The Economist Proximity London Creative

The Economist using ad tech as a creative canvas as it tests data-driven video buying


By Seb Joseph | News editor

June 1, 2015 | 7 min read

The Economist is using data from its expanding ad tech stack to establish a dynamic approach to how its ads are created and served as it readies data-driven buying for digital video.

The publisher believes creativity can still find its place in the automated realm of online advertising. Its internal technology underpins this view, powering ads that assemble themselves in real-time. Matching the tags on The Economist’s own content with popular content on other sites, the platform uses a mix of artificial intelligence and machine learning to target pre-planned headlines and graphics onto pages currently being viewed by its key audiences.

Early versions of the self-assembled banners did not perform so well though the publisher’s executive vice president of brand and digital marketing Mark Cripps said this was down to their design rather than the technology building them. Consequently, the look of the banner template is being overhauled to ensure the creative feels “less cramped in” and avoids “banner blindness”, he explained.

The changes won’t just impact the publisher’s banners. Video is also being brought into the fold with The Economist exploring how it can translate the same strategy and tech to the more premium format. It sits on a wealth of video that could potentially win over more subscribers and so is looking at reassembling those assets according to the context in which they would be read and the target audience.

The growing dependence on automated ads isn’t just about the bottom line, Cripps continued. It’s informing a new, more provocative approach to creativity, developed in partnership with Proximity London, to boost subscriptions. For a brand that admits its liberal and young sensibilities clash with the “pompous” image many non-readers have of it, The Economist’s decision to tackle the creative side of ad automation aims to leverage speed and scale of the technology to lift perceptions at a time when its cost per prospect is coming down.

Rather than understand why certain ads are working, which takes considerable resources in the fledgling stages of its shift to automation, the publisher chooses instead to prioritise what works.

“Something very provocative would of course get high click-through-rates but that doesn’t necessarily lead to higher subscriptions,” said Cripps. “If you try to subjectively impose your own thoughts on what’s going to work then that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality.”

A core part of the plan rests on its ability to retarget through cookies. Despite many media owners and advertisers questioning the value of cookie-based targeting amid the advent of richer data, the Economist backs its decision to inform the placements with first, second and third party data. It uses a blend of social and its own data along with third party sources supplied by data management platform Bluekai to execute campaigns via Google’s Doubleclick. Its ad sales team has a product called Audience Extension that looks at its audiences and then how they map on to external networks. The marketing team is piggybacking off the insights from the tool to inform its own efforts.

The approach, which keeps things more in-house, has proved fruitful – not just with performance metrics but also on brand measures.

In the UK for example, Cripps said The Economist brand is seen as being “more international” and more trustworthy”. “It’s not just had an impact on subscriptions but also our brand metrics,” he added. If people don’t subscribe the first time round, the publisher peppers them with targeted ads until they convert.

“We figured we’d get 650,000 prospects and 1,500 new subscribers as a result of the campaign. The results so far have busted through four million prospects – that’s people we can retarget and hadn’t seen before in the previous six months. We’ve hit about 10,000 new subscribers coming out of this campaign,” said Cripps.

Like most publishers, The Economist wants to use its data and audience insights to master mobile. While many new readers are perusing through its articles on smaller screens, most conversions flow through desktops. Interestingly, social media (44 per cent) and in-feed (49 per cent) are the best channels in terms of conversions, an insight that has roused the publisher to optimise its mobile conversion pages. Readers who click on links on the banners are taken to either The Economist homepage or a special page where they can view the content and then subscribe.

“We are challenged with getting cross device attribution,” said Cripps. People consume content on mobile and then convert to desktop. It’s really hard to get good solid attribution across that. But when Facebook roll out Atlas then we’ll have much better cross-device attribution and tracking and then I think that will really change the game.”

But to really change the game the publisher needs to have the infrastructure and expertise. It has scrapped the regional model its marketing had been organised around in favour of one primed around specific disciplines such as programmatic and social media.

Its teams and agencies are also adjusting to a more reactive approach, which has already led to online ads being turned around in less than 24 hours and a greater will to experiment. For instance, the publisher noticed that many people were cancelling their subscriptions because they don’t have time to read an issue and so it created an online format that boils an article’s main constituents into 10 seconds.

The transition’s origins can be traced back to December 2013 with Cripp’s arrival. Looking to move subscriber acquisition beyond a saturated search channel, he focused further up the acquisition funnel on display and social media, which in turn enabled The Economist’s content to be brought more to the fore and to younger audiences.

Armed with the additional insights from a PricewaterhouseCoopers commissioned study, the publisher pushed ads out on other sites and other popular networks such as Buzzfeed and Facebook in the belief that bringing its edgier content to the fore would convince readers to explore it further.

“We found out that people who explore our content have a higher propensity to subscribe,” said Cripps. “It’s an obvious thing to say in retrospect but at the time it didn’t occur to us.”

It all informs an edgier, playful and wittier brand the publisher wants audiences worldwide to see. The approach is reflected in both the tone and subject matter the publisher has chosen to highlight to non-readers. From an article on business leadership titled “If you want to be a CEO, grow some” to an investigation into police shootings in America headed “Have American cops gone ballistic?,” the aim is to make bright ‘millenials’ who would never entertain the idea of the publication before, sit up and take note.

“We’re more relevant today then we’ve ever been,” said Cripps. We’ve become less academic and less British [in terms of how people perceive the brand]. We’re now slightly less old fashioned and a lot less pretentious. The brand is moving in the right direction off the back of the marketing strategy.”

The Economist Proximity London Creative

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