The New York Times Reinvents the Boring Banner Ad

Just don't call it 'native'

Only a handful of people in the news department have regular contact with the ad side, in fact. One such person is Steve Duenes, the editor who oversees the Times’ graphics operation. Duenes and Tracy Quitasol, executive director of the Idea Lab, meet about once a month to discuss how the videos, data-visualization techniques and templates his department creates might apply to ad units.

“We’re not collaborating directly to make ads,” Duenes says. “It’s more, where there used to be no communication, there is some communication. The editorial side is not directing how this stuff should be used by the ad side, and the ad is coming to us once the sausage has been made on the editorial side. It’s kind of a creative brainstorming, a survey of what we think the best interactive design ideas have been.”

Duenes’ people might give the Idea Lab a brief description of the technology, but no code ever trades hands—the Lab’s own developers create the ad prototypes from scratch. Duenes typically doesn’t even know whether it’s one of his graphics that has inspired an ad, and when he does, the context of the ad so differs from its edit source he often doesn’t make the connection. “I’ve never had a conversation with the graphics department where it was like, ‘That looks familiar,’” he says.

It is beyond obvious to state that these are precarious times for newspapers, including the Times. In the first quarter, print advertising at the paper’s parent company dropped another 13.3 percent year over year. Digital advertising, which now makes up one-quarter of the Times’ business, was off by 4 percent.

But as we continue to embrace mobile technology, the sort of innovation coming out of the Idea Lab dovetails perfectly with consumer and tech trends, according to Outsell analyst Ken Doctor. “It’s a way for marketers to better tell their story after the awfulness of banner ads,” as Doctor puts it. “Most ads don’t know how to engage, and who does engage better than top-drawer publishers?”

The question remains whether the Times can sell enough of these innovative ad units to bolster its slack ad business.

Quitasol wouldn’t divulge the pricing for Idea Lab-generated units, nor would she say how much revenue they bring in. (Sponsored content tends to command rates three times greater than banner ads, according to Doctor.) Instead, she touts the blue-chip advertisers that have embraced them (among them, General Electric and Jeep) and points to a number of repeat customers (including Target, Prudential and Thomson Reuters) as evidence of their value. “These types of programs grow revenue,” Quitasol says. “This is a shiny spot that actually uses this stuff that’s at our fingertips. I don’t think there’s any question of commitment. It’s necessity. We have to continue to innovate.”

Adds Haskell: “There are tremendous pressures on the digital marketplace. The best thing we can do is create unique campaigns that bypass that monetization pressure. You are not going to be able to do this on an automated buying platform.”

One of the knocks against native advertising remains their cost and lack of scalability. And the Idea Lab is a major investment for the Times. The units it creates aren’t cheap to produce, and many are one-offs. That’s why the paper is looking for ways to “recycle” them, still enabling it to sell a unit to an advertiser as never-been-done-before.

For that matter, advertisers are being forced to think practically, too. Take Prudential, which considers its buy an unqualified success. Some 100,000 people interacted with the ad, spending an average of almost a minute, while it went on to find a second life via Twitter.

“People enjoy history—they really enjoyed the fact that it was a really simple little time capsule,” says the brand’s ad chief McConnell. With results like that, one might think running it again would be a no-brainer. But no, says McConnell. “We don’t want to repeat ourselves,” he says. “But in the ideal world, you want to optimize.”

One would presume that as advertisers keep looking for new tactics to break through the clutter and as publishers continue to chase advertisers and consumers with their own cool, innovative ideas, demand for units like these will only grow. But as brands search for new ways of telling their stories, what many must admit is that they lack the expertise in content creation that is the specialty of the editorial side. That’s why people like VivaKi’s Buczaczer would like to see still closer cooperation with the Times, proposing that clients might get access to editorial content like film reviews, for example, or recipes.

As brands and agencies push for cozier partnerships with publishers, the Times will be forced to decide just how open it is to experimentation.

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