The Sun MD: We don’t want a ‘more is more’ ad model

The Sun MD: We don’t want a ‘more is more’ ad model
Walmsley: 'We're not really in the business of restricting articles'
The Media Leader Interview

The Sun’s managing director on why quality is more important than quantity in the digital age and the newspaper’s plans for a big year in politics and sport.

“The era of just broadcasting everything as far and wide as possible in the search for page views, irrespective of how they’re driven, is over.”

Sitting for a conversation with The Media Leader in The News Building on a rainy February afternoon, The Sun‘s managing director, Ben Walmsley, notes that in the past six months there has been a “significant divergence” in the online publishing strategies of news titles. Some have sought a “strategy of abundance”. Others, like The Sun, have pursued a “strategy of scarcity”.

Faced with declining web traffic from search and social, many titles have, says Walmsley, spoken openly of correlating the number of ads served on webpages to the ability to fund journalism, embracing a “more is more” ad model. “We fundamentally reject that,” he says.

He argues, instead, that publishers should focus on a more pared-down approach to delivering high-quality advertising without sacrificing the user experience by overloading site pages with ads.

The same applies to the editorial content itself. As titles like the Daily Mail are openly experimenting with expanded sections, a new hybrid subscription model and a slate of new podcasts and video material to see what sticks with audiences, The Sun appears to be taking a more measured and intentional attitude to meeting the new digital reality.

“Publishers have often in the past just gone for abundance — try and put everything out there and hope to find audiences where they are. That strategy of abundance is perhaps redundant now,” Walmsley explains. “We need to perhaps think differently about how a piece of content is best represented and that actually comes down to a fundamental change to the way newsrooms operate.”

Content-first approach

According to Walmsley, The Sun‘s newsroom takes a content-first approach, wherein the pitch for a story comes in first before it is followed by a discussion on where and in what format it would resonate best. This, Walmsley says, is very different to how a newspaper would have operated in both the far and recent past.

“We’re not thinking about all of content necessarily being put out on social for maximum reach. We’re thinking about where a piece of content would live best on social and, if that is the case, which social platforms it would lend itself to,” he says.

“But then also thinking about what kind of content we want on our own platforms and how we want to bring people back to our platforms and drive engagement and have, effectively, what is a more first-party relationship with our audiences and our advertisers.”

That direction of travel, where users are brought along a journey that leads them back to homepages, will become increasingly important in an era when generative AI is poised to upend the publishing market.

“Our strategy of bringing people to our platform, going multimedia, giving people a reason to come and engage — that’s what we need to focus on to build engagement on our own platforms,” Walmsley explains.

According to parent company News Corp’s CEO Robert Thompson, the company is “engaged in advanced negotiations with key partners” regarding a potential licensing deal for AI companies to access content from The Sun and its other titles to train large language models on.

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Alongside developments in AI is a changing digital environment in which cookie deprecation will make first-party data potentially more valuable to advertisers, and in which the capacity for publishers to monetise content on social platforms is, according to Walmsley, “probably going to get harder”.

The key to success, Walmsley explains, is to focus on their own site without “necessarily neglecting social as a way of bringing audiences into our estate.” And on the commercial end, that includes investments The Sun has made in Nucleus, its first-party data platform and ad-planning tool, to improve the quality of direct ad buying.

Improving ad inventory

Another way The Sun has sought to improve its product is by reducing its back-end code to improve the quality of its ad inventory and its user experience. Compared with other tabloids’ websitesThe Sun is relatively clean from ads and pop-ups — an intentional distinction the publisher has sought as part of a years-long strategy.

“In the last six months, we’ve reduced 85% of the behind-the-scenes code,” reveals Walmsley. In doing so, not only has The Sun decreased its carbon footprint, but it has also reduced the number of ads that don’t perform well.

Walmsley insists that by cutting down on areas where ads are not adding value, “you can make the same money from the pages, or more”, adding: “And you do create a better user experience, which intuitively is more likely to get people to come back.”

Reducing wasteful inventory does not necessarily mean The Sun will charge more per unit. Rather, Walmsley believes it makes the publisher a more attractive environment for direct advertisers and long-term partners, improving sales and branding.

While Walmsley expressed confidence in the title’s current ad model, The Sun is considering a future where a hybrid business model could boost business and a subscription offer is instituted. “We are interested in that,” he admits, albeit with some caveats.

“Publishers need to be very careful about how they work with that hybrid model and be very clear about what the proposition is that somebody would be paying for,” he says, criticising unnamed competitors for locking “a random selection of stories” behind paywalls and creating a poor user experience of “perennial digital disappointment”.

“We’re not really in the business of restricting articles,” he continues. “We would like our content to be available.”

But Walmsley was non-committal on what a hybrid model could look like should The Sun go down that route: “At the moment it’s just not there.”

Size won’t save publishers unless we face up to the long tail of garbage

Swing paper

The stakes are high in 2024 to get the business model right. With Brits and Americans heading to the polls, the health of news publishers is paramount to the ability of electorates to make informed decisions about their countries’ futures.

Walmsley indicates that the growing US edition of The Sun, which “deliberately” did not take a political position when it launched in advance of the 2020 US presidential election, is more likely to this time around.

“We’ll cover it — and we’ll cover it very much in the tone of The Sun,” he says, describing the outlet’s style as “light, entertaining and irreverent”.

Back home, Walmsley calls the title “a swing paper for the UK” (The Sun, though recently supportive of the Conservatives and a staunchly pro-Margaret Thatcher title in the 1980s, previously endorsed Labour governments under Tony Blair) and expects it to be highly active during this election season.

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While he won’t disclose the editorial position of The Sun ahead of the election, Walmsley notes that readers are “probably ready for some degree of change. They care very much about the NHS, about the state of the economy, about housing and about immigration in particular.”

Whether brands will be keen to advertise against political content will be on a “case-by-case basis”. Walmsley cites The Sun‘s own research, which has found that advertising against such content is beneficial irrespective of political leaning, because political stories rouse emotion and therefore make audiences more likely to take notice of the advertising.

However, he admits “not all advertisers are going to see it that way” and that Nucleus allows brands to optimise to their objectives for any given campaign, including if they do not want to run alongside political coverage.

Not a news brand

2024 is not just a big year for politics, but also for sport. The men’s Uefa European Football Championship is in the summer, as is the Summer Olympic Games just across the Channel in France. And given The Sun leans on gambling as a revenue driver, sport will play a major role in the publisher’s content strategy.

“I think there is a lot of excitement building around the Euros and clients are certainly aware of that,” observes Walmsley.

He is comparatively muted in his optimism for an Olympic bump compared with the Euros. “I don’t think it galvanises the nation in quite the same way,” he says. “The budgets will probably come in a bit later there, whereas with the Euros, brands are planning those bigger, more considered executions and sponsorships.”

Both political and sport coverage will be presented in new formats this year, according to Walmsley: “We want people to read our stories, but we also want them to see them and hear them and bring them to life in new forms.” Furthermore, he hints that there will be an increased focus on live events, video and audio to bring both subjects to life.

Walmsley acknowledges The Sun likely has not “gone as big on podcasting as some others” so far, but points to the success of its true crime podcasts as reason for optimism as the publisher looks to make the medium “a much more fundamental part of the strategy” when it comes to the election.

The same is true of The Sun‘s video production. War correspondent Jerome Starkey has done a number of highly successful reports from the front lines in Ukraine, giving the publisher confidence to expand further into this format.

“We don’t want to be seen as a news brand — somebody who is competing only with other news brands,” declares Walmsley. “We’d like to see ourselves as a multimedia publisher.”

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