Lifestyle blog network and ad rep firm operator Evolve Media is working on what executives say is a balanced approach to digital sales, albeit one that will continue to tilt more toward direct selling over programmatic methods for at least the next few years.
Unlike other digital publishing and ad services rivals, such as Federated Media, Evolve Media is ramping up direct selling teams for its women’s vertical TotallyHer by hiring former Glam Media exec Rachel Wintner as VP of sales, along with three others. Evolve's co-founders, CEO Aaron Broder and President Brian Fitzgerald, say direct sales isn’t dead. They believe as more money comes into online marketing, the effects will be as follows: (a) Programmatic will not scale with the same historical returns; b) Clients will become more concerned about the transparency and quality (brand safety) of the environments they advertise in; and (c) Advertisers are better off looking toward native and contextual ads to drive higher revenues.
"We believe direct sales will continue to be the life blood for premium publishers, with an acknowledgement that publishers need to get smarter about unsold and using programmatic as a way to drive additional, needed revenue," Broder told AdExchanger. "It isn’t either/or, but both."
A few months ago, Federated Media, which along with Evolve was one of the early blog networks looking to promote traditional ad sales organized around singular subjects like technology or women's fashion, caused a stir when it laid off 10% of its total workforce and mostly dismantled its direct sales team in favor of a shift toward automation of the sales process through its Lijit ad tech property.
At the time, CEO Deanna Brown -- who has since stepped down from her post and left the company, handing the daily leadership reins back to founder John Battelle -- hastened to say that FM would not completely scuttle direct sales personnel and methods. But she did say FM's direct sales business was not economically viable anymore due to "softness in this churn and burn, standard, RFP-driven, direct media business" environment.
Still, Evolve, rival blog network Say Media, men's lifestyle media company Complex Media, and The Verge-parent Vox Media have all said in one way or another that they believe the secret to their growth lies in more traditional concentration on guaranteed sales, while downplaying any bias toward the wider industry trend toward greater sales automation.
Besides, Broder and Fitzgerald say, there's more money in direct right now than in automated sales and real-time bidding.
"We are firm believers that clients want to advertise in high-quality, well-lit environments," Fitzgerald said. "Clients want to be able to partner with publishers to create custom, more integrated (nay 'Native') marketing programs with publishers that have the editorial know-how and the right audience. That said, we are not blind to the fact that advertisers, especially at the behest of agencies, are moving an increasing percentage of dollars into programmatic channels and buying audiences. In response we are getting smarter about how we manage unsold inventory, through private marketplaces, to take advantage of that opportunity. However, it will always take a back seat to our direct sales efforts."
Asked point blank: Do programmatic methods hurt direct sales? Fitzgerald would only say it depends.
"For premium publishers, there is still a direct sales element to effectively selling inventory through programmatic channels. You still need to package the inventory and get trading desks to understand that it is more valuable than your run-of-the-mill exchange inventory. Brands are concerned with the quality of the inventory they buy in exchanges, and are willing to pay more for more premium inventory managed through programmatic channels. It’s a delicate dance."
Broder added: "Through certain exchange platforms, you can gain tremendous insight into which advertisers are buying inventory across which categories of sites and at what effective CPMs. This can help educate direct sales teams on where there is demand in the market for certain audiences and help direct or guide their direct sales efforts."
That philosophy was echoed by TotallyHer's Wintner, who joined Glam in 2009 from Condé Nast, where she was associate publisher of Style.com.
"I came to TotallyHer because they have great owned and operated content properties and are making massive strides with back-end technologies that will help us inform agencies and clients in innovative and relevant ways," she said. "Programmatic buying is understandably an efficient way to handle reach but it doesn’t have the ability to offer our clients the deeper connection with their customers that an innovative and integrated advertising program can – marketing should still be emotive and experiential and that is what we are bringing to our brands and agencies at Evolve."