Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

AOP MD Richard Reeves on digital publishing’s bright future

In the face of the tech giants’ overwhelming commercial clout it’s fair to say that it’s been somewhat difficult for the industry’s other digital media players over the past few years. But, the Association of Online Publishers (AOP) managing director Richard Reeves asserts: the tide is turning. We caught up with Reeves at the AOP Digital Publishing Summit in London on October 31 to discuss his outlook on the publishing industry’s future .  

He believes that “every cloud has a silver lining” and online publishers could actually profit from recent changes in attitudes, rules and regulations, alongside a growing recognition among brands that technologies such as programmatic bring drawbacks as well as benefits. 

The digital publishing industry has turned a corner in the last few years — why do you think that is?

I’d like to say that it is all down to the AOP, but it really isn’t because we are all faced with the same challenges and face the same ‘common enemy’. That has corralled thinking and people recognise that as individuals we were struggling to combat some of those challenges. 

There are challenges that you can control, or influence, and other external ones where you have absolutely no control, for instance what has happened and is happening with GDPR, the ICO and other regulators. 

However, the response should be the same: to understand the impact of those challenges and how individually that impacts people, but also where there’s a commonality to impact then [it’s about] making or providing opportunity. It is a trade body’s responsibility to create forums, workstreams and groups by which you can bring all those views together and arrive at a collective common understanding and subsequent response. 

As an industry (and certainly as a trade body) we’ve gone from picking individual fights and putting out individual fires to the bigger more holistic issues; drilling down into the areas whereby applications can affect change and then focusing on that. 

We can’t fix the world but we can talk in the context of a changing landscape, changing behaviours, changing buying patterns. 

How has programmatic changed online publishing?

Programmatic has had a massive impact on our industry and where the money goes. It goes beyond just understanding how programmatic works but it has brought an opportunity for scale advertisers, such as FMCGs, to leverage that tech to reach audiences wherever they are. Yet we, as advocates for context and original content, feel that this is just a single dynamic commoditisation of an approach. 

If there’s any impact that could be measured it’s that CPMs  have been driven down: the acquisition of an individual is driven by reaching for the lowest common denominator because the technology enables you to do that at scale, pick up signals and identify that user at a less expensive environment. From that less expensive environment you can supposedly create better efficiencies around that buy.

But I think about the growing conversations around the need for common standards and protections. We are turning a corner, recognising that we need to differentiate the types of environment, the type of placement and quality of inventory.  

How can publishers benefit from environment, placement and quality inventory?

If an advertiser wants scale we should be better at signposting that associated with that scale there is an increased element of risk.  

Within environments such as premium media, the risk is reduced around brand safety or misplacement or whatever you may deem as risk. 

We’re all waking up to the fact that standards were driven around a certain type of advertising behaviour: this is not criticising that but we now recognise in order to deliver that scale, at that reach, at the lowest possible price, there’s an associated risk.  

And if you’re buying longtail inventory you’re absolutely needing to apply tools and technologies that enable you to minimise the risk of misplacement. However, with environments such as quality news and original content creators you have well established processes and practices that negate any of those risks. 

Could publishers be accused of ignoring the issues at times?

I wouldn’t level any criticism at publishers other than being human beings and this being human nature. When you are working in a very intense environment, when you’re seeing revenues eroding, behaviours and people’s willingness to purchase changing, and you’re having to adapt to that, with new competition in the marketplace that you might not have seen five or six years ago, there’s still a requirement to perform on a quarterly, six monthly and an annual basis. It’s hard. 

I’ve always been a believer that every cloud has a silver lining and when we started our process to support publishers in understanding GDPR, which we did two and a half years ago, our approach has always been that things like GDPR are opportunities. But it’s not straightforward and there’s still a massive misunderstanding from the ICO on how publishers make money in instances such as cookie application.

The ICO is  talking to publishers and they are getting involved. We have a really positive dialogue with them as does every trade body, but while they now understand the complexities, they aren’t responsible for fixing them. That’s now the challenge.  

One responsibility that all publishers have is that they are in a position to be the responsible gatekeeper of that [consumer] information – to reassert that trust with the consumer and how we protect that data. 

What are the opportunities publishers see in diversifying revenue streams?

It’s exciting, it’s highly intelligent, it’s innovative, it’s creative. There’s a fantastic opportunity around the affiliate model. Common sense teaches anyone that if you’re over-reliant on one thing then you’re vulnerable. What we’re recognising   is that advertising has been for many a generation within the media owner world the ‘cash king’ but that isn’t the case any more.  

We’ve seen [today at the summit] examples from Marie Claire and others about how technology is enabling us to have an even more meaningful, deeper, informed and mutually beneficial relationship with our users.

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