The Guardian tells brands it can drive their business goals further with ‘fewer but better’ ads

The Guardian claims its future commercial model will be powered by “fewer, better” ads across all of its platforms, telling advertisers it can “do more with less” to achieve their long-term business goals.

Like its peers, the publisher is struggling to monetise mobile traffic fast enough, and used its Digital Upfront last night (21 October) to reveal how it will bridge the gap between those readers and revenue. To do this, the Guardian wants to attract more brand building budgets instead of performance-driven spend, with the plan being to pitch its smaller inventory as the premium alternative in a “world of unlimited inventory” that commercial director Nick Hewat said is “undervalued” because the industry chooses to “measure the crap out of everything”.

“We’re nowhere near the success we could be digitally because we haven’t translated what’s brilliant about old school or un-measurable media into our digital world,” he added, before explaining how discussions between the Guardian’s commercial teams and advertisers now focus on the attention, context and how to gain maximum impact for ads. “This isn’t about interrupting readers and asking them to take a quiz before they read an article. Of course we need advertising, but it can’t be about advertising at any cost,” said Hewat.

More for less

Premium cross-platform ad package Guardian Prime has been launched to do just that, billed as the easiest way to buy its ads. Advertisers can now run responsive videos on the site and buy two fold out pages in print as well as use the Guardian’s Response+ programmatic platform. It means for the first time a publisher in the UK is guaranteeing advertisers (backed by Integral Ad Science) that the impressions bought using Guardian Viewable Plus will be 100 per cent in-view. It’s a sales pitch other publishers have avoided because of the difficulty in unbundling those non-viewable impressions, which was part of the reason why the site’s overhaul at the start of the year was done in the way it was – less clutter on the page, more impact in the presentation of content, shorter load times and fewer commercial messages.

That revamp paved the way for the Guardian’s dynamic ad insertion feature in July, which consequently became the bedrock of its 100 per cent viewability guarantee, and ensures ads are served as quickly as possible and occupy the best positions on pages based on content type and visiting behaviour. While the publisher has made moves to improve the overall experience on mobile, it is yet to tackle the problems of viewability and ad frequency on smaller screens, although updates are imminent.

As a teaser it revealed that it is currently testing a Guardian Labs commercial format, which it claimed is performing at 20 times the engagement it gets from legacy formats across the site. “Mobile and video is at the heart of our content as we create a proposition around how we combine them with technology and data to deliver scale so that it really does have a direct impact on our clients’ business results,” said Guardian Labs’ managing director Anna Watkins.

Making branded content that generates business ROI

Launched last February, the publisher’s branded content division is front and centre of its attempt to re-establish a value exchange between reader publisher and advertiser that truly works for all parties.

To that end, it’s launched two new ad formats; the first one lets brands sponsor content within the Guardian’s Apple Watch app and then link back to its mobile app using sequential messaging, while the second feature lets brands move their native content alongside Guardian content on Facebook’s Instant Articles. Other native formats are likely given the Guardian Labs team’s push into new channels is steered by where the editorial team chooses to place their content, which is already on Google’s AMP and Apple News.

With over eight million visitors on average, generating 250m data points every day, the Guardian’s sitting on an untapped well. Watkins and her team plan to use to advise clients not just on reader behaviour but also real-time trends. Through the Audience Explorer platform, Guardian Labs is able to understand the seasonality and phasing of when would be the best time to run campaigns as well as move into areas like SEO to even work out what the best headline and name of a campaign would be. Simply put, it’s the branded content team’s attempt to show better ROI around campaigns as marketers come under pressure to show their bets on the maturing discipline are paying off.

“We still use traditional metrics like click-through rates to understand the impact, said Guardian Labs’ commercial strategy director Adam Foley. “Native content is about a long-term proposition for the most part. Ultimately, more and more clients are under pressure to demonstrate the impact it has had on the business. It’s beholden on us to help them show that, so we can start to understand the impact it has on the brand but also what the uplifts are, significant to bottom line further down the track.”

On the thorny issue of ad blocking, it’s something of doubled-edged sword for the content shop. On one hand, Watkins said there’s “potential” for it to strengthen the case for branded content, but on the other, being part of a media owner means there are wider risks to resolve. For now, Guardian Labs will “watch and learn”, collecting enough data before making a call on whether it could elevate its proposition.

Articulating the long-term benefits of real-time advertising

When it comes to programmatic, the publisher admits it still has work to do to communicate the long-term benefits of real-time advertising. “Instead of using all that data creatively, we’ve used it to aimlessly retarget, said Tim Gentry, global revenue director at Guardian News and Media, highlighting concerns that automated advertising is sucking the value out of online media. “We want to do our bit in trying to address some of the issues,” he added.

It’s using the Pangaea Alliance, a programmatic pool of publishers it helped establish earlier this year, to dispel the notion that programmatic campaigns only work if they’re performance driven in order to chase more lucrative brand building budgets. The group wants to work with either a brand or an agency for two years to effectively understand trusted publishers’ role here and establish long-term brand metrics to inform wider campaigns.

Two formats have also been launched to win over more premium advertisers, allowing them to serve dynamic creative that will work seamlessly across each member’s site. Developing ad formats exclusive to the Pangaea Alliance was done for two reasons, said Gentry, who also leads the project.

“One is that appetite and opportunity that exists for brands to deliver creative messaging and to actually build their brands and build trust through environments that Pangaea offers,” he continued. “Also there will be offers that are only available through Pangaea, which creates a real point of differentiation from everything else available in the market but also each individual publisher.”

The Guardian pooled together its inventory with CNN, Financial Times, CNN, Reuters and the Economist in March to allow brands to reach a combined audience of up to 110 million. Since then, interest from both publishers and advertisers has been “widespread,” claimed Gentry, who added it was “having a number of conversations with other publishers” about joining, although “they are probably for the long-term rather than immediately.”

He claimed that deterministic targeting, whereby first-party data is used to identify users across screens via anonymised IDs, was an “aspiration” for the publisher, but “it’s not what we’re doing today because we’re working on first-party behavioural data as the key point of difference.

The war for trust and attention

A recurring theme throughout the Guardian’s Digital Upfront was the fact that trust and attention are now at a premium. As a result, the publisher is keeping its options open, according to Hewat, when it comes to adopting new metrics like cost-per-hour. He also reiterated its stance to put its content on as many premium platforms as possible despite wider concerns about how the likes of Facebook and Google could wall off those articles.

“I think they’ve changed in the last couple of years,” he continued. “I think Facebook is much more open to a conversation than it was a couple of years ago. It works for their business model now – let’s be pragmatic about it – because there’s the walled garden debate that’s gaining ground.

“The philosophy that we have would suggest that this is our way of making sure that the content is viewed and read by as many people as possible. We have no interest in creating journalism that just goes into some sort of echo chamber; you want it to be influential and you want it to have an impact.”

From chief executive David Pemsel to the commercial director and product manager, the Guardian’s Digital Upfront showed the publisher using the language of the marketer more than ever before to make its case for budgets. Words like “long-term brand building”, “trust” and “creativity” were littered throughout the presentations as it looks to differentiate its offering at a time when mobile is pushing publishing further into unchartered territory.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.