Smarter ads – how publishers can use context to beat the crash

Programmatic advertising has hit a snag. JPMorgan just dropped 98% of the websites showing its ads, while new regulation and the spiralling ‘tech tax’ threaten the entire digital display business. Now is the time for news publishers to leverage their key advantages

by WAN-IFRA Staff | May 15, 2017

Branded content collaborations like the “Defy Hunger Together” campaign between The Wall Street Journal and the car manufacturer Mini (above) are campaigns that publishers should seek to emulate. 

In our newly minted e-learning course, ad expert Matt O’Neill reminds us of the origins of programmatic, when “ad technology and increased internet speeds made it practical to run real-time auctions for inventory. This increased efficiency and yield, and allowed publishers to bundle their unsold inventory to a secondary market.”

It also led to a huge disconnect between advertiser and seller, where buyers had little visibility of the ads they were buying.

Now we start to see the reaction. According to AdAge, spurred by word that one of its ads had appeared on a website called Hillary 4 Prison, JPMorgan announced it will “slash the number of sites where it advertises to 5,000 from some 400,000,” and early results have shown “no significant hit to effectiveness and no hike in prices.”

This should be the moment to celebrate quality and brand safety, a victory for private marketplaces, publisher ad cooperatives and premium programmatic in general.

User-generated content-dominated publishers like YouTube are the ones suffering as marketers plot to retake control of their advertising buys.

But it’s not so simple.

Both direct sold and programmatic advertising is ever more reliant on data. Programmatic today is more about collecting and selling data than about selling ads.

New data protection regulation starting in Europe

News publishers collect a huge amount of information on their readers, and so do their ad partners. If you look at the amount of JavaScript running on publisher sites, O’Neill estimates publishers are only in control of 15-25% of the code; the rest is owned by tech or ad partners, with dozens of cookies collecting data.

So this makes the arrival of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 a huge challenge. The GDPR is the new European legal framework for data collection and processing.

Matt O'NeillMatt O’NeillIt’s all about permission – ensuring your readers have actively given permission for their data to be used. In O’Neill’s words, this “means being clear with users about how what data will be stored and how it will be used.”

It will affect any news publisher with readers in Europe – threatening fines of 4% of annual revenue or up to 20 million euros for non-compliance. “GDPR will have long-ranging existential impact across our industry. Be ready,” says O’Neill.

In addition to this, an update to the cookie law, the ePrivacy Directive, will push cookie questions to the browser level. So publishers will be in the position of asking users to re-enable cookies to serve them ads or simply enable them to log in. And some people are likely to say no.

Tech and ad partners are not just demanding data – they are taking a cut of the ad revenue. The Telegraaf Media Groep in the Netherlands estimates that up to 80 percent of ad revenue goes to intermediaries as part of the so-called “tech tax.”

It’s not good for buyers or sellers. And as media buyers have become accustomed to buying specific audiences, is it any surprise that they have fled to the simplicity, scale and first-party data of Facebook?

Retake control!

So how can premium publishers carve out a niche?

The Belgian co-operative buying platform has built a single platform to buy ads across all the country’s news publishers.

They have a nice chart they call the “Three Screen Model” where Google is for intent, Facebook is for identity, and buymedia is for national content.

All those channels have the right scale and reach. The challenge is to promote and emphasise that content part.

We see similar initiatives at La Place Media in France, or the Pangaea Alliance in the UK. Publishers are working together to promote that combination of premium content and scale.

But smarter ads are also about making a better user experience (UX), finding a win-win with readers and audiences.

As O’Neill puts it, “Smarter advertising means going back to the question of UX – ensuring that interactive, performance monitored ads do not slow down the site, that targeting is not too aggressive and off-putting, and that any data collection is very much opt-in.”

What does that mean in practice? Here are some ideas.

On the premium direct sold side:

■ More native ad formats that show in-feed, work well on mobile, and are sensitive to context
■ Branded content – sponsored articles that play well across mobile and desktop and from your own CMS
■ Strong contextual ads or section sponsorships at better rates
■ Branded videos promoted across own platforms and social
■ E-commerce or affiliate marketing – if done properly there is a strong revenue source – think Washington Post. Networks like VigLink now make this easier
■ In-stream video and other high-end content

On programmatic/non-guaranteed:

■ Embrace scarcity – with fewer ad placements, “not only will your site be a happier place to visit, it will have less tracking,” says O’Neill.
■ Look at companies that do programmatic native – beyond Outbrain and Tabool there are companies like Sharethrough or Quantum
■ Reduce the number of tech partners and therefore the number of people who own your data
■ Include explicit agreement for data to be used for advertising – make the case as positive as possible
■ Sell only through vetted private marketplaces or cooperatives
■ Ensure data is anonymised

As O’Neill explains, “If publishers don’t give users more control over their experience and do not come to an agreement with our audience over the types of ads we will show, then more people will block ads and more drastic technologically-based strategies will emerge to ultimately degrade the user experience.”

News publishers have an opportunity to re-take their place as brand-safe, high-quality content partners for advertisers. The trust from readers is there – the challenge is keeping it.

Matt O’Neill explains more about the current digital ad marketplace in our new e-learning course, the Media Management Accelerator –

Join the advertising session at Congress in Durban

During World News Media Congress in Durban, South AfricaNick Tjaardstra, WAN-IFRA’s Deputy Director, Global Advisory, who wrote this article, will moderate a breakout session called “The Advertising Forum – Can we make better ads?” at 14:30 on Friday, 9 June.

Among the speakers during the session are Lotta Tjulin Thörnqvist, Commercial Manager, Schibsted Content Studio, Sweden; Liz McDonnell, Managing Director, Strategy & Insights, The New York Times; and Andreij Horn, CEO,, Group CIO, Media24, South Africa.

For details, please see

This story first appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of World News Publishing Focus, pages 10-11.

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