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The Rundown: Publishers are coming to terms with the duopoly

This week’s Rundown covers publishers’ acceptance of Facebook and Google’s dominance, unanswered questions surrounding Facebook’s subscriptions push and BuzzFeed’s pivot to TV and movies.

Publishers are coming to terms with the duopoly
If publishers are in the stages of grieving over the domination Google and Facebook have established over media, they’re entering the acceptance phase.

Conversations with many publishers in Berlin this week for the Digiday Publishing Summit Europe revealed a feeling of resignation that not much can be done to thwart the dominance. Government intervention is unlikely, Bild managing director Stefan Betzold said. “The government can only support if the big players break a law,” he said. “It doesn’t help us on the commercial side, and it takes a very long time.”

There was no shortage of reasons to feel gloomy. Word of Facebook testing an alternative news feed for publishing content was met with weary resignation that the good old days of organic reach are truly coming to an end. Many publishers expressed the need to be a lot smarter about their platform relations. As one noted on the many initiatives, “FOMO [fear of missing out] isn’t a strategy.” Instead, publishers should think more like e-commerce companies and shrewdly use platforms based on a feedback loop of data.

There were, to be sure, plenty of complaints. But the entire exercise in complaining raises the ire of Washington Post CRO Jed Hartman, who told me he wished publishers would “stop whining.” (One fellow exec noted later it’s a lot easier to take this stance backed by Jeff Bezos’ billions, although Hartman insisted Bezos is not a “sugar daddy.”)

This sentiment was echoed in a publisher working group dedicated to platforms. Much time was spent grousing about platforms and expressing distrust in their intentions. (One publisher noted an instance where Facebook was helping a marketer vet which publishers to work with for branded content. Another expressed distrust in using Google tools for fear it is scooping up data to use against publishers.)

“I’d like us to stop whining about Facebook,” said a publishing executive. “It’s up to us. It’s a business game. If you don’t like it, pull out and do something differently.”  — Brian Morrissey

Unanswered questions of Facebook’s subscriptions push
Last week’s news that Facebook would start testing subscription sales was overshadowed by Facebook’s dispute with Apple that kept the test off Apple devices and the absence of some big-name publishers like The New York Times. For everyone else that doesn’t have the clout of the Times, there are plenty of questions outstanding: How will Facebook judge success? How big is the audience for subscriptions on Facebook? How does that compare to that of the open web? What’s the right meter level? (Facebook thinks it’s 10, which is why it’s starting by setting the meter there.) A drawback for some publishers is that Facebook isn’t accommodating different meter levels or sales of membership programs. But with Facebook letting them keep all the revenue, at least it’s low-risk. “A lot of people spend a lot of time on Facebook,” one publishing exec said. “There’s potential new audience. Why not try?” — Lucia Moses

BuzzFeed’s entertainment ambitions
BuzzFeed wants to make feature films and linear TV shows, as The New York Times reported in a recent profile of the 42-person BuzzFeed Motion Pictures group, which the digital publisher formed in 2014. The idea is sitting on a wealth of ideas from its articles, lists and digital videos and series, some of which could be adapted into feature films and long-form TV shows.

The appeal is obvious: There’s a lot of money to be made in film and TV. But success is much harder to come by than it is on Facebook and YouTube. As Dawn Ostroff, president of Condé Nast Entertainment, which itself has pushed into film and TV over the past five years, recently told me: It can take up to five years to make a movie and two years to produce a TV show. This means companies have to bet for the long term and put dollars down before making any money through a successful film or TV deal.

For BuzzFeed, the “pivot to film and TV” is almost necessary as it tries to prove its $1.7 billion valuation. And it has one big thing in its corner: NBCUniversal, which has put $400 million in the company. Through NBCUniversal, BuzzFeed has a line into Hollywood — and BuzzFeed is already working with several companies inside NBCUniversal on different film and TV projects that are “in development,” as Matthew Henick, head of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, told me a few months ago.

It’ll be interesting to see what — if anything — develops. — Sahil Patel

The CMO shuffle
When Brad Jakeman, the high-profile president at PepsiCo who handled much of the beverage giant’s in-house content studio, left last week, much of the industry found itself suddenly wondering what was going on. Jakeman was following Jonathan Mildenhall, another high-profile CMO, who had just left Airbnb. And both were going to do the same thing: Consulting. It seemed like a curious move for two people used to controlling millions of dollars in ad budgets to go consult — either there’s a serious demand for consultancies from former hotshot CMOs, or something else is occurring.

For some observers, it’s been all about the cults of personality both have established. That happened through a series of ways — good work, sure, but also a consistent message and a willingness to travel to multiple stages and speak at multiple events while pushing that message. For Jakeman, it was about agencies. For Mildenhall, it was diversity. And those established cults of personality may be enough to carry them through — and act as the selling point for whatever kind of consulting they end up doing. Or perhaps, as a top search recruiter said: “Set my watch. A few months until they join Facebook or Uber.” After all, it can be hard getting used to no longer controlling a massive ad budget. You’ll probably find fewer doors open as quickly. — Shareen Pathak

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