Media Briefing: How publishers are using AI tools in their sales operations

This Media Briefing covers the latest in media trends for Digiday+ members and is distributed over email every Thursday at 10 a.m. ET. More from the series →

This week’s Media Briefing looks at how some publishers are applying AI tech to their sales operations to reduce the amount of manual tasks and the time it takes to respond to RFPs and reach out to prospective clients.

  • Al in ad sales
  • Overheard at DPS: The sustainability convo
  • Morning Brew drops two C-suite execs, X is the top social platform for disinformation and more

Al in sales

Generative AI has come for publishers’ editorial teams in full force, sparking innovation at its best and misinformation, criticism and legal concerns at its worst. 

But for some efficiency-minded publishers, like BuzzFeed, BDG and Trusted Media Brands, the opportunity to apply generative AI technology within their sales teams’ operations is looking to be a positive way to reduce turnaround times for inbound requests for proposals (RFPs) from advertisers, increase outreach to prospective clients and, overall, turn time into money. 

Reactive and more responsive  

BuzzFeed currently has six AI tools, called copilots, in operation, with the seventh scheduled to roll out at the end of this month. Andrew Guendjoian, evp and head of client partnerships at BuzzFeed Inc., is advising the tech team that is building the tools on areas of operational lag that could benefit from AI intervention. 

“Thinking about the crunch that is happening right now and the need to be constantly in front of our clients proactive[ly], anything that can reduce operational lag, which all of these copilots do, is helpful,” said Guendjoian. 

The RFP summary copilot creates a one-page summary of an RFP, as the name suggests, and while it still requires proofreading from the salesperson before being passed onto the CRM, Guendjoian said it turns a two- to three-hour-long task into a 10-minute-long step. The seller is still responsible for reading through the entire RFP to ensure everything is represented properly in the summary, he added, but the arduous task of writing up the summary is no longer on the seller’s plate.

“I would put my money on the outputs [from an LLM] being actually superior to the human-written RFP responses and I think a lot of people would agree with that because [sales]people aren’t professional writers. They’re really pressed for time and just information-seeking part of it is very time-consuming and difficult,” said Myles Younger, head of innovation and insights at U of Digital, which teaches professionals how to use AI within their businesses, among other topics. 

Another of BuzzFeed’s copilots is called the product mix assistant and its purpose is to recommend the different ad types and sellable products that exist within BuzzFeed’s portfolio based on certain keywords in an RFP or RFP summary. The creative team within BuzzFeed’s sales division has a creative brainstorming copilot. And the upcoming copilot will be a Q&A bot that the sales team can use to further search all of the available ad products. The seller can ask more abstract questions regarding a proposal or an RFP and the Q&A bot will reference back to similar past campaigns and proposals to see which ad types or insights were used. 

“We’ve heard from our internal teams, ‘Oh, I never even thought about Tasty for this program, but the rationale that [the copilot] provides made sense, so I’m actually reaching out to the Tasty team for a recommendation,’” Guendjoian said. 

Efficiency is the goal

Between the RFP summary and product mix assistant, Guendjoian said the weeklong response time that is typically required for responding to an inbound advertiser request has been reduced to a 24-hour turnaround window. 

“By reducing all of the busy work that goes into actually getting something resourced and started, we’re able to reduce the overall total turnaround and you get to a kickoff call that much quicker,” said Guendjoian.

Right now, this task is pretty much done manually over Slack or other workplace messaging apps, with salespeople crowdsourcing information from previous campaigns and parsing through 100-page slide decks to find the information they’re looking for, said Younger, who also previously worked at Media.Monks and had to respond to many RFPs within his role. 

“A bunch of publishers are starting to look at ways to take the really redundant tasks out of building out plans and all the data entry things that are required to basically just pitch a deal in the media business,” said Tyler Love, chief technology officer at BDG. 

For example, when a big insertion order comes through for a campaign worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, there are often hundreds of line items detailing every ad unit and the number of impressions required for each unit. And on top of that, there could also be branded content requirements and social media posts involved. “The list gets really long really quickly … and a lot of manual data entry goes into that,” Love said.

While BDG has not put any AI tools live yet for its sales team to use, the product team is actively experimenting with different prompt and RFP summarization tools that will be rolled out for internal use in the next month or so, though Love declined to give a solid timeline.  

One of the AI tools that’s currently under development will map out campaign overviews based on a variety of budgets, detailing which ad products, impression requirements and audience segments would be required for a $1 million, $500,000 or $100,000 campaign. 

“While it might only get 40-50% of the actual work out of the way, that’s pretty considerable considering that part of our deal pipeline is a dozen steps through a dozen teams,” said Love. “I feel like there’s an avenue worth exploring even if it’s [only] a 10% efficiency increase.”

Widening the aperture

Some of the use cases for AI in sales operations are also aimed at giving publishers more options for responding to existing clients or reaching out to potential advertisers. 

“Even more so than turnaround times with RFPs — that’s all on the reactive side — but as a sales leader, what I am really focused on right now is proactivity because the marketplace is fragmented tremendously,” said Guendjoian. “We really need to be in front of our clients.” 

On the programmatic side of the business, BuzzFeed has an audience segment assistant that will create an addressable audience segment based on audience size and the amount of available inventory, which sellers can then use to reach out to a programmatic desk and suggest a PMP or PG deal. 

Trusted Media Brands is not currently working on an RFP-summarizing AI tool, but one of the AI applications that’s currently being developed is an AI search function for its catalog of user-generated content, according to Jacob Salamon, vp of business development at TMB.

Since acquiring Jukin Media, TMB’s UGC catalog has grown to include 95,000 videos that the sales team licenses out to brands to use in campaigns or commercials. When a seller was previously looking through the video catalog to find videos relevant for an advertiser’s campaign, the search results used metadata to surface videos. And while one search query previously would surface 15 videos, adding AI into the search function increased the results to 250 for that same search, Salamon said. 

“It was allowing us to stretch and feel more creative with our responses [and with] RFPs, that is a big part of the process … and this is helping our internal teams find more relevant content,” said Salamon. 

Client confidentiality 

Of course, when it comes to using AI, concerns around intellectual property rights is top of mind for publishers, which is why, at present, “everything is going through our legal team,” Salamon said.

From the most complex, enterprise-level contract to click-to-accept term agreements with a generative AI company, TMB’s legal team is reviewing all of the terms and agreements. “We see some terms that are a bit more nefarious than others, where it’s like, ‘By agreeing to use this tool, anything that you upload, we now have a perpetual license to use.’ Well, we are in the business again of licensing content and making sure that our video owners get paid anytime their content is used. So we can’t use a tool like that,” Salamon said.

Younger added that when getting into contracts with advertisers or even past proposals, there are cases where information may be considered confidential and uploading proposals or RFPs into the tools could pose challenges to any confidentiality agreements. 

“The firewalls that publishers and agencies have to construct around their clients to make sure that their clients’ proprietary information doesn’t leak out — it’s a challenge,” Younger said.

What we’ve heard

“Another one we just saw was around the U.S. Open, actually, when Coco [Gauff] won and we had advertisers blocking [articles containing the word] ‘shot.’ But it’s a tennis shot, not a bullet shot.” 

– Blair Tapper, svp for the U.S. at The Independent, on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast, discussing the rudimentary nature of advertisers’ keyword blocking approach to brand safety. 

Overheard at DPS: The sustainability convo

During the Digiday Publishing Summit last week, about 15 publishing execs at gathered for a roundtable discussion on the topic of sustainability within digital advertising (digital marketing agency Rise sponsored the roundtable, but Digiday editorial moderated the discussion). And the eye-opening truth of the conversation was that, while it may be rooted in promise, publishers see sustainability as the latest goodwill publicity tactic from ad agencies. 

And what’s more, the bulk of the responsibility of reducing carbon emissions within the digital advertising ecosystem is falling on the shoulders of publishers, who already have enough on their plates, according to the cohort of execs who were granted anonymity in exchange for their candor. 

Below are highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

“Sustainability kind of came knocking for us. None of us invited this in. If Brian O’Kelley didn’t have all the money to start [carbon emission measurement firm] Scope3, this wouldn’t be in our face the way this is.” 

“[The conversation around] sustainability has been more driven by sales than those [internal corporate] task forces. It’s been driven by brands that have taken this term — and it’s a term you can’t say [you’re] against — so you have to react. But it’s being driven as a sales aspect.” 

“I haven’t had a single conversation internally about sustainability at all.” 

“[In] the programmatic ecosystem, there’s no doubt that people are starting to ask for [carbon emissions data] and push for it. And once again, the publishers are blamed for the environment so there’s this aspect of us just having to kind of react.” 

“Suddenly, [the industry] made this the biggest issue, but right now it feels more like a negotiation tactic than anything else. So if we can get publishers to get aligned on how we want to be bought [post-third-party cookie] we’ll throw sustainability at [advertisers and agencies] and watch them all scurry.” 

“We think in ad calls and then somewhere in the last two years, [we’ve had] to translate that into CO2 grams. Like that’s really unknown to us. But I could [guess] if I reduce the ad calls, then I guess I’m reducing server payload somewhere and so I’m helping … but it might actually help very, very little.” 

“One of the things I’d love to see with this whole sustainability conversation is, [have] agencies decided they’re going to send less tracking code and tags? Will they be penalized for 10 megabyte creatives that they sometimes let through? I haven’t heard that press release yet. It’s on [publishers] that we’re the ones that are screwing this up.” 

“Scope3 seems to be the one [carbon emissions measurement firm] that people are meeting with, but the sense I get is they’re looking at your ads.txt file and they’re basically saying, clean up your act. And so I’m just right now taking the act of cleaning up our ads.txt [and] thinking about having a better stack.” 

“I was able to say from Scope3 that I cut carbon emissions by 70% because of how extremely I reduced my ads.txt file and reduced partners.”

In response to the above statement: “Without a standard, someone can tell you you’re reducing [carbon emissions by] 70%, but 70% out of what? It’s neglectable with everything that you’re doing within your site.” 

“When we’re trying to onboard new SSPs, we have to ask around a lot to see [if] they’re spamming ad requests, for example. We turned down partners [who are driving CPMs that are] 40% higher on iOS, but they’re literally sending 3,000% more bids to get to that point. We’re not going to work with them … but sometimes you can spend weeks trying to figure that out.” 

“We are all looking at cost reduction and it just so happens to be more sustainable. Will I, in the next year, start choosing and working more with partners who are also following [more sustainable practices]? I believe that to be yes [but it will come from a revenue goal, versus a sustainability goal.]” 

Numbers to know

$20 million: The amount of revenue that Punchbowl is on track to earn this year, a 100% increase from the $10 million in revenue the company earned in 2021. 

12%: The percentage of staffers by which New York Public Radio is planning to reduce its workforce, due to a “free fall in the advertising market,” according to The New York Times.

148: The number of days it took the Writers Guild of America to strike before reaching an agreement with several Hollywood studios and streaming services, ultimately ending the strike.

7: The length of Rupert Murdoch’s career, in decades, before he announced he’s stepping down as the chairman of News Corp and Fox in November.

What we’ve covered

‘It’s gonna be a race’: Publishers speak out on the industry’s post-cookie preparedness:

  • The death of the third-party cookie was top of mind for attendees of the September 2023 edition of the Digiday Publishing Summit. 
  • In a video, publishers from Condé Nast, Dotdash Meredith and Thomson Reuters spoke with Digiday during the event about the industry’s level of readiness for the cookiepocalypse and what still needs to be sorted out. 

Watch the video here.

Publishing execs express concern over generative AI’s impact on traffic and IP protections: 

  • Publishing executives shared their honest and unfettered opinions on the rise of generative artificial intelligence technology at the Digiday Publishing Summit.
  • In closed-door sessions, executives opened up about their concerns around how generative AI chatbots will impact site traffic and jobs in the media industry, and the limitations of protecting their content from chatbot web crawlers

Hear what publishers had to say about the role of generative AI in media here.

Why Apartment Therapy added more commerce integrations to its tentpole event franchise Small/Cool:

  • Event sponsorships are hard to come by this year, at least according to Apartment Therapy’s president Riva Syrop. But the money is there if publishers know what sponsors are looking for. 
  • And in the case of this year’s Small/Cool event franchise, Syrop said clients want bottom-of-the-funnel, transaction-oriented campaigns.

Learn more about how Apartment Therapy adapted to bring in event sponsorship revenue this year here.

For premium publishers, proving an advertiser’s return on investment is more important than ever: 

  • One of the top takeaways from this year’s Digiday Publishing Summit was that while ad revenue is starting to flow back into the market, advertisers are asking for more proof that they’re going to get a return on their investment from their publisher partners.
  • On the direct-sold side of their advertising businesses, execs from Condé Nast, Blavity Inc. and Apartment Therapy Media spoke about how they’re being asked to guarantee better ROIs for advertisers as they compete for precious ad dollars.

Read more about the state of KPIs in publisher ad campaigns here.

What we’re reading

Two of Morning Brew’s C-suite execs are out due to ‘divergent strategic viewpoints’:

Per a report from Axios, Morning Brew COO Matt Resnick and CRO Ken Shapiro have left the company. CEO Austin Rief will serve as interim revenue chief during the search for a replacement. 

IAC’s chairman Barry Diller is dissatisfied with the lack of AI rules within the WGA deal:

The Writers Guild of America came to a deal this week with Hollywood’s studios and streamers, ending the months-long writers’ strike. But Diller, who’s been an outspoken advocate for copyright and intellectual property protections against AI technology, is upset that the new deal doesn’t address the role of generative AI well enough, CNBC reported. 

How the BBC is fact-checking news in 2023:

When a report that internet personality Lil Tay had died went viral, many news outlets had to issue corrections once it was revealed the 16-year-old had not, in fact, passed away. Unlike other publications that were fooled by the hoax, the BBC’s Daniel Rosney spent more than 10 hours debunking the rumor, according to a report by the Reuters Institute. 

X is the worst mainstream social media platform for disinformation:

The social platform once known as Twitter has been labeled by the European Union as having the worst ratio of disinformation or misinformation to factual posts among all mainstream social media sites, TechCrunch reported. 

Veteran New York Times reporter’s new book chronicles the highs and lows of the newspaper:

In a conversation with Vanity Fair, NYT reporter Adam Nagourney teases four decades worth of scandals, criticism and wins at the legacy news outlet that he details in his new book, “The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism.”

More in Media

AI Briefing: Senators propose new regulations for privacy, transparency and copyright protections

A new bill called the COPIED Act aims to pass new transparency standards to protect IP and guard against AI-generated misinformation.

Media Briefing: Publishers reflect on ad revenue midway through 2024 

Some publishers say ad revenue is pacing 15% up year over year while others are still managing their expectations for how 2024 will shake out.

Teads is exploring sale options as M&A in ad tech heats up

Sources state the Altice-owned stalwart of outstream video has recently held talks with private equity and strategic players.