Damon Reeve, chief executive of The Ozone Project, explains why it has attracted the backing of the UK's top publishers for a major expansion project.
The Ozone Project, the open programmatic marketplace for premium news media, has received a chunky investment; it plans to triple its staff to 90 in the next year.
First, there’s an air of legitimacy around the alliance – Reach, News UK, Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media Group, ESI Media, Stylist, DC Thomson, Bauer Media Group and TimeOut are now all in the fold of this homegrown, and quickly growing, network of news media. It was assembled with the sole purpose of suctioning spend back into premium media, and although it remains early days, the rally against the digital advertising duopoly looks immediately more plausible than the did just one year ago.
What does the investment mean?
Reeve was reluctant to put a figure on the investment. He emphasises it is more than just a number and that stakeholders are providing increased resource, office space, equipment, staff and shared commercial opportunities. He reveals there has been a “three-fold” investment in its commercial and operations teams (to meet anticipated demand). Meanwhile, the product team is working to improve targeting and insights as well as building out new digital display and video formats.
Roughly, (with talent sharing and part-time work it is difficult to count), the London team has 30 staff and that is set to triple into the next year.
Just two years after launching to test a “foundational“ technology layer that works across all of these distinct publishers, Reeve says he sees “strong engagement and spend growth” from both the holding groups (GroupM, Omnicom Media Group, Denstu) as well as large direct buys from Vodafone and P&G who have in-housed digital advertising.
He‘s tasked with sign-posting the platform and making it easier to buy – in joining up the dots between the publishers it is offering a scale that gets them in the door.
Reeve says, even pre-coronavirus, that there was a growing demand from advertisers for a "more trusted, more compliant, safer and effective digital ecosystem". It is what he says he has helped build at Ozone and that the pandemic has further put a spotlight on these demands.
He claims that by joining the platforms, Ozone generates audience data and insights that would not have necessarily occurred in isolation.
Reeve adds: “We are increasingly being told by advertisers that they see Ozone as offering a very different solution to the unknowns of open programmatic trading.”
There‘s been a few beneficial developments in the last few years that have helped shaped the drive.
Earlier this year, a first-of-its-kind report from ISBA and PwC found that a staggering one-third of supply chain costs were unaccountable in the adtech supply chain. Questions arose over where this huge sum was going – technological entropy or a hidden profit driver?
Reeve says: “Advertisers are increasingly placing pressure on the digital supply chain to deliver a more transparent and accountable digital advertising environment and remove the ‘opacity by design‘ approach that characterised early programmatic.”
This drove wider fears around transparency, click fraud and, perhaps most visibly, brand safety tech demonetised legitimate news media. During a pandemic, with discussions around race reaching boiling point, many advertisers inadvertently stopped spending in news – there was little good news and theoretically, supporting the coverage of ‘bad news‘ could incur reputational damage.
He marked the widespread effects of Newsworks’ ‘#BackDontBlock‘ campaign but is now thinking about what premium publishers can do to aid advertisers. “Our own brand safety solutions are specifically geared towards quality environments – which due to their editorial governance are safer by default – and understanding the semantics of every single page of content.”
He makes the argument that premium media is a safer space than the wider sprawl of the open web, even if news media still has its ethical hiccups.
Furthermore, it continues to develop the tech to identify what is on the page, and whether it clashes with the buyer’s ethos. This year as well, you’ll see a lot more positive discrimination. We’ve seen a glut of important conversations about race, gender, sexuality and more demonetized by over-zealous blocklists – now advertisers are seeing the benefits in loosening the guards and talking to these apparently under-served audiences.
And with a recession unfolding, every penny needs to be accounted for. Advertisers and publishers are working to close the “unnecessary and unhelpful gaps between these principal parties who own the relationship with consumers, and who have ultimate responsibility for fair, lawful and proper use of their customer's data,“ explains Reeve.
In short, in an ideal world for Ozone, some advertisers will skip ISBA‘s supposed ‘hidden delta‘ of lost spend and go straight to the publisher, a trend we‘ll see more of with the supposed phasing out of third-party cookies.
“The major trends we expect to continue are based on the closer relationship between the advertiser and publisher, and the recognition of the reciprocal value each can deliver. We expect the conversation around understanding audiences in a cookie-free world to be high on the agenda over the coming year.
“Our conversations with advertisers have focused on what comes next, and how first-party data and contextual targeting will be key for future campaign delivery.”
Reflecting on the changes he anticipates in the industry, Reeves notes that audience relationship with digital technology and media has expanded faster than many of us could have ever imagined over the past nine months. The pandemic’s has forced many publishers to access their place in the market.
In the coming year, Ozone wants to bring more premium publishers into the fold. It claims to reach around 45 million UK news readers (just about all of them). It is a scale immediately comparable with how many users are targetable by Facebook in the UK.
The next step is in increasing the frequency of visits. More media is one way to do this – as is the publishers individually building products that are more engaging on a daily basis (like newsletters or habit-building apps).
But not everyone is welcome to the party: “The right partners will be those who are additive to the alliance, most likely in their ability to help us build an even clearer picture of our audiences.”
Along with this, it is rolling out a Digital Advertising Centre of Excellence at the Start of January, with News UK and Telegraph Media Group on board. He says it will make buying digital campaigns “even easier”.
And finally, Reeve teases a tool to tap a lucrative corner of the market, the SMEs. It is building a self-serve product for these businesses which may prove vital in helping to attract local spend back away from the likes of Facebook.
Reeves’ 2021 trends
The flight to safety; trusted environments will become increasingly valuable to advertisers.
The value of publisher first-party data and contextual understanding will grow – particularly in light of the demise of the third party cookie.
As brands become more engaged in where their digital spend goes, transparency becomes key. Trusted and known publisher brands will come to the fore. Publishers' first-party data will become increasingly important for audience targeting, alongside contextual targeting. This is good for new publishers, as long as they are easy to access/buy.
The use of campaign tools and measurement techniques that appreciate the value of premium publishing environments over and above the rest of internet content.