Everything has been upended.
The Coronavirus completely altered everything—the way we live and how we work. And as the pandemic ravaged across the globe, it practically decimated digital advertising in its wake.
With ad spend indefinitely on pause, publishers went into a panicked frenzy as they searched for ways to dramatically reduce costs.
It wasn’t long before the ax would drop and layoffs, furloughs, and hiring freezes would take their toll across the industry. Then came the budget cuts, completely terminating any new projects that were already in motion for the year. To further reduce costs, some pubs even decided that now was an opportune time to go about the business of vendor consolidation.
The Upside of the Pandemic
It probably doesn’t seem like there would be an upside to this tale, but when most office employers told their employees to work-from-home following the government-sanctioned stay-at-home orders, publishers briskly began developing revenue diversification strategies and soon realized that with just a few minor adjustments they could actually be highly productive and more efficient. This, even with the challenges that come with mixing the worlds of work and home.
As one publisher told us during a recent Think Tank roundtable discussion about planning for tomorrow’s very different ad market, hosted by DanAds: “One thing we’ve learned from this is, especially with ad operations, is that we can be as productive with not everyone in the same area. That’s been a big positive. I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to a place where everyone has to be in the same office.”
Companies aren’t only struggling financially, they’re also facing the ethical question of whether to open up offices or instead set their employees up with the proper remote work tools so that they can work from home more effectively. One thing is for sure though, at least according to the publishers we spoke with, media companies will be considerably more liberal with work from home policies post-pandemic.
We often hear people say they’re now working twice as much, or even harder than they did from their office cubicles. Since ad ops and revenue folks possess a range of skills, many discovered that as business slowed they were able to stretch across their companies into other roles like marketing and sales. And while many pubs found themselves doubling down and turning things over quicker, others talked about simply going for a lower bar.
Ad Spend Takes a Hit, Recovers Slowly
It was in the early days of COVID-19 when publishers were their most fearful. They watched in angst as countless direct deals—already in the pipeline—pretty much evaporated, one after the other, right before their eyes. Forecasts were reshaped swiftly, as the losses kept racking up.
There was also this issue of monumentally higher page views, spurred by consumers’ heavy focus on Coronavirus related news. Unfortunately, the increase in pandemic-related news resulted in brand safety issues for advertisers thereby significantly reducing CPMs for publishers.
So it wasn’t just the paused ad spend hitting pubs below the belt, it was also a matter of COVID-and-BLM-related blocklists prohibiting them from monetizing one of the most significant increases in traffic—ever.
Making up for these losses, news publishers went full throttle on subscription revenue models. They lifted paywalls from pandemic-based news leading to a halo effect on readers deciding to pony up for paid content.
Fortunately, for publishers whose primary business isn’t news, a positive shift started waving through the marketplace when programmatic ad spend, especially in the open marketplace, finally began rebounding in May.
“It seems like death by a thousand cuts for programmatic,” noted one publisher, “but as long as it’s good for the company, it’s fine. It seems like the future of programmatic is going to recover, but it’s not going to recover as much as we need it to, to keep it as a core.”
Now with direct deals on pause and guaranteed deals budgets moving much slower than usual, everything remains uncertain for most of the publishers who participated in the Think Tank. But still, as some publishers pointed out, recovery is going to be very industry-specific and situational.
“The first few months of the pandemic really sucked,” exclaimed one publisher. “Direct campaigns got put on hold, but now there’s definitely a rebound in programmatic. And we’re starting to see the direct campaigns that were deferred combing back. Overall, I’m pretty hopeful. I think the ad market is just looking for a reason to explode.”
Sales Teams Focus on the Big Buy
The nature of sales is greatly changing too.
A number of sales teams are focused primarily on incremental custom buys. And customization has increasingly become a factor in winning over guaranteed spend. It’s just that publishers don’t see bookings coming in as quickly nor as early as they did pre-pandemic.
Of course, it means much more work for ad ops—from running forecasts to invoicing and campaign creation and even the amount of work involved in interfacing with clients. Let’s not forget to include the intricacies related to reporting and billing.
Other publishers are reporting that their sales teams are shifting their attention chiefly toward big-budget deals. With sales tied up with big deals, it’s leaving an open door to utilizing automation and self-service tools to capture smaller budgets and SMB spend.
“Our sales team is specifically tasked with only going after larger buys, they don’t want to involve sales or planning in anything under $150K,” another publisher told us. “So we’re looking for a way to capture the occasional smaller buy. There’s a lot of programmatic options for that, but not everybody’s going to have a DSP.”
Self-service to the Rescue
With sales teams banking on landing bigger fish, self-service technology is suddenly becoming a primary tool for those publishers seeking to mitigate losses by grabbing up as much spend as they can from smaller budgets.
Self-service tools are like the Swiss Army Knife of ad tech. They offer smaller media buyers an opportunity to buy a more simplified package that doesn’t involve a lot of customizations or audience targeting.
Pubs can provide buyers with low-friction media buying, data targeting and ad-creation tools, empowering buyers with greater campaign control and transparency, often through real-time tracking enabling them to optimize on the fly.
It’s a win-win. Advertisers get to make buys at their own discretion and publishers garner incremental revenue without having to do as much work.
“It’s actually cost-inefficient to have a salesperson go through the traditional contract process with transactional or low-spend advertisers,” remarked one publisher, “so technologies like RPA (Robotic Process Automation) and self-service are very appealing not only for capturing incremental revenue but also providing workflow efficiency.”
For instance, one publisher found that when they implemented a self-service tool, 95% of the back-and-forth involved in the client process was immediately eliminated, freeing up ad ops’ time to optimize campaigns instead of manually entering in info.
Even though the road ahead still appears murky, pubs who’ve decided to employ self-service tech are gradually realizing the cost-saving benefit that could catapult them out of the economic abyss toward the bright lights of recovery.