What does ESI Media mean when it says it wants to start acting like a media business rather than an ad business?

ESI Media has unveiled a new commercial strategy.

For too long ESI Media has had an “old-fashioned” image its executives are now trying to polish by convincing advertisers its titles have the efficacy to drive value rather than just make up the numbers on a media plan.

It’s a shift best summed up by Jon O’Donnell, managing director of the publisher’s commercial arm, who says “we don’t see ourselves as an advertising sales business but rather a media business”.

It might sound like an oxymoron coming from a publisher but at its core the pitch points to a shift for sales teams that will be trying to push (more premium) partnerships that span everything from branded content to events rather than (cheaper) inventory on the site or in a newspaper. It all sounds very similar to what other publishers are peddling at the moment, which is where the reach of the Independent online and the Evening Standard in print are being exploited to convince agencies that ESI Media is where their budgets need to go.

Liberated from the traditional paid-for print model, the Independent is now the biggest pureplay news site in the UK, according to Comscore’s unique user figures for September, while the Evening Standard distributes more copies in a two-mile radius of Charing Cross than The Times does nationally. What’s more, it claims the Independent was the number one news site in the world 36 hours after Brexit and had the biggest Facebook article during the Olympics out of any publisher, with 19.4 million.

“I’d like the business in five to 10 years’ time be much more about goal alignment because I think if a client is trying to sell a thousand seats then I’d rather talk to them about how we can fill a thousand and fifty seats and then discuss the method and how we do it afterward,” explained O’Donnell. “Too much of what happens in media doesn’t seem to be an actual value exchange and I’d like to get to a point where we’re talking as businesses rather than just as advertiser, media agency and client – that’s really key."

‘ESI Media is a transformed business’

O’Donnell is referring to the plush ESI Media pop-up the publisher ran in Waterloo, London last week to flout the revamped proposition to prospective agencies and advertisers.

Masterminded by Dan Locke, chief agency strategy officer, the ‘House of ESI’ painted an image of a more holistic commercial offer that’s able to call on a social media footprint spanning Facebook, Apple News and Google - which it believes the recently launched Newstand could be bigger than the other two combined - alongside spruced up data and content offers. Locke is keen to stress the simplicity of the package to clients, talking up how its leaning more toward being able to bring together editorial, branded content, events, data and events in joined-up fashion.

It’s still early days but the more amorphous approach is already happening for both branded and native content. Launched earlier this month, ESI Media’s Story Studio has already done work around London Fashion Week and with Sky. In order to give these campaigns the edge over other in-house teams, Story Studio’s commercial reporters sit within the editorial teams for verticals like film and entertainment, a move that speaks volumes about how publishers like the Guardian, City AM and Forbes have rationalised why a strict divide between the so-called ‘church and state’ is doing more harm than good.

“Our big differentiator is the fact that we don’t rely on a load of commercial freelancers that will basically write everything from travel to motors,” said O’Donnell. “Quite often these commercial journalists will have editorial backgrounds, potentially from within our own business and so what will happen is they will sit within the editorial teams writing a byline for the verticals they’re working in. The point of that is when they go through the ideation process with a client they are then able to be better informed about what the goals of that client are, as well as have a lot more understanding of what the audience wants.”

That audience is mainly coming from desktop and tablet now, though branded and native content has just started to get pushed out to smartphones. And while the number varies depending on device, the ad load for a native article is usually one on each page, though it can activate two for both desktop and mobile dependent on demand.

Future-proofing a media business

All publishers will say that they’re creating high quality content and so the opportunity for differentiation comes from the types of content packages on offer. One such package could potentially be around Go, a Time Out-style weekly magazine that ESI Media wants to produce in partnerships with advertisers. Any potential deals around the mooted magazine could lean on audience segmentations pulled from a recent ESI Media study into what defines achievement in its readers’ minds. In this way, publishers like the Independent owner are providing agency-like services to help advertisers reach their target audience.

Programmatic could help get that scale, though O’Donnell has his reservations about the trading method. “I’m not scared of programmatic,” he assured. “I just think it needs to be assessed at some point in terms of what premium looks like; there’s a big difference between buying premium inventory in products like ours and buying programmatically the rest of the ‘internet’.”

Part of the plan could see the publisher use the technology to become a buyer and seller of media on third party sites after O’Donnell admitted earlier this year audience extension was being considered.

“There’s a real challenge making sure that people place much greater value where there’s greater content. I think automation, which is slightly different, is the right way to go whether it’s through programmatic or header bidding,” he said. “We’re open to all that but it’s has to be about the value exchange and making sure that a fair price is paid for the right context.”

Phil Hall, chief commercial strategy at MediaCom UK, is one of those agency executives briefed on the value and he believes the early signs are encouraging. Unlike the standard sales pitch he must sit through time after time, Hall said it was clear ESI Media had innovated their business, from taking the Independent digital-only, selling the i and launching ESI Live.

“What was impressive was their commitment to working in a different way. Decent numbers underpin a genuine creativity and a desire to work in partnership to deliver better results for clients. This exactly matches our aspirations. It was a successful repositioning and we’ll do some great work together,” said Hall.

Despite the reservations, Locke believes ESI Media has avoided the common traps that have stunted the growth of other publishers. One area he feels this is most apparent is in how proactive the sales team are in that they aren’t just responding to RFPs from media agencies - instead they’re out there showing how easy it is to buy from the business, he added.

It’s not reinventing the wheel but ESI Media is trying to reassert its influence over its readers in the eyes of advertisers as it looks to build for the future in small steps.

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