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MailOnline publisher Martin Clarke talks international expansion, paywalls, Snapchat, Facebook & programmatic advertising

Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke

The Mail Online's publisher Martin Clarke is a man who seems ready for criticism at every turn, expecting shade to be thrown at his publication while also very capable of throwing back huge audience numbers. It's doubtful that he hears anything new when interviewed by other publications very often and is ready for it.

When The Drum joins Clarke and his team on the Daily Mail Yacht, parked at the bottom of the Cannes harbour, moored opposite a less than subtle white promenade erected for the Daily Mail's own events during the week in the south of France, he is relaxed and clearly ready for whatever is thrown his way.

During the hour-long session there are few moments when he drops his relaxed demeanour, despite the tone of the questions not being entirely to his liking.

Within the first few minutes he has denied any idea of the newspaper closing anytime soon or of imminent job cuts as a result of an 11 per cent decline in pre-tax profits for the Mail's parent company and described the yacht itself as "a good investment" in order to improve relations with US-focused advertisers - one region Clarke admits that the title should be doing better within.

"I don't think we have done a great job of building our profile commercially and we've spent the last year to 18 months trying to rectify that with events like this and pushing ourselves front of mind with the advertising community. Also we are here to do some proper business, meet some people, discuss some ideas in principal and take things further on a macro sales level and also in a micro sales level," he explains.

He also reveals the number of staff employed globally sits at around 815 people, of which half are journalists. Those include up to 250 journalists and commercial staff in New York, about 70 in Australia and LA has 40 people in total.

Next up, he denies the rise of ad blocker as being "a particular issue" claiming that the number on the site is "nothing" but admits "we're watching it and we're not complacent about it, but we're not freaked out by it either. We are constantly refreshing the suite of our products, you have to come up with new ones; display, native, video, mobile".

Of programmatic advertising he describes it as, on balance 'a plus', especially in the US where it is proving "a really important revenue driver". However, he does warn that programmatic "punishes you for having a wide audience. We have always been focused on having a big portion of direct, loyal users who come every day via the app or the homepage rather than Facebook or wherever. In the UK it is nearly 60 per cent that comes to the homepage or the app. In the US it is over 40 per cent. It's a big portion compared to a business like Buzzfeed, which concentrates on social and each of those people consume tons of pages, are there over twice a day with nearly half an hour's engagement a day.

"Unfortunately on programmatic they are not as monitisable as casual visitors because programmatic advertisers are not really interested in that person once they hit them once or twice on their journey. You get penalised for having a real, loyal engagement with your audience but that's my only real quibble with it. On balance programmatic has been a really good thing for us and it is still growing incredibly fast."

Other elements traversed over the next twenty minutes include the newspaper's relationship with Snapchat which Clarke enthuses over, revealing that the app's recent redesign of its publishing partnership section received a quadrupled boost in traffic from the source on certain days.

"They have revamped the ad product so advertisers have more options with full length video or some kind of native offering or event link through to their website from it. It's great for advertisers and it has third party tracking in it for America and we are effectively sold out on it this month on Snapchat," he reveals. Of the partnership the Mail has with Snapchat and WPP in content agency TrufflePig, launched the previous year at Cannes, he says the project is going "remarkably well."

Clarke, when asked about emerging competitors such as Buzzfeed, claims he doesn't like to discuss other titles. However, he later described it and AOL's Huffington Post as "going nowhere" when quizzed about the possibility of ever installing a paywall, a subject he is clearly passionately against.

"No one else that is a global player has any intention of charging a cent any time soon for content and would come into Britain 'like a plague of locusts" while British newspapers retreated behind a paywall. They would clean up and they are already here," he says of the international online invasion into the UK. However, he is wise enough to admit that his title is playing them at their own game by expanding into the US to drive its own expansion.

"We are all at the same game, just because the British newspapers happened to be newspapers doesn't mean they want to stop the world and put up a paywall. It's nonsense. It works for papers like the FT, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times but for the rest of us, the general news space, I just don't see it. I would love to be able to charge and it would make life a lot easier for all of us, but it doesn't work like that."

Of the international expansion, all of the growth investment for the next financial year will be spent on US which he sees as "largely more profitable" than UK readers as it is still new territory.

"There is more potential in the US. In the UK there aren't that many stories left to cover. We do so much UK content but it's the law of diminishing returns whereas the US isn't. So that's where all of our editorial investment is. This time last year we announced our Doctor Phil tie up which is still making good progress and we hope to have some good news on that front really soon. That's still very much live."

Meanwhile, the title, he claims, is now the fourth biggest news website in Australia and growing. There is also no imminent plan to open in a non-English speaking region, however that isn't something he would rule-out happening in the mid-term, should the right partner come along, and there have been conversations along those lines.

"It's definitely something we are looking at in the future but the Anglo-sphere is enough to go on with."

Asked about social media partners away from Snapchat, Clarke says the walled garden of Facebook is highly important as a source of traffic but that it was more of a "good hedge" than an output it is reliant upon.

"Facebook doesn't owe anyone anything, they have a business to run and I don't whinge about Facebook and its algorithm...Facebook is a partner we are very fond of but I don't want to have my business being dependent on the Facebook algorithm."

Finally, no conversation would be complete without Clarke being asked about 'the side bar of shame' which he claims is a section that celebrity females personally email him to be included in and that it is read "overwhelmingly" by women.

"I will edit this website to suit the readers who seem to love it," he concludes, and there's no doubting that he will. After all, despite the increasing competition for online news, the MailOnline continues to dominate the rest in terms of audience numbers.

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