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Girl Guides: News UK's Abba Newbery on ambition, breaking news and not taking yourself too seriously

Abba Newbery, News UK's director of advertising strategy

Paywall pioneer News UK has been through the ringer the last few years. Abba Newbery, director of advertising strategy, tells The Drum’s Jessica Davies about the newspaper behemoth’s transformation plan and doles out some key advice for young women considering following in her footsteps.

Never ever take yourself too seriously. That particular pearl of wisdom belongs to News UK’s Abba Newbery – in fact it belonged to her mum. Nevertheless it is advice that has stuck with her and which she believes all young women should chew over when setting out on their career.“Three pieces of advice my mother gave me before I started my first job: always get in to a sports car bottom first (I owned an old MG so this was of some use), always sign your name with a blue pen so you know it’s not a copy [Mrs Newbery clearly did not predict the rise of email], and always be nice to the receptionist and the post room. This one is definitely good advice, although I’d extend it to everyone you work with,” she says. Newbery believes working in digital is both rewarding and exciting, but says to succeed you must be ambitious and that includes not being afraid to ask for promotions and pay rises where necessary. The advice has clearly not done her any harm, having moved swiftly up the ranks at News UK after nearly a decade in the agency world. “There are women at the top of some of the largest digital companies – Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Dawn Airey and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo – so this industry clearly offers opportunities for women at the highest level. However, if you step into any tech or developer department you usually only see men so there is still a clear divide over what types of careers women are attracted to. We should be making more effort to attract women into all areas of the digital industry,” she says. News UK has undergone some serious changes in the last few years, moving its titles the Times and the Sun behind a paywall, launching a global private ad exchange and rebranding after Rupert Murdoch split parent company News Corp into two parts – the newspaper arm News International, now known as News UK, and its entertainment businesses 20th Century Fox.Yet according to Newberry this is just the tip of the iceberg. “We’ve got a huge three-year change programme going on here and those three things – the paywall, rebrand and exchange launch – are early manifestations of what we are doing. We are now at the start of year three and there are way bigger changes to come,” she says. Transforming the archaic infrastructure and processes of a newspaper behemoth like News UK is no easy task, but this is what it has to do to keep pace with multiscreen media consumption, a phenomenon which has birthed a new, more demanding kind of reader who expects to be able to access content whatever device they are using, whenever they are using it. Newbery and her team are at the forefront of many of the changes, which include overhauling the entire ad sales infrastructure to a system which can more cope with multimedia campaign buys in a simpler, more streamlined fashion across its portfolio of brands. This gutting of its old system will mean that it can sell not just digital inventory on a programmatic basis, but print ads too. “Newspapers are old, archaic businesses. We probably sell about 250 different ad sizes – how is that good customer service? So we are trying to simplify what we do so you can buy us in a more automated fashion and then we can focus on the more interesting stuff like creative partnerships and return on investment,” she explains. Newspapers have been one of the hardest hit by the explosion of digital devices, and have been radically innovating to offset declining print sales while trying to wrestle back control of online ad sales, which have been driven further and further down by buyers. News UK has adopted a dual-pronged attack against this, putting up paywalls for The Times and The Sun to ensure it protects the value of its journalism, and ringfencing its inventory by launching a private, global ad exchange to prevent third parties from data scraping and reselling its inventory at cheaper rates without its consent – a tactic that has been rife for years in the online space. “For us as a news organisation we don’t want to focus everything on breaking news. Anyone can break news – Google, us, Sky, even the monster called the BBC can break news. That isn’t distinctive and enough of a differentiation for us. We believe in journalism. “Even with the cycle of breaking news people have retained their newspaper reading habits – whether it’s on a tablet, mobile or web, people read the newspaper mostly in the morning and at the end of the day – that timing hasn’t changed. “All the other traffic is people coming in once for a story and then going away. We say that’s not enough value for the huge resource that is a massive 24-hour news operation – given everyone is pulling [news] off the wires anyway.”She says private exchanges are an effective route for publishers looking to protect their yields. “If you have a subscriber model it is right for you to very carefully look after your first-party data, and if you have that subscriber relationship the quality of that first-party data is impeccable,” she adds. As a result the Sun is building interest-based audience segments, to help it better understand its readers’ preferences, so it can then shape and tailor its advertising to feel more personally relevant and contextual to their reading habits. “The ultimate goal is to create really interesting audience segments that advertisers want to purchase and proving that because those segments are reflecting real behaviour that they are bringing in higher response rates for advertisers and higher recall levels. “It’s about retaining a premium to reach our audiences and we don’t believe pure volume of audience is enough to sustain a premium – you have to know them better than anyone else and they have to respond better than anyone else,” says Newbery. Being in one of the driving seats of change at what she describes as the “biggest FMCG company” in the country, is not without its challenges. “The sheer volume and efficacy of our operation is astonishing. We are the biggest FMCG company in the country and yet we change our product make-up every day. I bet if you’re Hovis or Mars you wouldn’t comprehend that you can change the formula of your product every day. But that’s what we do,” she adds.This interview featured in the 11 October issue of The Drum, continuing the Girl Guides series that aims to highlight the lack of female recruits in the digital market and the fact that the industry is only getting access to half the talent base.The Girl Guides series is sponsored by:

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