very very important.

But also we have a series of products that work with publishers. We have products that send publishers traffic obviously – search and Google News – but we also have products that are…our ad tech space that we work with publishers a lot.

And that comes to the final point around our business model. The way that we interact with the news ecosystem is very much around a revenue share model. In this space, in the space that we operate in, the space that’s relevant to digital advertising to publishers, we only make money when publishers make money, because we’re an ad tech supplier. That’s different from the other tech companies but it’s important to understand our role in that.

And so therefore we’re we’re sort of selfishly incentivized to want the news ecosystem to thrive, because if they thrive and they make more money, we end up making more money.

Chris: It seems that would be the case not just for publishers, whoever is doing really well will drive growth and ad spend. So, there might be a disconnect there between what’s important to not just you personally – you did a really good job explaining why news is important to you – what is important from a personal level or on a social level doesn’t necessarily translate to what is important to Google from a business perspective, because surely any growth in ad spend then would be would be beneficial, it doesn’t necessarily have to come from publishers?

Madhav: Well there’s a significant chunk of our business that is all tied to publishers. And I must confess like I said, I was at BBC and AP, so I’m not an ads person. I actually had to understand and learn Google’s ad business…

Chris: How long did that take?

Madhav: A lot of Googling! So this is very much a layman’s view on that. But if you look at Google’s business, I think this is important to understand Google’s business, right. The vast majority of Google’s income comes from search advertising. That’s when you type in, like I did over the weekend, ‘car rental in Toronto’, because I’m going on holiday. And you see ads, and those ads are paid for by advertisers based on the clicks that people click through, and that is not a piece of business that publishers are in. That’s performance-driven advertising.

Publishers are in the display advertising business. And in the display advertising business, Google is an ad tech supplier. And we provide tools that publishers can use to source ads or serve ads, and we do that on a revenue share model. And our revenue shares start at 70 percent and go up depending on how you use that.

So again, if you look at the display advertising business for publishers in that space as a supplier, we only make money where publishers make money, so that’s why we’re always trying to help them thrive in that space.

Chris: So you came to our 100th episode. And afterwards we were having a chat, and you said there’s a misconception about where this idea that growth in ad spend is primarily going to Google and Facebook. I just wondered if you could elaborate on that, because it does seem to be a preconception that is is very widespread, particularly among publishers.

Madhav: And I think that you have to – and again I’m saying this as a lay person – when I heard some of these [memes] that were out there, I actually went in and tried to do some research, and ask smarter people than me about how that worked. And I think if you look at things like the eMarketer data about the different types of digital advertising, what you see there is both search and display are growing, and actually display was growing faster than search in Europe and in the reports that I looked at. And then when you look at display, which is the relevant part, that’s the piece where we’re a supplier. We are not a competitor.

So the way that it was explained to me was, imagine you’re an advertiser, and you have a pound to spend. You can put a pound into a publisher, and if we are a supplier, we’ll take a little piece of that, but the vast majority of that will go to the publisher. If you put it into the Google Display Network, again we’ll take a piece of that, but the vast majority will go to where that ad ends up being displayed on the publisher side.

That’s different from some of the other tech companies that are out there. We don’t see ourselves in digital display as a competitor.

Chris: That’s interesting then, where do you think this misconception, these memes came from?

Madhav: I think the reality is that it is very tough in the news ecosystem right now. No doubt about that. And I think that what that has done is, sometimes people are looking for both easy people to blame, and easy solutions. So it’s very easy to blame technology, or Facebook and Google, or the Duopoly and all phrases like that.

But I think the reality is that it’s actually very complicated and nuanced, and so I think if we’re going to have a successful, sustainable, thriving, news ecosystem, we actually need to diagnose what’s going on very specifically, and understand that these are the different roles that people play in this ecosystem. And that’s why I keep using the word ecosystem, right? And that’s why it’s in my title!

I remember when I first started at Google, in some public speech I used the word ecosystem, and the moderator laughed at me. He was like, ‘Oh you know, buzzword bingo!’ And I said, ‘Well the reason I use it – and please tell me if you’ve got a better word – but the reason I use it, in an ecosystem, all the parts of that ecosystem interact with each other in different ways. And so there are dependencies, there’s links, and the health of the overall ecosystem is based on the different parts’.

And what I found really interesting is that Sundar our CEO said a while back, he goes ‘We consider ourselves an ecosystem company’. He’s gonna put it much more eloquently than I will so please feel free to Google exactly what he said. But essentially what he was saying is that if you look at some of our businesses like our ad tech business as I said, but also things like YouTube, things like Play, they’re all built on revenue shares because we’re part of that ecosystem.

As the ecosystem grows and thrives because of that revenue share basis, we will grow and thrive. So we need to balance the issues with the ecosystem as well as the issues with the users.

Chris: Yeah I think that’s something that every member of the Media Voices team will agree on is that publishers do love an easy target for blame when it comes to this kind of thing. If you look at the kind of pillorying that Craigslist is still getting in a lot of cases. But at the same time it does feel like publishers and Google fundamentally have different priorities in a lot of cases, and what’s right for publishers might not necessarily be right for Google. So just today I saw an article in What’s New in Publishing about tracking, which Google’s made some changes in line with what its users prioritize or what you actually want to protect your users, but publishers are now having to scramble to respond to that. So is there ever a case where people will all be pulling in the same direction, or is it finding a compromise?

Madhav: So actually I think we have a lot more in common and we share a lot more together. And let’s talk about the tracking because I think again, the devil is very much in the detail there. I don’t think anyone would say that it’s a bad thing for users to have more control over their data. And that’s actually what they’ve been trying to do in Chrome, but they’re trying to do it in a very balanced way.

If you look at what we said in terms of the approach that we’re using there, we have flagged things coming saying we’re going to do this in the future, so please think about how you do that. We’re trying to make it transparent to the user, but we’re also try to make it transparent to the publisher. So again, the devil is very much the detail there. And we think we’re doing that in that balanced way between the user and the ecosystem.

And in a way it’s similar to some of the stuff that we’ve done around adblocking. And again that was one of the things that was brought up by the DNI working group back in the day, where they said again three or four years ago, ‘Ad blocking. Oh my God! What can you do?’ Again Google looked at this and said, ‘Right. This is an issue.’ And what they did is that they actually said, ‘We can’t solve this on our own’.

They brought a bunch of people together, they created the Coalition For Better Advertising. And then what they did is they went and did user research. And they tried to make it user oriented, so they went to try to find out why people were ad blocking. And in a lot of the cases, it was because the ads were terrible, terrible experiences.

There was also a chunk of people who didn’t realize they had ad blockers because somebody else put it on, which I was found that amusing…

Chris: Oh my god…that’s a completely different internet, you turn that off and show them what it’s actually like, they go, ‘What the hell is this!’

Madhav: But then when you dug deep into the research and then you started showing people different types of ad formats, what they realized is, actually people didn’t mind ads. They minded really intrusive ads, and actually when you also educated them about the fact that, ‘Hey, you know what, the ads subsidise the content that you’re enjoying,’ people were even more open to it. And that’s why we put in tools and solutions to help with that.

That’s why as an industry we came together and said, ‘You know what, this is where the user research really says that the line is, and we should really be as an industry better about that’. And I think that’s a that’s a really strong movement. I see the ad tracking stuff in the browsers as a natural outgrowth of that. People understand that users should have transparency and control over that. And publishers should be able to understand that as well.

So this narrative that sometimes gets built up of Google versus publishers, and everything that Google does is really horrible for publishers, actually it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when you actually look at the detail of it, because our incentives are very much aligned I think.

Chris: That’s interesting particularly in light of what you said about the Coalition For Better Ads, which at the time was mooted in some circles as being a change that was being forced upon publishers. So you’re saying that that was actually in service of a better experience for the users, which in turn is better experience for publishers, in terms of creating a better environment in which to serve ads?

Madhav: Agreed. And also came from a problem that was highlighted by publishers. So the publishers highlighted this is an issue. We looked at the problem and said, ‘Okay actually this is something that needs to be done at the ecosystem systemic level. Right. Let’s create that framework to do it.’

We are a part of it, no doubt about that, but we are one part of it with a group of other people, because I think what you don’t want in that situation, you don’t want one person saying, ‘This is it!’

Actually it’s better to build a consensus around that, which is what I think they have done through the great work of the teams that worked on the Coalition For Better Advertising.

Chris: In addition to the work you’ve done around DNI, you’re also a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism?

Madhav: I’m on the advisory board, I wasn’t a fellow.

Chris: All right. So you get to talk to publishers about their priorities, and it seems that lately it’s been shifting towards reigniting that direct relationship that they have with their audiences, which in a lot of cases they neglected when they first went to digital. So in your experience, what is best practice then for really reigniting that relationship? And is there anybody who is doing it particularly well?

Madhav: So I think, and again I want to be careful that I don’t come across as saying, ‘Well you should be doing x y and z,’ because I think the smart publishers are the ones who actually understand their own brand identity, understand their audiences, and understand their…it’s the marketing phrase, their USP, and what is different and special about them, and then realize, how do you use that to build the relationship? And I think the best examples in the U.K. are probably going to be the FT and the Guardian, both of whom have taken an approach for direct to the user but in very different ways.

You’ve got the paywall approach of the FT, which is by any measure phenomenally successful. But also one of things that they’ve done is, they just really are rigorous about it. And they are constantly re-evaluating it, they’re really really smart about it, they’re thinking about it all the time. Not just as a paywall but as the overall, what is the value that they give to the user and how do they track that that user is still getting that value.

I was listening to the Media Voices podcast you had with Katie Vaneck-Smith and Michael Silberman, and again I think everything that was said on that podcast, basically don’t listen to me, listen to that! I think it is great, but I think it’s also interesting that you have the Guardian who, and again let’s be clear, when they came out with their membership model, they were pilloried, I think completely unfairly. Absolutely unfairly. And I think they have proved all those naysayers completely wrong, because they understood that there is this connection that people have with the Guardian.

I think that’s what Katie was talking about in that podcast about memberships being different from subscriptions. You want to be part of something and they’ve tapped into that. And this is the amazing power of the Internet. So much of their revenue is coming from America, and places that they haven’t been in historically!

Chris: We spoke about display advertising before, you said they are display advertising businesses in lots of ways but they’re now focusing – publishers who have this audience they think we can monetize this way – they’re focusing on subscriptions. So from your experience talking to people, how much of a challenge do you think it’s going to be for the small and midsize publishers to actually do that effectively?

Madhav: I think again, I refer you back to the podcast with Katie and Michael. It was really interesting that they were talking about, you need to start with your product strategy first and your audiences. And so I think again you’ve got to go back and say, what is the thing that you are offering of value to your user? Another way of phrasing that that I quite like, is to think about, what is the problem you’re trying to solve? What is the problem that you’re trying to solve for your user, your audience, and how do you build a business around that?

I think there are other elements that obviously from a UX perspective you need to make it simple and all that kind of stuff. I mean I was talking with somebody from the Play team a couple of years ago and they went through the steps on mobile to subscribe for a news organization. There were 26 steps.

And so there’s a whole element that you need to solve on the UX side, and we’re trying to help with that through subscriber Google, but you need to do those first bits first, which is, what is it that you are delivering of value that someone will be willing to pay for.

And I thought what was really interesting from some Reuter’s Institute research about people’s propensity to pay. And they said people are willing to pay, but their expectations are very high. Their comparison is not news site X versus news site Y. It’s Netflix and Spotify. And in the US, and Hulu. And so that’s the kind of barrier making things really really simple that you need.

But also from a content proposition, what is the value that you’re delivering as well?

Chris: You pre-empted my question there around Subscribe with Google. What’s the status, how much of that is still in consultation with publishers?

Madhav: We’re very much still in the consultation phase. We have around 50 partners across 18 countries who are in different phases of their implementation. I think that it’s still early days, is what we’re saying. We’ve seen some encouraging signs of success. But again it’s really hard to actually measure success, because most of the publishers we’re working with are existing paywall publishers, or subscriptions in some way.

So it’s about, if you’re going to say something is a success or not, you actually have to do a like-for-like comparison. And actually doing like-for-like comparisons is really quite difficult! But where we have seen that, and I think there is some Brazilian publishers, some Australian publishers who have been talking about how they have seen their uptake rates through Subscribe with Google being higher than their existing ones. And we’re hoping very soon to be publishing some more case studies where people can drill into that.

What I would say is, it’s early days, we’re seeing good signs of success, we want to publish these case studies, so that individual organizations can go and say, ‘OK that’s similar to mine, or that’s not similar to mine, so maybe that learning is not completely applicable to me, or actually that works, maybe I should think about this in this way,’ because I think there’s another piece that we’re trying to do under GNI in particular, which is around knowledge sharing, and trying to get publishers to share knowledge of their experiences better.

And I think that there’s this – and I say this as a news guy right – which is that news organizations have always been very very competitive with each other. And I think that is a good thing.

But I also think there are areas that they don’t need to compete. And actually for the health of the overall ‘insert my buzzword of ecosystem here’, that the more that people share, the better that I think we will all be on that.

So that’s why with Subscribe with Google, we’re asking the publishers if they’re willing to share their learning so people can take learnings from that. But I would say that just because it works for publisher X does not mean it’s going to work for publisher Y, because again going back, you’ve got to understand yourself first.

Chris: So it seems to me to come back to this idea that you look at publishers as one entity, or you look at the Duopoly as one entity, whatever that actually means in practice, and what works for the goose won’t necessarily work for the gander. But people still insist on treating the conversation as though it is this dichotomy, an either/or versus situation, whereas really it’s so much more complex than that. 

Madhav: I completely agree with you and I think the issues are too important for that kind of conflation and simplicity to be the common currency. I really wish we were having better, deeper conversations about this, because those issues are important, and doing those kind of conflations just doesn’t help anybody.

 

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