Dialog: Troy Young on the Future of Content

In the next installment of the DIGIDAY Dialog series, Brian Morrissey traded emails with Troy Young, president of Say Media, a company combining a large ad network with its own media properties. The discussion covers the nature of media in the digital world, whether brands will ever devote significant budgets online, and the concept of brands as publishers.

From: Brian Morrissey
To: Troy Young
Re: Future of Media
Let’s talk everyone’s favorite topic: the future of media. I can’t think of a time it’s been more in flux. Everyone obsesses over The New York Times and its paywall, er, digital subscription plan. Will it work? Will it fail? Hitwise came out with stats today that showed page views are down 11-30 percent. That doesn’t sound too bad to me, but others act like the sky just fell. The fact is, we’re now over 16 years into banner ads. Sixteen years! And you know, they just don’t support high-cost content like the Times. This isn’t about crappy punch-the-monkey ads, but an online advertising system that seems rigged against quality. Instead, in a world of cheap, abundant ad impressions, it’s all about cheap, plentiful content. For the past decade, I’ve seen the same chart on too many business plans. It shows the time spent online with another line, far lower on the chart, showing amount of budget spent online. The whole premise is the two lines will meet. Maybe. But they don’t seem that much closer today than when I first saw the chart. I’m still hearing the same “it’s not about the click” mantra in 2011. That’s nuts. Maybe the NYT’s move is the surrender of high-cost content creators to the mass-produced SEO stuff. But you know me, I’m too skeptical — don’t call me cynical, please — so give me a glimmer of hope that there’s a future for high-quality content supported by great brand advertising.
From: Troy Young
To: Brian Morrissey
Yes Brian… there’s a future for high-quality content, ad supported content. Why? Because we’ve gotta find a way to make it work. The world needs it. It’s that simple.
Paid mechanisms will play a role. That’s just about removing friction. But that’s not enough. Even my fellow Canadians, arguably the most reasonable people on the planet and always interested in the collective good, are not going to make pay work. A recent study from UBC revealed 81 percent of Canadians would not pay to read news online and 90 percent said they would find free alternatives.  We still need ads. Blame Canada.
Next, think about media monetization along a continuum from impression to a transaction. Affinity / passion based media is going to learn how to move further down the line from selling impressions to taking a piece of the sale. This is happening in all kinds of ways. For companies like Sugar publishing it means tapping material sources of commerce revenue, for tech / trades like your pub it means pushing audience into events.
Have faith… The ad side is getting better. The problem is we got off to a bad start. The IAB created an untenable precedent with little boxes (IAB standards) on top of content. It creates a tension between content and advertising. Fine for DR, bad for the brand. Stop thinking about little boxes and start thinking about dividing up time. Advertisers want 15 seconds to make you feel something. Lets give it to them. It does not have to be in a video player. Sell attention. At the same time, we are going to have to clean up the canvas. In the race to drive up rates, we littered pages with ads. Let’s create some space to breathe.
Here’s the harder part. Advertisers will always pay a significant premium for associations that impact their brand.  Like the T-Mobile Half Time Report on TNT, or the Hyundai dunk competition thing. We have to find easy ways to connect the brand to the publishing experience in ways that consumers like. This could be sponsored conversations, integrated content, premium experiences…we’ll see lots of innovation here.
Btw, I’ve seen that chart too. Pretty soon everything will be digital and we wont have to talk about it anymore.
From: Brian Morrissey
To: Troy Young
Hurrah! Looks like I won’t have to go to vo-tech school after all. It’s clear Canadians are not only reasonable but incredibly optimistic. I feel you on bigger, better, dare I say more beautiful ads. I’m always struck by how the Web talks about creative. We had a conference the other month where a guy from a DSP mentioned that creative is the most important factor in driving performance. I sat up in my seat thinking, well, now this is interesting. Alas, he went on to give the example of how LowerMyBills.com’s hula hoop woman gets way more clicks than a plain “refinance now” message.
Flipboard’s Mike McCue recently talked to me about this. I was struck by how many times he used the word “beauty” in our chat, something like a dozen times. The iPad is almost a do-over for publishers, I think. It’s new, they can have designers in at the beginning and can set premium expectations. On the desktop web, I’m slightly more pessimistic. The problem I can’t get my arms around is the simple economics of the supply curve far outdistancing the demand curve. The stuff AOL is doing with Devil seems like it could work. One guy suggested to me that publishers unilaterally cut ad inventory by 30 percent in the fourth quarter. What do you think of that idea?
But the big question is attention. We’re awash in impressions, short on attention. My reporter instincts are to worry when an ad guy starts talking about “easy ways to connect the brand with the publishing experience. But I’m guessing you’re not talking The New York Times. It is clear to me that brands want off the sidelines. Publishers have to think up ways give them a more prominent role — and I’m not talking those “welcome ads” that are about as annoying as popups. It sounds like what you’re talking about is pretty old-fashioned. You don’t need a DSP, DMP, AMP, SSP or RTB to do brand integrations. Is this back to the future for digital media?
From: Troy Young
To: Brian Morrissey
Re: creative….people love to interact with interesting, attractive, usable things. But, lets pull apart two types of creative that confuse people. First is creative that will always have diminishing marginal returns. The stuff designed to get you to engage with an ad. This is what your DSP guy was talking about. It’s not that interesting. It describes most online advertising. Second is creative that delivers increasing marginal returns. Experiences that create dialog and culture. This is the stuff that matters. The web has not done this kind of advertising very well yet. Mostly because it works best when you have a critical mass of attention. And audio. Crafty marketers have delivered cultural moments with with social channels. But it’s hard. And rare.
Now, forget creative for a sec. Lets talk about media economics. Everything is media, so it ain’t like it used to be and we a have a surplus. Blah blah blah. Let’s imagine for a second what it means when we say $1 CPM (what the Web seems to be doing to inventory). For a measly $100 you can speak to 100,000 people. Two football stadiums. My entire home town (almost). There is something ridiculous about this. Are you really buying attention? I doubt it.
Now let’s think about a $100 CPM. For a hundred bucks you are talking to a good size auditorium. That starts to make sense, if you have the audience’s attention in a meaningful way. So the question is, can you create an experience with your audience that is penetrating and meaningful? If you can, you should get a $100 CPM. I think you can. Will you have to lend your influence? Yes. Can you do it with integrity? For sure.
Is this back to the future, Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom stuff? Absolutely. Marketing is hard and expensive because everyone can do it and most people need to do it. Tactics change. Fundamentals don’t.
From: Brian Morrissey
To: Troy Young
We are going back to the future. I just read your blog post on the “brand editor in chief.” My first thought: Great, Troy thinks I’ll have a future churning out copy for The Duane Reader. No thanks. But you make a great point that the economics of publishing generating new opportunities for brands. The obvious opportunity of these “new economics” (content is plentiful, ads are cheap) is the ability to save money. That $1 to speak to a football stadium must be music to the procurement guy’s ears, right? The more interesting point is this idea of brands as publishers. My last dialog was with Jonah Bloom, newly minted content chief at KBS+P. Colleen DeCourcy even believes editors are the new creatives. Hope springs eternal!
The part I wonder about is how this “brand content” comes out. My inclination is to worry it will be little more than advertorial, a pretty old model indeed. And the problem with advertorial is it usually sucks. Sure, there are exceptions, but much of it isn’t good. As a content creator, I can’t say I want to write for brand. Now, I’m fine to lend any authority I have to help a brand create super non-commercial content. Why not? But I worry that the alternative of cheap impressions will lead content creators to be little more than shills for the ad people. You’re not planning to do that to us, right?
From: Troy Young
To: Brian Morrissey
Open your mind a bit, Brian. A man of your ingenuity might have a blast with the Duane Reader. In his recent article of building brand Trump, your old boss Michael Wolff (citing Fredrik CarlstrÖm -http://www.adweek.com/michael-wolff/branded-content-131200) makes the point: “A considerable failure of most marketers is that, from a narrative and performance point of view, they are pitifully timid creatures. They aren’t showmen enough to create the shows that create the brands.” Target sells many of the same products as Duane Reade. But, they pull a narrative thread through in a compelling way. They are simply better editors. So find a thread for Duane Reade. Here’s an obvious move. Connect the brand to New York living. Tweak the in-store offering to support the idea. Bring in collaborators – artists, writers, product designers.
It’s a good time for editor types like Colleen and Jonah. Editors work fast. They collaborate with lots of people to fill the pipes with stories. Good ones know how to make culture. Sounds like modern advertising to me.
Here’s the rub. Marketers need to sell. Branded content is usually a step removed from selling. So you have to develop a position with content that differentiates you. You have to be patient. You have to have a measurement model that supports the strategy.
One last thing. Something bigger is going on here. I think it is getting harder to separate ad copy and editorial copy. As we’ve discussed, marketers are working to make content that is useful and entertaining. Editors and scrambling to get attention. I am marketing my company now. Business Insider ran a perspective piece from Say Media yesterday. Crafty promoters use HuffPo as a platform for personal brand building. Everyone has an agenda. Consumers don’t care, they just want good content.

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