How Semafor’s Rachel Oppenheim is prioritizing predictability in the ad business

This article is part of Digiday’s coverage of its Digiday Publishing Summit. More from the series →

By the end of 2023, Semafor’s first full calendar year, the company’s co-founder and CEO Justin Smith told Digiday that it achieved two profitable months — a feat for a media start-up that debuted October 2022 during the beginning of a backslide in the ad market. 

A quarter later, Semafor’s CRO Rachel Oppenheim took to the stage at the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colo. last week to discuss how her sales team was able to add 30 advertising clients to the roster in year one, including Microsoft — adding to the company’s 10 launch advertisers, like Genesis and Verizon — in order to achieve months of profitability. Oppenheim did not speak on their financial terms.

Oppenheim said the goal she instilled in her team was to “maintain a lot of control and momentum in our sales and go-to-market process, versus … being bogged down in the RFP swirl.” And then within those client pitches, she said her team has been focusing on selling its leadership demographic (20% of Semafor’s audience is a C-suite exec) and core products (events and newsletters), as well as tying its major tentpole moments to the known global leadership calendar. 

One example that Oppenheim pointed to is Semafor’s largest event to date — World Economy Summit — which coincides with the IMF and World Bank spring meetings in Washington, D.C. later this month. There had been a white space in events happening on the sidelines of one of the largest, domestically held global financial gatherings, she said, offering an opportunity for Semafor’s events and sales teams to set up editorial content and sponsorships opportunities.

“It’s basically the same group as in Davos’ [World Economic Forum],” Oppenheim said, adding that BCG, Bank of America and Amazon have signed on as event sponsors for this year’s summit, with BCG returning for the event’s second year.

Leaning on this “predictable” global leadership event calendar, she said that clients have been willing to plan farther out and think in a longer term way about brand campaigns. Therefore, “we have been able to plan things out [with] a longer lead time,” Oppenheim said.

While operating with a scrappy team of about 65 total employees, Oppenheim said the events team doubled in size to handle the level of interest and growth that the events business has had — now making up about 50% of the company’s total revenue. She did not provide an exact revenue breakdown.

Additionally, she pointed to custom content offerings with advertisers that she maintains could not have come from an RFP response, but had to be created through a direct conversation with the client and agency. One such deal was with Microsoft, which went live in February, where Semafor used generative AI tech from OpenAI (owned by Microsoft) to create Signals, a breaking news feed and analysis platform, that has Microsoft exclusive branding.

“The launch day of Signals … the press pickup, the engagement, the visibility of that project was so [widespread it] eclipsed the initial funding that needed to go into it,” Oppenheim said.

So while there were slower parts of 2023 — such as hearing from brands and agencies that they were pausing on big investments or not committing to new partnerships due to the market — the first few months of 2024 have experienced a “recalibration,” Oppenheim said. And even just at the beginning of Semafor’s second calendar year, she said she remains optimistic that this selling strategy will prove true: “I feel a lot of tailwinds.”

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