Publishers push back against platforms and ad tech

This edition of the Rundown is coming to you from the slopes in Vail, Colorado, where we are having our first-ever Moguls event for publishing CEOs, followed by the Digiday Publishing Summit. OK, I’m not actually skiing, but I can see the mountain from my hotel room, so there’s that.

Outrage Theater
Last week, I wrote how the ongoing tensions between advertisers, agencies, publishers and Google is theater. Our reporting has borne this out. Those I speak to roll their eyes at the ongoing public declarations of shock that a long-tail ad network would ever put ads in questionable places.

The timing of this advertiser boycott shouldn’t be dismissed, not to go all InfoWars. The “bombshell revelations,” driven by News Corp’s Times of London, happened in the lead up to Advertising Week in London. That made sure to dominate the week’s many panels there. And now, here we are about to go into the New Fronts and Upfronts period. It doesn’t take Colombo to deduce that there’s a fair amount of negotiating going on here. What many I’ve spoken to expect to happen is Google will be forced to give in on several issues of concern to advertisers. Those concessions are our focus in pursuing this story.

Publishers fight back
It’s nice to see publishers take the initiative once in awhile. Today brought news that The Guardian is suing The Rubicon Project over undisclosed fees. Hamish Nicklin, CRO at The Guardian, has been outspoken in his disgust with how the ad tech world is taking more than its fair share of transactions. It’s why we did a profile of Nicklin for Digiday magazine earlier this year. (It’s available here.)

This kind of high-profile dispute is uncommon. Usually these matters are settled quietly in private. Rubicon is going through a tough time, with a stock price in the toilet while it scrambles to make up for a late start with header bidding. Meanwhile rumors have continued to swirl that it will soon be snapped up by a competitor. New CEO Michael Barrett, no stranger to ad tech rollups, told us Rubicon is not for sale. We’ll see.

The fact that this wasn’t settled quietly means The Guardian wanted to make a point. The interesting part will be if other publishers follow suit after closely examining their own ad tech relationships.

Snapchat as the new Twitter
Last night, our senior reporter Sahil Patel remarked to me that Snapchat is the new Twitter. He meant that it would never grow into what its backers imagine. One point made by a top publisher, which has been part of Snapchat Discover: Snapchat is failing the platform test. Both Google and Facebook went public with evidence that their platforms had enabled the creation of thousands of businesses atop them.

Snapchat cannot point to any such successes. For the most part, this publisher said the decision to devote resources to Snapchat is mostly corporate FOMO (fear of missing out). “You don’t want to be the one that missed the train,” this exec said. Look no further than Hearst, which cozied up with Snapchat to launch Sweet, the first Snapchat-blessed media brand. Sweet’s ambitions soon fizzled into the same viral fare that infects most Snapchat channels: lots of sex and lots of listicles.

Odds and ends
Next week, I have Jim VandeHei on the Digiday Podcast to discuss how Axios is looking to differentiate — and build a multi-stream business model… We are doing some quick podcasts from DPS with some of the top execs coming to Vail… One bold prediction from a publishing exec: “Medium won’t be around in a year.”

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