The Financial Times is seeing more brands redefine success in programmatic amid transparency furore

The Financial Times explains the rationale behind its commercial charter. / FINANCIAL TIMES ADVERTISING CHARTER

Premium publishers have urged brands to look at the value of their inventory rather than the cost for some time but it’s only now, amid a cacophony of concern for the way media is traded, that the Financial Times is seeing more advertisers consider the importance of context in media.

It has resulted in more enquiries from more advertisers to the publisher’s commercial team, according to global advertising sales and strategy director Dom Good. Whereas cookie-chasing campaigns at low-cost have dominated media plans for years, advertisers are now having to think far more about where their ads appear and who sees them amid growing concerns over ad misplacement - “I think we and the premium segment have always argued the case for the power of the environment and the power of brand association and I think that’s coming back into the mix,” says Good.

Some publishers have struggled to make this stick in the programmatic space; Good’s equivalent at the Guardian - Nick Hewat – has previously voiced his frustrations at how programmatic values something like the ‘Panama Papers’ or the design, quality and content of an environment. Thanks in part to its paywall, the FT hasn’t had the same issue, it uses subscriber data to sell most ads directly and therefore ensure its journalism is valued comparatively to the environment on another site where the same person is allegedly paying the same amount of attention. While “a little bit” of its inventory is sold on the open market, most now flows through private marketplaces - this is what advertisers want “these days”, claims Good. “They don’t want to spray and hope… I think we’re in an interesting place because of our subscribed audience and the nature of those readers.”

This “interesting place” is made more intriguing now that brand safety, fraud and viewability issues - that have lingered for years – are filtering through to the boardroom due to Procter & Gamble’s critique of the online industry and the Times expose. Good confirmed the shift, revealing that many of those advertisers he meets reveal the issue “isn’t just at the board level, now it’s embedded with their procurement teams or within their media specialisms”. The Times report only made the inclination “even more compelling”, he opines before claiming “it’s not just a reputational horror story, it’s also an economical one”.

Yet, the FT must still tread carefully, particularly as it looks to generate more money from its readers looking at content on other sites it doesn’t own - it doesn’t control these environments. Dubbed ‘audience extension', Good says it is an “incredibly important part of what advertisers want to do with us” and assures that it only targets people in a brand safe environment using whitelists. Most of the publisher’s campaigns in the UK are done this way, while advertisers will also bring their own whitelists that they intend to work from.

“It’s not always possible to use absolute whitelists because the audience becomes so tiny that you need to broaden it out and when we do that with the advertiser’s involvement and we use the highest possible filter settings on Double Click Bid Manager so that we’re filtering out any sites that have ever been reported to Integral Ad Science or other sources for any inappropriate content,” says Good.

“I think we take every possible step we can to ensure that all the filters are turned on and we wouldn’t transact unless they were.”

Scrutiny over the placement of ads has also peaked viewability concerns among advertisers, though Good answers “yes and no” when asked whether that has translated into more interest in the FT’s time-based cost-per-hour metric. Yes, because advertisers are using the metric as a proxy for 100% viewability ads. And no, due to more advertisers realising it makes more sense to buy time then it does on viewability if they want a brand effect from their campaign. Viewability and engaged time are two “interesting sides” of the same coin and if “you’re an advertiser then engaged time is actually a better outcome for you,” adds Good.

“Let’s be honest, viewability standards even if they were beefed up are still going to be a very short amount of time in view. I think we’re getting demand in the time-based proposition from advertisers who understand that the outcome they really want to generate is time and engagement with an audience so that their brand message can be understood,” he continues.

Perhaps the way forward doesn’t start with the industry reaching a consensus, rather with stakeholders taking a leadership stance. The FT’s Commercial Charter was its attempt at just that last week when it revealed a list of eight commitments around customer service, viewability, non-human-traffic, brand safety, third-party verification, reporting and pricing. None of these commitments will be news to those advertisers and agencies that already work with the publisher, but it felt the need to publicly state that “we think if you’re going to be a premium publisher then those things [commitments] should be core to how you go to market and there should be standards you’re prepared to uphold”.

“Everyone has been waiting for leadership to come about from someone, wondering whether it should be the trade bodies, the agencies, the clients or the media owner,” continues Good. “The answer is it’s everyone’s responsibility and – to paraphrase Michael Jackson – we’re starting with the ‘Man in the Mirror’."

But to properly understand what the FT is trying to achieve, Good says its Commercial Charter must be viewed alongside the Reader Charter it revealed last year. He talks about the need for the industry to more mindful of the value exchange between publisher, reader and advertising, a dynamic the commercial boss believes won’t be far from the top of discussions at many panels and meetings during Ad Week Europe.

One part of the dynamic the FT is currently addressing, is around labelling of content as “readers want to know where it came from” so “we’re trying to standardise what we do in that space”. At an IAB event earlier this month, he referenced how the New York Times has gone about labelling native content (with a different typeface, company logo and other cues) as a source of inspiration on how to avoid confusion between advertising and journalism.

It all sits on the publisher’s next-gen site NextFT, which has been in development since 2015 and already undergone numerous homepage designs, focus groups and other alterations. Part of the publisher’s drive is to create something that is fully responsive both for readers and advertisers. Yet, Good says that interest in the new responsive formats has been lacklustre.

“You would think that anybody who wants to reach business decision makers with an ad would want to put that message to that reader, whether they are on the morning commute and therefore on their handset or at a work on a desktop. With a responsive site you can do that and you don’t have two different targeting [campaigns] running in the background. But the number of responsive campaigns that we have run since we launched FT.com’s latest version has been one. That tells you how engaged agencies are with responsive formats. It’s not happening for a bunch of different reasons – you’re missing 50% of the audience as half of ours at some point in the day is on a mobile phone.”

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