The Guardian US is starting its pursuit of political ad dollars

The Guardian US is making a concerted effort to win some of the political advertising dollars being spent during this election cycle. It’s the first time the publisher is doing so, according to Luis Romero, the company’s svp and head of sales for North America.

Until now, The Guardian US and its U.K. operation have considered political ads only on a case-by-case basis, according to a company spokesperson, and in the U.S., the publisher has only ever had one inbound campaign for a political candidate, who Romero declined to provide specific details on.

But now Romero’s team will be actively pitching direct-sold ads to advertisers for both political candidates and advocacy groups. He added that he’ll be hiring a political consultant to help establish guidelines for the content of those ads and what The Guardian will accept (or not) based on the publication’s mission.

“Obviously we consider everyone, but we have to go through a lot of internal discussions on who and what we take,” Romero said. At this point, The Guardian’s guidelines have not yet been fully defined.

In addition to presidential candidates, Romero said that Congressional candidates offer a lot more opportunity to draw in regionally targeted ad dollars this year. Meanwhile, his team will also pursue ads from advocacy groups for social issues like reproductive rights, voting rights, LGBTQ+ rights and gun rights.

The first three months of 2024 were challenging for advertising revenue, Romero said. The current quarter (which is Q1 in the publisher’s fiscal year) seems to have taken a turn for the better and the ad team is operating at a good pace. However, “it’s still a little too early to tell whether this bodes well for the second half of the year,” he added.

Therefore, opening up another valve for ad revenue will hopefully act as some insulation for the business.

“If we do hear anything about [non-political advertisers] holding back because of the [November] election, we may be able to offset it with some political dollars,” Romero said, adding that the goal is “to try to ensure that we can ride out” any further dips in the ad market.

The Guardian is entering the race for political ad dollars later than other news publishers who have historically operated in this category. But Andrew Mullins, vp of advertising and data operations at digital ad agency IMGE, said that if Romero’s team acts quickly, they can still win some deals when political ad budgets really start being directed to digital platforms come June and July.

Mullins, who previously ran ad campaigns for Gov. Ronald DeSantis, former President Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee, said that The Guardian is a welcome addition to the cohort of major publications that are willing to accept political advertising. “We’ve seen some of the best results for political candidates when major publications open their inventory to people running for office,” he said.

With that said, Mullins also added that it’s “crunch time” for The Guardian to start pitching political advertisers because once the summer months roll around, political ad buyers will “be too busy to engage with a lot of new publications.”

By comparison, The Independent’s ad team started pitching the publication to political advertisers for the presidential election during Q4 2023, almost a year before national political campaign dollars really start flowing, the company’s svp of U.S. Blair Tapper said during an on-stage conversation at the Digiday Publishing Summit in March.

So far in this election cycle, Tapper said political spend has been slow because there hasn’t been a need for candidates to spend on advertising, with each party’s nominees being established early on compared with past elections. Moreover, she said Super Tuesday, which typically draws in a lot of political ad dollars on behalf of candidates, wasn’t as lucrative, with fewer candidates gunning for the Republican nomination this cycle versus the number of candidates running for the Democratic nomination in 2020.

To win a share of the political ad dollars that will be spent this election cycle, Mullins said The Guardian will need to prove it has strong demographic data, a “persuadable” audience and clearly defined guidelines for what the publication will or won’t accept when it comes to content.

“One thing that I would be worried about is that The Guardian sees the dollars for political [ads], they’re really thirsty for the dollars, they want to make more revenue, but they don’t really know what they’re getting into [and] what compromises they’re going to have to make,” said Mullins. “You’re taking nice fluffy positive ads, but you’re also taking some really objectionable, negative ads sometimes.”

Even if The Guardian does refuse certain topics or types of ads, Mullins said the publication won’t lose credibility with political ad buyers. But those restrictions need to be made clear before deals are made.

Meanwhile, Tapper said it’s important for publishers to think hard about political advertising guidelines, given the tendency for ads in this category to contain misinformation. “To not have those guardrails on your site is a massive risk, not only obviously from an information perspective, but also from an integrity perspective,” she said.

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