We're hoping to revive investments for Indian newspapers: John Montgomery, GroupM

John Montgomery, Global Executive Vice President of Brand Safety, GroupM, spoke to exchange4media Editor Naziya Alvi Rahman on the changes brought about by COVID-19, news & advertising and much more

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Jun 12, 2020 8:18 AM
John Montgomery, Global Executive Vice President of Brand Safety, GroupM

As the world continues to struggle with the ongoing COVID pandemic, we all have been pushed further into the digital world. From shopping, schooling to even weddings, everything is now on your screen. In these times, marketers have no choice but to sell their brands digitally, bringing brand safety back into the centre of every debate.

In a conversation with exchange4media, John Montgomery, Global Executive Vice President of Brand Safety, GroupM, shared with us valuable insights on the same.

What kind of conversations are marketers engaging in now about brand safety?

The pandemic has affected almost every area of advertising. Marketers weren't sure exactly how to advertise in the pandemic. They want to be sensitive to the pain that people are going through. Sending the normal kind of advertising during the pandemic wasn't a good idea. So, a lot of advertisers paused their advertising, while they reassessed their strategies. Therefore, media companies saw a reduction in advertising. Our clients asked - what was the best way for us to advertise, how can we add value to people's lives, how can we help them. And a lot of advertisers jumped on social issues like, making sure that you wash your hands properly, making sure that you use social distance, wear masks, behave responsibly, along with messages of our support for families. A lot of social reinforcement found its way into advertising. That was really more on the creative side.

But, then on the media side, we started having conversations with clients about being adjacent to bad news, or grim news about the death toll. I'm sure that you've had similar kind of news coverage in India as we've had here in the US. Our clients asked - is that a bad thing for us to be adjacent to that content? A number of clients in the US withdrew their advertising from news.

The big change in the pandemic was - can we advertise safely? Then there's the area of disinformation and fake news that is rife in a crisis like this. There's so much bad information about drinking bleachers and stuff that's really dangerous, that can come from even senior people in the government.

India is a very cost-conscious market and ensuring brand safety comes at a price. Are Indian brands ready to bear that cost?

I've been to India three times from a brand safety perspective. Every time I come, I think that marketers understand the risk more. It's not just adjacency to inappropriate content, but it's making sure that your advertising is aimed at the right demographic, that it avoids invalid traffic or fraud. That you have the right privacy controls in place. Brand safety is sort of an umbrella term for any risk in the digital supply chain. I think clients are becoming more and more aware and every time I have visited India, we have more clients using their technology. But, I would say that international brands are still the ones that are investing in brand safety and high quality content. Local Indian brands are still a little circumspect about the costs. Unfortunately, the costs of verification tend to be more or less the same around the world. So, the dollar costs to a US advertiser would seem lower, whereas the media costs in India tend to be a little lower so the verification costs appear higher, or a higher proportion of the media spend. Therefore, it's a more difficult financial decision for Indian advertisers to make.

Economy is going through a difficult phase. Do you still believe that marketers and advertisers will be investing in brand safety?

My job revolves around brand safety, and I see the dangers of inappropriate content and fraudulent content. And, in times like these, fraudsters exploit the situation. The malware attacks have gone up around the world by several folds. The risks are higher in these times. My job is to recommend the advertisers to do this. Having said that, if you can't afford to do it, then there are several other things that you could do. For instance, dealing with vendors and suppliers that you know or buying from preferred transparent lists in the programmatic supply chain. In other words, don't buy the cheapest long tail inventory in programmatic supply, buy from a preferred list and buy through supply side and demand side partners, who are as trustworthy and transparent as possible.

Even if you can't do work with vendors, like double verify integral oracle, there are ways of ensuring that you are in, what we call, euphemistically lit areas. Areas that you know, and that you can see, and that particularly your media agency recommends, or reliable and transparent and where you have a relationship. It may mean that the inventory cost would be slightly higher, but we absolutely believe that it's worth it, particularly if you're concerned about your brand's reputation in the market.

Bigger brands surely will invest. I hope smaller brands too consider because it is the need of the hour.

Yes, that's true. I think we have to be sensitive to the fact that not everybody can afford it. But, you can be smart about what you buy. The more cheaper the inventory, and the more you pursue the low cost per thousand at container as your primary optimization, the more dangerous it becomes and the more risk you expose your brand to.

Coming back to news, last year in an interview you mentioned that earlier brands often moved money from news because of its controversial nature but that scenario has changed. Now news has become the most viewed category, particularly in India. A lot of people are watching news on television and on digital. Has your view changed? Would you now tell marketers you continue to invest in this particular category?

Yes. It's something we feel very strongly about. Everything we said in India last year is absolutely true. Newspapers or news organizations and publishers online, in video and in online print, have been demonetised for a number of reasons. But mainly there's so much reach in the social networks that has led to some of the demonetization over a period of time. What's added to it is, advertisers are concerned about controversial content. A lot of those news organizations are particularly the ones in the local newspapers and the local news publishers in smaller towns, which are critical in terms of supplying people with advice during a crisis like a pandemic. These newspapers were already on their knees. Some of them were in critical situations where they didn't have the revenue to continue. And then COVID hit. So, you can imagine those organizations being vulnerable to the extreme.

One of the commentators in the US had put it well. They said, "This is an extinction event for local newspapers." Because local stores have shut, there's no longer that advertising. National advertisers were worried about big brands. They were also worried about the adjacency to grim news. So, it became a real crisis for news. What we've done as an industry, but particularly as GroupM, is we've raised the awareness of the situation to marketers. Two things that we want marketers to understand, and it is true around the world and not just the US, is advertising in the news is highly effective. If we think about our own behaviour, when you're reading a news article we dwell time. The amount of time that you spend on an article is generally more than you would on a social news posting. So, the advertising gets a longer exposure to the consumer.

The other thing is that, readers tend to trust local newspapers and favourite newspapers more, so that trust rubs off on brands. And that's been supported by research. We know that advertising in news organizations or news publications is more effective.

The second part of that is, there's evidence that even if your advertising is adjacent to controversial or hard news, it doesn't have a negative effect on your brand. In fact, in some cases it has a better effect because people are more absorbed in that article.

So, we went to the industry and said: "You're really killing newspapers at a very critical time. First of all, it is a good marketing vehicle. Secondly, for democracy and for free press, we really need to support newspapers so that we can afford to have journalism and journalists with feet on the ground, reporting properly, keeping corruption down and making sure that we call politicians to order."

I think that helped enormously. One of the verification companies saw integral ad signs. They noticed that there was an 80% drop in the number of advertisers who are blocking the name Coronavirus in their advertising, which is really positive. And, I think we'll hopefully see investments moving back into newspapers.

In partnership with some large news organizations around the world, and through an organization called Internews (which is a non-profit one that focuses on the sustainability of news and making sure that as many people around the world have access to reliable news), we've started assembling a safe lists of news publications that take programmatic advertising, around the world. We're up to 22 countries around the world. Very soon we'll start launching a campaign where we make those lists available to marketers around the world for free, so that they can add those lists to the programmatic supply chain and so that we can start re-monetizing news. We are particularly concerned about local newspapers, because those are the ones that are suffering most from the demonetization.

The distribution has been hit in India. Would you suggest similar solutions for the Indian print market as well?

Yes. In fact, India is part of a part of those 22 countries. We've collated through WAN-IFRA, which is the worldwide association of newspapers, a list of reputable, safe newspapers from a journalistic integrity perspective. We're going to try and encourage marketers to shift some of the spending into those publications. It was a two phase thing. One of them was, raise awareness for the damage that's being done to news organizations. The second phase was, let's take action and give them a marketing plan which they can use to remonetise the news. We're hoping that we'll start getting money investment flowing back into newspapers.

Has policy shifts such as GDPR and CCPA given rise to healthier customer databases, with a better understanding of customers and their behaviour for brands?

That's an interesting and quite a difficult question to answer. I'll reply in two parts. One of them is - has it resulted in better quality databases for consumers. Then the second part of that question is, do we have a better sense of consumer behaviour as a result? It's almost a dichotomy. The more privacy controls that we place on data; the more difficult it is for us to get behavioural advertising that we did in the old way. So, for instance, the deprivation of cookies makes it harder for us to understand the consumer’s journey across the web and we are willing to look at other ways of doing that. The positive part is the industry is now treating consumer data with more responsibility and respect as a result of GDPR. We started doing this in 2018 with GDPR. A lot of that work has already been done by the time CCPA was coming through. CCPA is the California consumer privacy, which has been adopted fairly widely in the US, because there isn't federal legislation here yet, but probably will be. I think it's a good thing for consumers, because they were starting to mistrust the internet as a whole. They were lumping together things like data breaches and fraud, with advertising data collection. It's a complex area, and it was reducing trust in the web and it was reducing the ability for us to use that data in a responsible way. I think the good part of it is that it will manage the frequency. It will manage the data safety around overall digital advertising.

The second part of your question is, it is now and it will be in the future more difficult for us to measure that consumer’s journey across the web. It will also put more power into the hands of the people who own the data - that generally is the large data platforms and the large media publishers. We'll have to rely on data from them. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because as you know Google and Facebook are very large, sophisticated organizations that have built very powerful databases to understand consumer behaviour. But it means, we've got to get the data from them as first parties rather than measure it as third parties, which is for us, from a governance perspective more reliable. When somebody is offering you their data, I'm not casting aspersions or suspicions on anybody who's owned the data, but I would rather have it verified by my own research. But now it makes it more difficult, because third party advertising may be far more difficult in terms of consent and measurement than it has been in the past.

How long do you think will it take for brands and marketers to get closer to normalcy? AdEx in India has almost dropped by 70-75%? What would you suggest the marketers?

There are many smarter people than me who have added their voice to what should be happening next. I think that there are probably two things what we as marketers think is right, and then the second thing, what will actually happen? We know from a broad marketing perspective, that if consumers see marketers messaging and if it's the appropriate messaging, if it's sensitive messaging at this at this time and if they remain in the minds of consumers during this time, they'll come out of any form of recession stronger. Every time there's a recession, we see research shows that those advertisers that have remained in the consumers’ minds through advertising messaging have come out of it stronger. We saw a very rapid drop in advertising in April, at the end of Q1. In Q2, we're starting to see advertisers book advertising more than they were before. However, I'm sure you read it is official that the US has gone into recession. There are stories that when the US sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold. I think that's not going to be good news, economically, for the rest of the world. And so it's going to mean that there's less advertising revenue to spend.

But the reality is, I think most marketers would like to spend money and I think they understand that they should be spending money during times like this. I would imagine it would be more than a year where advertising revenues will be under pressure, because I think sales will be under pressure. All of the things that happen in the recession, reduce production, reduce demand, and higher joblessness will influence advertising revenue. I think there will be a new normal. What that will look like, I'm not sure. I think everybody's priorities have changed. Every person has changed. Pandemic has changed every person in the most fundamental ways. As marketers, and as people who studied behaviour, it's a very interesting time. But, we're also mindful of the pain that people are going through in this time.

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