Trinity Mirror's adtech chief: 'There’s a shroud over some of the pipes that connect buyer to seller, we must remove that'

When Trinity Mirror was bedding in programmatic ad sales technology a year ago, it felt at the mercy of adtech intermediaries. But that was before the news publisher’s acquisition of regional news group Local World, a move which has brought with it an enhanced toolset and a new approach.

Amir Malik of Trinity Mirror will be participating in a panel at The Drum's Programmatic Punch on 8 December

Now the dog is wagging the tail again, as Trinity Mirror uses programmatic to learn about and then re-enable direct deals with advertisers. Speaking ahead of his appearance at The Drum’s Programmatic Punch event on December 8, Trinity Mirror's programmatic director Amir Malik tells Robert Andrews what's on his mind.

Describe Trinity Mirror’s programmatic activities. What are you doing, who are you using?

Trinity Mirror acquired Local World, where we had an existing programmatic strategy. We use Google, AppNexus and SwitchConcepts for our SSP waterfall. We also use Lotame as a DMP and Beemway as a geolocation tool.

We developed our own sell-side algorithms and data-led monetisation. We created a few analytics tools to read the exchanges and understand how our audiences were being monetised, and then price them accordingly. This was the basis to open direct conversations with advertisers such as Nestle and Asda, as well as Barclays and IG.

The company previously said it was at the mercy of trading desks, yield was too low and it didn’t know who was buying from it. How is that being fixed?

That was before the acquisition (of Local World). After our programmatic team joined, we are now a large team of analysts and commercial representatives. We have been able to audit our auction system using SwitchConcepts as the main interpreter of the exchanges and the decisioning system, which gives us the opportunity to extract information from the ad technology.

There’s been a lot of hand-holding from our team into the agencies, who have incredible technology at their disposal but are not always clear how to use it. If you don’t proactively communicate with each other, those deals don’t work.

We have a classic situation where buyers and sellers are talking almost constantly, ensuring the performance is there. We use the open auction as an intelligence tool to source demand from brands that is all audience-led.

How much money is being facilitated programmatically at this point?

I can’t disclose exact numbers, but we had over 150% growth on private marketplaces (PMP) specifically. We are doing multi-million-pound PMP run-rate, which is very unusual. We are on a 60/40 split, PMP to OMP (open marketplace).

How has the team structure evolved to embrace programmatic?

The integration of the Local World team has come along with creating a number of new roles.

These include a distributed platforms analyst, looking at Google, Facebook Instant Articles, Twitter and apps' relationships with vendors, looking at how we can source business from there.

We have also created a pool of data analysts who we send in to our brands as consultants. This has probably been the most rewarding initiative. Three data analysts go in to our key relationships to expand on opportunities, not just on our portfolio but off it as well. This has been a really refreshing approach to have.

Many Local World sites run heavy ad load of many different formats, arguably leading to clutter. Is this the template for the group?

No. Local World had a different commercial model, which was a smaller brand. Under Trinity Mirror, we’ve launched new websites in an initiative called Project Chameleon, precisely to clean up our sites and speed. We are in the early stages but the results have been great.

We have resources to drive ad revenues higher so we can cull our third-party relationships and monitor the exchanges with more focus.

It’s not just about ad load, but quality and origin, too. We are getting much more serious about the partners we work with.

Around the world, rival publishers are joining forces in online advertising cooperatives, like Pangaea Alliance and 1XL. What’s your view?

News partners should speak to each other through challenged times, to ensure we are surviving and operating in the best way we can. That’s not to mean we all suddenly unite and are aligned, just more open.

There is value in us understanding we all have huge value to advertisers, but it’s not understood by agencies. Anything we can do to better educate them is a good thing.

What are you doing with header bidding?

Because of the sheer volume of titles we have, we can create what we call “digital labs”, where we test different technologies and see the response to the site, how heavy the page is, what we glean from users, the impact on yield and so on.

With header bidding, we see a distinct impact on average selling price. However, I think it’s the beginning of an evolution in how programmatic is sold which will eventually lead to server-to-server integration and more transparency.

Are there are missing parts to the programmatic puzzle?

Totally. There’s a shroud over some of the pipes that connect buyer to seller. We must work together to remove that shroud and understand what the real value of our users and the media are.

Until we open up the closed box of programmatic, there’s a feeling it’s a bit of a guessing game and a mystery at times, around things like how a CPM is arrived at.

What are your hopes or expectations for 2017?

My ultimate vision is that both parties - agencies and publishers - have technology at their disposal which can help drive efficiency in advertising.

Now, there’s a still a clunky, nebulus feel around how programmatic is serving its proponents and users. Hopefully next year that will change as people release data and as platforms can be analysed and made actionable.

Malik will be participating on a panel session at Programmatic Punch (a limited number of tickets are still available) along with representatives from adtech outfits AppNexus and OpenX. Click here for further insights from fellow participants at the event.

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