Data Continues to Bulldoze Through Media Advertising Hurdles


For news organizations, selling advertising has become a notoriously complicated endeavor as media companies, tech businesses, and platforms compete for a share of the revenue. Though there is still a remarkable amount of money spent on advertising in the U.S.—billions in digital display and programmatic ads last year alone—the competition for ad dollars among print, digital and broadcast media is fast, fierce and sometimes unforgiving.

One example is the television industry. Lucas Shaw, entertainment and media reporter for Bloomberg, painted a somber picture in a recent article.

“Global TV advertising sales fell almost 4 (percent) in 2019, the steepest drop since the depths of the economic recession in 2009, in the latest sign that advertisers are following viewers to the internet,” he wrote.

Thanks to presidential election coverage and the upcoming Olympics, 2020 may see a little rebound, Shaw predicted, but marketing spends will likely follow the trend to digital moving forward.

“The TV industry isn’t the only one suffering,” Shaw wrote. “Technology companies Google and Facebook Inc. have siphoned advertising dollars away from print publications and radio in recent years. Online companies garnered more than half of global advertising sales in 2019 for the first time, accounting for $306 billion of the $695 billion spent globally.”

If news publishers hope to viably battle for advertising revenue, data may be the most important weapon in their arsenal, and we’re only now learning how to wield it.

Trending in Digital Advertising

One of the areas that’s seen some rapid technological evolution is in the areas of programmatic advertising and header bidding, according to Gavin Dunaway, editorial director at AdMonsters, a globally read digital resource on unique digital content and digital advertising.

“The move to programmatic advertising has, frankly, caused a lot of pain for publishers, because agencies were … cherry-picking high-quality inventory,” Dunaway said. “They were picking HTML cookies that represented certain audience groups. Most publishers were using Google’s Ad Server, which used to be called DoubleClick for Publishers, and it was rebranded as Google Ad Manager in 2018.

“There was a waterfall, with Google’s own inventory getting (preferential placement), and then it would open up the opportunity to whoever the publisher designated next. Amazon might be in there. And it would sort of go down the list, so if nothing came back from Google’s ad exchange, it would start an exchange in the next ad server…Header bidding basically voided the whole waterfall and set up multiple auctions going on at the same time. It leveled the playing field for programmatic advertising, so instead of Google having this tremendous advantage and pushing so much stuff through its own ad server, all of the sudden everyone can compete.”

Gavin Dunaway

Dunaway estimates that most larger news organizations are already capitalizing on their newfound header bidding power, but he acknowledged that it may be a much more formidable challenge for smaller, mid-market and community businesses.

“Setting this up is not easy,” Dunaway warned. “Companies have teams just dedicated to their header setups, and that’s why certain companies like Index Exchange, Rubicon Project, PubMatic and others can make publishers’ lives easier—especially those relying on that revenue.”

Video showed great promise for news publishers. It’s inherently an engaging way to communicate information, and readers appeared responsive to video, but video is proving a more complicated advertising strategy.

“Advertisers all want video,” Dunaway said. “Sight, sound, and motion really rules, but getting people to press play is also a bane.”

One of the barriers to video appears to be a fundamental disconnect between what users like and what advertisers want to produce. Dunaway offered the six-second creative trend as an example.

“We heard from publishers that it was better for overall user experience, and it was better in terms of video completion rates and positive responses from users, but the advertisers didn’t like it because it’s hard to fit a message into six seconds,” he shared. “Engaging advertising has been a huge struggle…getting people to sit for a 30-second commercial, a 30-second pre-roll? Oh man!”

Where video advertising is showing the most promise is in the social media realm, where “it’s easier to do more interesting creative, while also quickly engaging a user,” Dunaway said.

“You also see a big push toward podcasting. Audio advertising is something that still incites emotion, but doesn’t require as much user attention,” he added. “With audio, it’s okay if you’re a bit distracted. We know the messaging still sinks in, and the advertisers are okay with that.”

For news organizations with digital and digital broadcast audiences, Dunaway suggested leveraging a third-party to help glean information from data that can help sales teams sell advertising. Though he acknowledged that publishers have a difficult time demonstrating the ultimate ROI of an ad campaign—that it prompted an actual buying behavior—other data can prove the value proposition.

“There is a ton of interesting data that can be picked up off the page…but it’s really about having the right people in place to study it,” he said.

Build vs. Buy Approach

At the Washington Post, header bidding is already a digitally driven revenue source. Vice president of commercial technology and development Jarrod Dicker explained, “Header bidding has been a strategy for (our) programmatic group for quite some time. In fact, we’ve leveraged its evolution in the media space, to develop an offering that helps deliver programmatic technology like header bidders, for sites across the web, in a more seamless and lucrative way.

“Three years ago, we began taking a build versus buy approach when it comes to advertising technology,” Dicker continued. “We noticed that there was no standard advertising framework or rendering engine that had both the publisher’s and its partners’ best interests at heart. Web consumers were demanding speed and optimal user experience, and unfortunately, outside of the big tech platforms, that behavior was non-existent, so we began investing in the Zeus technology suite.”

The Zeus Prime suite comprises integrated tools that—simply put—enable marketing partners to more easily and smartly deploy their digital ads.

“Zeus Performance is an advertising rendering framework that helps partners integrate easily within publisher sites and execute advertisements fast, to achieve optimal viewability,” Dicker said. “A component of that software is a client-side wrapper, which acts as a deliverer of the header bidders.”

Asked how complicated it is for publishers to deploy header bidding, Dicker admitted it is decidedly so and subjected to variables like bandwidth, education, and resources.

“Advertising technology is a complex industry that is ever changing, and often times, it’s the last thing a media organization wants to invest in. This is why the landscape for ‘ad tech’ and ‘mar tech’ is so expansive and, in fact, polluted,” Dicker said. “At the Post, we’ve invested in creating a team that focuses on making the advertising delivery process seamless and lucrative for partners, with publisher knowledge and point of view. Revenue drives the web, especially advertising revenue today, and the tools and functionality sites have at their disposal are limiting. We’re looking to change that.”

How do they plan on doing that?

Dicker said, “We are currently investing in cookie-less targeting capabilities and functions like session-based targeting, which will allow us to drive personal, valuable brand experiences, while making sure to respect consumer privacy. It’s something we are doubling down on and bringing to market beyond the Washington Post, to help continue to drive a strong advertiser-publisher ecosystem and contribute to building a better web for all.”

Connecting Data Pieces

Sales performance data is a common way for sales managers to inform, incentivize and provide selling guideposts to sales teams. But data can also be leveraged during the sales process—the actual conversations with the clients—to compel them, to prove a news organization’s audience reach and value proposition, and to measure the effectiveness of ad campaigns and the overall relationship between marketer and media channel.

As senior director, consulting services with Mather Economics, Dustin Tetley’s business is to know what ails the firm’s news publishing clientele, including the struggles they’re having in multi-platform advertising sales and operations. Technologies, or technological partners, that capture and parse data are becoming increasingly important to the publisher-marketer relationship, he said.

Dustin Tetley

One could argue data is foundational to the sales process, and access to it is what marketers expect. Tetley offered “price sensitivity” as an example. In other words, at what price points are advertising clients more likely to buy into the value proposition?

“One of the challenges we have with the ad-sales space is that our clients don’t often have great data on the interaction their sales reps have throughout the negotiation. If we’re lucky, they may enter into their CRM system, like Salesforce, the pricing they started with, and we get the data on the end result, but we don’t have much of a story about the negotiations that occurred in between,” Tetley said. “All we really see is a successful sale…It differs a bit from when we work with clients on subscriptions because that data is usually pretty easy for us to get, but on the ad-sales side, that’s a big roadblock for us.”

So much of the advertising sales process is about managing expectations. With decades of e-commerce in their wake, marketers are digitally sophisticated in a way that news publishers, frankly, haven’t yet had to be. Assuredly, advertising clients are already using data to measure ad performance and track the media channels that are proving the best at selling their brands. By nature of the relationship, publishers are at a disadvantage here. Beyond demonstrating eyeballs and click-throughs to their advertising clients, they don’t have much insight into campaign triumphs.

News organizations with deeper pockets and loyal, large national accounts may be able to bridge that chasm with clever systems integration, but it “requires a lot of coordination,” Tetley said.

Asked whether he sees data being underutilized in other ways, Tetley cited the “debriefing” stage—the aftermath of an ad’s run. He explained the data disconnect: “Our clients struggle with reporting the ROI to their customers. It’s difficult for them to say, ‘These are the ads you ran with us, and here’s the benefit you received.’ They can demonstrate a cost comparison against competitors, including running ads with Facebook or Google, but marketers really want to know that they are maximizing advertising ROI and being efficient with ad placement. For the publishers, it’s difficult to button down how effective the ads are. If our clients could find a way to better demonstrate the ROI to their customers, I think they’d be more successful.”

Data is Foundational

For decades now, competition for marketing monies has been fierce for radio. Just like the print-centric media companies of old, analog radio has contended with a rather rapid evolution that saw digital technologies render analog obsolete when satellite radio came on the scene. Then came the internet, and radio companies took to it, for communication with listeners, self-promotion, and as a fledgling new platform for advertising. Streaming services and podcasts changed the radio landscape once again. From an advertising sales perspective, it has been a rather dynamic industry to navigate.

Sean J. Sams is the general manager for the Radio One, a Philadelphia-based subsidiary of parent company Urban One founded by entrepreneur Cathy Hughes. Urban One operates businesses and brands across platforms, including print, TV, digital and radio. The company operates 53 radio stations alone in 16 major markets across the country. Sams oversees four of those stations in the Greater Philadelphia metropolitan area, and as the general manager, Sams oversees the management and strategic planning for the sales department—a team of 33 professionals, including local and national sales reps and managers, content editors, and support staff. In a dual role, Sams is also the digital sales manager, managing advertising for Radio One web properties and digital publications.

Sean J. Sams

“Even though I’m on the sales side of the house, I also work closely with traffic, with our promotions team, and our marketing department, as well as with on-air talent. My hands are pretty much in everything,” Sams said.

The Radio One sales team began the new year with a brand new “roadmap” for the department, detailing everything from hiring practices to onboarding, from workflow to technologies and data available to support the sales process.

“We’ve had to invest in continuous training and make a lot of capital investments in technologies and platforms that help us maximize sales efforts,” Sams said.

In radio and broadcast news, that looks a little different than it does for newspapers and digital news publishers, but there are parallels, and news organizations can certainly learn lessons from their broadcast colleagues. Here, Radio One benefits from third-party data purveyors, including Nielsen TV and Scarborough Research, which help the company sure-up the value proposition to advertisers.

“We have both quantitative and qualitative data that we’re able to tap into, and we curate that data to be able to tell a specific story to each client,” Sams said.

In addition to the data they can glean from ratings trackers, Radio One also leverages data from Research Director Inc., a firm that specializes in digital media and radio ratings. For advertisers who’d like to see real-time data themselves, Radio One or Radio One’s competitors, they also provide the client with limited log-in access to the system.

“Our clients now have this portal, which we enable them to log into and see up-to-the-minute data on competitors. As third-party data, it removes us from that part of the sales equation, so we’re never ‘stacking the deck’ when we pitch,” Sams said.

Today, data informs the entire sales process, from beginning to end.

“We want to have an information-led conversation with the client, so that means that we have to dig into that data mining, to pull out and extract what’s going on with their competitors,” Sams said. “We show up with competitor intelligence. We show up with data relevant to their space, to their segment of business. We show up with some recommendations about how they can take advantage of what’s happening out in the marketplace and what’s on the horizon.”

After those recommendations have been made and a campaign has been designed and deployed, data can also prove the success of the campaign, but this requires some expectation management at the beginning of the broadcaster-advertiser relationship.

“Advertisers don’t want to ‘faith-based advertising’ anymore,” Sams said. “They want some attribution, and they like it when you’re able to give them an attribution chain, demonstrating that the ad prompted the consumer to take a next step. We find out what signals a win for the client. Is it phone calls? Is it forms filled out on your website? Once we identify that, we can decide how to look at data that creates the attribution chain.

“Then, we can sit down with our clients at 30 to 45 days in and say, ‘Let’s all look under the hood and see what the data is telling us and how we arrived here and what’s next.’ We have to be cognizant of the consumer’s consequential behaviors—what they’re likely to do when they see an ad on TV or hear it on the radio. We build solutions that are mindful of that next step.”

The content of the ad itself is also critical to the success of a campaign, so Radio One works closely with its clients to craft the ad spots so that the messaging stands out to the listener and is memorable, so they remember the brand and any related vocabulary that allows them to seek more information, even if just through a tangential web search.

And it all starts with data.

“To me, data is like ‘the new oil.’ That’s the bottom line,” Sams said. “It’s so invaluable to everything we do.”

Gretchen A. Peck is an independent journalist who has reported on publishing and journalism for more than two decades. She began her reporting career covering municipal government at a suburban Philadelphia daily and also served as an editor-in-chief/editorial director for a magazine publisher. She has contributed to Editor & Publisher since 2010 and can be reached at

Washington Post


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