How The Guardian moved from the old world of media to the new world of programmatic

by Nigel Gilbert, VP Strategic Development, AppNexus

As the internet and digital advertising have matured to become increasingly programmable the relationship between technology, data and human interaction continues to evolve. Sophisticated programmatic technology has removed a great deal of human effort and error from the advertising process allowing marketers to finely tune their campaign targets.  But its rise must not detract from creative ideation in campaign development.

When creativity is removed from campaign strategy, brands run the risk of reaching consumers exactly where they are, but with little impact. Brands must have data at the heart of their monetization strategy, but emotional intelligence is also crucial to resonating with consumers.

As marketers recognize the need to consider the holistic consumer relationship, publishers are augmenting creative campaign development by offering data that can be used to create exciting, smarter experiences for their audiences.

The Guardian recently launched “Guardian Programmatic Audiences,” a platform that decouples its advertising inventory from data insights to offer premium brands the opportunity to create advanced high-impact experiences for their audiences.

This week I chatted with Daniel Spears, programmatic director at The Guardian News & Media about the challenges of moving from the “old world” of media and advertising to the new world of programmatic, how a lack of transparency still plagues the ad tech ecosystem and the need to develop best practices for creativity as the industry evolves.

How has the Guardian’s programmatic business evolved, and what is driving its growth?

Daniel Spears: The Guardian has been innovating and pushing its programmatic offering forward for a number of years. As our portfolio grew, however, we started facing challenges of managing all our products – the sheer breadth has meant lots of heavy lifting our side and subsequently a challenge around scalability. We’ve now got a more simplified approach, which puts advertiser outcomes at the heart of the proposition and forms two distinct offerings: rich, bespoke partnerships and data-driven programmatic display.

What are some challenges from the “old world” of media and advertising to the new world of programmatic?

DS: Programmatic technology hasn’t always been applied in the best ways and has led to some confusion in the industry. The technical ability to target large audiences across multiple channels has sometimes meant we’ve lost a few fundamental principles of advertising – namely that the messages need to influence consumer behaviour, and that the environment in which these ads appear makes a huge difference to the overall effectiveness. All too often programmatic serves ads to audiences regardless of the quality of the platform. This not only degenerates the impact of the campaign, but also negatively scores the premium quality publishers.  There are also many technological vendors and links in the supply chain that can cause unnecessary opaqueness and costs.

How has the emergence of programmatic technology changed the way brands engage their users, as well as the user experience of visiting a news website like the Guardian?

DS: The emergence of programmatic technology has created an amazing opportunity. But smart strategy is needed to deliver on the potential:  a strategy that uses intelligent commercials and quality data as its fuel. Currently there is a disconnect between agency planning and programmatic execution that means bloated margins and a lack of quality data for scalable segmentation and targeting. This can result in crude applications of programmatic, which can give a negative user-experience. For example, aggressive re-targeting, heavy cookie syncing and other such practices slow page load times.  

There are, however, some good examples of agencies and advertisers that have become sophisticated in the programmatic space – iProspect demonstrates that intelligent planning and programmatic execution can go hand-in-hand, and Periscopix’s smart use of audience targeting to drive engagement in quality environments is a superb example of good programmatic execution.

The Guardian recently launched a proposition that decouples its advertising inventory from data insights. How is this a reflection of the evolution of the data market?

DS: Our managed programmatic offering has already proved the value of quality publisher data – especially via Guardian+. Further to this we recognized a growing demand from agencies and advertisers for access to this quality data separated from a Guardian buy to allow them more control and more flexible campaigns. It’s in this context that we started working with a small group of select advertisers on Guardian Programmatic Audiences and it’s proving to be very successful. With this product, we surfaced a rich understanding of the customer’s trending content interests and defining characteristics and use this to fuel the campaign and amplify engagement through the most relevant and timely messaging.  The results so far have been exceptional: 300% ROI uplift through better performance (lower CPA) at greater scale, and higher-value checkouts than the next-best third-party segment. This demonstrates the power of publisher data and also draws a direct link between planning & programmatic execution.

How is the Guardian differentiated from other publishers?

DS: The Guardian has a global reputation as an award-winning, quality news brand, bringing with it a critical combination of scale and influence.  As a publisher, we inspire societal change and influence people to adapt their behaviour. For example, our coverage of the Panama Papers is still having an impact today, as governments and institutions are being held to account. In this tumultuous year of unprecedented political upheaval we have been seeing record digital traffic – demonstrating a strong demand for impartial, insightful and dependable reporting. The Guardian is the UK’ s most trusted news source and in times of confusion, we are needed more than ever as people try to make sense of the changing world around them.

This creates a platform that can also benefit advertisers. Away from long-tail sites and ‘fake news,’ the quality environment enables brands to build trust and inspire action with an influential and progressive audience with tangible results.

Where do you see the digital advertising market going in coming years?

DS: As we emerge from the programmatic ‘big bang,’ the market is beginning to centre itself and align around key issues. Namely, advertisers are increasing their scrutiny of their programmatic ad spend and buyers are waking up to the fact that quality and context are important. Publishers are assessing the level of control they have given technology partners and starting to demand a greater value for their inventory. I think we’re going to see progress in all areas and I’m excited by the value programmatic will bring to advertisers and publishers as the market matures.

How do you see the Guardian evolving in this space?

DS: I think that we’ll see more collaborations and more direct working with our customers to help them understand their flow of ad spend and strategy. I think publishers across the board will begin to make more significant investment in data science, automation and machine learning such that they will close the gap in sophistication with the buy-side. And as they do, they will create the means to deliver greater value to their advertising customers via their unique assets.

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