The barrage of coverage of Facebook’s fake news and data breach crises have made for unpleasant viewing inside the ad industry bubble. Rather than simply a reflecting an ecosystem in need of repair, some – including Unilever’s chief marketer Keith Weed – have asserted that the very fabric of the ad-funded web is under threat.
Facebook’s potential loss may translate into someone else’s gain, however. Many have pointed out the significance that newspaper groups including The Guardian and The New York Times led the investigative reporting into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, just as News UK’s The Times aimed a shot across the bows of Google with its YouTube brand safety exposé 12 months ago.
Such stories serve the joint purpose of both highlighting the weaknesses of the so-called digital "duopoly", which has been busy hoovering up ad dollars over the past decade, as well as flexing traditional print publishers’ journalistic muscles.
The issue of award-winning journalism is one close to the heart of the World Media Group, an organisation tasked with showcasing the strengths of international media brands, of which The New York Times (but not The Guardian) is a member, along with Bloomberg Media Group, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Geographic, The Economist, Reuters and Time and Fortune.
Now celebrating its 20th year, the strategic alliance recently unveiled a new leadership team: Emma Winchurch-Beale, The Washington Post’s international sales director, has extended her tenure as WMG president for a second year, with support from two new deputies, The Economist’s Alexandra Delamain and National Geographic’s Stephen Murphy.
In light of moves by rival UK broadcasters to work more closely together, it is significant that three senior commercial bosses at international publishers chose to be interviewed together by Campaign – albeit before the Cambridge Analytica revelations came to light.
Winchurch-Beale claimed there is a "nervousness" among advertisers regarding the big digital platforms. "Facebook has seen a drop-off in users. There is an opportunity for publishers to break into that space. The bubble will burst, and there are other alternatives [for advertisers]," she commented.
For Murphy, Nat Geo’s brand partnerships director, brands are beginning to "wake up to the fact that it’s not a choice of Facebook, YouTube or more ‘traditional’ media", and that, instead, they ought to be investing in a more balanced media strategy.
"The headlines are bad and there is a lot of uncertainty around brand safety and metrics. However, these issues can be addressed. The big question for marketers is around the quality of the audience. It’s one thing having a million or 10 million likes on these digital platforms, but how relevant is this engagement to your brand?" he said.
Delamain, The Economist’s senior vice president, head of sales and client services, EMEA, is even more blunt in her assessment of the opportunity presented by Facebook’s recent woes. "Regulation is on the horizon; change is coming. We need to use it to our advantage," she said.
However, Winchurch-Beale insists the role of WMG is not to disparage the virtues of digital advertising: "I can remember when we set up WMG, it was about promoting print quality journalism. While most members still have some form of print play, it has evolved [but] as has been proven over the past 18 months with fake news, quality journalism is perhaps even more important now than 10 years ago.
"It is clear that trust has gone from platforms. [However], we need to remain at the forefront of innovation, for example with VR, and new ways of storytelling and reaching millennials. We can’t dumb down."
Context is queen
Facebook’s power and reach has long offered a double-edged sword for publishers keen to push their content as far and wide as possible, but loath to lose the ad dollars vital to supporting their businesses. With Google, Apple, Amazon and Snap each also exerting influence over users’ eyeballs, Winchurch-Beale is unambiguous in her view of the situation: "We have to work with them."
"At Washington Post, we should be all-in. We publish thousands of articles a week, and we have very much changed the way we use Facebook. It also differs editorial compared to brand studio," she added.
Murphy agreed: "As with any challenge, this also means opportunity. Facebook is a great example – while it is an amazing advertising platform, it also gives media brands unprecedented reach. So the opportunity here is how media brands monetise it."
Nonetheless, the conversation around the idea of context – ads appearing in premium environments, targeting the readers most likely to be reading that content – is growing louder. As Delamain quipped, "Content is king, and context is queen."
With the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) arriving next month, and the very idea of individual-level data targeting under pressure, WMG is keen to prove that premium publishers offer better returns for advertisers than the masses of cheap inventory on long tail websites.
As well as introducing The Smithsonian and ad tech firms Rezonence and Smartology as associate members, WMG last year partnered with measurement company Moat for a report exploring viewability in the era of fake news. The research supported its claims that inventory on WMG member sites exceeds Moat benchmarks in all categories, including across desktop display view rate (+17%), mobile display in-view rate (+39%) and desktop video in-view rate (+16%).
"Scale is becoming less important compared to the quality of the message, and being top of the agenda," said Delamain.
This means a likely rationalisation of the quantity of ad-funded content players, according to Murphy, with the number having surged in recent years, as newcomers tailored publishing strategies to maximise reach on digital and social media platforms.
"There are too many ‘ad-funded’ players. It is not sustainable as most of them are loss making, funded by VC money. A small number of profitable players will emerge and succeed, with the best ones building scale via free, great content. Then they will move into part-subscriber funding for specialist information," Murphy said.
Despite sharing much in common, Winchurch-Beale insisted an organisation such as WMG cannot "dictate" to members on issues such engagement with Facebook and Google. "It’s important to recognise that, as different brands, we collaborate in different ways. Those are commercial decisions for commercial teams," she said.
While its members have "discussed" the possibility of shared programmatic platforms, à la The Pangaea Alliance, an initiative led by The Guardian and backed by CNN, Reuters and others, the integration of existing "strong" proprietary platforms would be too "complex" to undertake for the time being.
Nevertheless, for publishers like The Washington Post, The Economist and National Geographic, a rare opportunity has presented itself to change the narrative around advertising – notably of the digital variety. It is an opportunity the commercial leaders of these brands are determined to seize.