By R. Larsson, Advertising Week

It’s no secret that digital publishers face new and different challenges on a regular basis in our ever-changing online media landscape. With so many places to publish content, and so many platforms requiring myriad different content approaches, publishers can be left feeling like they spend as much time sorting their content as they do publishing it. We caught up with Ryan Stewart, Head of Publisher Acquisition at MGID, to find out about his role, and his approach to facing these challenges head on.

Q: You’ve recently joined MGID as Head of Publisher Acquisition North America, what does your role entail?

My day to day is mostly spent onboarding publishers and helping them extract the maximum value from our products, platforms, and services. This begins with determining what “value” means to them; is it increased advertising revenue? Recirculation of content? Boosted engagement? I have a reputation for straight talking, so I have no issue pushing back if I can see that their strategy and values are misaligned. Ultimately, it’s about doing what’s best for the publisher.

Once I understand the publishers’ needs, I work with the team at MGID to design a bespoke package of solutions that can deliver their objectives. I also regularly liaise with our incredible engineers to feed back publisher pain points that our technology could address or that create gaps in the market we could potentially fill.

These meetings also serve as an open forum for our engineers to bring forward their ideas, no matter how pie-in-the-sky they might be. Technology is always changing, so I want to ensure we create an environment where the industry’s next game-changing innovation has the chance to spring to life.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges digital publishers face today?

Every advertising format has its place, but deploying them clumsily can severely compromise the user experience. Publishers are nothing without their audience, so keeping them engaged and loyal must always be the core pillar around which all other strategies are built. Throwing every possible ad format at a page without considering how they integrate might provide a short-term revenue uplift, but push the audience away and those benefits will quickly dry up.

Balancing ad revenue with user experience is more than a question of bugginess and aesthetics. Publishers also need to accurately gauge the true value of each respective ad format and inventory slot with metrics that represent actual engagement rather than just whether it was viewed or played.

But this all depends on whether advertising can even reach the page to begin with, which continues to be an issue due to overzealous brand safety tools that misclassify potentially monetizable content. Publishers producing high-quality content should not have to worry about their investment being undermined because it fell foul of a blocklist.

Q: How are innovations in ad tech helping publishers overcome these challenges?

There have been transformative innovations in both ad formats and how they’re delivered. Today, there are a range of formats that integrate seamlessly with the page in elegant and engaging ways, overcoming the “banner blindness” that sees so many impressions wasted. As for delivery, AI-powered optimisation engines can automatically select the most performant ad format for a placement on the fly.

This wouldn’t be possible without the newfound ability to measure attention, which enables both attention-based optimisation — such as inserting a placement at the precise moment the visitor is most engaged — and the ability to transact using attention as a currency. Advertisers get more bang for their buck, while publishers can take a quality-over-quality approach to formats and placements.

Brand safety is also moving closer towards a win-win for both sides of the supply chain, again, thanks to AI. The generation of contextual brand safety solutions capitalise on the semantic understanding of AI to automatically categorise content and recognise its quality with near-human precision, minimising the possibility of false positives.

Q: How can publishers maximise the value of their audiences for advertisers?

The deprecation of cookies and the rollout of privacy regulations around the world have made targetable audiences a valuable commodity, giving publishers a massive opportunity to activate their first-party user data for segmentation and targeting. These exclusive audiences can be surfaced programmatically or packaged for direct deals with premium advertisers.

Of course, not every user is going to be logged in or consent to their data being used for advertising purposes. This is where contextual advertising solutions — which use the surrounding content of a placement as the basis for targeting rather than any user information — can plug the gaps in addressability created by unknown users.

But, to reiterate an earlier point, the best way to maintain and grow audience value is to build trust with them. A trusting audience is more likely to engage with various touchpoints that can increase their value, whether that’s signing up for an account, completing surveys, or — thinking beyond advertising revenue — purchasing a subscription.

Q: What are the key measures for success when evaluating advertising effectiveness?

A successful advertising strategy has a lot less to do with advertising than you might think. Focusing solely on raising CPMs can lead to a range of other factors that impact advertising effectiveness being neglected, such as the content pipeline, user engagement, dwell time, off-site referrals, and so on. Publishers need to take a holistic view to develop an advertising strategy that pays off long-term.

That’s why I recommend thinking in terms of average revenue per user (ARPU) rather than CPMs, as this opens up a broader range of objectives than simply increasing impressions. For example, it might be more valuable in the long-term to keep a user on a site through recommended articles instead of filling the space with an ad placement, which a narrow focus on CPMs would ignore.

It goes back to a central part of my role: understanding what is most valuable to each publisher. By explaining what our product suite can deliver in terms of ARPU, we look beyond the immediate transaction with the publisher to how we can support the long-term effectiveness of their advertising strategy on a case-by-case basis.

Ad tech companies shouldn’t see themselves as mere vendors, but consultants that can drive stable and sustainable revenue growth for our clients. It’s better for them, and it’s better for us.

(As published on ADVERTISINGWEEK)