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ESI Media plots online overhaul to emerge from ‘murky’ viewability world

The Independent and Evening Standard owner ESI Media is looking to revamp all its sites to not only enhance the reading experience but also render the viewability concerns of its ads redundant in its bid to sell all online space programmatically.

The media owner believes an online overhaul, not tougher viewability metrics, is the antidote to rising advertiser fears that their ads may not get seen in the rush for automated trading. Publishers are wary of ad rates falling as viewability becomes a bigger bargaining chip for spenders and so ESI Media is retooling its sites to ensure its ad formats lift the reading experience rather than mar it.

Graeme Finneburg, digital director of The Independent, Evening Standard and i, told The Drum that the upcoming changes are a chance to “do things completely differently” when it comes to incorporating advertising. Rather than try and recreate its newspapers online, the publisher is mindful that whatever designs it does sign off need to acknowledge how people consume media differently online.

“It’s a complicated and murky world of viewability. Apart from making our sites faster and clearer, one of the biggest opportunities of new sites is looking at the actual design. It’s a chance to properly integrate ads and look at making placements within the body of the page so that the viewability issue is not going to be as much of a challenge,” added Finneburg.

“We’ve got to make it easier [for readers] to share our content and create enjoyable formats for clients. When we do that everything else will follow.”

The investments will pave the way for revenue from mobile and video, both areas Finneburg admitted the publisher is yet to crack. All planned projects, including the site revamps, are being steered by a “small-screen first”, responsive design mentality that the publisher expects to unlock premium mobile inventory.

ESI Media’s ambitions are dependent on the success of its aggressive programmatic play. Wary of being off the pace in the accelerations toward automation, the publisher is upskilling its sales team to better articulate the benefits of programmatic. Instead of just focusing on the performance aspects of the discipline, ESI Media’s staff will be able to use audience data to compete for brand-building budgets too.

It builds on the media owner’s switch to a network trading model a year ago when it brought on board Krux as its data management platform (DMP) and PubMatic as its supply-side platform (SSP). The idea being to ready the business for when all its online inventory is sold programmatically.

“I think all our campaigns will be brought through programmatic without a shadow of a doubt,” claimed Finneburg. “You will still have a sales team that will go out and talk about why they're buying it programmatically. It will be the same shift to how we moved away from fax machines to emails.”

The confidence is evident across the pond in the US where ESI Media is gearing up to sell its entire online inventory programmatically. The US is free from the restrictions of a UK market bound by legacy trading systems and so was the perfect place to forge a more mature offering.

Finneburg said: “In the US we’re not going to have a lot of the partnerships and the promotions that we have over here in the UK so we’re using it as a clean slate. It's an opportunity to see this is a programmatic-only play and we'll get far greater coverage with data from a smaller base.”

ESI Media is also set to see revenues from the private marketplace it has formed with other members of the Association of Online Publishers. Publishers including Telegraph Media Group, Time Inc and Dennis Publishing have pooled their inventory to form a marketplace capable of reaching more than 54 million unique visitors.

A global alternative has also been formed, backed by the Guardian, Financial Times, CNN International, The Economist and Reuters, and will reach around 110 million readers worldwide.

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