Digiday+ held a members event on March 1 in partnership with USA Today. Brian Morrissey, Digiday’s president and editor-in-chief, grilled USA Today Chief Revenue Officer Kevin Gentzel and PHD Chief Investment Officer Craig Atkinson on all things media buying, artificial intelligence, fake news and the duopoly. Join Digiday+, Digiday’s premium membership program for invites to future events.

Below are highlights from the event, edited for clarity and length.

Should brands be wary advertising next to news?
Atkinson: I think we have to recognize that we’re living in The pre-Parkland and post-Parkland reality. It can be uncomfortable for brands to take a stand, but increasingly, we’re finding them ready to take a stand, even it leads to some short-term consequences. We work with Delta, and they’ve taken a ton of heat for what they’ve done [dumping the NRA]. Some of [the brands] are finding their voice and are actively leaning into it, but it’s nascent.
Gentzel: It’s understandable if a brand wants to stay away from certain things, but I think it’s important for brands to invest in advertising through a media company. They’re helping fund journalism that’s getting at really important truths.

Is Amazon about to upend online advertising?
Atkinson: They just kill it on the metrics. If you’re a [consumer goods] company, you know exactly what happened. For brands, it’s going to be extremely important for a loyalty perspective.

Is the pivot to video doomed for most publishers?
Gentzel: It’s easy to read headlines and think there’s a gold rush in video, and if you pivot hard, it’s going to be there for the taking. The reality is that it’s hard to convince your consumers, who started as readers, that you’re creating an environment for them to deliver good video stories to them. Publishers that have missed this have pushed too hard and have invested too much too soon.

Are agencies are losing ground as clients take control?
Atkinson: Yes, we’ve lost ground from the days we got 15 percent commissions, but we’re still in a good position to be their agent in the marketplace, even though they have direct deals.

Is fake news Facebook’s fault?
Atkinson: Yes. Never in the history of the world have you had something so perfectly designed to be a propaganda machine. When people at the Conservative Political Action Conference come out saying the kids [in Parkland] say the school shooting is made up, yeah, it’s Facebook’s fault.

Will the pivot to subscriptions mostly fail?
Gentzel: Five years ago, how many businesses did you really believe could create a serious subscription-based media company? It could be counted on one hand. Now, more consumers are building a financial relationship with media companies. With younger people paying for streaming music and content, it’s a good time to try [subscriptions] out. For the majority, it’s going to be hard.

Is publisher user experience in crisis?
Atkinson: By and large, most free media outlets are increasingly in crisis. Everyone wants to agree there needs to be a lower ad load. The free media experience needs to be better. On the flip side, brands don’t want to pay more for ads because they’re not sure they’re working.

Is AI in media buying mostly a buzzword?
Atkinson: A lot of times, we get a client who says, “My CMO is interested in this; we’d like to buy in AI.” For the clients that have their attribution models figured out, there’s a lot of interesting things going on in the bidding side. For those who don’t, the rest of this is just hot air.

Should Facebook and Google be broken up?
Gentzel: There’s a lot about the duopoly — or the triopoly, if you include Amazon. They still are partners and we work with them, but it’s not always easy. At the end of the day, you can spend your life contemplating this, but it doesn’t affect our business that much in the short term.

Should publishers should stop whining about the duopoly?
Gentzel: Yes. Publishers can bring value to brands that platforms can’t.

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