There’s a new commercial playbook in place at Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post since the lockdown evaporated its usual ad market, and it is built around brands showing their utility in the wider world.
Or, as the Post’s chief revenue officer Joy Robins puts it, “our first priority can’t be to sell advertising”. Instead, she says, it wants its partners to leverage its content production and brand trust.
Robins took up the chief revenue officer role in February 2019, charged with heading up the Post’s sales division, as well as its WP BrandStudio which includes adtech, event sponsorship, video, audio and programmatic. Under the lockdown, each of these channels has experienced change.
There’s been a shortfall of display ad revenue, first of all, forcing publishers around the world to cut and furlough staff. The New York Times estimated a 55% ad revenue shortfall, which is pretty indicative of what’s going on in the wider market.
Live events, meanwhile, are freezing or moving online, and direct buys from brands have been strangled by market hesitancy and the freeze of business supply chains.
“The Post certainly isn’t immune to the headwinds facing the industry,“ says Robins, “but I believe agility is the key to weathering this crisis.“
“We must establish our team as a trusted resource for our clients in order to help guide them, with research and insights and what we are see as the most effective way to speak to consumers right now.“
Its conversations with brands have changed these last few months. Many went dark in the immediate aftermath, but she says now, more than ever, it is working with ”brands that have been thrust on to the main stage for the first time because their product or service is providing real utility in this new world order”.
Notably off the table right now are conversations about “short-term ROI” – that will come into play later. “They are coming to the Post to better understand consumer sentiment, and what those consumers are reading more of or less of as the weeks go by as the news environment changes rapidly. We’re able to use our insights and technology to help them navigate the way they communicate with readers.”
In particular, going front and center of this new product suite is “purpose-driven storytelling,” Robins points out, explaining that this was something the Post and other top news titles had been jostling to deliver – a natural extension of their news products.
“Demand for that has been accelerated significantly. The combination of scale and trust creates the conditions for news organizations to be the ultimate place for brands. But they also need to navigate how they show up, and that is exactly what we are focused on guiding our partners through.”
Its delivery of audience insights, research and thought leadership has continued. But a new problem has emerged. Many brands that were committing good deeds, with philanthropy meeting their long-term brand building, but in proudly communicating these actions they have been criticized and accused of chasing publicity. There’s an imbalance that Robins thinks the Post can address.
WP BrandStudio has created two digital platforms featuring news about how businesses are swapping profit for purpose and launching efforts to help. As the Post puts it, these are not ads, but "an easy-to-navigate resource of world-renowned brands working on the front lines of this crisis”. One is for national brands and the other for local brands.
“The important tone to strike with these directories was humility and usefulness,“ says Robins. “The resource is not meant to be self-congratulatory for the brands featured, but a single place for our readers to better understand how the brands they have supported for years are now holding themselves accountable to help their customers, employees and communities. We already knew from subscriber research that this type of content was exactly what consumers wanted more of, so it felt like a natural connection to make.”
On a region by region, sector by sector basis, the acts and lockdown practices of businesses are listed. It’s a good way to keep a line of contact with those who may spend again once the slowdown continues. And for any businesses undertaking extraordinary changes, or with a message for the public, there’s the option to put the BrandStudio to work to tell that story.
“We’ve acted swiftly to adapt to this new reality that we expect to transcend what feels like the most acute stage of this crisis. Live events have moved to virtual ones and, while we aren’t currently able to achieve the intimacy of an in-person curated audience, we’ve seen real success both attracting viewership for our virtual events that surpasses cable news and maintaining our ability to demonstrate the influence of our viewership through the way we’ve evolved our outreach.”
Under the hood on the digital advertising side, she says, there’s a new tool that scans brand suitability in certain contexts. “This particular display product utilizes the real-time messaging of a brand’s social posts and targets them to an audience in the right context. With a news environment that is changing so quickly, this allows brands to be more relevant with their voice.”
Like many commercial teams at publishers, there’s been a lot of late nights. “The thing that’s kept me up at night hasn’t actually been how much business we’ve booked in any given day, but how my team is able to balance a world without work/life boundaries and how they can maintain a feeling of a shared mission and remember they are part of – and supported by – an entire team of people.”
The lockdown has at least helped many find a “common sense of purpose”. And, on a more granular level, that means looking for ways to “add value for clients“. Steering Robins right now is the thought: “It’s hard to be sad when you’re being useful”.
It is no surprise that her thoughts concern utility and usefulness. Last month, several editors at top titles essentially warned of the coming difficulties and suggested that now is the time for publishers to show utility and worth. And that would appear to apply to brands just as much.