Media Buyers Don’t Know Jack About Jill

The people who buy print ads are cool, at best, about Abramson’s ascent at the Times

Jill Abramson’s appointment as executive editor of The New York Times last week had journalistic circles in a tizzy. Media obsessives pondered the import of the paper naming its first woman editor, dug in to her views on the paper’s digital future, and debated the question of why her predecessor Bill Keller decided to step down and become a full-time writer.

But in the ad-buying community, where the Times’ future will ultimately be decided, the news caused barely a ripple.

“It’s not going to have any tactical, transactional effect,” says Peter Gardiner, chief media officer at Deutsch. “If she makes the product more engaging, then we care,” says Scott Daly, executive media director at Dentsu America. “Other than that, I don’t.”

There are a few reasons the change of the guard at the iconic newspaper seems likely to have little immediate impact, at least from an advertiser standpoint. Unlike many other publications, the Times is bigger than any one editor, and no one expects Abramson to significantly change the nature of the product. “I would be a lot more worried if Condé Nast replaced Anna Wintour,” says Barry Lowenthal, president of The Media Kitchen.

The Times is now aggressively involved in trying to find ways to make up for declining print advertising revenues and the lower rates it gets for its online audience. Its paywall plan, which launched in early April, is expressly designed to help the Times survive in a world of falling advertiser interest.

And yet there is no scenario in which the Times can prosper without reigniting the interest of advertisers in it—as it did, for instance, in the 1980s when it launched its multiple special sections.

Curiously, while the Times has increased its reach—it attracts nearly 45 million people to its website every month—and, arguably, its influence, its rank on media buyers’ lists of places to spend their clients’ money continues to decline.

That’s because there is, at least, the perception of an ever-expanding menu of places to reach high-end consumers and influencers. “If you’re going after that opinion leader, there are other ways of reaching people, whether it’s the Huffington Post or the Journal,” says Dentsu America’s Daly.

What’s more, the Times, which once benefited from its air of judiciousness and impartiality, is now grouped with almost every other news outlet—considered biased and, hence, risky ground for many national brand advertisers.

Abramson steps into a role which has traditionally been far removed from the paper’s sales side. Indeed, Abramson’s first responsibility is to uphold the Times’ standards—or face a fierce newsroom mutiny. But there is almost no way she can avoid dealing with the issues, incentives, and novel ideas that might make media buyers again pay attention to her paper.

“The Times needs to be digitally innovative, specifically in the area of social media,” Lowenthal says. “They have great data visualization, story sharing. Let’s see them make the paper even more social.”