Publishers are beefing up ad buying chops to support subscription ambitions

The in-housing trend has come for publishers, too, as they start to think and act more like consumer brands.

This year, publishers ranging from The Atlantic to The New York Times to The Daily Beast have hired or begun hunting for growth marketers, media strategists and digital ad buyers to support their growing subscription offerings. The growth spurt is tied to new needs brought on by the pivot to paid, as publishers need to master the kind of growth-marketing chops that’s common at fast-growing direct-to-consumer brands that depended on customer acquisition, particularly through Facebook, Instagram and Google ads.

This past month, The New York Times posted several job listings for new roles to support subscriber growth, including a director of marketing and media strategy for its new products, such as Cooking, Crosswords and Parenting, and a marketing-focused manager of audience strategy. These kinds of additions are a natural progression for the Times, which has staked its future on subscription revenue and is far ahead of most competitors in identifying and acquiring subscribers.

Hiring for those roles assures that digital marketing budgets are spent more effectively. But they also give publishers, who typically used marketing for different purposes, the expertise necessary to communicate with subscribers off-platform in ways that keep them engaged and retained. And to find them, publishers have been forced to hunt for talent not just at agencies but at DTC brands and their competitors.

“We’ve been working on those at the mid-level for a while now, but I think it’s going to scale,” said Mary Gallic, a director at the executive recruiting firm Grace Blue. “I think a few years ago everybody had to go to the agencies because that’s where the talent was. But now they’ve begun poaching from each other.”

While many publishers are new to pursuing subscription revenue, some have been working to build up their consumer marketing expertise for a while. The Atlantic, for example, has a media specialist on its expanding growth team, a group responsible for audience development, customer marketing, data science and research, and it plans to hire more, according to a spokesperson. Slate has formed working groups who handle most of the consumer marketing for Slate Plus and Supporting Cast, though it uses third parties to handle media buying; Slate plans to bring more of that capability in-house in 2020.

The Wall Street Journal has a team of 10 full-time staffers handling social, display and other media investments for the business news brand, which it finished assembling late last year as part of an in-housing effort it began over two years ago. (The Journal still consults with an external agency, The&Partnership, when it wants to deploy larger campaigns, however.)

The Journal’s media buying team’s main focus is on improving subscriber retention, a strategic priority that requires companies to be responsive in a way that third-parties cannot always be. “The structure allows us to be nimble, close to the data, and run constant experimentation, which is key to generating maximum returns from our media investment,” said Karl Wells, The Wall Street Journal’s gm of subscriptions and memberships.

Going further back, publishers first began hiring ad-buyers and media planners about two years ago, particularly in account support and pre-sale capacities on the business side. Risa Goldberg, the president of Media Recruiting Group, said that publishers first started contacting her firm looking for people who could serve in pre- and post-sale, as well as account support roles, to make more compelling pitches to agencies. “It’s a better way to present to an agency,” Goldberg said. “Digital is so complicated now that it’s better to have someone who speaks [the agency’s] language.”

Those skills are useful for publishers that have brand-building plans. But most publishers today also want people who have performance, growth marketing and customer acquisition expertise as well, a combination that is in relatively short supply. “Finding that someone who has both growth marketing, customer acquisition and is also strong on the brand side isn’t easy,” said Eddie Koller, a partner at executive recruitment firm Koller Search. “Companies are having to get creative about where they look for them.”

Koller added that publishers are particularly attracted to people that do marketing for financial services companies, because of their comfort level with data and the different messaging strategies required for people who are either very close to or very far from committing to a purchase.

In other cases, publishers have found success by plucking people out of DTC companies. The woman that The Daily Beast hired as marketing director to support its membership program, The Beast Inside, for example, had previously worked at Blue Apron and at Eight, a DTC fitness brand. The Beast has not yet begun investing in off-platform advertising yet, but that experience will come in handy if the Beast Inside is going to hit its ambitious subscriber targets; the Beast’s CEO, Heather Dietrick, expects that Beast Inside can amass hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

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