Co-operation, not scale, is key to making joint ad sales work
A view from Scott Gill

Co-operation, not scale, is key to making joint ad sales work

Regional newspaper publishers have found a way to co-operate on 1XL and national news publishers could learn a lot given the struggles of Project Arena.

The future of the publisher co-operative model has been laid bare over the past 12 to 18 months, with various alliances failing to gain traction.

Telegraph Media Group confirmed last month that it has pulled out of Project Arena, previously known as Project Rio  – the UK newspaper industry's efforts to set up a joint ad sales house.

Despite uncertainty in the UK market, a number of French publishers announced last month that they had clubbed together to form two alliances dubbed Gravity and Skyline.

While France may be banking on the publisher co-operative model, making it work is no mean feat because it requires a unified strategy and multiple stakeholders to be on board from the get-go.

It’s not as simple as pooling ad inventory and hoping that will work; indeed, many have failed to get off the ground. So what should publishers be doing?

Unifying principle

To effectively pool ad sales, publishers need to have a unifying principle around the assets they’re collectively trying to monetise that differentiates and defines it.

There’s no value-add to an advertiser or media agency if it’s simply an exercise of control of supply, as that will be met with resistance.

If a coalition ends up being anti-competitive, then it’s unlikely to succeed – you only have to look at the AOP Alliance, which failed to truly get off the ground because it didn’t bring anything to the market.

On the face of it, it was an attempt to ring-fence quality inventory and inflate price rather than give the market something genuinely new. Added to that, publisher divisions and differences were never truly reconciled at the root.

The viable alternative

When regional publishers Newsquest, Johnston Press, Archant and DC Thomson joined forces in November 2014 to launch 1XL, the market got a viable and cohesive alternative to the portals and larger new-brand sites, where before local news media was impossibly atomised and too disparate to viably attract national advertising investment.

The uniqueness of 1XL’s proposition is that it actually adds competition to the market, instead of removing it, by creating "purity at scale", gathering together an otherwise fragmented publisher set into a coherent whole. 

We’re exclusive with all of our publishers, and we’ve also got access to their premium inventory. This is what genuinely excites the advertisers we work with. Scale of the mandate means we’re also very important to publishers so they are more willing to do whatever is needed to achieve the co-op’s objectives – whether that be building vertical audiences or designing their sites to accommodate particular ad formats

Beyond that, we can offer genuine value-add because of our localisation services, which enable advertisers to plan their campaigns down to postcode sector.

We’ve also partnered with the likes of CACI and Experian, who provide credit card and transactional data, and Retail Footprint, a tool that analyses the locations of stores that shoppers are travelling to.

When you combine this data and insight, we’re able to tell brands and retailers where customers will travel from to get to a store, which helps them build hyper-targeted, hyper-localised campaigns at scale.

One technology

Any publisher co-operative worth its weight needs to be treated as an extension of the publisher, and work collaboratively with them. 1XL, for example, is an integral part of its publishers' organisations – we’re effectively their sales team – which means we act more as consultants.

We’re currently looking at creating a single unified publishing platform for publishers to push content into.

A single website structure means that publishers will own the technology that drives the entire user experience, creating a more coherent offering – not dissimilar from Facebook’s Instant Articles.

As part of our advisory role, we’re also in a position to recommend our publishers which SSP to use, how they should set up their ad tech stack, and how to set up optimised header bidders.

For buyers, the key here is offering one point of access – whether that's using one supply-side-platform (SSP) or one account with an SSP, since multiple points of sale with varying sell-through rates can be confusing.

Ultimately, this results in a far more fluid and streamlined offering, which is far more scalable – a growing requirement as the world gets more complex.

Facebook and Google

The threat of Facebook and Google is huge, and growing fast; the main advantage these megaliths have over UK news brands is the possession of data, and scale of registered users.

Using this as a benchmark, I think a far more effective route to ensure publisher collaboration would be creating a common news brand user data pool facilitated through a unified technology platform.

This, for me, seems more realistic as it does not ignore existential differences between potential collaborators. One exciting vendor in this space is Audience Project, which is doing some excellent work in the Nordics. 

Ultimately, if the sole intention behind collaboration is just to get bigger for the sake of it and there is no obvious market-side value-add, any such collaboration between publishers will be short-lived.

Scott Gill is managing director of 1XL