Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Can you tell us about your annual conference, and what lessons came out of it that publishers can take into 2019?
One of the things…which was probably the theme of the event that intending to be so is that we’ve seen a continued onslaught on premium content creators’ ability to be able to monetize their content through advertising. The reality is that no matter what else we do and how we diversify, a base level of advertising is essential to the sustainability of our businesses.
So there was a lot of discussion around, not just the advertising models that exist now, and if you like, the calls for greater accountability and evenness and fairness in the process, but there was also a phenomenal amount of insight shared by publishers and other organisations around the areas where they have succeeded through diversification. So we looked specifically around paid content models and the development growth around there. We also talked about the challenges around innovating businesses that you find internally in terms of how you bring all the stakeholders; commercial people, editorial people, operations people together.
So we reflected about everything that is publishing, we heard and debated perspectives from other contributors in the industry, but extensively I think we were focused on what actions need to be undertaken, not just by individual publishers but us as trade body representatives, to ensure that there is the ability to be able to move forward and continue to sustain what we do. But also to look at where perhaps we’re going wrong, and I don’t just mean publishers but collectively. I mean again one of the points I raised in my opening notes that also became, or comments that became a theme, whether the concerns that we have around our greatest asset which is the consumer, and how certain advertising practices are potentially undermining that relationship and the trust.
I suppose the biggest foghorn I certainly sounded, that I certainly wanted everyone to have as a takeaway, which is that we need to check our behaviour. We need to think about what we do and we need to encourage advertisers not just to make pledges about changing behaviour, but for them to actually fulfil those pledges.
If we’re successful in finding ways of diversifying our revenue streams to not include advertising, then not only have advertisers perhaps lost in an online environment the attention of the user, I would suggest a very valuable environment for those advertising messages to live might have been lost too.
Premium content creators are more than just advertising environments. There is an increasing amount of evidence to demonstrate that if you provide quality content, people are willing to pay for it and therefore that takes the relationship and the exchange of the value of that content direct between the provider of that content and the consumer. It may be that contractually those positions are such where both parties are satisfied that commercial messages don’t need to live in that environment. And I think that that’s not something that people should be too flippant about.
And whether that’s sustainable for all businesses as well, there’s the argument if all the paywalls go up, you’ll end up losing revenue because people won’t pay for everything they read.
Well that’s true, but you know one of the things that, I’m in my 50s, I’ve been in this industry since ’84, and one of the things I…when you conceive an idea for a print product, or broadcast product, or a radio product of any kind, when you conceive those ideas, you don’t think that you have a God-given right to succeed. You work very hard to identify the audience, and the opportunity, and then you go to market. And I’ve been around enough, with interest watched somebody identify a new vertical or a new niche, and then suddenly watch how the market floods it. For about three months typically you have one out there that’s taking the lead and everyone looks to it and goes ‘Gosh, you know this is a space that could be generating money and perhaps we should be in it’. Suddenly everyone floods that market, then there’s the natural consolidation. You go from one to about 100 players, then back down to about three or four market leaders. But because of what technology enables in an online era, there is no barrier to entry. This is part of the problem with a strategy…
Do you think that that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
Well it depends who you are and how you want to look at it, but I think it’s a great thing. I think it’s a great thing, but I do think that, and this is obviously one of the things that we do as a trade body for premium content providers, is that you have to be clear about differentiating that media environment, its audiences, and the quality within that.
And that’s not to suggest that there are bloggers out there that provide great quality meaningful audiences, and reach to key demographics. They do. But there are also so many other things that in this online era, seem to be forgotten, that you know to be able to be the curator of original content, you are effectively a subscriber to principles. Clear defined principles. So again none of that’s a problem, no one has an issue, but when advertising and the purchase behavior of advertising moves to a point as it has where you forget those differentiators, and you treat it all as the same, and comoditise it, then naturally…why would an advertiser be surprised if they’re buying effectively blind through an open exchange programmatically that they’ve got ad messages appearing in environments that they’re not entirely comfortable with. They don’t have those controls and those parameters, and I think it’s important that we recognise that.
But going back to your point, I’m pleased there’s no barrier to entry, but I do also think that anybody needs to recognise that you don’t have a God-given right to exist. So to your point if everything lives behind a paywall, then there is no doubt that some will survive better than others, because of course, you have to produce quality and there has to be demand in order for people to want to pay for it.
And when it comes to advertising, the AOP have worked on the Ad Quality Charter, which I think came out a year ago.
Yeah we launched the previous summit, in October of 2017.
How did you get everybody to agree on what these universal metrics and standards would be?
Well the base level was the fact that all of us are in one way or another, and AOP in particular, we’re one of the four stakeholders of JICWEBS: the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards. So in one way or another everybody is contributing to the desire of our industry collectively to have a set of clear standards.
One of the very interesting things is that as a contributor to that process, it’s easily recognizable and undisputable really that media owners who create original content, who live online, have in place long established code of practice. Principles that they have simply adopted into an online era. So the Ad Quality Charter took the industry standard that is principle based, to inform the structure of the document, and the Charter. And then from within that, through discussion with the publishers, and through research, we’re able to identify what is a comfortable level that we’re operating at, or beyond that standard.
So part of the purpose of the Ad Quality Charter if you like was to enable a vehicle by which we can account, more clearly differentiate, and also offer safeguards, a declaration of assurances to safeguards to quality advertisers that value that, and to be able to therefore demonstrate why a premium environment can justifiably command a premium CPM. So a lot of it is about using a quality charter and our members to help encourage the floor to raise across the industry, but also to support our publishers in a key aspect we feel is a vital part of the advertising buyer process, which is to recognise the superior environment, and to have that clearly differentiated.
One of the ways that the charter allows us to do that is on inspection of where risk lies, so if we talk about fraud for example, and then you look at the processes that content creators and premium media owners have in place to address fraud, and how they negate that, you can see that in real terms, it’s a negligible amount. So as premium content providers, we are able to make a guarantee through a Charter that we would make that guarantee to advertisers that they would effectively not be paying for any fraud, it would be zero fraud. It’s about moving those goalposts, or rather raising the floor and moving the parameters so that it is easier for advertisers and the agencies that play and buy on their behalf, to differentiate quality.
And are you happy with its progress a year on?
It’s interesting. I’m kind of pleased you asked that actually, because it’s a living document that’s really not transformed greatly in the 12 months. And the reason being is that what the document also enabled us to do, and has set out, is an understanding, so if I take another one of the hygiene metrics that’s supplied by the industry is around viewability. Separate from viewability anyway publishers will have a view that some of the performance metrics that advertisers are expecting us to adhere to, these hygiene factors, are sometimes being viewed the wrong way. In other words, are we actually really looking at ‘in view’, what is viewability, is it the opportunity to see, and how does that translate in terms of the transparency and accountability that already exist in digital. Do you ask the same of broadcast? Do you ask the same of print?. How can you guarantee that that ad’s actually being seen. So it’s also recognising that we need to continue to have discussions about what we actually mean when we say viewability.
So that’s one side of things but within the charter when we created it we were purposefully ambiguous around viewability because it gave me an opportunity to effectively make a statement saying that, whilst there is increasing demand from buyside to be able to apply viewability as a guaranteed metric in purchase, what we need to understand first and foremost, is if we’re going to have that dialogue, that we need to correct some of the misapplication that exists in the fulfilment and the placement of advertising. By that I mean that we have two areas which are out of the charter but are very much campaigns and key initiatives that we continue to drive.
And then there’s the other aspect that as an industry we’ve supposedly come together over many occasions, and often driven by the IAB. The reality is that, we don’t as you do in other media, have any form of flight check process. Nobody seems to be particularly fazed or fussed about compliance. And again one of the one of the impacts with any viewability metric can potentially be latency around ad delivery. And that latency around ad delivery can often be caused in fact, based on the research we’re currently doing, around 80 percent of the time is caused because the file size submitted is not compliant.
So if you look at it from a publisher’s point of view, ads that have been supposedly delivered programmatically that may fail the keyword block list application, or if they succeed and pass through that, then fail because they are non-compliant in terms of their file size, and therefore that user has since moved on from the ad call and gone to another page and that ad hasn’t been delivered. You add that all up and that’s around 20 to 30 percent further impact – negative impact – on publisher revenues.
So the Ad Quality Charter for us was putting a line in the sand. It was a declaration, it was a statement of intent saying, these are all the things that we will be able to guarantee you, that no other environment online, no other media organisation including Facebook and Google, are able to offer, to provide as guarantees. It is our desire to get to the point that we are all operating round those guarantees.
And you’ve also recently announced partnership with the Media Trust UK, and that’s providing members with a centralised pool of verified cookie data. Could you talk us through what that partnership involves and why is it’s necessary?
Yeah I mean the Media Trust has had an indirect partnership with the AOP for a couple of years. We decided really off the back of all of our GDPR work that, it was an acknowledgement actually that bizarrely as publishers or media owners we got to a stage where around the insertion order, the advertising transaction between agency and publisher online, all the declarations, the DPAs, were driven from the buy side.
When it was very clear what the expectations are of the law in terms of compliance in the context of both GDPR and the E-privacy directive, we felt it was important to create, again a declaration, a protocol, that is in many ways an insurance statement for media owners that effectively says to anybody that wishes to transact within their environment, or place an advertising message, that they acknowledge that the only pixels that can be embedded in that ad are for specific purposes such as ad verification.
So as we know, there are many many vendors, and many other parties, vendor parties that are part of a daisy chain that are perhaps hidden who are processors. So we needed to identify a way that we could distribute that protocol to all vendors. There is no plan at the moment for some form of rigorous enforcement, it’s simply again like I say an insurance policy that publishers through a single login to a platform that we’ve created with Media Trust will be able to identify those that have demonstrated a willingness to [sign] this or not.
The MediaTrust bit that has now gone live and is really at the stage of vendor outreach, is about contacting any vendor that we, through Media Trust, have identified as currently running any kind of cookie across any AOP member site. And then shortly there will be an outreach to the publishers that will provide them with a single login that they are then able to go in and look up any vendor, any cookie, and from that to be able to identify whether there is clear declaration, whether there isn’t, and so forth. And then the third phase beyond that is then to specifically use the protocol in the same way. Vendor outreach, will you, won’t you, do you, don’t you accept, and then again through that single login for publishers to see where they are.
And Facebook are associate members of yours. I notice Google often get involved in a lot of the conferences and things you do. Do you find Facebook at all proactive in wanting to, perhaps tackle some of the issues that members have had with them over the last couple of years?
I do see them as two very different organizations. I do see Google in part playing an essential role in providing tools that enable publishers to do what they do. But I have to say that we have within the organisation, we operate a number of steering groups, and the steering groups are essential to AOP. They effectively provide our mandate, they provide us with the insight that helps us understand, and occasionally feel the pain that our members undergo.
A very important part, and part of what we discussed at the summit, and part of what we discuss at every meeting, and everything, what I do know is that that they offer a phenomenal scale of reach to individuals. And that in order to exist online in this world, you need a platform strategy. You need a strategy that enables you to be discovered by new audiences, and to be able to attract people into your content.
So. Both Google and Facebook have strategies around that, and publishing strategies enabling that discovery of content. And we run a product and audience development group that when we launched them about two and a half years ago, part of challenge and what was clearly obvious in every discussion, someone will pipe up and say, does anyone know how to work with Apple, or get the best out of it, what’s happening on Instant Articles, has anyone been affected by this algorithm…. And so we reached out to both Facebook and Google and said, there is something over and above what we all do together that needs addressing. We have an appetite for confidential meetings with you and your engineers so that we can better understand those tools, and that would then inform our application and use of those.
And so, we’ve had them in as we do all vendors that have something that is pertinent to the dialogue at that time. We’ve had them in presenting at steering groups and things, but this year we created something that we’ve continued to follow through, which was twice annually, we have a love-in with Facebook and Google, and the product and the audience development groups. The first of which we ran in February, which was hosted by Google. And then Facebook also came to the Google offices to participate in that. So we basically ran two consecutive sessions, one with Google, one with Facebook, governed by Chatham House, and an element of confidentiality of course, where we we were able to put most of those challenges, concerns, questions, and also received, and continue to receive information, if you like, ahead of the curve back from them.
What we don’t suggest to any publisher that they get themselves in a situation where they have a dependency on one, and I think that largely the people that we deal with within all these organisations have an acute understanding of what is required and what is involved.
When it comes to campaigns and initiatives, what are some of your priorities for next year?
It’s the ad quality / brand safety piece that we were talking about, it’s surfacing the evidence to affect a change in behavior around keyword blocking applications, about compliance to creatives, it’s looking at [flight] checkers, it’s establishing a protocol, it’s working with the likes of the IAB and our other industry partners; IPN is bar to address transparency. And to again provide a body of evidence that encourages everyone to recognise the needs to prioritize ways of addressing that.
But equally there is research that we’re doing around improving the quality of premium to enable again clearer understanding of the need to differentiate, that not all environments are equal, and so forth. But also in particular, looking at paid content models, diversification away from advertising, and those that work and don’t. Continuing to strengthen relationships and knowledge with platforms, so that where we do have an off-platform strategy, or we use social media, we know we’re better and more informed about how we leverage that.
But also, I think this is really genuinely important because it’s a very hard thing for anyone to understand, even Cairncross, which is journalism and protecting that in the future. It breaks my heart when you read what’s happening within local press and media, and the challenges they’re facing over at Johnston Press and the like at the moment. And if we don’t work better as an industry to identify and provide ways to better protect the future of quality independent journalism, then it will be a very dark day. So I think as well as addressing the immediate priorities, we have an absolute desire and focus next year in to understanding more about how we can contribute to the knowledge and understanding of what needs to be done in order to protect journalism for the future.
I don’t know if you saw Jonah Peretti’s New York Times interview last week, the Buzzfeed CEO. He did an interview where he suggested that maybe the way forward was to combine Vice, Vox, a lot of the big digital publishers to take on the Duopoly, he said actually maybe as one big conglomerate, it would be better placed. What do you make of that?!
Let’s have a market place where we have just Facebook, Google, Bauer with everybody else on [there], maybe I mean ridiculous. But not so ridiculous in the context of, what I’m saying, even before online, the ability to have an independent expression, tone, and personality, that somebody can find an affinity to, that’s important. Now if someone could show me a really good way under a big…and you know there are big media owner organizations that do it reasonably well, but you know if you have all of the diverse brands under one umbrella, can you assure me that culturally they’ll remain independent?
That’s one thing, but aside from that, where I think you know there is some truth in that comment, is that I think that unless we are able to affect change in some of the ways that are about those injustices, how can an organisation like Facebook be such a beneficiary of the media ecosystem, but not be able to not to find itself as a media company and therefore not have to fulfil any of the obligations that media companies do. Those are injustices. Now if that behaviour continues, and that continues to put a threat upon the existence of independent media owner organisations, then naturally the only way for some of those to survive would be to consolidate. And I think that’s a very very sad time, if we get to that.
But I’m hoping because I’m an optimist that we continue to smash heads together, and encourage people to see reason over anything else to get ourselves to a point where there are, not legislation because I don’t think any government’s going to do that, they’ve had enough time as it is to to affect change and provide influence, and they’ve never done so. So I think that as an industry, keep educating ourselves and look the writing on the wall, and recognise what needs to be done to protect tha. And of course if people don’t value it, and they don’t protect it, then so be it, that’s change, that’s transformation. But optimistically I think that the debates have sufficed to suggest that there is enough energy and enthusiasm around those tables to ensure you don’t get to a point where we all consolidate into two great [publishing lumps].
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