‘Fewer is better’: How the Guardian is plotting sales growth

When former Google executive Hamish Nicklin joined the Guardian as CRO three months ago, he wasn’t shy about shaking things up at the publisher.

These are tough times at The Guardian, and it’s committed to cutting costs by 20 percent over three years. But businesses can’t cut their way to growth. Nicklin is revamping the publication’s sales team, recasting its product set and exploring new growth opportunities like virtual reality.

Since Nicklin’s arrival, there have several internal changes and departures. Global revenue officer Tim Gentry left the company last month, Guardian Labs managing director Anna Watkins left to become a partner at MoFilm, and creative director Alistair Campbell also left in the summer.

The Guardian has spent the last three months building a more unified, simpler way to work with clients. The publisher had already replaced its mobile banners in favor of custom-built mobile ad formats and has opened the door to time-based ad selling as part of its “fewer is better” ad strategy.

Nicklin has also smashed silos. Previously, an agency would have dealt with a programmatic sales team for programmatic, a separate team for display and yet another one for branded content. Under the new organization, an agency will deal with just one team at the Guardian that has a specialist in each category.

“We need to simplify how we work,” Nicklin said at a Guardian Upfront event in London on Tuesday night in his first public appearance since joining. “One of the things I noticed when I joined was just how siloed we were. I can’t believe that we managed to get the best out of the Guardian for you that way.”

Nicklin appealed to advertisers in the room. He said he wants to find more effective metrics than click-throughs, shares and likes. And he blamed an over-reliance on targeting for the rise of ad blocking and a disproportionate dependence on click-through rates and shares as a metric for success.

“What I’d really like to do is to stop coming to try and flog you ad space, and partner with you to answer one very simple question: What do you want our readers to do?” he asked.

For its part, the Guardian has signaled it wants its readers watching: The publisher has announced a string of new products and areas of investments recently across video and virtual reality. Earlier this week, the publisher revealed plans to put investment into its VR capabilities with a five-person dedicated VR team led by commercial strategy director Adam Foley and VR executive editor Francesca Panetta. She spent nine months creating the publisher’s first major VR project: 6×9, an exploration of solitary confinement and its effects on the prisoner’s psyche.

The Guardian (and fellow premium publishers like the New York Times) has already proven that VR can be a highly profitable area for publishers. The publisher’s 6×9 project to raise awareness about solitary confinement had six sponsors: Google News Labs, Tribeca Film Institute, Chicken and Egg Pictures, Frontline, Solitary Watch and Incarcerated Nation.

The Guardian is also fine-tuning its approach to programmatic trading. In July, it opened up the ability for programmatic buyers to capitalize on trending news. Now, Nicklin said the publisher has come up with a new way to sell its anonymous audience data to programmatic traders to run off-site.

This means that advertisers can now buy Guardian audience data and apply it to their own programmatic campaigns, not necessarily those just on the Guardian’s own sites. This was tested with seven partners over the last few months, with Eurostar and its agency iProspect the only ones named.

“We’ve recognized advertisers’ desire to control the media itself which is why we’ve pulled apart the data and inventory for the first time,” said the Guardian’s programmatic director Danny Spears.


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