TV Upfronts

Mark Thompson Lays Out the Facts of CNN's New Ad Strategy

The CNN CEO reveals branded verticals across platforms, taking sponsorship opportunities beyond politics

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There’s no shortage of opinion in today’s news media landscape. That’s why CNN head Mark Thompson is leaning into an ethos shared by vintage Dragnet detective Sgt. Joe Friday: “Just the facts, ma’am.”

“We see ourselves as a news network first, rather than opinion,” Thompson told ADWEEK ahead of taking the stage at Warner Bros. Discovery’s May 15 TV upfront week presentation, where he’ll share heretofore closely held details about CNN’s future.

“We’re talking about absolutely factual reporting, as well as context, depth and discussion,” continued Thompson, who previously transformed such venerable news institutions as The New York Times and the BBC. “People come to CNN for news rather than endless opinionated arguments—they come to us when they want to find out what’s happening.”

And that emphasis on factual reporting won’t be limited to what’s happening in America’s ever-volatile political realm.

“Our brand stands for news, but we want to define news pretty broadly,” Thompson emphasized. “Politics is important, but as far as we’re concerned, the weather is news. Health is news. Sports, entertainment and business are news. What we’re looking at doing is not just making sure that we’re covering all of those areas, but also packaging them and branding them across our linear and digital platforms.”

Vertical integration

To complement that broad view of news, CNN will launch new branded verticals in each of those aforementioned coverage areas that can seamlessly translate from medium to medium, be it the television network and or a podcast and a mobile application. Thompson points to CNN’s 5 Things franchise—which now encompasses a newsletter, a podcast and an on-demand streaming series on CNN Max—as an example of that kind of successful cross-platform execution.

“We are increasingly going to think of all of our platforms as expressions of the CNN brand and CNN values,” he explained. “When we have a proposition like 5 Things, you’ll see us trying to express that across all of those platforms in different ways and also trying to create these franchises around particular subject areas like business, sports, entertainment, climate and health.”

Naturally, these new branded verticals will also come with fresh sponsorship possibilities for advertisers that might otherwise be wary of having their ads potentially mix with CNN’s political coverage.

“Breaking news in politics is the backbone of CNN,” said Ryan Gould, WBD’s head of streaming, digital and advanced advertising sales and client partnerships. “But brands have a sensitivity around that kind of breaking news environment, and we do a really good job tapping into cultural moments and events beyond politics, whether that’s travel, lifestyle or sports.”

“The verticals offer advertisers opportunities to sponsor different media across a variety of media,” added Thompson. “There are going to be a broad range of different things to sponsor, many of which are going to be a long way from the sometimes quite divisive political topics that I know some advertisers worry about.”

No 30-second rule

Advertisers also don’t have to worry about sponsorship opportunities being limited to traditional 30-second ads. Thompson said CNN is eager to explore “long-running sponsorships” and “creative relationships” with equally eager brands for their various verticals. “The idea of finding an audience and building it from platform to platform is—for a certain kind of advertiser—a much deeper relationship than just placing 30-second spots,” he noted.

“I think that climate solutions and extreme weather will be a very interesting vertical, as well as health and wellness,” Thompson continued. “On our linear channel, we’ve already got a lot of specialty health advertising based around health coverage. And with [CNN chief medical correspondent] Dr. Sanjay Gupta, we’ve got one of the best-known and most-trusted faces in medicine in this country.”

But Thompson is quick to add that Gupta won’t be appearing on CNN sporting some kind of branded sweater anytime soon. “We’ve got to keep our editorial independence,” he emphasized. “The idea is to create opportunities and adjacencies that could mean a given advertiser could find the audience and the right content partner to get their message across.”  

CNN will introduce new branded verticals across its linear and digital platforms. CNN

Gould also has some ideas for the kind of sponsorship relationships that CNN is hoping to build. “We know that our audience immerses itself in travel content,” he observed. “So how do we really double down on travel in a way that not only inspires our audience to want to take bigger, bolder vacations, but, more important, helps them plan and potentially even purchase those kinds of trips?”

Other potential opportunities that Gould and the larger CNN team are exploring include co-productions, personalized advertising experiences and branded content environments similar to Courageous, CNN’s brand studio.

“We have to be thoughtful and careful because we don’t want to deceive the viewer that an advertisement is editorial content,” Gould said, echoing Thompson’s point about maintaining editorial independence. “While we want to make that experience seamless, we need to ensure that our audience knows they’re watching an ad.”

Forever young

Both CNN and advertisers alike have a vested interest in reaching younger viewers, whose news consumption habits are harder to pin down than their forebears. Thompson said that topics like pop culture, sports and climate change have a demonstrated track record of capturing Generation Z’s attention, especially when that news comes to them via CNN’s digital platforms.

“We have over 100 million Americans coming to us every month on our digital assets, and that scale means we get many millions of younger users,” he noted. “Bringing them back with regular franchises means that, over time, our ability to guarantee those audiences to advertisers is going to get stronger.”

But don’t expect CNN to start gamifying its way into Gen Z’s heart in the same way that Thompson’s former employers at The New York Times have. “We are not announcing any kind of puzzle or games vertical,” he said, chuckling. “That’s not our plan at the moment.”  

Thompson is pleased to report that his actual plans for CNN have been “positively received” at some of the pre-upfront sessions he’s had with advertisers. “I do think that many advertisers are looking for adjacencies of real substance,” he said. “And with media brands like CNN, there’s a tradition of trust, moderation and objectivity. Many brands are saying to us that they appreciate that.”