In the four and a half years that BuzzFeed’s chief revenue officer, Lee Brown, has worked with the company, he’s seen the publisher transform from a one-stop shop for listicles and quizzes to a massive media behemoth.
“I saw what Jonah Peretti was thinking when I first joined on: a modern media company that was kind of a challenge and didn’t necessarily have a playbook or a defined right answer,” he said. “It gave me a really good opportunity to grow and develop the team here and turn it into something that’s diverse, global and always evolving.”
And the site has certainly evolved. Thanks to a financial boost from NBC in late 2016, the past few years have seen BuzzFeed massively scale up its content and its ad-tech roster, to boot; in 2017, the once-vocal programmatic naysayers in the company had finally come to embrace the ease of scale that comes with automated advertising.
Brown talked with Adweek about the company’s shift into programmatic and how BuzzFeed seeks to make their ad tech “collaborate, rather than compete” with their native business.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Adweek: What was the BuzzFeed advertising playbook before you ramped up your programmatic offerings?
Lee Brown: We really had no display ads on our site until October of 2017. That forced us to do the hard stuff for the site’s first eight years; it forced us to get really, really good and become the industry leader in pioneering native advertising. It forced us to work on production models, to work with brands on how to tell stories. It forced us to figure out how to leverage data and how to leverage tech efficiently and effectively to bring great solutions to the marketplace without having to rely on—or cannibalize—our display business.
Why did you finally make the leap into programmatic? What did those first steps look like?
In 2017, the tech was better, the targeting was better, the formats were better than ever before—so Jonah [Peretti] and I sat down like, “Hey, we have the tech, the units and the engagement; it just makes sense to bring programmatic into our overall strategy.”
I have to admit that our programmatic offerings have really enabled us to open up the number of partners that we’re working with. In the past, when we were purely native content, some partners were like, “We’re not into content yet,” or had a point of view on how it should be laid out. Now that we’ve diversified our advertising suite, we can work with a far broader range of clients—both on the programmatic side and on the native side—that want to tap into the significant audience that we have on our own site and across our other handles.
Since then, we launched The BuzzFeed Exchange last year, which took us from working with one partner to working with nine supply-side platforms. We’re also pioneering our own native units that are engineered to have better engagement and better performance overall. The one unit that I’m really excited about is called Spotlight. It’s this massive, expansive unit that’s sticky and capable of being tied to side rail banners so they come down the page with you. There’s a lot of great elements in there that are definitely industry-leading.
It sounds like BuzzFeed is sort of a go-to for brand safety. What kind of moves are you making in that space?
A big difference between us and a lot of other publishers and networks is that we never aggregate anyone else’s content. Every single piece of content that we distribute our ads alongside and that’s published on our site is made in-house. All of our site’s community posts are also moderated before going up.
We also work closely with marketers in getting an understanding on their definition of brand safety, rather than assuming that it’s one-flat standard. Brand safety is kind of an industry buzzword right now, but really understanding the kind of safety a brand is looking for—is it family safe, is it children safe, etc.—is an important conversation that we have with all of our marketers, since some of them have a wider tolerance for what’s safe and what’s not. One of the biggest points that we stress is that our marketers are put in the right environment with the right tone and the right audience.
We’re actually working to create our own brand safety solution that we’re really excited about, called Brain. It was built in-house to be a comprehensive solution that also incorporates text, image and GIF detection, using IBM’s Watson to scrape text, Clarifai to understand and classify images and BuzzFeed’s own metadata. These different systems work together to assign a safety score to each post, and that score determines if the content is brand safe for both programmatic and native advertising. We’re still in the testing phase of Brain, but are looking to fully launch in the early fall.
How would you sum up BuzzFeed’s programmatic strategy overall?
When we were looking to build our programmatic business, we wanted something that would complement our native business, not compete with it. We wanted to make sure that when we bolt on diversified strategies, they all work together seamlessly and actually improve and enhance the advertiser’s experience rather than forcing marketers to make some sort of choice about what audience they’re reaching.
It’s in our DNA here at BuzzFeed. We wanted to make sure that the high-quality content that we’re making on the news side and the entertainment side and across our own major brands—like Tasty, As/Is and Bring Me—is available to everyone and that it’s not hidden behind a paywall or some sort of subscription.