‘They’re gonna go with what they know’: Publishers struggle to win new business amid pandemic

This has not been a good time for media companies looking to win new clients.

With uncertainty continuing to hang over the American economy and advertisers continuing to face pressure from CEOs who want to see ad spending drive results, it has gotten harder than ever for publishers to start relationships with advertisers, executives at five different media companies told Digiday.

While ad spending has rallied in several key categories over the past five months, many brands, particularly those in the retail category, worry about going dark for extended periods of time as fall begins and winter looms. Because of the concern, many advertisers seem content to work more closely with publishers they already have relationships with, typically on smaller, cheaper campaigns that can be executed quickly.

“They’re gonna go with what they know,” said Rich Routman, the president of Minute Media, a sports-focused startup that owns titles including The Players Tribune and 90min.

Perhaps the biggest driver of this dynamic is a lack of time, as brands, worried that consumer sentiment or the health of the economy might take a sudden turn, are planning their ad spending over much shorter windows of time, to avoid paying for ads that might seem out of touch with a fraught moment. An executive at Vox Media said they’d seen lifecycle of many advertising client campaigns — from RFP to IO — shrink to half, or even a third, of its typical length over the past five months.

The chief revenue officer of another publisher, who asked not to be identified, said that many of his largest clients are still working on 30-day planning cycles, making big branded content deals or ambitious creative campaigns all but impossible. “Our business has gotten a lot more transactional and turnkey,” that CRO said.

For publishers that have numerous direct relationships with brands, that squeeze hasn’t been all bad. Though much of the work advertisers feel comfortable investing in right now is less expensive than the campaigns publishers typically pushed, the work is more frequent; sources at three different publications said that brands want to work on smaller branded content projects lately and at brisker than usual cadence.

But those same conditions make it a lot harder to win business from advertisers they haven’t worked with before. Though the number of RFPs circulating has begun to tick up after falling precipitously earlier this year, there is no guarantee that hike will continue: MediaRadar’s RFP predictor tool cannot predict how many RFPs brands might issue in the fourth quarter of the year.

Minute Media has managed to win some clients over the past few months, Routman said, including the charcoal brand Kingsford and the lawn care company Scotts. That’s partly thanks to a forced shift in their content strategy: Many of Minute Media’s titles had to overhaul their content strategy in the spring, after most professional sports leagues halted their seasons. Minute responded by focusing on what it called “athlete-generated content,” much of it personal, often lifestyle-driven fare made by professional athletes cooped up at home.

But Minute Media also benefitted from all the work it’s done in the past with professional athletes around topics including racial and social justice.

“Brands want to align with someone that has a purpose,” Routman said. “We’re not someone who’s taking advantage of something going on in the market. These are stories that have been part of The Players Tribune’s fabric for a while.”

Media companies that do not have a deep track record in covering racial justice or public health have had to rely instead on other ways to start conversations with advertisers. Many have invested more heavily in custom audience and consumer research.

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Publishers including Leaf Group, for example, have significantly increased the cadence of consumer research they are doing, hoping that the insights and predictions they now share weekly can start conversations with brands that lead to business.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘This is what’s happened and why,’” said Jay Ku, Leaf Group’s svp of advertising and brand partnerships. “It’s another thing to then add to that, ‘And based on that, we predict that these changes (or no changes) will happen to your industry in the next 30 to 60 days.’”

Others have tried to pique advertiser interest by partnering with A-list talent on built-if-sold projects that advertisers can get involved in more deeply. Vox Media is among several publishers that have been working with talent agencies such as CAA on projects like these, the Vox executive said. In early August, Vox Creative hosted a Zoom panel discussion, featuring the actress and director Olivia Wilde, on the subject of democratizing opportunity for artists.

But by and large, sources said that there is a measure of resignation that any new business they’re able to drum up is likely to be small.

“The bigger stuff is just not gonna happen [with a new client],” the first chief revenue officer said.

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