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How 4 publishers are approaching the first-party data shift and forging new relationships with advertisers

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With the end in sight for third party cookies following Google’s bombshell announcement in January, first party data is set to become the dominant currency in the digital ad market. Publishers are in a unique position to take advantage of this, with direct reader relationships and a wealth of first party data at the heart of their businesses.

But practically, what changes need to be made to make the best of these opportunities? At Permutive’s inaugural Make Possible Online Summit, held virtually on 23rd April, experts from four publishers came together to discuss how publisher data is the new media currency, chaired by Permutive’s Becky Dutta.

Here, we round up the key takeaways from how ESI Media, Condé Nast, The Telegraph and The Financial Times are forging new relationships and evolving their business models to adapt to data now being seen as a publisher asset instead of a commodity.

Google as a catalyst

All four publishers agreed that the move from Google to phase out support for third party cookies was positive, and would help steer the industry in the right direction. 

“We’ve suffered a bit from massive innovation in digital ad tech, and we’ve started to do things because we can rather than perhaps because we should do them,” said Jo Holdaway, ESI Media’s Chief Data Officer. “This announcement may recalibrate the industry a little bit into doing things and thinking about the consumer at the end of it.”

Chris Austin, Condé Nast’s Director of Data and Insight said that it feels like publishers and advertisers have come full circle. “In the early days, advertising was about content, and where it was on the website, what parts do you put advertising campaigns against, and then came all of this ad tech that allowed you to target individuals,” he explained.

“Now, we’re coming back to a place where it’s very much about context and content again, with more sophistication around the tools that we can use to do that.”

The Telegraph’s Senior Director of Commercial Innovation Karen Eccles said that she felt a sense of relief about the announcement in January, because they knew that it was the right thing to do. “It took Google to make that announcement, and to act as the catalyst for everyone,” she said. “It will be very tough for businesses that have focused around third party cookies and data, but hopefully the best of them will adapt.”

“It’s been very difficult in recent years for that whole programmatic ecosystem to put value on quality environments,” Eccles explained. “There’s been a temptation to slide towards creating content that’s just there to deliver ad impressions and clicks, and none of that’s delivering any value.”

Cookies and communication challenges

Each publisher may have agreed that the move was positive and welcomed, but that doesn’t mean that phasing out the use of third-party cookies will be without its challenges. 

Lucy Marchington, the Financial Times’ Media Director said that the main shift for the FT will be more trying to get on the front foot and be more strategic around their use of data. “First-party data has always been important to the FT, especially our declared demographic data,” she outlined. “We’ve always defended it and seen it as a really big asset, which we’ve wanted to make sure we don’t abuse.”

“Now, instead of just holding it back, we want to look at how we can put this at the centre of conversations about how the FT uses data. And that’s not just important for commercial, but this is the kind of data that our editorial and product teams use to inform their decisions, so we’re trying to get a lot more strategic with it.” 

For the FT, Marchington said that their biggest challenge with data is balancing wanting to be conservative with the user data alongside the commercial appeal. “Our users trust us, and we are quite open about how we don’t want to take advantage of our user data, but at the same time it’s a really big asset for the FT,” she explained. 

The FT isn’t the only publisher finding the balance between commercial and user experience a challenge. The Telegraph has a subscription-first strategy across the company, which according to Eccles, has made some discussions around advertising difficult. 

“We flipped from being an advertising first business to a business that puts our customers, our readers, our users, at the heart of everything we do,” she said. “That means if we’re doing anything because it’s convenient for our advertising teams, but it’s not the best possible experience for the audience at that point, then we have to go back to the drawing board and think about a different way of working.”

Eccles admits that although this can slow things down, more often than not, it leads to a better solution. “We have to understand what data is available to us that is compliant, and then find a way of monetising that, rather than understanding what advertisers might be asking for, and then harvesting it” she said.

Cross-market approaches

Condé Nast’s brands face a different set of challenges to those faced by newspapers. Austin emphasised that because their titles have a different kind of trust, what the advertisers want tends to be more contextual. “We’re lucky with our advertisers, because they either want to go after the beauty section or the fashion section, or are interested in content around handbags,” he explained. “That’s a lot easier than some of the [cookie-based] targeting.”

Austin said that he had seen regional variations in the types of advertising requests, with US advertisers in particular much more focused on third-party data. GDPR has resulted in a huge privacy shift in Europe, with many European ad agencies already having moved towards a longer term first party data approach. 

But with the US further behind, Condé are looking to alternative technologies to satisfy demand, “We’re now looking at what we can do with AI and machine learning to change our commercial offerings away from third party targeting technology,” Austin said.

Adapting to a future without third-party cookies

But not everyone is adapting to a cookie-less future as quickly as publishers. Many agencies – who publishers are still reliant on to a certain extent – have yet to catch up with the implications of Google’s ruling.

The Telegraph has advertisers at both ends of the spectrum, and is using the more forward-thinking agencies as case studies for those lagging behind. “We’re going out proactively and trying to be very specific about the best use cases for our first party data, and activating with our advertiser’s first party data as well,” Eccles outlined. “We’re then building tangible use cases with those early adopting clients that we can then take out and start with putting some real evidence in front of those advertisers in the next wave that are teetering a bit.”

Eccles wants to also get a greater understanding of the strategic and business outcomes that advertisers are working towards, rather than receiving briefs that already specify what the solution is. “Clicks are just a proxy,” she said. “We talk about attention metrics and engagement now; what does the business need to achieve and how can we help facilitate that through the first party data, rather than just an arbitrary, more traditional campaign brief.”   

ESI Media have seen a similar trend to The Telegraph, and Holdaway explained that she is keen to avoid what happened with GDPR where compliance was often left very late. “There are still a lot of advertising agencies and clients that are relying on third party data because it’s still working well,” she said. “They’re leaving it to the last minute, and as an industry, suddenly the deadline overtakes us and not everybody’s ready.”

“So I think we need to be quite proactive with emphasising the value of our first party data, and pushing clients and agencies who perhaps are already on that accelerated path to get them there a bit quicker, to avoid any of the uncertainty that’s going to happen in 18 months time.”

Collaborating to compete

With the clock ticking on third party cookies, all four publishers agreed that a collaborative approach is necessary to avoid a last-minute scramble. Holdaway pointed out that within both agencies and publishers, the environment is often so fast-paced that people don’t get a chance to get a feel for what’s happening outside the business, or look at the wider landscape. 

“Education and training, and case studies are going to be beneficial for the whole industry when they start coming out, because that’s going to be an indication of how well it can work,” she said.  

Collaboration will also be one of the only ways to overcome the issue of scale, where the audiences publishers offer individually just can’t compete with what tech platforms like Facebook and Google can offer. 

Eccles voiced concern that, with publishers implementing first-party solutions individually, “we will have a richness of first party data, but will create a myriad of mini walled gardens” which will be challenging for advertisers to measure and track the value of their investment across publishers.

She cited the UK’s Ozone Project as an example of collaboration between publishers working well. The project offers advertisers reach across a group of publishers from News UK to The Guardian, reaching 44.9m readers in total. 

“There’s a lot we can do with data matching or other solutions across a small group of publishers if clients talk to us,” Eccles said. “There’s a real willingness there from publishers to speak to each other and to collaborate for the greater good.”

Marchington agreed, pointing out that there was a lot of low hanging fruit to work towards. “If we can all as an industry try to move away from metrics like clicks, and try and get more integrated, more holistic attention metrics, that starts to shift the conversation,” she concluded.

Watch the full summit from Permutive on-demand here.