Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Meet the Revolutionaries: Karen Eccles, Chief Commercial Officer, The Telegraph

LiveRamp, in association with New Digital Age (NDA), is spotlighting the men and women championing a data-led revolution in the marketing industry. ‘Meet the Revolutionaries’ focuses on the efforts of a new breed of industry executives who are helping to push digital marketing into a new era of data collaboration, with respect for the customer at its very core. 

Here, Karen Eccles, Chief Commercial Officer, The Telegraph, explains how she moved early on first-party data and attention metrics and offers her advice to others attempting to drive innovation…

Tell me about your role. 

I’ve been at The Telegraph for five and a half years, but I took on the role of Chief Commercial Officer just a few weeks ago. The role entails leading across advertising, commerce, and syndication revenues for The Telegraph. Commercial is an important part of our business model . 

When I first joined The Telegraph in late 2017, it was just before we’d fully committed to a subscriptions-first model. We were still a majority ad-funded business and, as such, readers’ needs weren’t always put first. We launched our subscription strategy in 2018, meaning we had to rebuild, particularly our commercial  digital products, to re-think what our assets were, what we wanted the reader’s experience to be and, then, how that would benefit the advertiser. 

At the time, we were ripping up the rulebook on how to monetise a news brand. Back then, everything was about chasing huge numbers and scale. In making the reader experience our primary focus, we needed to do things that sometimes felt counter-intuitive, such as deliberately constraining the growth of our supply to focus instead on engagement. 

Can you give examples of times that you have driven innovation inside your organisation?

We moved to a subs-first model before the introduction of GDPR and before Google’s announcement about deprecating third-party cookies. My innovation team understood early on that the rich first-party data gathered from subscribers was going to become very important to the business and how we protected our subscribers’ data and experience would be key to our success. 

Privacy compliance and customer experience were at the core of everything we did. We took a stance about changing our tech stack to prioritise first-party data and we turned off the use of third party data and reliance on third party cookies in mid 2020.  We didn’t need to be compelled to do this; we realised that this was the foundation we needed to build our commercial proposition on, both for  business growth and for our readers.

Another example from my time as innovation lead at The Telegraph is that we spent several months trying to prove that a subscription business would drive better click through rates than a news brand with high transient passer by traffic. That led on to a programme we call ‘Metrics That Matter’ based on the learning that click-through rate is a largely irrelevant metric and that, instead, ‘attention’ and ‘engagement’ are better indicators of performance for advertisers. 

Attention and engagement were already being measured in our verification dashboards, so we started taking that message out to the marketplace in 2018, and delivering ‘Metrics That Matter’ as part of our standard PCA reporting. We were one of the first major publishers in the UK to take a strong stance on attention metrics and today we are pleased to see that everyone in the market is talking about the value of quality attention.

What challenges are those who drive innovation likely to encounter along the way?

I remember during one of the first conversations I had internally about switching away from CTR to focus on delivering and optimising attention metrics, someone responded that I must be mad and there might have been a swear word or two in there as well. I find those conversations quite exciting.

There’s an attraction to the status quo that creates a natural resistance to change. Often, you’re dealing with people who have done a brilliant job, doing exactly what they were asked to do, for a number of years. It’s hard for those people to accept that you’re planning to change things if the status quo is still working well. 

So you need a lot of empathy and respect for what people have been doing up to that point and why they’ve been doing it. Innovators need to be in control of their own impatience and communicate clearly with all the stakeholders about what is being asked of them and why. You need to be able to articulate something that’s often quite intangible to everybody else and explain why this change is going to be better for everybody. 

What advice can you offer others hoping to drive innovation in their own organisation? 

Keep perspective and a sense of humour. Be comfortable with failing, because sometimes the things that you try – things that you’re really committed to – will fail spectacularly. If you ensure those missteps don’t come at a huge cost, you can learn from them and sometimes discover something else that might give you an edge on the competition. 

Know your principles of what you’re trying to do and why.  Summarise them for yourself into two or three clear points. Then, when you’re thinking about a new situation and how to approach it, you go back to those key principles as a filter for what is and isn’t important. They allow you to stay focused on delivering your key goals and not be distracted by the irrelevant. 

How do you think the role of the digital marketer might evolve over the next couple of years?

If you’d asked me this question every six months over the last five years, I’d probably have given a completely different answer. 

Things like hyper-personalised targeting and enormous scale for their own sake are falling out of favour, which we’re very happy to see. The ‘messy middle’ of digital marketing, with its questionable practices and massive waste, all in the name of driving scale, is being cleaned up as the industry rightly focuses on transparency and sustainability. Most excitingly though, I think creativity will come to the fore again, because really great ideas based on insight have to be at the heart of advertising.  

Also, everybody is talking about AI right now. We’re all trying to understand where that can help us improve our products and services. There’s a huge amount of hype around the subject at the moment so I’ll be interested to see how that develops over the next couple of years.