‘Not a lot of experimenting going on’: Ad buyers cut back on ad format experimentation

Publishers that were hoping to talk advertisers into trying out new ad formats at the end of the year are having a rough go of it.

Facing pressure to drive results with their spending and struggling with limited creative resources and time, advertisers with brand spending goals have been hesitant to try out new, unproven ad formats that might rely on non-standard creative elements or are sold using unfamiliar metrics, increasingly gravitating toward those they know will work and that they can easily plug into their existing media mix models, media agency and sell-side sources say.

While that doesn’t mean spending on new formats has dropped to zero, it does mean that publishers hoping to increase the size of their ad deals at year’s end have to make it even easier for brands to try things out. The advertisers’ reticence is one more challenge that coronavirus has created for publishers’ businesses, but it has also pushed them closer to goals many of them had set for themselves over the long term, such as selling ad formats that leverage their first party data, or having more control over the ads’ creative process.

“There’s not much experimenting happening now,” said the revenue leader at one large digital publisher, who asked not to be identified. That source noted that, over the past few months, fewer clients have expressed interest in trying new ad networks, or trying to target a new “‘just to see how it goes.’

What these clients need are flexibility, efficiency and scale,” that executive added. “The partners that can deliver on that are well-positioned.”

For most of this year, the economic and cultural havoc wrought by coronavirus has forced marketers to prove their ad spending works. That has squeezed publishers’ branded content businesses, forced ad sellers to think about campaigns that can be executed in days, rather than months, and made it much harder for publishers to win new business

Many advertisers have spent the past several months operating on compressed schedules because they cannot do long-term planning, said Erik Requidan, the cofounder of the site monetization services consultancy Media Tradecraft. And those that had to get rid of a lot of creative assets that were inappropriate during the pandemic do not have the time or resources to build things that might have to fit into a non-standard unit.

“It has to be simple,” Requidan said. “It can not be complex.”

The pressure has also compelled some brands to reallocate their budgets, taking money that might have been spent on experiments in a normal year and putting it into something that drives sales. Those experimental ad formats, quite often, are designed to solve for branding objectives, rather than direct response objectives, said Anthony Rinaldi, vp of media activation at the media agency Essence. “If budgets are going to get cut, it’s from branding efforts,” Rinaldi said.

Publishers with new units that can deliver performance have been somewhat less affected by marketers’ changing appetites. “There’s a shift to more performance-driven versus experimental brand-driven,” said Jeffrey Turner, director and head of commercial product at the Washington Post. “We’re relying less on distinctly styled ad formats.

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“Most of the dollars are going to things that we have data and support to know that it’s going to perform versus throwing paint on a wall,” Turner said, adding that 60% of the insertion orders Turner’s team has gotten have leveraged the Post’s first party data.

Other sell-side people are hoping that some combination of ease and familiarity can help coax buyers into trying something new.

For example, the mobile ad vendor Kargo recently launched AMP versions of some of its most performant, effective ad units. And Tuesday, Vox Media announced it was launching a self-serve ad manager for its ad networks Concert and Concert Local.

“The buyers are in the business of making money too,” Requidan said. “They have to find ways that make sense for them.”

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