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AOP Summit Review, Part 1: “Commerce is the new king, not content”

The AOP (Association of Online Publishers) occupies a unique niche, covering publishers, ad tech providers and brand advertisers alike. It’s a broad church that plays an important role in getting disparate parts of the media ecosystem to engage, talk and discuss common issues under the same digital publishing umbrella.

However, it’s wide remit can also be its Achilles heel, with yesterday’s AOP Summit held in County Hall, London a case in point – whilst the event was well attended and organised, the competing industry interests focused too much on being polite to each other rather than making a concerted effort to solve many of the industry’s pressing issues. 

Indeed, it was a rare speaker who put his neck on the line and the Summit only kicked into life with an admonishment from the ex-Global Head of Advertising for Jaguar & Land Rover, Ian Armstrong, who told publishers, “To sort their s**t out if they wanted to claw back revenues” before adding, “You own the content and many of the platforms so why are you insecure and continually looking over your shoulder?

Armstrong also courageously admitted that when he worked for Honda one of his biggest mistakes, “Was pulling out of a back cover print ad in a Sunday magazine because no one could tell me what its effectiveness was”. That decision was, he continued, “A mistake I deeply regret and with that decision Honda lost something, a bit of magic. My conclusion: We can be over-obsessed with data.”

On the same media buying panel, as if to demonstrate the wide range of views held, the Global CEO of m/SIX Jessica Burley, countered, “Many initiatives (inventory sales) are based around efficiency and ease of use, but the real conversation should be about the power of the datasets which are the only way we can challenge the likes of Google and Facebook.”

Other takeaways from the morning’s sessions include:

  • Helen McRae, UK CEO and Western Europe Chair, Mindshare, told the audience, “Commerce is the new king, not content, according to the CEOs I talk to” and, “They view companies like Amazon not as a marketing challenge but as a disruptor.” As if to demonstrate the point, in another part of London, Hearst UK was simultaneously launching Esquire Edit, the magazine’s new range of menswear. Clearly commerce will be a major trend for 2019 amongst publishers.
  • Ronan Harris, VP & MD UK & Ireland, Google UK & Ireland, said that, “The rate of technical innovation is getting faster each day”, and added, “15% of searches we see each day have never been seen before which demonstrates the pace of change in wider society, and this pace of change will force us to collaborate much closer together.”
  • However, whilst it was pleasing to see Google front up to publishers, all too often Harris’ remarks made fence sitting an art. When tackled about why Google had refused to join the IAB consent framework, Harris answered, ”We’re working closely with the IAB and I remain optimistic”, a view certainly not shared by some attendees. Harris also added that,We’ve been receiving conflicting advice with regards to GDPR in Europe which makes things complicated” – another reply which failed to provide any meaningful details.
  • Google’s Harris also made the observation that the internet had, “created new pressures, and now we’re asking what is the role of the internet? For us it’s still about relevance and getting the right content to you, but increasingly it’s about diversity of choice.” What that diversity of choice is would be anyone’s guess, but there’s no question the tech giants are strangling diverse opinions as they attempt to restore a mainstream narrative which is afraid of challenging or offending anyone.
  • Harris also made the point that,We are in a phase of maximum disruption” and, “In a few years’ time things will be different and marketers can get back to the creative aspect of telling stories with their brands, as well as develop closer relationships with publishers, not least because tech complexity will fade into the background.” Whether that happens remains to be seen but an audible sigh of relief was heard echoing around the auditorium.
  • WNIP then attended a breakout session with another member of Google, Dr Christian Heise, who is the tech giant’s New Partnerships Manager, Northern Europe. Whilst the session was merely an advertisement for Google’s new subscriptions initiative, it was interesting nonetheless, with Google making some powerful forays into fast transactions with its latest ‘Subscribe with Google’ tech.
  • Heise told us that, “In tests with two major publishers, we have seen Subscribe with Google work 30% better than the publisher’s own workflow.” A 30% uplift in subs through ‘easy sign-in’, ‘frictionless payment’ and ‘improved discovery’? Any publisher would welcome this, and whilst the tech is still in testing, the fact that it includes apps, mobile web, multi-platform, AMP, etc is an exciting prospect. As one publisher was overheard saying, “It’s high time Google gave us something back.”
  • Heise also gave us a clue as to who is currently testing the Subscribe with Google tech – the FT if you’re asking – and also told us about Google’s Pay tech which will allow publishers to know in real time whether a subscription applicant was credit-worthy enough to receive one. From a data privacy perspective it’s controversial, but it’s coming downstream and fast.
  • Heise also told us that, “We are thinking about micropayments but it’s not our priority – maybe tomorrow but not now.

All told, the morning session was a mixed back of PR soundbites, fence sitting and more than a few tired references to gin and tonic. But hiding amidst the blandness were a few real gems and Subscribe to Google’s new subs system is definitely one to watch. For that reason alone, we would recommend interested publishers to follow Dr Christian Heise on Twitter for all the latest updates on this new tech (@christianheise).

Part 2 will contain takeaways from the afternoon sessions…..

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