Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Championing independent publishing: Alex Newberry, Co-founder, Independent Publishers Alliance

The Independent Publishers Alliance was set up to champion and empower independent publishers. To celebrate the work of the organisation, NDA is running a series of interviews with its members. To kick off, we speak to one of the Alliance’s Co-founders, Alex Newberry.

Why did you start the Alliance? And what do you hope to achieve going forward?

The three founders – myself, Jon Westbrook, and Dan Hodgson – have all worked in small, independent publishers at some point in our lives. We’ve also worked at big companies and seen the massive gap between how they’re treated in the industry, and the opportunities they have. 

We did a Sovrn event a few years ago, where we spoke about how unfair it was for small publishers in certain areas, and Jon threw out the idea about a mid-tier alliance. At the end of the event, about five or six publishers came up to us, and said that was something they’d be interested in being involved in. But, classic us, we left it for four years, and didn’t do anything about it. 

Then the first lockdown came, and we had more time on our hands. So, we said, ‘there are a lot of independent and small publishers out there that feel they’re lacking in certain areas, is there something that we can do?’ We reached out to the ones that had been interested, and asked them what an organisation could do to help them, and the feedback was immense. 

We got together, wrote a mission statement, and the Alliance was formed to champion and empower the independent publisher. It’s now a year old.

In the first instance, we wanted to bring publishers together, and educate them on issues that are relevant to them. We didn’t want to bring them to events to listen about what the Daily Mail and Reach are doing with all their money and development time. We wanted to actually have a discussion that would bring together programmatic issues or staffing issues, specifically for a publisher of a certain size. That’s what it was going to do at the start. It’s grown from there. 

Now, we’ve added a networking element to the events that we run. We don’t only have big industry speakers, speaking specifically to the independent publisher, we also have networking opportunities for the publishers with each other. That then grew organically into Slack groups where they can voice opinions and problems, and get help from each other. They’ve also asked us if we can become advocates for them with the big tech brands. 

So, from the original idea of just creating content for independent publishers that is specific to them, it’s turned into us being able to offer networking, support, consultancy, and advocacy for them. 

This year, we’ll also be launching some projects with the Women in Programmatic, which are specific to publishing. And also a commercial piece, where we can make some money for the publishers too.

What are the biggest challenges facing independent publishers this year?

Some of the independent publishers involved with the Alliance are really recognised brands, but they have really small teams. So, they may have expertise in the content areas, but don’t have any understanding of programmatic advertising, or the agency contacts to grow. The problem with that is they’re all ad-funded. 

We ran roundtables for these publishers at the beginning of the year, and they voiced what their challenges are. The most common ones are around what they do post-cookie, because they don’t have a tech understanding and they’re too small for the tech companies to speak to them about it; staffing and recruitment, because of their size, it’s hard to get talent to come work for them, even though the brands are brilliant; how to grow their audiences; and what tools are available to them on a limited budget. So, it’s basically how to make the most out of their businesses with limited budget and limited size. The main danger for the small publishers is getting left behind more than they already have been left behind.

What are the biggest opportunities?

One of the main opportunities within the Alliance is that the publishers are around relevant organisations that are similar to themselves, and that they can share knowledge with. For instance, when one of our members has found something that works, they share it with the group. So, through a combined strength, they can create their own opportunities organically as a group. 

We’re also discussing the opportunity of potentially creating our own walled garden, with shared data across those companies, which would help them to generate revenue post-third-party cookie. The publishers would be able to share data, inventory, and campaigns, and have a first-party data strategy that a lot of them don’t have. There’s a big opportunity there. 

How are you seeing publishers adapt and evolve in general? 

The big guys have the cash, the expertise, and the biggest talent in the industry. They’re at the cutting edge of every new bit of technology, every new trend, that helps them drive revenue. Also, because of their scale, big tech firms want to work with them, because of the profits to be made. 

How are you helping the independent publishers involved with the Alliance to adapt and evolve?

We are using our expertise and our connections in the market to come and speak to these guys. We’re increasing their knowledge and getting them to begin thinking like they’re a big publisher, but by applying things that work with independent publishers, so that they can grow. 

Then, our combined strength and size helps us to have communication with the tech brands that they wouldn’t usually be able to work with. It gives them access to SSPs, demand, or staff that they couldn’t have had before. We’ve given them opportunities by becoming stronger together.

Another thing that is important is that we give them a mouthpiece in the industry. We have a platform now, and great people are interested in hearing what we’ve got to say. And what we’re saying are the things that the independent publishers are saying. There have been issues within the industry that independent publishers face that people probably wouldn’t know about. So, we’re here to give them a voice, get these issues fixed, and help them become stronger businesses, because independent journalism is so important. The publisher members are creating great content, and they’re paying great journalists to do this content in niche areas but, if they don’t get a commercial model, they could die out – and that’s a real shame.

How have relationships changed between publishers and other stakeholders?

One of the biggest problems in revenue generation for independent publishers is that the move to programmatic, and big data buys, was all about huge reach. Agencies have relationships with massive publishers that can satisfy their budgets, and run campaigns for a whole suite of their clients. They want to have a few relationships with vendors that can service all their clients at a good rate. 

In the old days, these guys would have got a direct deal with an agency, because they were the technology brand that you had to be on. Whereas now, they can buy that programmatically. So, these publishers don’t actually have relationships with agencies. That’s a massive thing we’re addressing this year. We’re looking at how we can get these brands known by an agency, and how we can have a frictionless way for these agencies to buy against these publishers, because we know that advertising works well when it’s in good content. There is high performance to be had for advertisers, it’s just about how we make it easier for them, with that relationship having completely broken down due to programmatic. Most independent publishers – bar some who have direct brand relationships, because they’re so strong in niche areas – will be relying on open market programmatic revenue and not direct spend from agencies. 

If we were to speak again this time next year, where would you want the Alliance to be? And where would you like the wider independent publishing industry to be?

I’d like the industry to be stronger. I’d like these businesses to be built on stronger foundations by helping each other out, and having a more stable place in the industry.

In terms of the Alliance, we want to double the membership again, which will be a really good achievement. There are more publishers out there that could benefit from the help of the group that we’re not working with yet. 

We also want to successfully run four events this year, and look to make some revenue for the group. We’re not quite sure how making that revenue will look at the moment, but that could be through introductions into agencies for each brand, or raising the profiles of the brands so that they can go and raise that revenue themselves, while using the group as a mouthpiece to do that.