Future of Media Business of Media Reach

WaPo, CNN and Reach on how media sales teams are gearing up a data pitch


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

April 8, 2021 | 9 min read

The Drum catches up with CNN, Reach and the Washington Post to talk about how the modern media sales house offering has evolved this past year as eyeballs moved, budgets froze and the needs of clients shifted.


How modern news media sales teams are gearing up a data pitch

Media consumption changed during the pandemic, strangling some media business models and presenting opportunity for others. Locked-down populaces used their personal screens more often and, in general, news media’s traffic was up across the board. However, the news media's income slumped due to deflated advertising demand from the hardest-hit sectors, such as travel and leisure. Meanwhile, brand safety tools straight up demonetized news about Covid-19, race, gender and sexuality (leaving just what exactly?) Those with events businesses labored away online too.

Many publishers struggled, many slimmed down. Soon, the demise of the third-party cookie will change how advertisers buy audiences. It’s no coincidence that publishers now talk a big game around data, insights and content. But they can’t all win the coming race. Instead, as Future’s UK chief revenue officer Zack Sullivan recently told The Drum, it will be big purposeful sales teams that are the deciders in the coming frenzy.

So how are their sales propositions changing?

The Washington Post way

Scott Weisenthal is head of the new Washington Post Creative Group, a reshuffled unit that absorbed the WP Creative team to handle custom creative, content, video and audio, social, live programming and print. This one-stop-shop will drive about a third of the publisher’s total commercial revenue in 2022.

With staff across brand strategy, creative, design and marketing, its job is to “create emotionally resonant experiences that help shape culture, spark conversation and captivate the influential”, he tells us, all backed by a spine of commercial tech, data and research teams.

Weisenthal says it goes beyond a “traditional transactional exchange to bring even more value“ It marries together The Washington Post and a brand partner’s equity, he says, adding that in his opinion there are few better “trusted partners” than a 143-year-old news brand.

It isn’t the only business with this pitch, but what exactly are brands buying? It can’t be another sleek branded content video or ’content purely for content’s sake’. Instead, as publishers jostle to be the creator of the content and the delivery channel that meets select audiences, they’ll have to unveil some insights that prove they are be more effective than other media.

Weisenthal says the Washington Post is close to renewing 100% of last year’s clients. The quick wins are sticking around, he concludes. “We work together with our brand partners to understand their business challenges and then leverage actionable intelligence to build programs that overcome those challenges. I like to think of an RFP not as a request for proposal but as a request for partnership.”

CNN’s shift

Most recently in her 20-year stint at the publisher, Cathy Ibal, the senior vice-president of CNN International Commercial (CNNIC), has built a revenue strategy team across brand, media, innovation and commercial product specialists to work with sales teams and clients. It looks to add extra bite to its products, which include ad sales, sponsorships, partnerships and branded content. Furthermore, she has expanded its client service teams. There’s an anticipation that travel and tourism will bounce back, she tells us, adding to “strong interest” in campaigns around sustainability and social purpose.

During her tenure, CNN has shifted from a TV-selling platform to a cross-platform focus that includes TV and digital. In the subsequent years, data insights and programmatic options were layered in, affording more ways than ever to access CNN’s inventory and products. Ibal says it is the role of a great sales team to “simplify the complexity by providing clients with a clear narrative and a single point of access to the audience”.

There’s homogeny in the pitches across the industry, if not the results. Ibal says it’s the quality of the audience that differentiates. “Advertisers want to reach their own client bases within a CNN environment, whether that is opinion-formers, change-makers, high-spenders, travelers or business decision-makers.” There are few with CNN’s level of influence.

“We ensure that client campaigns reach the right audience at the right time through a range of sophisticated contextual targeting and semantic tools, first-party data and data partnerships.”

After the demise of the third-party cookie, publishers that can actually deliver on these promises will thrive. But that’s just part of the offering. CNN is also talking to the audience in new ways. Downloads of its audio content increased by over 75% in 2020 and newsletter subscriptions grew 90%.

“As a salesperson, it excites me that we have even more touchpoints to connect brands with our audiences in direct and personal ways.”

With audio and newsletters layered in there, it’s clear to see more platforms requires more sales and that the becomes more complex, ”requiring a much more diverse mix of disciplines and expertise than even 10 years ago to create and execute a successful global ad campaign”.

Publishers now need the right balance of sales, creative, data, strategy and client services functions, she says, adding that you can expect to see them being even more proactive about communicating the value of their premium environments as well as the power of their contextual targeting.

Reaching for more

Reach, the parent company of the Daily Mirror and Daily Express as well as numerous regional news brands, recently launched a new data product called Reach Plus that offers brands targeted advertising products driven by data and customer value on its extensive properties.

It is part of a broader diversification play, with digital advertising now accounting for around 52% of its total ad revenue. This is a business still earning from print and subscriptions, although the consolidation of print teams at one-time rivals The Telegraph and Mail Metro Media last month indicate the direction of travel for print sales.

But Reach Plus is staying in step with market demands. Property business OnTheMarket agrees, recently becoming its first partner. It is using Reach to chase estate agent and new home customer leads across Reach inventory – sometimes contextually – on sponsored newsletters and digital content on a national, regional and local level. The brand will also be able to purchase social media advertising via a dedicated account manager (again, the media owner steps into buying).

Terry Hornsby, group digital director at Reach, says the sales team is “growing rapidly” to meet these needs across an ’invention’ team and two client services teams. But it has been a hard year of learnings after cutting some 550 staff in July 2020. ”Now, the market is moving towards a more technical and data-driven sales process.”

When asked to evidence a hunger for this data, Hornsby points to the recently launched OK! Beauty Edit, where curated beauty products are sent to subscribers each month, driven by tailored ads, editorial and content across its sites. Hornsby says Reach drove a 40% uplift on campaign performance for a fashion and clothing retailer this way.

He calls it “a true advertiser to publisher partnership”. He adds. “It allows us to collaborate on joint products to drive performance and business goals for the specific client. Clients will use the whole suite of first-party data products known to deepen its connection with customers across our portfolio of news brands”.

For sales teams, the remote revolution has opened up clients beyond the usual geographic areas, he says, adding that “the digital space has lots of changes coming“, including the Google FLoC included. “Publishers like us with first-party data and insights at scale will be positioned in a very good place to help advertisers achieve their objectives.”

As good a game as each of these publishers talk, it is clear they’ll need to differentiate their offerings and capabilities and showcase the results – lest they get lost in the chorus of ambitious claims.

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