‘How can we collaborate together’: Publishers welcome rise in Black History Month RFPs

Illustration of 3 fists raised into the air in protest.

A lot of brands, agencies and advertisers made promises in 2020 to further support Black businesses, creators and voices. Just a few weeks into 2021, publishers focused on those audiences see reasons to be optimistic.

This coming February, the Root will launch its first automotive ad campaign as part of G/O Media. The campaign, for Ford’s F-150, will run across G/O Media’s sites, but the Root will be at its centerpiece; the campaign, celebrating Black History Month, centers of moments of Black joy.

That campaign is just one of several that G/O has lined up for the Root around Black History Month, said Brian Kelly, G/O Media’s chief revenue officer, who was one of several media executives who said that this year, agency and brand RFPs around Black History Month are more numerous, for longer periods of time and larger dollar amounts than in years past.

“In general we’ve been very pleased with Q1 activity across the portfolio, but we’re especially proud of the Root and the interest in partnerships,” said Kelly. “I not even just through the RFP process, it’s brands actually reaching out and looking to align. It’s, ‘How can we collaborate, together?’”

Thanks to advertisers’ lingering preferences for doing deals closer to a campaign’s launch date, Kelly, like many other revenue leaders in media, said his team is still selling into February. But he expects to close Black History Month deals in categories including entertainment, social media and retail.

And like many of his peers, Kelly is hoping to use that interest as a springboard for conversations about longer deals. “[February] is an incredibly important time of year for the brand, but this is a 365-day-a-year priority for us,” he said.

Thus far, brands appear to be receptive to that idea than in year’s past. “This year I am seeing more companies ask for multi-year commitments,” said Morgan DeBaun, the founder and CEO of Blavity Inc., a media company that operates seven media brands focused on news as well as lifestyle topics such as travel and film for Black audiences.

DeBaun said that the longer-term partnerships tend to be focused more on awareness metrics to start, campaigns within the Black demographic that move into conversion metrics over time. They also, DeBaun noted, come from advertisers asking for category exclusivity.

Longer, richer proposals are a plus, but more important for DeBaun is advertisers’ interest in Blavity extending further up the food chain.

“What’s encouraging is the executive-level conversations we’re having,” DeBaun said. “We’re not only at the trading desk, entry-level roles; we’re pitching to c-level folks consistently now.”

Some of this money is being spent because the brands have already pledged to spend it. In the wake of the protests and social unrest that tore across America last year, many large companies committed substantial sums to the fight for racial equity.

Google, for example, pledged to spend $175 million on a variety of initiatives, ranging from training for job seekers to money used to support businesses focused on the Black community. Apple and Netflix each vowed to spend $100 million doing the same.

Those announcements as well as the newfound interest in splashy campaigns stands in contrast to many brands’ behavior last year; in the wake of the unrest that roiled America following George Floyd’s death in May, many shied away from the topic of Black Lives Matter altogether. In a presentation last summer, Marsha Cooke, Vice’s svp of global news, noted that the news publisher’s stories about Black Lives Matter generated 57% less revenue than other content.

Yet as the year wore on, that began to change. “We have seen much more relaxed attention to keywords surrounding BLM,” said Paul Wallace, Vice President Global Revenue Products and Services, VICE Media Group. “At first, as we previously discussed publicly, some clients viewed it as a rather toxic topic, but as we increased our persistence and demanded the industry to mature, many became more comfortable with an ever-complicated News category.  In most cases, blocklists have followed suit.” 

As advertisers continue to mete this money out, it will surely spark conversations about who is getting it. While agencies are building out more infrastructure to encourage the spending — since Mindshare launched a private marketplace for U.S. Black media companies back in July, it has since stood up two more, one in the U.K. and a third in Canada, focused on BIPOC media companies — the questions will arise about what kinds of publishers or creators are getting the right amount of money.

To some, just the investment in Black content is a start.

“I do believe it’s better overall for people to increase spend around Black content,” DeBaun said. “Even if that spend doesn’t come through my bank account, that doesn’t bother me.”


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