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UK publisher on Facebook: ‘They hire nice people to placate us’

This week, I’m writing from Berlin, where we are holding our first Digiday Brand Summit Europe starting tomorrow. Here’s some of what I’ve heard over the past week in Ireland, London and Berlin.

Facebook skepticism in the U.K.
Before coming to Berlin, I stopped in London, where Digiday has an office. There, I met with a publisher who relies on Facebook for a good three-quarters of its business. Naturally, the issue of Instant Articles and Facebook relations overall came up.

“They’re the worst partners,” this publisher said. “They hire nice people to placate us.”

The issue is exacerbated in Europe since decision-making occurs at Facebook headquarters. European publishers are often left to wonder how much Facebook reps in London even know about plans ahead of time, magnifying frustrations. In one instance, this publisher was part of a group gathered to emphasize that Facebook does care about publishers there. Only the next day, Facebook announced an algorithm change that would impact some of the assembled publishers.

“They’re our competitors,” this publisher ruefully said. “They’re an existential threat.”

Another publisher told me it had little reason to believe Facebook would fix IA. This publisher’s blunt assessment: “They’re keeping it alive out of ego.”

The Guardian on pulling out of IA
In London, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Guardian CRO Hamish Nicklin for the next episode of the Digiday Podcast. Nicklin said the decision to pull out of IA was an easy one. The Guardian simply looked at the returns and decided it would be better off without articles published in the Facebook format.

“It monetizes all right. It just wasn’t as good to get that reader to the Guardian. It was a purely commercial decision. We looked at the yields we were generating from a reader who came from Facebook to the Guardian’s website and compared that to the revenue which we were getting from a reader who stayed within the Instant Articles environment. And one was better than the other. And well, there’s the maths.

It wasn’t a huge chunk of our audience to demonstrate that. Google AMP monetizes well, so we’re still playing with them.”

We also discussed why the Guardian is cracking down on what it finds to be unfair treatment from ad tech partners, whether the recent YouTube brand-safety concerns can help publishers and the prospect of the Guardian going behind a paywall (“Never say never,” he said).

What to expect at the NewFronts
The NewFronts grind on. The digital world’s dog-and-pony show of presentations and parties has kicked off in New York. The events have always been a step down from the glitz and glamour of the Upfronts. But this year, they’ve become even more down-to-earth as digital media zeroes in on the YouTube ad controversy. Senior reporter Sahil Patel wrote on the issue on Monday:

NewFronts presenters have always touted their “premium environments” and content capabilities to differentiate themselves from big distributors such as Facebook and YouTube. But publishers saw a new opening when advertisers criticized YouTube for allowing ads to appear next to extremist videos. Many advertisers pulled money from YouTube, mostly as a way to negotiate for better terms and more third-party measurement on the platform. Advertisers have also pushed back on Facebook for its mishandling of some key video performance metrics and role in the rise of fake news.

Coming up: Highsnobiety
Before we start our event tomorrow, I’m interviewing David Fischer, founder and CEO of streetwear fashion publisher Highsnobiety, for the Digiday Podcast. Fischer has grown Highsnobiety parent Titel Media from a streetwear blog into a thriving digital publishing company with a commerce business.

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