The original Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857 and staffed by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Not the least auspicious beginnings. Today, the publication lives in print, in live events and online, living up to its mission to produce great journalism that can change the world. This week, I interviewed M. Scott Havens, The Atlantic’s president for the last seven months. And you thought your job was demanding.
The Atlantic is most certainly reaching more readers than ever, posting a recording-setting April during which unique visitors to its digital platforms -- TheAtlantic.com, TheAtlanticWire.com, and TheAtlanticCities.com -- have grown from a “few” million per month in 2009 to more than 26 million. It was an interesting discussion, partly because The Atlantic has been one of only a few “legacy print brands” that have been able to achieve growth in its digital advertising revenue over the last few years, with digital far outpacing print these days. It was also interesting, in terms of this column, because The Atlantic hasn’t achieved this growth by selling its inventory programmatically across any of its properties.
Historically, The Atlantic has relied on direct sales channels to sell media, opting out of all exchanges and networks, but standard banners and buttons are no longer the bread and butter of The Atlantic’s advertising revenue. The Atlantic has notably become one of the pioneers of the native advertising movement. As Scott explains, “A few years ago, we pivoted towards the creation of a bespoke, thought-leadership content solutions platform with premium brands. Today we work closely with clients to create engaging and thoughtful content, which we integrate natively, but clearly across our media platform -- our content river, homepage, channel pages and mobile sites -- so our readership can see them in a site-consistent way.”
“We're entering a new world where even the rules we had three or four years ago regarding advertising have dramatically changed, again. The display advertising market, in our view, is essentially bifurcated into the high-end direct-selling of custom solutions on the one hand and the increasingly more efficient large-scale buys that run through programmatic exchanges and networks on the other,” Scott observes quite accurately. The goal of premium programmatic advertising is to bridge that gap and create a means for top-tier publications like The Atlantic and others to sell their premium inventory at scale. Clearly, it’s not going to happen overnight.
“We, at The Atlantic, believe in the power of display advertising and its ability to create brand lift and successfully get a message across to readers. We're not in the camp that believes everyone should move aggressively into ‘native’ solutions exclusively,” he professes. “Our position is that there's a place for both, and in fact, we think there's a terrific opportunity with some of the new, bigger units to have a tremendous impact for brands. Mixing both types of advertising together can also have a lot of power and we do that all the time. In fact, as we're redesigning our sites and mobile platforms, we're trying to work in the flexibility to accommodate those more impactful units.” That will be the key to opening up more premium inventory, one of the main obstacles to more widespread brand advertising online, according to Peter Minnium of the IAB. If we can encourage top publishers to offset their custom offerings with premium programmatic, we’ll start seeing more brand dollars flow into display.
“At the end of the day, we believe that native and display advertising can work well together and it is important to accommodate both in today’s disruptive publishing landscape,” he adds, “and, furthermore, we do not see any signs of an imminent death of display advertising.”
I don’t see the death of display advertising coming anytime soon, either. I’m glad the great minds of The Atlantic concur. How Scott and his team monetize that additional inventory remains to be seen, but for now, it looks as if it’s likely to stay focused on the direct sales channel.
Hopefully, as they’ve pioneered native, they’ll also be among the earliest adopters of premium programmatic.