On ad pricing, Condé Nast bows to the reality of digital

Digital media companies may aspire to be the “Condé Nast of the Web,” a nod to the publishing house’s standard-setting reportage and photography — and, often unspoken, its ability to charge fat premiums.

But like all publishers, it’s had to adjust as readers and advertisers migrate online, a theme that likely is the focus of the company’s latest visit by consultants. In a nod to the brutal price competition on the Web, the company has also broken with its longstanding tradition of not negotiating rates. The move to show flexibility on rates is also, unsurprisingly, a move that draws cheers from buyers, although it can also be seen as more depressing evidence of the vast commoditization force digital is for all publishers.

“Condé Nast is off the rate card,” said Barry Lowenthal, president of The Media Kitchen. “They’re willing to negotiate. I was having lunch with a Condé Nast publisher, and one of the first things he said was, ‘If price is an issue, we can talk about that.’ You never would have talked about that in the past.”

Another buyer, who asked to remain anonymous, put it more harshly, saying that at a time when the industry and market are “changing at neck-breaking speed,” Condé Nast is “consistently one step behind.”

“They are making all the right moves but not necessarily keeping pace to compete,” the buyer said, referring to the publisher’s deals to distribute its content on other platforms like Apple and Facebook. “We can buy these audiences more efficiently on other sites that have the scale and better targeting capabilities.”

Lowenthal said that he appreciates Condé Nast’s steady commitment to quality, in-depth journalism. But some titles still have separate print and digital reps, which complicates buying across platforms. And with advertisers able to buy programmatically, Condé Nast no longer has a monopoly on the affluent consumer, he noted. (Condé Nast does have a private marketplace, a tactic that lets publishers take advantage of programmatic’s efficiencies but gives them control over who can bid on the inventory.)

But in pricing and other areas, there’s still a long way to go for the company to be competitive with digital natives, buyers also say.

“While they are negotiating, it’s more rigid,” said Nicole Estebanell, senior vp, group media director at DigitasLBi. “The price point can be a barrier.”

Like other publishers, Condé is focused on efficiency through integrated publishing systems: It’s migrating its titles to a common CMS, for instance.

It is also looking for new revenue opportunities. The company has introduced 23 Stories, a native ad platform that, in a big break with industry orthodoxy, lets advertisers use the company’s editorial staffers to produce ads.

“What they’re doing right now with 23 Stories is a really smart way and progressive shift from where they’ve been,” Gian LaVecchia, managing partner and digital content marketing lead for MEC North America. “That whole proposition is about bringing those two sides together and bringing that to brands. That’s a fairly aggressive step forward, and I like that. And that steps across the portfolio. It’s designed to address silos.”

While 23 Stories was a good step, the company faces fierce competition from pure-play digital publishers that are introducing new ad offerings on a daily basis and bring more pricing flexibility, though, said Allison Howald, senior vp and managing director at PHD. “In order to not merely survive but rather thrive, Condé Nast will need to provide premium experiences that are competitively priced,” she said.