AdExchanger | The Sell Sider

"The Sell Sider” is a column written for the sell side of the digital media community. 

After this exclusive first look for subscribers, the story by AdExchanger’s Allison Schiff will be published in full on AdExchanger.com on Wednesday.

Lee Fentress wasn’t always sold on programmatic. But he’s changed his tune since joining the Los Angeles Times as VP of ad sales a little more than three months ago.

“I came in pretty skeptical of programmatic, really wanting to do less programmatic and more direct sales,” Fentress said. “That’s all fine and good until you go out to the marketplace and hear about what’s happening on the buy side.”

The (for now) Tronc-owned LA Times is developing its programmatic strategy, although details are up in the air because of the paper’s impending sale. In February, Tronc agreed to sell the LA Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune to California billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong for $500 million.

For now, the programmatic team operates from Tronc’s headquarters in Chicago, although that will likely change after the transaction is completed.

“Programmatic is something we need to get serious about when it comes to mapping out our future,” Fentress said. “Programmatic is going to be a big part of the LA Times.”

AdExchanger caught up with Fentress to talk programmatic plans, podcasts and why social platforms aren’t the enemy.

AdExchanger: How would you describe the LA Times’ programmatic strategy?

LEE FENTRESS: Our goal with programmatic is to serve advertisers looking to speak to Southern California and LA and our valuable audience, which they can do both by buying direct and surfacing programmatically across categories.

But, at the same time, we need to create solutions for our advertisers so they can have ownership and share of voice, as well as native and branded entertainment opportunities. It’s also our job to create options outside of programmatic and serve our advertisers in a variety of ways.

We’re constantly trying to find the right balance between programmatic and direct selling. We serve clients on the local level and the national level both ways.

What type of advertisers gravitate to the LA Times?

We’ve got a stable of national advertisers, whether that be in travel, education or entertainment, which is really in our backyard, looking to get local and speak to a Southern California and Los Angeles community. We also have a large stable of local advertisers that have been with the Times for upward of 30 to 40 years in some cases.

Advertisers are increasingly sensitive to appearing adjacent to news or politics content. Has that reticence impacted your ability to monetize?

It’s a really good time to be in this business. The importance of our free press and trusted news sources is greater than ever, and most brands do see that an alignment with a trusted news source can only help then.

What’s your revenue mix, and have subscriptions started to play a larger role?

It’s about monetization diversity, from subscriptions to advertising revenue, both in the paper and online. But it’s also about having different formats and a healthy mix of experiential and events in the community.

But what’s really interesting right now is audio. We’ll likely invest in further audio opportunities for our advertisers or clients through podcasts and beyond.

The “Dirty John” podcast was huge for the LA Times. Will we see more like that? 

“Dirty John” is a terrific example of exploring different formats. It surfaced as a story and a series in the newspaper, which was then created into a podcast. Last fall it was the No. 1 podcast in the world and had over 16 million downloads. It was even optioned by Bravo to be made into a TV series.

We were able to move a nonfiction story upstream from print all the way to television, and it was a major opportunity for advertisers.

What’s something publishers should be thinking about right now from a monetization perspective that they don’t seem to be doing?

Getting back to basics. Sitting down with clients and performing a perfunctory needs assessment. That’s part of the beauty of being at a media organization like the LA Times. We’ve got clients from the local auto dealer or the local audio and video center all the way up to major entertainment studios. Sitting down and actually listening to what their objectives are is key to helping us deliver solutions.

And what are you hearing from advertisers when you sit down with them?

What I’d like to see us do, and what I’m hearing from a lot of advertisers they’d like to see, is for us to be a little more format agnostic, in terms of solutions. We’ve got a variety of solutions, whether that’s digital display advertising, audio via podcasting, events – we have over 80 events yearly in the LA community – video or the newspaper itself. The goal is to be even more agnostic in order to meet the advertiser’s needs.

Speaking of formats, has the Chrome ad blocker had any impact on revenue?

It’s forced a lot of publishers, us included, to take a look in the mirror and audit the number of ads we had and the manner in which our ads interact with users. It’s had some revenue impact, I’m sure, but this is a good thing for the industry overall. We just want to ensure we’re giving our readers the best user experience possible.

What about Facebook and the unfolding Cambridge Analytica scandal – does it change how you interact with Facebook as a partner?

You know, I don’t think it does. A lot of that is up to the consumer. Over the last couple of months, consumers have begun to realize how much data they’re sharing. It’s been eye-opening, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad time for us or any publisher to be working with the various social platforms.

What about Facebook’s algorithm change, did that impact traffic?

The algorithm change didn’t have a huge impact on publishers like us, on the tier-one group of publishers. We have many ways that we distribute.

The social platforms: friend or foe?

They’re an ongoing and big part of what we do. As we look to extend our reach beyond our own and operated, social is a first stop for us. Crafting a good Facebook/Twitter, Snapchat/LinkedIn strategy – it’s just key to our future.

Follow Allison Schiff (@OSchiffey) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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