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For French newspaper Le Monde, it’s been a good year for both advertising and subscription revenue. The newspaper’s advertising alliance with domestic rival Le Figaro has generated €5 million ($6 million) within 10 months, while digital subscriptions continue to surge. Le Monde’s Louis Dreyfus is bullish on continuing that momentum through 2019, spurred by a belief that advertisers will become less tolerant of brand-safety issues with the platforms, eventually.
What have been the most pressing challenges for French publisher business models in 2018?
If you want to be an alternative option to the GAFA [Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon] for advertisers, then we must promote the quality of the content and environment in which their ads are published. Advertisers have got used to being able to buy cheap reach on Facebook and clients are still fascinated by the strength of Google and Facebook. We believe that the best way for major publishers to see digital ad revenues grow is to emphasize our differences versus GAFA, in terms of the environment.
How have you gone about proving that to advertisers?
It is one of the main reasons we why built an exclusive alliance called Skyline with Le Figaro. Through that, we can offer big advertisers very high brand safety within high-quality environments. Our combined audiences put us in third place in the French market, just after Facebook and Google, and much closer to Facebook.
What revenue have you made from Skyline?
Within 10 months, we have made €5 million ($6 million) combined with Le Figaro. My bet is that with the increasing question marks around brand safety and data on Facebook, we will get more and more major advertisers coming to us. In the future, we believe that advertisers’ main drivers for allocation of ad revenues will be the desire for more media transparency and what brand-safety guarantees can be provided by media owners.
Whenever advertising spend has been pulled from platforms for brand-safety issues, it isn’t long before the money returns there.
Yes, although advertisers are starting to speak out more, we don’t yet see revenues coming back to us. But we are convinced it will come back.
How would you describe publishers’ relationships with Facebook and Google in 2019 compared with 2018?
Publishers are starting to have more mature relationships with both platforms, meaning they are less and less mesmerized by their performance and more focused on where they could be a big danger. The threat these companies have faced of being dismantled by regulators — whether in the U.S. or Europe — has shaken them and is increasingly changing the terms of our relationships. One of the solutions they have is to promote how they could be of some help to us [as publishers] to reinvent our business model. We are trying to be pragmatic at Le Monde Group. For instance, with Facebook, we have started building a more productive relationship with them around developing digital subscriptions. That’s a move Facebook volunteered to address, and it has worked beyond our expectations. With Google we just launched an artificial-intelligence project, similar to what the New York Times did, to better manage comments below the articles. We are fully aware of the strength those companies have in terms of developers, and we are happy to see that they are getting better at helping major publishers to find a new business model.
Some believe that the General Data Protection Regulation just handed more power to Google in particular. Do you agree?
I don’t think GDPR has given more power to the platforms. But what happened in May showed how small and far away Europe was from Google’s concerns. It also showed the weight of Google’s legal department. At the time, publishers were astonished by Google’s dogmatic, legal answers, along with the last-minute changes it made without taking into account the needs of publishers. That is the demonstration of the difficulties of working with Google.
What is Le Monde’s current split of advertising versus subscriptions revenue?
Currently, 75 percent of our overall revenue comes from readers, which is a very good split. That’s for print and digital subscriptions, and it helps me show everybody externally and internally that my main driver is the content. Subscriptions account for 55 percent of digital revenues and has grown 20 percent this year.
In the U.S., people talk about the Trump bump for subscriptions publishers; in the U.K., it’s been Brexit. In France, what big news moments in 2018 drove subscriptions?
Thanks to the success of Spotify and Netflix over the last two years, and thanks to the presidential election in the U.S. and then in France through 2017, we saw a surge in digital subscriptions. And it is starting to be a real driver in terms of transforming our business model. That coverage drove a 32 percent surge in digital subscriptions by the end of 2017. Although 2018 was less news intense, our digital subscriptions have continued to grow. On several occasions for exclusive stories that require deep investigation, we have pooled resources with other international publishers in order to increase our coverage for global topics that require international and long-term resources. Not with domestic rivals, but with international publishers — sometimes as many as 30 other publishers depending on the length of the investigation. Each publisher dedicates resources toward it. The final products are deeply investigated stories that also help drive subscriptions as it was the case for Panama Papers and Paradise Papers.
Did the noise around the spread of misinformation around political campaigns help drive subscriptions?
I wish, but no. I’m not sure that helped us. That said, my bet is that it will help us in future. For subscriptions, but also advertising. There is a growing distrust in Facebook that will help advertisers to understand that they are dispersing money on social platforms where the data appears to be wrong, and there is no context, and that’s irresponsible.
What are your goals for 2019?
To continue to invest in the technical architecture of my websites. We recently launched a new platform for Le Monde, designed to increase our reader loyalty and drive more visits and pageviews per visit, and better promote our subscriber-only content. I want to better understand our subscriber needs and how to address them. Companies like Netflix are an example to us. Having such big subscriptions surges has helped me prove internally the importance of our editorial and the need for continued product innovation. We have launched Le Huit, which is a similar platform to the Washington Post’s Arc. In 2019, we will continue to invest in products like this that helps drive our subscriptions.