The Washington Post Is Marketing Itself to Brands as a Testing Ground for Video Ads

From Snapchat to Facebook autoplay

One year ago, the Washington Post decided it was done working with third-party ad-tech partners and instead started building its own slick tools and ad formats to tackle industry problems like speed, fraud and viewability.

So, it started an internal group called Research, Experimentation and Development (or RED) that now includes a team of 10 to 15 engineers and product employees who are laser-focused on making ads faster and better for both marketers and other publishers like Toronto's The Globe and Mail who license The Washington Post's ad technology.

"I said let's invest in a team of engineers that just focuses on the commercial side of the business—nobody is saying, 'Why don't we have our own ad builder or build our own video product,'" said Jarrod Dicker, head of ad product and technology at The Washington Post.

"Let's figure out and identify trends in the space like speed and identify issues like ad blocking, fraud and viewability and build technologies that solve these that don't just benefit The Washington Post but can then be white-labeled and sold throughout the industry."

In the past year, The Washington Post has reduced its mobile ad loads by 75 percent with new fast-loading ads and has also built its own content-recommendation tool called PostPulse. Now it's putting its focus on video with a new version of an ad format that crunches big video files into fast-loading clips that change size and shape based on what the advertiser wants—essentially letting marketers experiment with formats like autoplay for Facebook and vertical-oriented ads for Snapchat before investing heavily in the platforms themselves.

The new ad format—dubbed FlexPlay 2.0—includes faster load times, higher video resolutions, compressed file sizes and supports closed captioning and longer videos up to 30 seconds long. Forty brands including Lincoln, Giant Foods and Morgan Stanley have run FlexPlay campaigns this year, with completion rates reaching more than 50 percent.

Dicker said the ad was designed to help brands take existing TV content and test which formats work best for digital.

"A lot of brands and agencies, when they're creating these video assets, they're building them for television and they want to repurpose them on the web," he said. "If they deliver it across the web, they'll get larger reach for a less amount of money—however they're not performing."

Here's how it works: When setting up a campaign, advertisers first pick the shape and size of the video ad—either horizontal or vertical—and can also make their own custom-aspect ratios. The Washington Post's content then automatically fits around the size of the video ad. Advertisers can also add closed captioning to their clips, as well as text overlays and social buttons. Experimenting with sound is also a major push and brands have the option to run campaigns as either autoplay or with a button that consumers have to click to play.

By bundling all of those options in one place, Dicker said brands will be able to test which social video formats work without having to go all-in on a platform. For example, an advertiser may want to "create a Tasty video without having to recreate everything," he said. Or, brands may want to run vertical video ads on The Washington Post that they can then use for Snapchat ads.

"We're basically saying, 'You no longer need to work with just third parties and pay premiums and not be able to own your technology in order to step into the space—you could actually leverage the technology built by a publisher on your own platforms for your own behalf," Dicker said.

"My argument is if we can start building technologies and no longer rely on partners to solve our problems, then clients are going to want to work with The Washington Post because we're now a technology company."