Rare species alert: Mail Online bosses optimistic about online advertising

Bird-watchers go crazy when they spot an avocet or a bittern. Me, I’m always on the look-out for newspaper executives who are optimistic about the future of online advertising.

Yesterday brought two presentations from executives at Mail Online — accompanied by two (apparently) slightly different perspectives on digital display advertising. Both, ultimately, were positive.

The first presentation came from James Bromley, the managing director of Mail Online, who spoke at an ABC conference in London yesterday.

Bromley appears to have spent some time discussing what needs to be done to sort out the mess that is online display advertising.

Forget the moaning about Google. Forget the bleating about rock-bottom CPMs. Forget, too, Donald Trelford’s complaints about web sites that ‘bring little revenue”.

Instead, let’s pay attention to what Bromley says about the way in which some national newspaper sites are published. His message is simple: publishers aren’t trying hard enough. Here’s my colleague Oliver Luft’s account of Bromley’s presentation:

Advertisers [have] already started measuring the value of users in different ways, he added, and online publishers needed to catch up.

[Bromley] said: “To be frank we are a long way behind the buying sector where people are buying behavioural [ad slots], they are buying into very fragmented and segmented audiences.”

Bromley said changing user behaviour was not being accurately measured and newspaper websites, as a result, were not able to extract real value from their audiences.

Here, Bromley nails the problem identified by Rob Grimshaw, the managing director of Ft.com, when I talked to him nearly a year ago:

There are some very prominent [newspaper] brands that . . . haven’t thought much about selling [online display]. They can’t differentiate their audience. That audience becomes part of the undifferentiated vanilla mix out there on the web. It’s a toxic combination.

You need to reclaim inventory from the ad networks, then find a way of differentiating — by investing in targeting technology and demographic data. Then you need to go through the long haul of establishing a premium. It’s a project that will take a couple of years.

I’m glad to see at least two publishers pointing out the truth. Too many news organisations have failed to invest in the tools and data that will allow them to profile and segment their audiences properly. Yet this remains the industry’s best hope of boosting online revenues.

But if James Bromley’s presentation sounded a tad downbeat, compare and contrast it with the aggressive presentation delivered by his colleague Martin Clarke at yesterday’s investor’s day over at DMGT.

You can look up Clarke’s deck here. Suffice to say that it starts off by suggesting that Mail Online is ‘in a different league’from the competition and continues in a similar vein for 18 slides. The cumulative effect is so bullish that it made me smile, then laugh.

Particularly intriguing is the graph on slide 4, which suggests that UK-based readers of Mail Online spend twice as much time on the site as do online visitors to the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Sun or Times Online.

And the finale? This involves Clarke’s claim that Mail Online is ‘unique’among UK newspaper sites in being able to ‘make the [online] advertising model pay”. This claim will no doubt cause plenty of irritation elsewhere.

As if this wasn’t enough, Clark also takes a predictable swipe at News International’s paywall plans. ‘A paywall might make a little money,’he admits. But Mail Online ‘will make a lot’by remaining free.

No doubt the Mail’s rivals can, and will, pick all sorts of holes in Clarke’s supporting arguments. I’d be interested to hear the objections. But it’s heartening, for once, to see a publisher talking so positively about the an advertising medium that remains crucial to the future of journalism.

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