‘We work from an insight led sales perspective’

Rob Bradley, SVP & Abhijeet Dhar, Director – Sales, CNN International Commercial, highlight how they as a consultant provide clients with insights and data to understand the mindset of consumers

e4m by Simran Sabherwal
Published: Apr 26, 2021 9:01 AM  | 10 min read
Abhijeet Dhar - Rob Bradley

In conversation with exchange4media Group, Rob Bradley, Senior Vice President, CNN International Commercial (CNNIC) and Abhijeet Dhar, Director – Sales, CNN International Commercial highlight how CNNIC has worked as a consultant to clients over the past year by providing them insights and data to understand the mindset of consumers and curate content that targets the relevant audience and enhance business.

Edited excerpts: 

What were the biggest learnings from 2020 for CNN?

Rob: We learnt that people wanted a brand that they can trust and hence fact-based journalism counts, as people tune into CNN to be informed about what's happening globally during a challenging year like 2020. CNN saw record numbers and we had our biggest year ever when it comes to audiences and audience growth. 

From a marketing perspective, audiences and consumers are interested in who they buy from, more than ever. Consumers want an authentic relationship with brands and that's where CNN plays a big role. We acted and continue to work towards being a consultant for government clients and brands - in sectors such as travel and tourism, trade & investment, auto & technology – working closely together on how they can authentically say who they are and build a close relationship with their audiences. Lastly, 2020 accelerated the digital world reinventing how we communicate. 

How has the recovery been in terms of consumer and brand sentiment and ad-spends? 

Rob: We had set up a task force in February last year and used data from the audience, research, editorial and technology teams to understand what this means for our business. Doing that, allowed us to think about how we needed to pivot. We worked tirelessly to identify new industry sectors. The task force acted as a consultant to the different industry sectors - such as business technology and finance - and that allowed us to generate revenue from new areas where we weren't as strong before. By having a story that was based on data enabled us to unlock new aspects for our business and deliver better results for our Clients.

You are the brainchild behind CNN’s Audience Insights Measurement (AIM). What are the key insights, data points for brands as they adapt to the changing consumer habits and behaviour?

Rob: Audiences now have big expectations on what their experiences should be. The advertising should be creative, enhance the audience experience and their data should be protected, respected and complied with the global regulations. When we're in the market, we don't focus on data and statistics alone, but talk about people and meeting the audience expectations as well. While the brand CNN AIM has stayed the same, the technology that underpins it has massively changed. We build our own proprietary technology that helps determine the context, the brand suitability against the content and ensures that client adverts appear against the most appropriate content. Our tool SAM (Sentiment Analysis Moderator) works with our library of information and taxonomy and the smart technology matches the content. We don’t see ourselves just as a media company--- We are a data company, a research company and a creative agency. The advertisements need to be creative and deliver a good experience and meet the audience expectations at all times.

How does the strategy of putting audiences at the heart of every campaign work? 

Rob: We have to tell the client something they might not know about their audience and through data and insight provide the reason why they should work with us. We work from an insight led sales perspective. Sometimes, the advertising industry gets too obsessed with smart technology, but what’s needed is beautifully made, high quality, creative content –  sponsored editorial or branded content - that's backed by data and resonates with audiences.

The ad formats that we deliver now, such as the native 2.0, is an enhanced native proposition that is clearly labeled as native advertising throughout our website, but delivers the content in a way that is seamlessly in-sync with our editorial. To meet the audience demand, we are investing in audio and virtual events. Combining everything together means that we're using next generation audience targeting with our own contextual and semantic tools and making sure that we're giving audiences stories and content that they come back for.

What is the challenge when it comes to clients using data and technology efficiently? 

Rob: Media owners do have a challenge to smartly use technology that makes it work for them and not get overwhelmed with it. It’s about looking at what you need and being very clear about it. If we work with a clear brief on what needs to be achieved, then it will enable us to think about a solution in a smart way before thinking about the technology. The brands that we work with, they want the right audience and they also want it to be about trusted content.

The goal is reflected in the saying ‘real business insights to make real business decisions.’ Yes, it's a marketing campaign, but ultimately, we are uncovering audience behavior and what they're interested in, around this content. We feed the learnings back to the client with extra value, giving them information that can enhance their business and is beyond just marketing.

Can you share an example of a brand or any campaign and how you went about it?

Abhijeet: Clients want to understand the mindset of the audiences, the consumption patterns and how they’ve changed. As we marry first and third-party data, we have a lot more points of understanding with these audiences. For IBM, we worked on giving them a content-based solution. We looked at topics of interest that resonated with IBM and the audience they were looking at. We also looked at the efficacies of AI and topics such as STEM and girl child education. Based on this, we build the content, but that invariably marries or ties back to how the distribution or the amplification of the content happens. The loop starts from when you identify the audiences which are important to the client, what are their traits and interest areas, what keeps them going and then you build content to match that. When you seed that content across all our offerings, then the point of consumption becomes very important to the client. The loop becomes important because when the client shares the content or seeds it, they become micro influencers for that content piece to a larger audience. Clients want to speak to the audience in a safe environment and we help them do that.

Where do you see India in the digital curve, when compared to other countries?

Rob: When I visited India five years ago, programmatic ad technology was still in a nascent stage. Fast forward to today, there is no difference in the campaign that we deliver in the UK or Singapore, or the US compared to those that we deliver in India. Classical technology has democratized solutions, and the smartness of how we operate. Sure, there is some difference as there is in any market, but when we build a solution, we make sure it works in any market or platform that we operate in. The campaigns are just as smart in India as they are another market.

Abhijeet: Democratization of technology is the key. In India, over the last year, clients have found audience consultations to be far more sacrosanct and important for a brand's growth. That means that any investment in identifying what works and what will work is very important. CNN’s technology, the assurance of brand safety married with our audience capabilities and insights goes into building the entire roadmap for clients and brands. That is relevant today, tomorrow and even in the future and this continuity enables us as partners to take the brand conversation forward. 

Travel & tourism has been a huge client for you, and it took a backseat last year. Can you elaborate more on your Indian clientele?

Abhijeet: The travel and tourism categories did slow down but we've had some successes on the travel and tourism front, both from India and within the region. On the business front, we have worked with IBM, Accenture, TCS, Infosys, Salesforce and Mercedes. We are in conversation with more clients. We've seen a spike in clients from the Biztech and FinTech space and the ambit of clients has gone up in this sector. Having said that, it's also about being smart on what we are going to be communicating. Clients have different requirements, depending on the time of the year and outreach planned, it's important to be able to understand that and speak to them at that point.

The exponential digital growth last year shows the huge potential that we have, to take the brand story and connect directly with the audience. We have partnered with Sense Digital in India to provide Indian marketers with innovative solutions to connect their brands with CNN’s premium audience in a way that enhances the user experience and provides greatest cut through and engagement.  

How has CNN Experience evolved? How are you building an immersive experience when it comes to connecting with the client virtually?

Rob: We recently did a digital version of the CNN Experience in Japan. By doing it virtually, it does open it up as we had several people from agencies, brands, and government clients. We had a set film that featured specific and unique content from our anchors such as Wolf Blitzer, Richard Quest, Kristie Lu Stout. We had core themes around sustainability, audience first strategy, technology and creativity. We seamlessly executed it and the same amount of planning went into it, as it would for a physical event. In terms of content, the delivery had to be engaging and the content had to be of value to our users. Anyone attending should have learnt something that could help them in their day-to-day business as well as, how they can partner with CNN. While we want to get back to having CNN Experience in person, we will see a mix of virtual events and in-person events in the future.

Looking ahead, what are the challenges you see, in terms of getting on board new clients and driving revenue growth?

Rob: We've invested in a new team that's launched this year called the Revenue Strategy Team, which I lead. This team works with all the different departments - audiences and data, market and business intelligence and looks at clients’ behaviour and what they are doing in different markets. It also looks at how we can learn from each other, from what different teams are doing around the world. This team helps us focus on where we're heading, and ultimately use data to make those decisions. We look at business intelligence to see which are the brands that CNN can work with and the industry sectors that we should focus on. We have very specific stories for each industry sector. The key thing is it allows us to focus on the data to make smart decisions on how we go to market and who we target. The challenge that we have is probably time and making sure that when we're speaking to a client, it's for a very strong reason and that we have a good chance of winning business from them, and helping them with that business. 

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