CNN's digital advertising head on programmatic, clickbait and MCN

Pippa Chambers
By Pippa Chambers | 22 August 2016
Rob Bradley

The programmatic piece of CNN International's revenue has steadily grown month by month, according to head of digital advertising sales and data, Rob Bradley.

Speaking to AdNews, Bradley says the business, which connects with Australian consumers via its content on Foxtel in Australia, as well as catch-up on, its app and though online destinations like CNN Money, is so much more than a TV channel.

As such, it's been ramping up what type of content it offers its advertisers as it advances deeper into more native content.

Just a year ago it launched another digital vertical called CNN Style and Bradley says with content available on an ever-increasing number of platforms to reach a larger global audience and respond to changes in news consumption, it's had to move quickly to stay ahead.

Other recent launches include CNN on Snapchat, a presence on the Apple Watch, a responsive design, Apple News and CNN for Facebook Messenger.

“With Australia being the top country within APAC in terms of traffic, these digital offerings confirm our belief in a multi-platform approach,” Bradley says.

Bradley says each month, Australia drives 18.4 million page views to CNN websites.

He says another success story is its Multi Channel Network (MCN) tie-up, whereby it inked a deal last October for MCN to represent its digital assets in Australia.

“Only nine months after starting the partnership our revenue grew 128% and the brand count went up a phenomenal 863% (from 16 to 154),” Bradley explains.

“The programmatic piece of our revenue has steadily grown month by month. Not least due to this success, we are now opening up new categories of clients in Australia such as P&G – one of the biggest fast-moving consumer goods clients – buying a digital sponsorship and premium video pre-roll of CNN Style for August in Australia.”

Bradley says CNN has increasingly focused on offering clients the ability to tell their brand stories in a number of different ways across a variety of platforms, be it through branded content, or via its in-house creative team to produce “immersive storytelling pieces” which are then amplified throughout its platforms in native formats.

Further to sussing out CNN's presence and performance Down Under, we took five with Bradley, who is based in the UK but regularly jet-sets across the globe, to find out more about his role, emerging technologies, engagement v uniques and more. We also got the lowdown on what he thinks is set to shake-up the digital ad space in 2016.

Q: What do you see as the top emerging technologies surrounding digital marketing?
RB: I'm most interested in the reporting tools at the moment. At CNN International we are moving away from just providing the standard spreadsheets with CTRs and impression volumes, towards providing insights on the audience that has interacted with a client’s campaign and engagement metrics. This information allows our clients to make informed marketing decisions on future campaigns.

Q: How is CNN putting this to use?
RB: I think this level of reporting is relevant for all campaigns but particularly branded or sponsored content. At CNN we have an in-house creative agency and its rare we run a campaign without some sort of content involved, normally with video being the lead format. We use various methods to ensure the right people visit the content such as data-driven targeting, social outreach, content outreach, channel targeting and so on. We now capture the users that visit this content and provide detailed reports utilising the latest DMP and reporting tech.

Q: What's set to shake-up the digital ad space in 2016?
RB: Adblocking and ad fraud are naturally at the top of everyone’s concerns along with the new regulations from the EU around data collection and targeting, but we have some time to work out the latter. In regards to the former we are monitoring the various ways to understand adblocking and strategies to overcome it. I think education is key. Internet users need to understand content costs and adverts are the primary source of revenue to create content. Ad fraud I don't see as a bad thing for CNN as it plays into our hands as a premium publisher where brand safety is guaranteed.

Q: How did your previous role as head of programmatic at IDG helped you in your current role?
RB: Good question. At IDG we pioneered data targeting and launched the first publisher trading desk in the UK and one of the first in the world. This meant I got a very early start in the ad tech and programmatic world four years ago. It helped me understand how programmatic fits in within a premium publishers strategy, how you can make it work for you to protect rates, optimise STR and gain new revenue when you have great scale. Since programmatic came in my stance has always been to embrace it. The more you understand it and spread its capabilities throughout the organisation the better. Programmatic isn't a department it touches every part of the business.

Q: Have most marketers now 'got it' when it comes to programmatic?
RB: I think the majority now understand but I still sit in the odd meeting where I need to explain what it is. This is quite rare now though. The main shift still to take place in some markets is understanding programmatic can be just as premium as direct when used correctly.

Q: Working in the continually changing media landscape is no mean feat. Any top tips for getting the hang of this space?
RB: Read, attend events and take meetings. I read a lot of the trade press to keep up to speed and this combined with taking meetings with various vendors helps keep you up to date, although you could meet a different tech company every day so you need to be careful not to take up too much time. Events are also fantastic as it’s a chance to meet like-minded people and share thoughts and ideas on what’s happening.

Q: How are you monetising content here and globally and how have your methods changed?
RB: We take a holistic approach to all, definitely not a one size fits all. I have set up the digital strategy to move towards a point where anything that can be traded programmatically will be traded, preferably through a private marketplace. This then frees up time to sell campaigns that are 'beyond adverts' - digital series, ad features, branded content, sponsored content and high impact unique ad units. CNN has been doing this for years so it’s just a case of ramping up the capabilities of the creative team and marrying them up with smart data-driven executions within our own site and beyond our borders on social.

Q: What's important to you when it comes to looking at actual time spent on site, compared to unique readers?
RB: Engagement is just as important as uniques, in fact they work hand in hand, particularly when it comes to video. Our editorial and product teams are constantly working towards targets to maximise engagement and it naturally starts at the content itself. Good quality content attracts people to the site and keeps them engaged once there. It’s the user experience combined with this content that’s vital too. If you look at our newest vertical, CNN Style, the quality user experience is the first thing you notice alongside the rich way the content is presented.

Q: Is 2016 the era of clickbait?
RB: Well I think all internet users have been subjected to clickbait for some time now. I know the social platforms are trying to clean it up somewhat which can only be a good thing. If people click on a headline stating they can lose 10 kilos a day from a single pill it's their choice if they want to click and believe it. It's become part of the internet and I can't see it disappearing any time soon so it needs managing.

Q: How do you cope with the fragmentation of the marketplace?
RB: We are lucky to have one of the largest sites in the world so this fragmentation isn't a huge issue for us. In fact I think if you are a smaller more specific player it's going to get harder. All the big 'news' websites now have a host of verticals which provide quality content on everything from travel to tech to business to fashion and more. I see the internet becoming more consolidated in the next few years, at the top of the market anyway.

Q: What innovative/creative digital ad moves has CNN made in mobile?
RB: We are about to launch a host of mobile first/cross-platform units that work really well on mobile. In my 2016 strategy, mobile is the biggest theme alongside video, reporting and data. We know more than 50% of our audience are on mobile and this is only growing. It’s vital we and our advertisers recognise this is now the primary platform we need to deliver our marketing message on.

Q: As global director, digital ad revenue and data, what does your day to day-to-day job involve?
RB: I spend my days managing a fantastic team of digital experts that run the ad tech and are the digital leads in the sales team. At the core of the role is ensuring we have the best data-driven and creative advertising solutions in market to warrant the biggest brands trusting us with their campaigns. This involves keeping up to date with the latest tech and being in market around the world meeting our clients and agencies to understand their marketing needs. It’s my job to ensure we cater for marketing goals and their preferred method of buying. We also advise on the kind of digital solutions we can offer - much of which is very new and cutting edge so education is key.  

Q: What's the biggest challenge you face in the role?
RB: The challenge is also the most exciting part - keeping up with an industry that can change within a day. Luckily my team helps me with this.

Q: And the most enjoyable aspect?
RB: Sales is still at the heart of what we do but being a digital 'salesperson' now means so much more. You have to be incredibly technical and have your finger on pulse as the industry has changed so much in the past few years or months even. It's this changing environment and new dimensions to the job I enjoy the most.

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