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Media Ad Spend Brand Safety

South China Morning Post’s ad chief on how spend is returning to Hong Kong


By Shawn Lim | Reporter, Asia Pacific

May 9, 2022 | 8 min read

The Drum talks to The South China Morning Post’s David Wightman, who has been busy settling in as the publisher’s first-ever global head of advertising, to find out about the challenges it is facing post-pandemic.


‘For Asia, the conversation is prominently around clean rooms when it comes to exchanging data’

In October, The South China Morning Post (SCMP) announced the appointment of David Wightman – who was at the time based in London as the group director of business operations for media investment analysis firm Ebiquity – to the newly created role of global head of advertising, tasking him with spearheading the growth and international expansion of the publication’s global advertising business.

We recently caught up with Wightman to find out how have things been going since he took up his position. Here’s what he had to say...

Why did you join SCMP?

Having previously worked in Asia for over four years with GroupM, I have a good appreciation of what it takes to be successful in the region. I was aware of SCMP mainly because at GroupM, when we were working on the trusted marketplace, one of the publishers we targeted was South China Morning Post. If you want to have a trusted marketplace in Hong Kong, you have to have SCMP. It is such a critical part.

Ultimately, it was also about returning to where I feel most passionately about, which is working on the publisher side. I originally come from a publisher background and worked from Mirror Group Newspapers, so linking those things together seemed to be quite congruent with where I felt I could add value and have the skills to be able to do the job.

Looking at what I have done at GroupM – which was ultimately about driving and uplifting programmatic solutions engineering and advising clients as a trusted advisor, helping them understand the role of adtech and what digital transformation was – that was consistent with what I was doing at Ebiquity as well.

I have had the opportunity to work on the publisher side, the agency side, the technology side and also the media owner side. That is why I decided to join SCMP.

What challenges are you facing right now?

As a publisher, our adtech essentially is the first-party anyway, so we don't go through the same challenges an aggregator would, for example. But we still face a lot of technological changes. Most of that has been based on the browser changes that were happening.

Now, it’s one of those spaces where people will continue to make predictions and continue to get things wrong because there’s so much start and stop for us. What I think is important with the cookieless future that we talk about is not letting that distract us from the central thing we’re responsible for, which is ultimately to produce great content for our readers.

At the moment, our numbers are positive in the sense of more subscriptions globally and more engagement with our content. We seem to be producing the right content. Some of that is driven by what’s happening with the news right now, because people are very starved of authoritative news on what’s happening with coronavirus and what’s happening with the war in Ukraine, for example – all these things that people return to main news sites for.

We are very focused on just understanding what the technology changes are and being in control of our technology stack, which we have put a lot of development into. We have also been successful in making it clear to buyers that if their preferred method of buying is programmatic, we can help them with that.

The downside is, if you look at what’s happened with advertising spending – more so in Hong Kong where there has been a lot of shutdowns – then definitely, advertisers have started to not spend as much money because there’s so much uncertainty, so why would you spend a lot of money as a marketer?

In those instances, if we took a short-term view, maybe opening up the open marketplace might result in more revenue for us. But I think, strategically, it would be a mistake for us.

There is a lot happening in Hong Kong right now with the Covid-19 situation and also the upcoming change of leadership in the government. How do you encourage advertisers to bring back their ad spend?

What advertisers and brands want, essentially, is continuity and certainty so that they can make plans. I think that in Hong Kong, we’ve gone through many phases – as Singapore did at some stage – of marketers creating plans, having an idea of what to do, having to shelve them and doing multiple scenario plans.

April was a relatively good month for us, May will continue to be and July is Hong Kong’s 25th anniversary. I see that as positive for us and the content side of our business – the briefs coming through for that are encouraging.

When our clients brief us on content, it is about the longer-term view and not a one-week or two-week burst. It is at least a three-month campaign, which means we are definitely seeing an uptick in ad spending. With the upcoming leadership change, there is a degree of optimism about what would be happening as Hong Kong has gone from 14 days to seven days now with quarantine.

We’ve started running a few polls on intent. For example, we are asking people where they are intending to go on holiday when travel opens up. Is it in Asia? Where is it specifically? Is it Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Macau etc?

We are seeing that there is much more intent and through Lighthouse, which is integrated with our editorial CMS, we can start seeing what kind of articles are gaining more traction. There was a 200% increase in the number of people looking at cinemas when they opened up. It shows optimism around what’s happening, around those times when you can go to the cinema and things are generally opening up.

We have seen a lot of traditional and digital businesses collaborating in terms of sharing data. Are there any partnerships that SCMP wants to look at?

For Asia, the conversation is prominently around clean rooms when it comes to exchanging data, as there are a lot of vendors in that space right now. It would not surprise me if we end up seeing clean room technology integrated within some supply-side platforms in the future.

For our business, we have evaluated clean room technology and we will deploy it where required, but we are very much more focused on branding rather than necessarily direct response. There is an application for both, but more so I think when you are starting to actively target or not target people holding an account with a bank.

On that basis, the old way of doing it was a pixel on an exit page and then sharing that information so that you could target or not target. Now, because of privacy, you cannot do that. So clean rooms make complete sense.

We will have to be somewhat led by the needs of advertisers. However, there is not going to be a common standard around cleanrooms, because as soon as you do that or as soon as you centralize it, it defeats the whole point of what you’re trying to do in maintaining privacy.

It is important for us as a publisher to understand what we can do as we have a huge amount of first-party data and a few brands are active in working with us right now in terms of determining how we exchange data in a privacy-compliant manner.

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