“Agility of their DNA”: How media corporations construct on their strengths

Last year started with publishers in a dilemma about how to keep their programmatic advertising business going beyond 2022 when Google stopped supporting third-party cookies on its Chrome browser.

But by March, as a pandemic hit, publishers had to grapple with the aftermath, including a volatile ad market, adverse keyword blocking, shortened sales cycles, vanished revenue lines, vendor defaults, and retail chains challenged. This list of existential threats only added to ongoing pressures for increased privacy regulation, and browsers tightly control the ability of media companies to effectively monetize their audiences.

However, the publishers' talent for adaptation proved invaluable. In these turbulent conditions, media companies have introduced virtual events, dropped subscription paywalls, and reclaimed advertising budgets through close relationships with advertisers. The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, among other things, launched ad products suitable for markets where shoppers needed to make quick decisions on the fly.

When budgets started flowing again (60% of publishers reported a drop in ad rates per IAB in April), those with close customer loyalty reaped the benefits in the second half of the year. Customer loyalty equals success. NowThis Publisher Group Nine has launched 78 editorial and sponsored franchises and industries since the pandemic began to target advertisers outside of stressed industries like travel and hospitality. The feel-good series In This Together, which started in March, has sold every episode to brand partners since July. According to Geoff Schiller, chief revenue officer, Group Nine had a 60% customer retention rate in 2020.

“We win through attachment. It's one of our driving forces, ”says Schiller. "It enables us to maintain long-term relationships, provide white-gloved service, and be quick and nimble."

In one case where Flat became the new "Up," a number of publishers, from Bloomberg Media to The Information and Group Nine, managed to weather 2020 in relatively good shape.

Where we are now

The question now is how publishers will stay agile, especially since they are grappling with the same situation they have had since March last year, namely how to forecast in a time of uncertainty.

According to an Adweek Intelligence study, publishers expect positive growth. Around 68% of those surveyed said they were either very or slightly optimistic about the coming year. 71% of all consumer and business publishers expect positive financial growth in 2021, in large part due to the prospect of Covid-19 vaccines, which allow for preliminary meetings, face-to-face events, and gradual returns to the office.

The pressure is to find out where that revenue will come from, especially when the full effects of the pandemic have been masked by stimulus packages. The multiple crises have widened the inequality gap and media companies now need to truly stand up for their promises of diversity, equity and inclusion, both internally and externally.

The division of media companies is pronounced. Larger, stronger companies with deeper databases continue to invest in digital transformation and adapt to the difficulties typical of the economic downturn. Competitors like the New York Times continue to invest in journalists and high-profile editorial talent. Digital publishers like BuzzFeed and HuffPost have teamed up to capitalize on each other's strengths.

Where do we go

Cartel cases are increasing at Google and Facebook, from market dominance in search and advertising technologies to the purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp by Google. These are carried on by lengthy litigation that distracts from future corporate innovation.

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