From Slate to WashPo: senior sales exec tells how programmatic has disrupted ad sales

“Consumers are bombarded with brand messages, so everyone has to find an innovative, unique approach to reach consumers. The best approach is proving to be the one that organically ads value to the consumer, providing them something that is fun, interesting or helpful,” says advertising sales expert Cecilia Lang.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | January 8, 2016

Lang has worked in the advertising industry for more than 20 years, including roles at Slate, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Recently named SVP of Digital Sales for Outfront Media, her previous role was Vice President of Global Sales at The Washington Post, where she oversaw global digital and print advertising revenue. In this interview, Lang talks with WAN-IFRA contributing writer Olga Nasalskaya about the recent changes and challenges of the newspaper advertising industry and what we should expect next.

Could you comment on what the “Bezos Effect” meant for your department at The Washington Post?

One of the biggest effects we enjoyed was the investment in our engineering department. Having more engineers meant better tools for readers, ultimately increasing page views and engagement. The tools built for the newsroom were available to the advertising department offering better products and positioning for brands as well.

How did you get started in the media business?

I entered the media industry in 1998 just as the Internet was starting to turn everything upside down. Newspapers were the first to be effected by the digital age because of the migration of classifieds moving to the Internet.

I started working in the classified business and loved what I was seeing the Internet was capable of. I followed my fiancé to New York City, and started working on a contract basis for The Washington Post. I ended up taking a job full-time and launching the global digital business for them.

How has the industry changed during that time?

It has changed drastically. It became more science than art. That science lies in understanding data and orchestrating it to capture expected trends. Today, the industry moves at a much faster pace, and change is difficult to keep up with. The most successful companies are leading change and anticipating the future.

In the publishing world, everyone is now a technology company because the distribution of content requires data, social tools, and mobile expertise.

Distribution models have changed from brand discovery to content discovery, which I believe makes it more important to make content discoverable than to focus on brand image.

That’s not to say that readers don’t care about brands, and I believe the shift to trust and quality is becoming more important in the last few years. But readers don’t search for content anymore, the content finds them. Websites no longer have to wait for someone to come to them.

And what about the selling process, how has that changed?

Fifty percent of sales is coming from programmatic. What this means for a salesperson is that when you are working with brands, you really have to come up with a reason for them to work with you outside of a programmatic model.

That means you have to be more innovative and business savvy. There is a lot more competition on the market.

Brands have more options of where to take their money. For new media brands, the ability to enter the market is different than it was before.

Nowdays, you don’t need printing presses and distribution logistics, or a broadcast station to start a media company. There are so many different content options for consumers, as well as for platform options for advertisers.

Are classifieds still important?

Classified business used to be a huge part of newspapers revenue 15 years go. Now they are significantly less important. Many newspapers still have solid classifieds business, especially smaller local titles, but most of it moved online.

Is the salesperson’s relationship with customers more or less important in the programmatic era?

Most people would say less important, but I definitely think they are more important. Like I mentioned earlier, last year programmatic ads saw the most dramatic growth to date and accounted for nearly half of the ads in the US digital display market.

Those brands not spending all their media dollars in programmatic, they want the alternative – which are custom, innovative, integrated campaigns.

This requires deep relationships with both, the agency and the brand. Integrating brand’s image into the DNA of the web site content or creating branded native content for that client requires deep knowledge of the advertiser’s challenges and goals.

It takes a very business savvy salesperson to be able to pull that off effectively, and a very dedicated talented back-end team to orchestrate it.

If the number of salespeople required due to programmatic model is less, the number of front-end and back-in ops and marketing people is more.

What about the category of content produced by Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu?

This is exactly what I am talking about. Brands are not telling consumers anymore what to see and what to read. Recommendations are coming from social networks, it’s pretty obvious. It changed a lot how publishers distribute their content.

Publishers are competing with all new providers, and original-programming producers is a part of that competition for readers’ attention, too.

To me as a reader, it’s clear what The Washington Post can deliver that Hulu can’t: great journalism. But what about advertisers? Why should they choose The Post over Hulu, which has a larger scale?

The competition lies within the video pre-roll. This format is something all brands are looking for today.

Traditionally, advertisers are choosing to either buy a video, or to buy a custom campaign on a website like The Washington Post, for example. Although there is competition, the advertising model in that way has not changed much.

If you are a brand, you will choose which way you want your message to be delivered: through video, or display ads. Both these formats have different levels of engagement and reach different groups of readers. There are so many formats outside of the video that really work, and advertisers know that.

How have ad formats changed? Which formats are here to stay?

Consumers are bombarded with brand messages, so everyone has to find an innovative, unique approach to reach consumers. The best approach is proving to be the one that organically ads value to the consumer, providing them something that is fun, interesting or helpful.

What about changes in consumer behaviour?

Again, it all comes down to Social and Mobile. More people read news on their phones than on desktop, and Pew research study on State of the News Media 2015 found nearly half of web users learn about politics from Facebook.

The surge in consumption of news on mobile platforms means challenges for long-form journalism. And since people consume content in a more diverse way, publishers need to find ways to capture and hold the readers attention.

There is still a loyalty to brands through social channels, but quite honestly, there are so many interesting things we can discover with our mobile devices now.

As a publisher, you better be quick to load, interesting, fun and producing device- and social channel-friendly stories. Content is still found this way, but consumers control what content makes it to the top of their list. That means that the better the headline, the higher chance that someone will either read and share it, or more likely, skim the first few lines and share it.

You mentioned how important social media is for consumers, but can publishers make money from these platforms?

Publishers are putting their content on social media but the exact monetisation of that has not been discovered or finalised.

The Washington Post has done a phenomenal job at acquiring global audience.

There are also a lot of content providers who have started mobile-only. Odyssey, for example, was created for consuming only on a mobile device.

Mobile platforms are a challenge for publishers, but they are also a challenge for advertisers. The technology is not yet as developed as it needs to be.

Trying to deliver your message in an effective way on a smaller screen is challenging.

Which trends do you think are to stay?

Getting your news and content through social and mobile platforms is here to stay. Programmatic advertising will grow and move more strongly in to TV and other media but the number of players in this space will have to decrease.

Everyone is talking about branded content like it’s a new thing, but it has been around for a long time in a slightly different form. Brands have always been storytellers. So branded content is also here to stay, but it will get much more sophisticated and the content will be more useful and meaningful.

I think augmented and virtual reality are going to become bigger and will offer long-from storytelling capabilities.

Personalisation & seamlessness of content and advertising will become a lasting trend in my opinion.

Location technology will better personalise someone’s experience and cross device communication. Deep linking of consumers experiences across apps will make their everyday lives easier. This will eventually lead to consuming more content, but specifically the content that interests and benefits readers.

In essence, this means less junk on the web, and that works well for companies like The Washington Post.

Is display advertising here to stay?

Yes, brands need to get their message on, and this is a simple way. Standard advertising is very much going to be part of the game – for scale, for value of price.

What is your take on ad blocking?

Like with anything new in this industry, people figure out a way to make it better. It will force the industry to continue getting better at delivering advertising to mobile platforms, in a way that consumers really want to experience, that enriches their lives rather than being just noise to them.

Just as viewability forced both publishers and brands to be more transparent and innovative, we are going see even more changes now that ad blockers are present.

For the short term, it will be frustrating for both content providers and consumers but like everything that has effected the media industry to date, it will all get worked out.

Once again publishers, agencies and brands will have to get smarter about how they deliver their message. That’s why this business is so much fun!

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