5 months in – my time so far back on the publisher side …


In March of this year I made the move from agency side back to publisher side.  It’s been almost 5 months since then and time has flown. The role as Commercial Director at Sound Alliance is a rewarding one that everyday has posed new challenges, however I can safely say the publisher side in 2010 is a much harder, more brutal space than the publisher side was in 2006 when I left it.

Last Thursday at the IAB Awards I got to catch up with a few people I hadn’t seen in a while, and a frequent question was ‘How are you finding the publisher side and how is it different to the agency side?’ Truth be told, it had been something I’d been thinking about so I thought, why not document this and place it on the blog.

I moved to publisher side as I felt the space needed something I could offer. Publisher side to me felt disconnected from the dilemmas and challenges of the marketer and was more aligned with a market than an agency – ie, publishers were all about buying and selling a commodity (impressions) to customers (agencies) and trying to get the highest amount possible. Very little attention, resource and insight was paid to the end result – ie, the challenges of the marketer.

To me, this felt wrong. There’s more to selling adspace than using the words ‘solutions’ and ‘beyond the browser’ … actions, not words, should be what allow a media business to succeed. So why not put it to the test? Move the wife and dogs to Sydney and see what happens.

So 5 months later what have I seen?

1/ The publisher has a responsibility to agency and advertiser – one I think is often taken lightly. A publisher should be upfront with their client around whether their numbers are independent, whether their numbers are audited, whether they are serving ads to international users, how many other ads are on a page and other related issues. Is this done, by some but definitely not all. I can’t imagine media buyers buying print/press/TV on claimed figures – they always revert to audited numbers … with online, this is definitely not the case.

2/ The audit and auto-refresh issue is getting lip service from both sides – publishers and agencies.. The publishers who are unaudited will not move unless someone forces their hand, the agencies claim to want audited numbers but continue to invest heavily in sites that are not subject to audit. It’s the same with clutter – an issue which is spoken about but very rarely actioned. The next few months will be interesting – there is a lot of talk from both sides that needs to turn to action. Sound Alliance is audited – it gives us no competitive advantage nor wins us any piece of business. This isn’t why we do it – but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating to be compared like for like with unaudited/unmeasured sites.

3/ The market is super competitive. I don’t envy digital planners and buyers as they literally have 100’s of potential suppliers approaching them and it would be impossible to have a thorough understanding of all. The large 5 have a significant advantage as they are becoming – through sheer scale – the default choice on campaigns. Each sub category (ie music, parenting, lifestyle, youth, movies) has room for 2 or 3 players max to co-exist with the large offerings. So … there’s 10/20/30 competitors in each category all competing for the same 2 or 3 spaces. Relationships often become the default differentiator.

4/ Agencies are trying very hard to integrate. Overall this is a positive thing – it gives digital internally greater visibility … but does it also create a culture of generalists that are simply ticking digital boxes? It can, and has … but there are also examples where it is working really well. When I was agency side I truly believed that you could create amazing cross media practitioners but it would take time and there would be a decent transition period. I like what agencies like Mediacom are doing, bringing in agitators which come in and challenge the agency. These agitators are really important. Digital needs a shake.

5/ The industry churn is alarming. I think since I joined Sound Alliance around 30 of our agency contacts have either left the industry or changed employers. In 5 months! What is causing this and what’s being done to change this? Why do mid level staff move so frequently?

6/ Brief lead times are getting shorter and shorter. Nicholas Gray, Sales Director at ninemsn, wrote a blog earlier this year commenting on how short the market was at that time. Right now it’s worse. I asked around our office and the average time to collate a response is around 36 to 48 hours. At least 80% of briefs fall into this time frame. Around 10% are 3 or so days. About 10% are 3 days or more. Here’s the thing – when I was agency side we had 3-5 weeks to respond to most briefs from a client. For me, this has been a significant challenge. Are clients really giving their agencies a couple of days to respond on large scale media investments?

7/ That said, some of the briefs we are seeing are super impressive.  Great thinking and great ideas. It gives you the spark required to really explore a concept but always anchor it back to a marketing objective. There is generally an openness to coming back with a different approach.

8/ Sometimes you feel removed from the marketing/comms process.  On the publisher side it seems odd to me that companies invest millions of dollars in media channels but in most instances they have no relationship with the media channels. Generally as a publisher the relationship is with the media buyer/planner … it is practically impossible to speak to clients or even generate contact to show them research/product/insights etc. A question I have is – has it always been this way? Pre digital – did magazines/press/TV have a similar disconnect?

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5 responses to “5 months in – my time so far back on the publisher side …

  1. Hey Ben – good to see you pop up in the blog again. I have missed your insights!

    You’re bang on the money – I’ve also had an intriguing few months being able to see the other side of the fence (having now been publisher, network owner, agency buyer and client) and whilst before (as publisher) I had more than a few whinges over the agency relationship, I can safely say that the publishers also need to hold accountability.

    Recently I ran a media schedule for a client with 16 publishers involved and only 1 of those actually bothered to respond properly to my brief with a bespoke idea that would help me achieve my objectives. Let me be clear here, this wasn’t the usual “come up with ideas based on 18-35 year old women in less than 2 hours” that we notoriously are used to – it was one weeks turn around and a two page brief (with a decent budget attached for those who could come up with ideas to suit). I was EMBARRASSED by the respone of the industry.

    At the risk of being one of those posters who just blow on their own trumpet in their comment, I like to think that at my online mag business nzgirl.co.nz we go out of our way to come up with ideas that are innovative and meet the brief. BUT we are constantly losing out to the Big Four publishers – no matter how much time and effort we put in.

    So what’s the answer for indie publishers? Join the Big Four? Be a part of their offering? Or become a hobby publisher and accept you’ll never make anything more than a lifestyle out of it? It’s hard to say – 11 years in and I don’t know the answer yet. For Flossie Media Group, we decided ‘stuff it, it’s not worth it’ and totally changed our focus to performance advertising and the response has been overwhelming (launching next week) – which just goes to prove that selling on CPM continues to be screwed. Another worrying sign that the indie’s are going to struggle to survive…..

  2. Welcome back Shep! I think this posting is really insightful, productive and worth taking the time to read. You echo not only the sentiments of our sales and operations team, but also a myriad of other digital publishers that I have spoken to over the last couple of months. I just hope the people that would benefit from reading it, understanding it and responding to it, DO!

  3. Hi Ben, I agree with you. Going on from point 8, we very rarely call on clients direct. In the case of online, the contact is only through the online buying agency, and what’s annoying is that it is generally frowned upon to “backdoor” ad agencies. This being said, in the past, building up good relationships with key clients / senior marketing, is a good thing! But for day to day , domestic online is handled by the various ad managers at client end , who give buying agency 100% control on buying / scheduling…these media buyers / planners are highly strung, over worked, time poor. And do not have time to see publishers. They end up going with what they know, what they’ve used in the past, and who ever is front of mind. Front of mind is key. But even still, as you rightfully mentioned, when briefs do come in…the response time is usually 24 hours! COB today! You’re lucky if you get 3 days. Putting together something of value, something with a little bit of thought… needs a little bit more time. Your comment on agency turn over is right on. Working publisher end for the past 2 years, I’ve revised my contact list plenty. Agency people jump ship to ship, 3 months here, 6 months there. And when you add all the internal shifting from acc to acc, it’s hard to keep track of who is looking after what, and more importantly build relationships on good quality business.

  4. So glad to see you writing again.

    Great post, as someone who has only ever worked agency side I am always interested in seeing what people think of the other side, especially given the recent flux of agency staff fleeing to work publisher side.

    In answer to your questions in points 5 & 6:

    RE: “What is causing this and what’s being done to change this? Why do mid level staff move so frequently?”

    The honest answer is that at a mid-level role agency side you’re generally working just as many hours as management, getting paid less than a junior on the publisher side and often there is only limited growth for you unless someone above you leaves or the agency wins a new account. This means that it often feels like one of the only ways to get that pay-rise or progress to the next role is to jump ship.
    I think that some agencies are starting to realise this is a major issue and are implementing more detailed training and career development plans as well as reward and recognition programs to ensure that low-mid level staff feel appreciated and rewarded for their hard work.

    RE:”Are clients really giving their agencies a couple of days to respond on large scale media investments?”

    This varies client to client. e.g. I work on a client that literally gives us 2 – 3 day turn arounds for every campaign because of the nature of their tactical activity. However I have another client that we planned 6 months of activity for and for them we had about 2 months in which we could plan. I would say for most clients they probably want responses in between 3 days and 2 weeks depending on investment.

  5. Good to see a unique perspective.

    Having worked publisher side I agree most with point 8 regarding being removed from the marketing process. I know I often felt with the short turnaround times and late notice that any out-of-the-box recommendation made was too late and went unheard.

    Now on the (digital) agency side, I know that we are making an effort to get a better understanding of publisher offerings by having publisher presentations (and not just of the big 5 but also the niche ones as well) so that we can be aware of solutions that suite the brands we work in the strategy stages rather than creative and execution when it’s too late.

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