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‘The pendulum's swinging back to quality’: Inside Vox Media’s local ad markertplace Concert


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

March 12, 2020 | 5 min read

Media company Vox Media has been running an adtech alliance with top publications for several years now, but Concert Local, as the name suggests, has opened the product to local titles in a move Vox hopes scales up its buyable audiences and garners better ad rates for journalistic ventures.

Over the last decade, Vox Media has built a publishing platform (Chorus), a first-party data product (Forte) and a comment moderation product called (Coral), its attempt to attract content-inspired conversations back into the first party platforms. Back in 2016 however, it took its most ambitious steps and launched a programmatic advertising network called Concert in tandem with NBC Universal.

This digital ad network now has more than 20 media partners including Quartz and BuzzFeed, and accumulates 220 million monthly unique users. Roughly 700 brands have given it a try to date, which has generated nearly 13 billion ad impressions across the marketplace.

Now the in-house digital marketplace is making a regional push in the US in the hopes of attracting smaller, local, or independent titles into the mix, with its Concert Local product. The efforts have the backing of the Google News Initiative.

AJ Frucci, vice president of concert and programmatic at Vox Media, believes the time is prime for Concert Local to take off.

“The pendulum is swinging back towards an emphasis on quality, as marketers understand the value of aligning with trusted content and contextual relevance.” He evidenced how the coming cull of the third party cookie on Google, a vital component of ad targeting, is creating opportunities for publishers who have strong relationships with audiences.

He indicates that spend is showing this. “PMP spending is expected to exceed spending across the Open Exchange for the first time in 2020.”

To garner better rates, publishers are getting better at speaking up the quality of their environments. They are comparing the effectiveness of their ad units against the mass sprawl of the web news media has been competing against to date. Movements like Sleeping Giants are shining a light on where a lot of that untracked spend is going on the open web, into the arms of hate-sites, misinformation groups or low-quality pages saturated with competing ads or low viewability.

Project Ozone in the UK has united several of the region’s top media companies in a similar fashion to Concert. Conditions are ripe for publisher alliances to wield back some spend from the duopoly.

Frucci said that Concert provides marketers with a centralized point of access to “trusted, quality publisher inventory with transparency, relevance, and safety -- without sacrificing scale. While a typical ad network could boast as many as tens of thousands of properties, Concert partners are paying for vetted, verified, top tier publishers.”

Part of the pitch is the opportunity for marketers to support “the creation of trusted, quality journalism”. New Concert Local partners include Advance Local, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, CNHI, Dallas Morning News, Deseret News, Hearst Newspapers, Star Tribune, Tampa Bay Times, and Texas Monthly.

If marketers are buying into media for a hallow effect of trust, the relationship that local titles share with their audiences, he claims, only deepens that. “Local media is deeply intertwined within its community and has been shown to generate a closer connection and deeper level of trust with its audience. Advertising in these environments allows marketers to tap into this trust, in addition to contextual and regional relevance.”

The pitch looks to have appealed to Omnicom Media Group (OMG) is the world's third-largest ad-buying company, which has signed up for launch.

Luke Lambert, head of programmatic for OMD USA, an OMG agency, said: "Concert Local aligns with OMG’s approach to programmatic, which puts curation at the core of our offering to assure an investment context that links media and brand equity."

As well as attracting agencies with some of the largest clients in the world, Frucci hopes Concert Local could also attract small and medium enterprises into the network, where a lot of untapped value currently sits.

Jason Washing, Google managing director of global partnerships. “This project with Vox Media is a positive step forward in helping local news publishers attract national advertising campaigns at scale, and activate new revenue streams to fund high-quality journalism in their communities. We're proud to bring our funding and digital expertise to help build, iterate and improve Concert Local over time.”

Late last year, Vox Media acquired New York Magazine, bringing its final portfolio to Curbed, The Cut, Eater, Grub Street, Intelligencer, New York Magazine, Polygon, Recode, SB Nation, The Strategist, The Verge, Vox, Vulture, and where it all began, Vox. Recode was of course merged with Vox last year, becoming a content vertical rather than a full-out brand.

It was a tough time for the digital media sector. Early in 2018, it made adjustments by laying off 50 employees, largely from its social video teams that were largely dependent on revenue from third-party platforms like Facebook (which famously overstated views on videos for years after championing the medium).

It's no wonder Vox Media's been building its own first-party network since.

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