Last year started off with publishers in a quandary about how to maintain their programmatic advertising businesses beyond 2022, when Google would end its support of third-party cookies in its Chrome browser.
But by March, as a pandemic hit, publishers had to deal with the fallout, including a volatile ad market, adverse keyword blocking, shortened sales cycles, disappearing revenue lines, vendors defaulting on payment terms and challenged commerce supply chains. This list of existential threats only added to the ongoing pressures of increased privacy regulation and browsers tightly controlling media companies’ ability to effectively monetize their audiences.
But publishers’ knack for adapting proved invaluable. Under these turbulent conditions, media companies rolled out virtual events, dropped subscription paywalls and coaxed advertising budgets back through close ties with ad clients. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among others, launched ad products suited for markets where buyers had to make quick decisions on the fly.
As budgets began flowing again (60% of publishers reported a decrease in ad rates in April, per IAB) those with close ties to clients were reaping the benefits in the second half of the year. Client retention equals success. NowThis publisher Group Nine launched 78 editorial and sponsored franchises and verticals since the start of the pandemic to cater to ad clients outside of stressed verticals like travel and hospitality. Feel-good series In This Together, launched in March, sold every episode since July to brand partners. In 2020, Group Nine had a 60% client retention rate, according to chief revenue officer Geoff Schiller.
“We win through retention. It’s one of our driving forces,” Schiller says. “It allows us to have long-standing relationships, deliver white-glove service and be quick and nimble.”
In a case where flat became the new “up,” a clutch of publishers, from Bloomberg Media to The Information and Group Nine, managed to make it through 2020 in relatively good shape.
The question now is how publishers will remain agile, especially since they are wrestling with the same predicament they’ve had since last March, namely how to forecast in an era of uncertainty.
Publishers anticipate positive growth, according to an Adweek Intelligence study. About 68% of respondents said they were either very or slightly optimistic about the year ahead. Across consumer and business-facing publishers, 71% foresee positive financial growth in 2021 thanks in large part to the prospect of Covid-19 vaccines on the horizon allowing for tentative meetings, in-person events and gradual returns to the office.
The pressure is finding where that revenue will come from, especially when the full impact of the pandemic has been veiled by stimulus packages. The multiple crises have forced the inequality gap to widen, and media companies are now having to show a real commitment to their diversity, equity and inclusion promises, both internally and externally.
The bifurcation of media companies has become pronounced. Larger, stronger companies with deeper data troves keep investing in digital transformation and adapting to the difficulties typical of economic downturns. Contenders like The New York Times are continuing to invest in journalists and high-profile editorial talent. Digital publishers like BuzzFeed and HuffPost have consolidated to capitalize on each other’s strengths.
Antitrust cases are piling up around Google and Facebook, from the former’s market dominance in search and ad tech to the latter’s purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp. These will rumble on through lengthy litigation proceedings that distract from the companies’ future innovation.