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The future of UK newsbrands: the media buyer view

15 Jun 2020  |  Danny Donovan 
The future of UK newsbrands: the media buyer view

The digital advertising ecosystem is set up against newsbrands being successful, writes Mediahub's Danny Donovan. That’s not right, it’s not fair and it is something we can change

Newsbrands have been in decline since I’ve been in this industry, which is a very long time, and for some time before that. But what hasn’t waned is my belief, which I am confident many people share, that irrespective of delivery format, we need a “free press” representing all views and bringing us the “truth”.

In 1988 when I was a very young media buyer at Saatchi and Saatchi I said out loud at a publisher presentation, to some laughter, that it didn’t matter to me if the news was delivered through a chip inserted into my head, or if someone found a way for me to dream the news. I still hope both may happen one day.

What mattered to me, and most people living in civilised democracies is that I can “read” news which I am confident is well researched and true. Most people like their news presented through their own preferred political lens and that’s fine.

Personally I quite like the opposite, hence I am currently an avid Guardian reader. Partly because it’s free online I’ll admit, and so I am part of the problem, but also because it challenges my in built biases on politics and business, but actually that it aligns closely with my beliefs on inclusion and freedom.

The COVID situation and the increases in readership we have seen have demonstrated once again that newsbrands are a critical component of our society, and a valuable symbol of our freedom. Therefore a well-funded, independent, varied and free press is essential for our civilisation.

And that’s where we come to the issue “well-funded”. The commercial news landscape has clearly become hugely more competitive since that day at Saatchi’s. Other dedicated news channels took some of the audience and the revenue, first TV and then digital. Most recently Google's moves into the area has further increased the pressure.

There are people far more expert than me on the inner financial workings and challenges of newsbrands, and they will all take different paths.

For instance Nick Hugh, CEO at the Telegraph, set out a couple of years ago his organisation's plan and determination to be fully funded by circulation and subscription revenues by 2021. At least to the point they would break even without ad revenues.

DMGT is on a different path, creating ad revenue through MailOnline to help shore up the more serious end of their news operation. Others, somewhere in between. Whichever commercial model they choose this demonstrates the primary challenge faced by newsbrands, that monetising the content they create has become uneconomic and that is putting the whole system at risk.

Some would say that’s fine, survival of the fittest, the markets will decide, and all that, but going back to the initial points, I personally do not think that can be allowed to happen.

Now I definitely don’t believe that advertisers have any kind of moral obligation to support newsbrands over and above any medium offering the same results. But I do believe most advertisers care about the context of their ad placement, and newsbrands represent some of the best context available.

But put simply the digital advertising ecosystem is essentially set up against newsbrands being successful. That’s not right and it’s not fair and it is something we can change.

Again it’s a hugely complex issue, but there three primary elements.

- Many media buyers don’t, and possibly never have, read the news through a newsbrand either physical or digital, and therefore see them as irrelevant based on their in-built biases

- On average half of programmatic digital ad spend is not arriving with the publisher

- The algorithmic key word based engine is blocking newsbrands placements based on COVID and other terms perceived as potentially unsafe for advertisers.

Most advertisers and their agencies would agree that not having newsbrands on their plan, and half the money disappearing before it got to them, are not good things, even if both are somehow technically “justified”.

So someone needs to take a stand, but it has to be a joint one. Publishers need to take themselves out of the programmatic marketplaces; agencies need to go back to publisher direct buying for newsbrands; and advertisers need to demand newsbrands are carved out on plans, separated from the mass of digital inventory.

We need to revert to seeing newsbrands' properties as one buy across all formats including the print and digital editions, and agencies need to agree a fair price which reflects the quality of the context.

Newsbrands need to work harder together to prove the relative effectiveness of their medium for brands, and all parties need to push further for more creative ways to harness the power of the environment whilst maintaining the integrity of the content.

That’s easy for me to say, and as a media buyer still I can play my part, but the whole industry needs to tackle this issue.

I said all those years ago that I wanted to dream the news. But please don’t let the news become just a dream.


Danny Donovan is Mediahub's CEO UK

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01 Jul 2020 

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