How News Corp and Unruly are seeking to redefine programmatic through their new private marketplaces

News Corp's drive to redefine programmatic

News Corp is working to redefine programmatic to no longer be about remnant media but premium deals sold at direct rates, and is investing in Unruly's new private marketplaces (PMPs) in the hope it will woo more spend through its own channels versus the digital giants.

Instead of purchasing inventory using standard industry metrics on News Corp sites and hoping the content will attract the right visitors, media buyers can now buy inventory that matches a person’s mood after viewing a brand's ad to the environment surrounding it.

The advent of adtech has both made it easier for publishers to shift more inventory at scale but also pushed down the margin they make from those ads, paving the way for them to look to new metrics in order to premiumise their inventory.

Recognising this, News Corp has poured an undisclosed sum of money into Unruly this year to accelerate its programmatic offering, with a particular focus on creating PMPs that refine what marketers can trade on. The investment will lead to 12 additional hires in data, analysis, tech and innovation.

Now, advertisers can trade on a consumer’s likely emotional state and tailor their ads accordingly using Unruly’s slate of creative PMPs, to ensure their ad will resonate emotionally.

The video ad outfit has built the PMPs based on the emotions a piece of content is likely to elicit. To do this, it first had to identify the top 12 top emotional and cognitive responses most likely to drive video engagement using Unruly’s content testing tool, Unruly EQ. These are: happiness, exhilaration, amazement, inspiration, hilarity, sadness, warmth, pride, nostalgia, surprise, knowledge and shock.

It then uses Grapeshot's tech-powered article analysis to measure which sites are most likely to elicit these emotions. Working with the targeting platform, Unruly created a taxonomy for each of the 12 emotions, identifying words that are most likely to evoke a specific response. Words like puppy and baby, for example, were thought to evoke warmth, for example.

Grapeshot’s page scraping and text analysis then scanned hundreds of recent articles on each of Unruly’s partner sites, which include The Times, The Sun, UniLad and The Huffington Post, to see which sites over and under-index on each of the emotional responses.

Advertisers can then trade on emotions using Unruly’s supply-side platform (SSP). The emotional PMPs are available globally, across the entire News Corp portfolio.

Capitalising on the growth of vertical video from such sites as Snapchat, Unruly has also created a vertical video PMP and is promising various others that can be tailored to the KPIs of a client.

“We have any number of PMPs. Emotional, vertical, vertical in terms of category, and pre-optimised PMPs when you are looking for a particular KPI. The PMPs are based on what the market is demanding and how we are developing ourselves,” said Genna Osler, managing director of Unruly UK.

Paul Gubbins, an independent adtech consultant, said Unruly’s creation of an initiative that captures incremental yield for publishers is “perfectly timed”, when traditional PMPs as we know them “may be coming to the end of their shelf life”.

“It comes at a time when publishers are trying to clear out the hundreds of dormant legacy PMP deals that are not generating any money and the buy side are evaluating the value of PMPs beyond white list functionally, priority and data,” he said.

“Enabling both buyers and sellers to overlay a new targeting feature such 'emotional state' within a controlled PMP environment will only encourage more brand budgets to flow through the programmatic pipes.”

Maintaining price parity across all deal types

When programmatic first starting peaking publisher interest a few years ago, the mentality was still about remnant media. Programmatic was seen as a way to ditch inventory that publishers couldn’t sell directly at a proportionally lower price.

Consequently, publishers have lamented the margins they made from ads sold programmatically, especially when most of the time they receive less than half of the money a client puts in due to a fragmented adtech chain.

Last year, the Guardian’s chief revenue officer Hamish Nicklin revealed that adtech outfits operating within the supply chain are taking up to 70% of advertisers’ money without being able to prove the value they provide. Nicklin's accusations, as reported by Mediatel, were based on his own investigation into where programmatic ad spend goes, which in the worst cases ends up being as little as 30p to the Guardian for every £1 spent by advertisers.

“The only thing that really seems to matter is how cheaply you can get your message in front of an audience", he said, speaking at an ISBA event last month.

Echoing these views, Ben Walmsley, digital commercial director of News UK, said publishers should not discount the price of any inventory because of the method in which it is bought, and instead should maintain a price parity across all deal types, including direct and programmatic.

“Of course there will always be inventory that publishers are not able to sell directly, that has always been the case. Years ago it would have been swept up by networks. What we have now is the open marketplace which is a fantastic lead generation tool, moving clients into premium deal types. We see the open marketplace as an insight that allows us to move our partners into more strategic conversations which are based on fixed price and reserved inventory,” he said.

“But whether you are doing it directly or programmatically the price should be the same,” he added.

Since News Corp acquired Unruly in 2015, and with News UK’s appointment of a programmatic head to its sales house The Bridge last year, the publisher has grown its programmatic output to be “roughly on an equal par” to its direct business, Walmsley claims.

He predicts the industry will move towards a world where direct will be considered a subset of programmatic, and is pursuing fixed rate and reserved inventory deals that have the potential to generate the same yield sold programmatically than that generated by direct buys.

Will the open marketplace ever match fixed rates and reserved inventory of their private counterparts? “Probably not”, answers Walmsley because there is a “concession that is made on the part of the buyer”. However, he can see the “distinctions of direct and programmatic merging at some point and we will just talk about the terms of the transaction”, he continued.

“In that world where a buyer wants transparency or wants to be associated with a particular audience or piece of inventory, then yes the terms will be the same. That is what we are working towards at the moment. We have plenty of buyers who are willing to pay what we might consider direct rates for programmatically-transacted business,” he said.

Taking back control

Publishers are at odds to wrestle back control of their ad money from the digital giants Google and Facebook, and the adtech chain that has been accused of failing to disclose fees earned from advertisers that appear on their sites. This was most recently highlighted by the Guardian’s lawsuit against adtech firm Rubicon Project for the recovery of non-disclosed buyer fees in relation to Guardian inventory.

As such, publishers have stepped up efforts to recoup some of that value by looking at new ways to generate revenue from their valuable first-party data. Audience extension is one such way publishers are leveraging their own data to make more money beyond their own sites.

CNN, The Guardian, The BBC and MailOnline are among the publishers decoupling their audience data from their inventory to help advertisers understand and reach relevant audiences elsewhere online. It’s also a way for publishers to monetise their data more effectively, with the FT the most recent to say it will play a key commercial role moving forward.

Walmsley said audience extension is a “big focus” for News UK, a capability it adopted with the purchase of Unruly.

“That is capability that Unruly has given us that we didn’t have before – the ability to be able to find our audiences and find similar audiences offline. We don’t have a specific target – we want to strike a balance across our own and other platforms,” he said.

Header bidding is seen by some publishers as a way to wrestle back control of ad sales from Google due to the increased competition for impressions. It’s a view that Trinity Mirror’s former head of programmatic, Amir Malik, also a former Googler, voiced last year.

“I think header bidding is ultimately a fantastic development and is largely an opportunity to stop the dominance of Google over ad inventory so we can resist them taking first look on every impression,” he said, speaking on a Programmatic Punch panel last year.

Walmsley, on the other hand, believes this to be an “extreme view” and wants to create an environment where all players, big or small, get equal opportunity to bid for an impression.

“I wouldn’t say it's about wrestling back control, more about creating an environment where all buyers get an equal opportunity to win the same impression, Google included. All that does is make a fairer auction for everybody,” he said.

News UK has been testing a header bidding container for around nine months, using six different bidders. The publisher has not seen some of the risks generally associated with header bidding, with load page latency a point of contention for many. It’s why the Financial Times has reservations about using the adtech, believing the promise of better advertising yields isn’t worth the risk of longer page-load times that could be incurred by using the code.

“We like the idea of having as much competition for every impression as possible; for every buyer to have an equal and fair look at it. Conceptually header bidding is the right way to go,” Walmsley said.

Commenting on the rise of server-to-server trading, which many publishers are taking a back seat on until the trend crystallizes as a viable alternative to browser-side header-bidding, Walmsley said there are “clear benefits” to managing bidding server-side and is something the publisher is trialling.

Server-to-server promises to solve the problem of latency that publishers like the Financial Times have argued undermines the case for traditional header bidding, by moving the communication with ad exchanges from users’ browsers to servers. It also allows publishers to add as many partners as they want into the header, where before this was limited by the maximum concurrent connections a browser is designed to handle at once.

Trinity Mirror’s server-side experiment has seen the publisher convince advertisers to spend more programmatically while reducing an advertiser’s cost per acquisition by as much as 75%, the publisher claimed. At the time, the publisher’s adtech chief Malik said to Digiday that server-to-server was a way to “claw back more autonomy and control of our inventory”.

“We want to see how that space develops over the year, logically the less code you can have on the page the better. If we can retain the benefits of header bidding and have a fair, transparent open auction that is being managed without code on the page there is great benefit to that,” Walmsley said.

“Server-to-server is ultimately the way the industry will go, perhaps we will see the ad server and SSP become ever closer and eventually become the same thing – that is an area we are interested in.”

While Google has made moves to own the space when it announced dynamic allocation to outside exchange partners using server-to-server connections last year, Walmsley is interested in the direction Amazon will take. News of Amazon’s server-side header bidding wrapper leaked in December. Amazon’s cloud-based Publisher Services is also one of the adtech partners Facebook is working with for its own header bidding push, announced last month.

“Nothing has established itself as the forerunner,” Walmsley said. “Maybe we will see that develop substantially in the next 6 months. It’s something we are trialling.”

Owning the ad network

In a bid to take ultimate control over the way News Corp inventory is monetised, chief executive Robert Thomson last month revealed the media group is testing its own programmatic ad network which will provide "a measurable high quality audience for advertisers" in an otherwise "murky, tenebrous world of digital advertising".

He said its “verified environment” means advertisers “don’t have to fear being guilty by association” to suspect content, reiterating The Times exposé on programmatic media buying that found Google had inadvertently allowed ads from some of the world’s biggest brands and public sector companies to run alongside terrorism, pornography and extremist videos on YouTube.

"We believe we are far better positioned than our perceived peers to weather the storms buffeting the media and publishing landscape," Thomson added.

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Jessica Goodfellow

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