AOL’s Norton: Digital publishers need to balance ‘culture and code’ (Q&A)

This week AD-Vantage caught up with AOL’s head of global sales, Jim Norton, to talk about how global brands are reacting to the company’s integrated approach to owned digital media and media buying technology.

AOL recently released a survey of U.S. marketers, which found that more than 90% of them are using programmatic in some capacity. But does that mean marketers are getting comfortable buying media from machines, instead of people? Or do publisher relationships still matter? Norton shares his take.

What are media buyers’ big asks right now in digital? What are brands most interested in seeing happen in the space?

At the end of the day, brands trade on trust. The number one thing that they have to be focused on is, do consumers trust their brands? Do they trust the quality of the product, do they trust the manufacturing, do they trust the messaging? We [as a publisher and technology provider] need to reciprocate, by being a trusted partner — brands rely on us the way their consumers rely on them. That can’t be replaced with a machine by itself; there still needs to be a human element.

Do you find that media buyers are still really focused on trust and relationships?

Oh yeah, more so than ever, actually. With each new point solution that emerges in the marketplace, you introduce a whole new set of questions that agencies and advertisers just don’t have the capacity to understand fully. The phrase that I use is ‘complexity is the common enemy for everybody.’ As a partner, the better we can streamline the complexity, the better position that we are to be of service.

Speaking of trust — a little while ago now, ad tech split into demand-side and supply-side layers, largely because buyers were worried about conflicts of interest. Have you ever talked to buyers who are concerned that AOL both owns the media it sells and the technology to access it?

No… In fact, I think it’s the opposite. I think advertisers and agencies on the demand-side are more comfortable when we on the supply-side have a higher proportion of our own inventory in the mix, and more importantly, when we have direct publisher relationships. That’s become a declining focus, when so much inventory now is put up on an exchange to bid on. A direct publisher relationship typically means you’re getting access to higher-quality inventory from higher-quality publishers. That’s trusted inventory, because there’s actually a person there that’s managing the direct relationship.

If anything, I would predict somewhat of a retreat back to that direct publisher relationship, and non-reserved inventory that is controllable.

It seems like things are moving in one direction towards programmatic and automation, and in the other direction towards native and branded content. Do you see brands becoming more interested in custom sponsorships?

Every brand is different, and every campaign has different goals. But for anybody looking to drive awareness and engagement, you’ve got to have an element of custom. I think that it’s still about storytelling and differentiation.

With programmatic, everybody’s still in test-and-learn, and there are varying degrees of programmatic commitments that people have made. I think it’s undeniable that transactional media will continue to move programmatically. If you’re buying standard media, you’re more likely to buy it programmatically than you are to do it directly.

But the advantage of that is, when we can take the transactional effort out of the process, there’s this liberation of human capacity. Where once we would have teams of people reconciling campaigns on spreadsheets, that’s all done programmatically today. We can now take those people and point them towards brands, to help them with strategy and storytelling.

I’ve seen a philosophy developing in the tech sector, that the relationship between the consumer and the brand can be imitated by a machine, using consumer data. I wonder how true that is.

Right, yeah. It’s a balance; you need to have both. You’ve got to have high-touch relationships, trusted relationships, but that also needs to be backed up with data and analytics and insights, that can only be derived from machine-based learning. The challenge is not becoming too weighted on one side.

We call it the ‘intersection of culture and code.’ Culture is the human part, which represents custom, high-touch storytelling, and then code is the machine part, which represents automation, technology, data, insights, analytics, algorithms. For us, the culture part manifests itself in people — as you know, AOL Canada is one of the best places to work in the country. And on the code side, we’ve got industry-leading and technology with things like AdLearn Open Platform and Adap.tv. Bringing those two together, that’s a powerful combination.

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