How media execs are bracing for another year of ad turmoil while finding the bright spots

This article is part of a series exploring trends in marketing, media and media buying for 2024. More from the series →

Media execs are setting their ad revenue goals for 2024 with an abundance of caution as they wait and see just how much of the ad market’s volatility in 2023 will persist in the new year.

Between the unknowns of how CMOs will be executing ad budgets and what a major election year will do to advertisers’ appetites for showing up next to election coverage, 2024 is looking like it’ll be another year that’s too hard to predict. But that doesn’t mean that media leaders are twiddling their thumbs waiting for the fog to clear. 

Instead, the heads of publications including Bloomberg, The Atlantic, The Independent, The Wall Street Journal, Time and Vox Media all are banking on the categories and content types that are showing more promise than others and homing in on topics that are top of mind for advertisers to hopefully set their ad businesses off on a positive note in the new year. 

Cautious optimism

When asked about general feelings towards 2024, many of the media execs were conflicted. 

“I think hesitancy is a great word,” said Josh Stinchcomb, global CRO of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, who added that while he’s not heard brand CMOs say anything definitive about ad budgets next year, there is a fair amount of chatter about delays in decision making for how those budgets will be expended in 2024. 

Bloomberg Media’s CRO Christine Cook added that she too is a little worried about continued volatility. “Maybe I’m past worry … maybe I’m just expecting it now … [but] we’re geared and aligned to be prepared. Don’t take any client for granted,” she said. 

Despite the worry, Cook said her team is anticipating growth in ad revenue next year, however predicting exactly how much growth “feels like a moving target.” 

There are positive indicators that keep Stinchcomb’s positivity high, despite CMOs’ wavering confidence.

Internally at Dow Jones, parent company of The Wall Street Journal, the acquisition of Oil Price Information Service (OPIS) in 2022 broadened the company’s energy coverage, subsequently opening the door up to new sponsors, Stinchcomb said. Dow Jones’ Risk & Compliance business also experienced a growth year, which led The Wall Street Journal to host its first WSJ Chief Compliance Officer event in 2023. Meanwhile, the appetite for incorporating AI as a topic and tool in brand campaigns has been a “catalyst for growth” over the past year and he said he expects that to continue into 2024.  

“Based off the data that I have, things like AI and things that we’ve done at our company to create new opportunities around energy and risk, I would have no reason but to be totally optimistic if not for the fact that when I have conversations with CMOs. They’re a little uncertain,” said Stinchcomb. “There’s a sense of cautiousness and uncertainty … I’m taking them at their word and I’m tempering my enthusiasm.”

Alternatively, Nick Thompson, The Atlantic’s CEO, is fully embracing his optimistic outlook for the 2024 ad market.

“It’s so weird in media, but I have total confidence,” said Thompson, who added that The Atlantic is coming off of a “phenomenal” year in terms of revenue, though he declined to share specific growth figures. “I’m always concerned about ads, but there’s no particular indicator that’s scaring me right now.” 

In-bound interest

In the fourth quarter, several media execs said it felt like advertisers wanted to jump ahead to 2024 planning and leave 2023 in the past, which seems like a good sign for getting the next year’s pipeline a bit more filled before the ball drops compared to recent years

“A lot of people have earlier than we’ve seen before asked about full-year or longer term [campaigns going] into 2024 … it seems like a lot of marketers who [were] done with 2023 wanted to move the conversation into the next year,” said Bloomberg’s Cook.

That fervor for 2024 did end up translating to an increase in request for proposals (RFPs) for some publishers, as it turns out. 

One publisher who spoke anonymously for this story said both ad revenue and the volume of deals are pacing “way ahead” for Q1 year over year, though they declined to share by exactly how much. 

“RFP volume is up, win rate is up and deal size is up. All of those things are positive, [but] I’m less sure why. I hypothesize in part that [advertisers are] seeking out fewer, better partners – sort of retreating to core partners,” the publisher said. But they added that investing in their client success team and post-sale operations last year also led to a higher renewal rate heading into 2024.

Vox Media’s CRO Geoff Schiller echoed that. As of November 2023, the company had already signed new seven-figure deals for 2024.

Meanwhile, Cook said there’s been a significant increase in RFPs asking about multiple month-long or quarters-long campaigns, whereas last year stuck to more of a 30-60 day RFP cycle. 

Bigger deal sizes is not necessarily the standard amongst all publishers, however. Thompson said that even with revenue up in 2023, the price points of the deals themselves have been smaller on average. 

“I bet you our deal size will be smaller next year, but there’ll be more of them,” said Thompson, who added that between a healthy RFP volume heading into 2024 and the win rate for campaigns being up compared to this time last year, the size of the deals aren’t ultimately a concern. “You win four $250,000 deals, that’s just as good as one $1 million deal,” he said.  

Categorical shift 

The story of which advertising categories are up and which are down is a bit varied amongst media execs, but a couple commonalities include luxury and auto being up heading into the new year while tech has made a decent comeback since the beginning of 2023. 

The Atlantic said that while the finance category is down due to a couple of smaller clients pulling back spending, such as First Republic Bank, tech, entertainment and luxury were all on the rise. Luxury and tech in particular made significant investments, including in print ads, Thompson said.

Bloomberg on the other hand reported an increase in investment from the banking sector, with events in particular being of interest to that category, according to Cook. The consultancy space has also become a more prominent category in the past year, with Bloomberg’s proprietary research offerings being of particular interest to that cohort of clients. 

Sensing an opportunity in thought leadership and the ability to drive a new subset of clients to tentpole events and franchise sponsorship, Time, under its new CEO Jess Sibley, pivoted its sales strategy from business-to-consumer to business-to-business in 2023, which Sibley said is set to continue into 2024. 

Center to this pivot is making direct connections with the C-suite of the top blue chip companies that Sibley’s team wanted advertising in Time so that they could understand their key focuses and priorities for the year, including being presented next to topics like AI, climate and equity.

Election optimism 

As The Wall Street Journal’s Stinchcomb mentioned earlier, the U.S. Presidential election is both a positive and negative aspect of 2024 regarding the ad business. 

“The election cycle can make brands [that] are trepidatious about news environments even more so [and] that can be a potential risk for a news publisher,” Stinchcomb said. But given the fact that only about 16% of the Wall Street Journal’s coverage is political in nature, the traffic increases to that coverage create an all boats rise effect on the non-political coverage, he said. 

In the six months leading up to the last November election, Stinchcomb said traffic to WSJ’s business content increased by 36% and traffic to economics coverage increased by 60%, ultimately creating more inventory for his team to sell. 

The Independent’s global COO and president of North America, Zach Leonard, echoed that during U.S. elections cycles, the U.S. audience can increase from one-third of the media company’s total readership to 40%. This bodes well for ad revenue given the U.S. has a bigger advertising market and a larger U.S. audience means getting more attention from advertisers in that region. 

“We’re investing heavily in the year to develop our Washington bureau,” Leonard said, adding that the current headcount of four staffers will increase leading up to the November election to further capitalize on U.S. audiences’ viewership for political coverage.

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