Industry Perspective from Greg Coleman: What Publishers Should Do to Win in This Economy
Q&A with Greg Coleman, Digital Marketing Professor and Media Industry Insider. We had the unique opportunity to sit down and discuss the state of media ad sales for publishers and retailers with longtime media leader Greg Coleman, who sits on the board of directors at several prominent media companies, including Dotdash Meredith and BuzzFeed, is Executive-in-Residence of an early stage venture capitalist firm, teaches at the NYU Stern School of Business, and has worked with Huffington Post and Time Warner.
The result was a set of predictions and strategies that almost every board of a leading media company considers. Don’t be left on the sidelines during these uncertain times. Learn what Greg says about expanding business models, retail media networks, new technology, and more.
Greg Coleman has a finger on the pulse of the media publishing industry. As an executive in residence at early-stage venture capitalist firm Lerer Hippeau, he’s attuned to emerging digital media, technologies, and enterprise software.
He is also a board member for a number of publishers, including Dotdash Meredith and BuzzFeed. Greg served as president at BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, and Time Warner. He is also a past digital marketing professor at Georgetown University and currently teaches at the NYU Stern School of Business.
Greg was generous enough to share his insights on the publishing industry and advise on what’s ahead. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What’s your take on the economy in the coming year?
There are a few things at the macro level that publishers need to be aware of. Demand across the market is down, and customers are more cautious about spending.
On the supply side, there are a few things to consider, too. Retail advertising networks are cropping up, and they are very viable places for marketers to spend their money. Streaming services are also now accepting advertising. There is more money than ever being thrown that way because these platforms provide both scale and engagement. It’s the perfect showcase for a marketer. Neither of those things was around two years ago! And Tik Tok continues to be vibrant. It’s an alternative space where advertisers get youth engagement.
Publishers must be really careful about where they are spending their money and focusing. Direct-sold business will be harder to come by.
Those are the big things I’m paying attention to.
How can publishers gain a competitive advantage?
Make sure you’re being as careful as possible with expenses. Place your bets as if the ad market won’t come back for a few years. Focus on fewer things and challenge all of your expensive line items to help you weather the storm. Be crisp about the competitive advantage you are bringing to marketers. There are so many alternatives, so you need a clear reason for a marketer to agree that they need an ad in your media environment.
Publishers need to be thoughtful about where they can do things better, cheaper, and faster. Where can they invest now that will have a reasonable payoff in the next few years?
What is the advantage of e-commerce?
Everyone likes to talk about e-commerce as a potential revenue stream. The difficulty is that most publishers don’t have the DNA, knowledge, or people to put together a true direct-to-consumer e-commerce platform. Creating or outsourcing products and selling directly to consumers is very challenging for most publishers.
When it comes to partnerships, however, it's all about the data. If a company like Uber has enough data that is viable for e-commerce, they don’t need to be the principal in producing or outsourcing that product, but that data is worth a lot. Everyone is careful with headcount, but if you don’t have people with domain experience, it will be more difficult.
Do you think the dollars spent through retail media networks (RNMs) are additive or being taken away from other publishers?
They’re being taken away. There’s only so much demand. In response, publishers should think about performance marketing. If you can prove a return on ad spend to demonstrate that people are getting a positive return on investment, then you will find budgets that don’t exist right now. When you make money from your advertising, you can spend more on it. It’s tricky to do, but you can target people with the right messages that stimulate them to buy, and you need to measure that.
In ad tech, we always talk about return on ad spend (ROAS). If you’re delivering performance, you better be able to prove the ROAS. While RMNs might have some advantages, there are still plenty of third-party places where you can get measurement blessed by the client that proves that their products are being sold in your environment and they are getting a return. The RMN sales pitch is compelling, but they have proliferated probably too quickly. The incremental benefits are not there. I think some RMNs will be successful, and time will tell how powerful they will be. Their sustainability is something we’re all going to have to watch.
You’ve seen economic downturns before. What are the lessons for publishers?
There are many companies that got ahead of themselves and added headcount, and now we’re seeing massive layoffs. It's important to assess what is mission-critical to run your business and fuel its growth. Be practical, but don’t be afraid to reimagine what your business can look like. If you cut teams without re-engineering how you do things, you’re going to be in trouble because you’re trying to do the same amount of work with fewer people. You have to do things differently.
I have noticed, however, that people do not like to change. They see the market change, and they know they need to do things differently, but when it comes down to it, individuals have a tough time changing their behavior and the way they do things. But survival with good prospects for long-term growth means you have to change.
Where does change start?
They have to reimagine their tech stack. Publishers often have well-intentioned CTOs with a passion for building things. But my philosophy is that if you can do something better, cheaper, and faster by outsourcing, do not think about it—do it. Great intentions take a long time to debug themselves and take the focus off important business areas. When I hear about new initiatives that take a long time to implement, I always encourage businesses to look for outside solutions that they don’t have to build but can integrate and move faster with.
As the economy slows, what are the opportunities for publishers?
AI, ChatGPT, it's here. Publishers are squeamish about it, but I think we can find some middle ground. I encourage publishers to look at how technologies can move them forward. They will have to do more with less, which also means fewer distractions. The leaders that get it and embrace technology and outsourcing, focus on fewer things, and reengineer their teams to operate efficiently are the ones that are going to win.
What KPIs should publishers focus on?
Start with engagement. How much time is being spent on your platform?
How large are you? Is growth flat or climbing? How are you delivering important messages that people will continue spending time with?
There are so many choices, so this matters. The headwinds are significant. Leadership needs to look at where the market is going and their individual business data and see where changes need to be made.
How would you advise publishers grappling with uncertainty?
Necessity is the mother of invention. There are companies that will lose money before they take action, and that’s unfortunate. I think companies are smarter about finding the right partners, whether it's a partnership or a true merger. There are definitely things that companies need to do together, not on their own. Many companies are working harder, but they don’t want to consider new things. Publishers have to be smart about how they grow and be open to change. Take action ahead of time.
As you map out goals and strategies for the coming year, Greg’s top questions for publishers are powerful to consider:
- Where can you do things better, cheaper, and faster?
- Where can you outsource?
- Where can you streamline?
- What should you do less of or stop altogether?
- What can you lean into?
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