Mail Metro sales chief: Brexit ‘definitely having an effect on adspend’

Mail Metro sales chief: Brexit ‘definitely having an effect on adspend’
The Media Leader Interview

Mail Metro Media’s chief revenue officer divulges how he hopes to transform his commercial team for a new era and why advertisers aren’t ultimately concerned with the Mail‘s controversial coverage.

The publishing industry is in a continued state of transition. After making the leap from print to digital, outlets are now needing to ensure they are not outflanked by new, non-text-based mediums for content delivery.

Such concerns are front of mind for all publishers, even the most commercially successful. In recent days, Mail Metro Media, the commercial arm of the Mail and Metro, has lost business not to rival publishers, not to social media companies, but to a podcast.

“What it said to me is that we need to up our game,” Dominic Williams, chief revenue officer at Mail Metro Media, confides to The Media Leader in the Mail’s temporary offices in Kensington amid a conversation on how the publisher is working to adapt and innovate its content and advertising offerings.

“I want to be known for video,” says Williams. “I want to be known for podcasts.”

Earlier this month, the company hired Guy Edmunds, a respected ad sales careerist who had previously spent 20 years at The Guardian, to lead in a newly-created role as media director of video & podcast. Edmunds, it seems, already has his hands full.

Williams instructs that podcasts should no longer be considered a commercial add-on to a broader sales package, but something to lead a pitch on. Comparing the post-pandemic boom in audio and podcasting at news outlets — which has led to the likes of The New York Times launching its own audio-only app — to the shift from print to digital, Williams says, “I remember, on the buy side when I was at [Dentsu] Aegis, we used to think you could have digital for free. You’ve got to pay for your TV spots, your print advertising, your radio and out-of-home and cinema, but have digital for free. And now, digital is 90% of ad revenue.”

Podcasts and video may just be the next digital, according to Williams.

‘We have to be more commercial than ever before’

The shift in focus to address and expand into audio-visual content is part of a broader recognition that digital media properties need to evolve — not just in their editorial strategy, but in their commercial strategy, too.

Adam Foley, the CEO of independent media agency Bountiful Cow and former director of advertising at The Guardian, told The Media Leader in May the “uncomfortable truth” about digital advertising formats is that they are not all that appealing to advertisers.

“Static display advertising is too small, too peripheral and too ignorable,” he said. “No one has ever had a favourite banner advert. Video doesn’t always suit a medium where eyes are moving quickly down the page. If they want advertisers to be part of their future, they are going to have to move beyond digital formats that are basically still iterations of something invented in 1994 and create something that does justice to the enormous potential they hold for brands.”

Williams believes Foley is “absolutely, 100% right,” and agrees the publisher needs to do things differently. As part of Mail Metro Media’s attempt to iterate on its ad inventory, it is launching a new in-app activation this month called an “App Splash”.

Demonstrating the new inventory to The Media Leader, Williams shows how when a user opens the MailOnline app, they will now be greeted with a three-second full-screen display ad as the app loads.

Williams adds that Metro’s March brand refresh was driven by the need to allow for more flexible ad inventory, and that the team will continue to look for unique ways to create more appealing formats for advertisers.

“We have to be more commercial than ever before,” he explains. “Because TikTok, Facebook, Snap, YouTube, are all over us. They’re all over everything. If we’re not commercial and creative and innovating and changing things and listening to the advertisers, we should give up. But we’re not going to give up.”

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That innovation includes an increased focus on data. Mail Metro Media has been going to market with the promise of improving effectiveness and efficiency of advertising through data science, and has retrained its commercial team over the past six years to focus on data, using it to inform recommendations on creative, use of the publisher’s channel mix, and sensitivity to timing.

“When I joined here six years ago, we had hardly anyone in data from a commercial point of view,” says Williams. “And now, I know what’s trending all the time. I will know what’s trending every single minute of the day.”

MailOnline is ‘addictive… really addictive’

News that has been trending about the publishing industry itself has been mostly negative through the first half of the year. Numerous publishers, including the Mail, have laid off staff in the past few months, and high profile moves such as the dissolution of BuzzFeed News and the bankruptcy of Vice Media have occurred amid a slowdown in the advertising market that has impacted the UK harshly.

Williams is kept up at night by the state of the market. “At the moment, it’s tough out there,” he says. “Really tough. We’ve had quite a tough time in the world. In the UK we had Brexit, and then we had the pandemic, and then we had Ukraine and cost-of-living. I mean, there are four big things there. And it has effected advertising budgets. Not just us, everyone.”

Williams is pushed to expand how Brexit has impacted business. “That is definitely having an effect on advertising spend, because of the UK economy,” he replies.

The Media Leader points out the irony in the chief revenue officer of Mail Metro Media, the commercial arm of tabloids that have continued to take a significantly pro-Brexit editorial stance, admitting that the decision to leave the EU has not just had a negative impact on the broader UK economy, but on Mail Metro Media specifically. According to a pre-referendum study by the University of Oxford and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the Daily Mail published the most pro-Leave articles in the run-up to the referendum vote of any UK news outlet.

“Is it not ironic, given certain coverage from certain tabloids?” The Media Leader asks, referring to the Mail.

“Yeah, for example,” replies Williams with a wry smile.

Williams does sincerely lament having had to let go of staff due to no fault of their own. He remains optimistic, nonetheless, that the back half of the year will see fortunes improve.

The transitioning state of publishing is reflected in the Daily Mail and General Trust’s (DMGT) temporary offices. As the company works out of a suite of floors across the street from its main office in the Barkers Building, which is undergoing renovation, the interior, while functional, is not easy on the eyes. Reception is flanked by piles of unused office furniture; the ground floor lobby is cramped and unfit for rush-hour foot traffic. The commercial staff is required to work in the office three days a week, the editorial staff every day. The teams will be forced to settle in, as staff expect delays of a year or two until the extensive renovations, originally expected to be finished in 2024, are completed.

Despite concerns over the health of the digital publishing industry, readership numbers for the MailOnline have never been better. Last month, the online title surpassed rival tabloids The Sun and The Mirror to become the most-read non-BBC digital newsbrand in the UK, and MailOnline currently ranks fifth in the world for readership.

The Fishbowl: Dominic Williams, Mail Metro Media

“I think the reason why we’ve done so well, UK and globally, is because we’re always trying to break news and also coming up with innovation and new channels,” says Williams. He points to an improved Sport section, a new Royals section that debuted to coincide with the coronation of King Charles III, and a to-be-announced section launching later this year. “I’m not knocking any of our competitors, but I think we’re moving faster and quicker. And we listen to what the readers want, and give them more.”

A friend of Williams’ told him over the Easter holiday that his wife had given up MailOnline for lent. “I found that really funny. They said she broke it after 20 days. It’s addictive. It’s really addictive. And that’s telling of our loyal readers, which is really good for me to go out to advertisers.”

‘I take them away from the headline and start talking about our audiences’

Critics of the Mail levy that much of its addictive nature and broad success can be chalked up to sensationalist and conservative-slanted news coverage. Williams, who welcomed The Media Leader into his office where he always has two web pages pulled up on large, vertical monitors—the company’s top-line revenue figures and the homepage of MailOnline—was asked whether advertisers complain about the outlet’s storytelling bias.

“We’ve had some pushback from advertisers on some of our headlines,” he admits before defending the quality of the Mail’s reporting. But when advertisers start complaining, he pivots the conversation.

“I take them away from the headline and start talking about our audiences. Do you want to sell more products to our audiences? It’s 25 million. It’s huge, it’s very diverse. It’s attention, it’s engagement. They’re spending a lot of time, they’re loyal. Do you want to advertise?

“But I have to, as the CRO, I have to listen to them when they go ‘We don’t like some of your headlines.’ And I report it back [to editorial]. It won’t change anything. […] I wouldn’t be working in an organisation like this if we can dictate the news. Commercial should not dictate the news. As the news should not dictate the commercial.”

Williams is, however, not shy to share his own opinion on current events. A headline on MailOnline catches his attention as he demonstrates the site’s different digital ad inventory options: ‘You’re getting NO sympathy from anyone!: Furious motorists blast Just Stop Oil eco clowns and beg them to get off the road as they stage ANOTHER infuriating slow march’.

“They’ve got no sympathy anymore,” Williams mimics. “Everyone’s trying to get to work now. There’s another way of demonstrating. Let’s just stop it. They’ve made their point. They’re everywhere; there’s something at Wimbledon and something at cricket, we’ve had protestors outside [our offices]. So has Reach, so has Facebook.”

Don’t write trust in media off as ‘wokery’, warns Peter Field

Of course, if advertisers are seriously concerned about supporting public sustainability efforts like Just Stop Oil, they could simply choose not to advertise against the Mail‘s negative coverage of such environmental protests (or with the Mail altogether).

Brands typically pull advertising from publishers if they are concerned over brand safety related to gloomy or otherwise controversial news coverage, such as around the war in Ukraine or the pandemic. Williams usually attempts to shuttle such advertisers to other, less contentious areas of the website, such as the Travel, Sport, or Money sections.

According to a recent YouGov survey, the Daily Mail currently ranks as the fourth least-trusted newsbrand in the country, just ahead of competitor tabloids The Sun, The Star, and The Mirror. Just 10% of the public say the Mail is “trustworthy” or “very trustworthy”, compared to 47% that describe the paper as “untrustworthy” or “very untrustworthy”.

But for all the bluster around the industry about the importance of trust in news, advertisers don’t seem to care, according to Williams. Not even when faced with a highly controversial column by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson (which, Williams reveals, has received mixed reactions from clients).

“I never have any problems getting in to see any advertiser, because we have scale. […] I talk about trust in our brand from our readers, attention, engagement, and how loyal our readers are.

“The advertisers are interested in the return on their investments and the value they’re getting. That’s what I focus on.”

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