News UK, Telegraph and Guardian tie-up is a ‘stepping stone’ to higher standards across digital advertising

The Guardian, News UK and the Telegraph are looking to rival Facebook and Google with the launch of a joint ad platform that will allow advertisers to directly access and buy data and inventories.

Three of the UK’s biggest newspaper publishers have joined forces to create an advertising platform that has the potential to shake up the publishing status quo – and that could finally see them square up to the digital duopoly of Facebook and Google and reclaim revenue.

The Ozone Project – a collaboration between Guardian News & Media, The Telegraph and News UK – marks the first-time advertisers and agencies will have a single sales point to multiple independent titles.

Set to launch in the autumn, it will provide direct access to buy digital inventory and audience data for The Sun, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian in a “brand safe, fraud free, premium environment”.

It will also give access to 39.4 million unique users – more than Facebook’s claimed 32 million UK users – however, no data will be shared between the newspaper groups and each member of the project will continue to sell their own inventory against it.

If it works this time around (there have been a few failed attempts over the years) it will make it easier for advertisers to buy trusted ad inventory from premium publishers at scale, meaning publishers will be able to compete more effectively with Google and Facebook, which have been hoovering up increasing amounts of revenue.

In spite of ongoing concerns around brand safety, ad fraud and lack of transparency, Google and Facebook are expected to take more than 70% of all money spent on display advertising online in the UK by 2020.

They currently account for more than 60% of global online ad revenues, with Warc estimating 25% of ad spend went to the duopoly in 2017.

So teaming up clearly makes a lot of sense from a structural point of view. And deciding to leave out print this time around, as well as having less publishers involved from the start, should help Ozone avoid the same pitfalls as previous initiative Project Rio.

“With Project Rio, from a competition perspective, the newspaper market is a market definition and therefore the people round the table had 100% of the advertising market in that category. You can’t really put a deal together and set up a joint venture to co-sell,” explains Douglas McCabe, CEO and director of publishing and tech at Enders Analysis.

“A digital-only question is completely different because in a digital market newspapers are absolutely nowhere. Even in aggregate they have less than 4% of the digital advertising market place.”

It is also part of a much larger, philosophical debate over whether advertising should take more consideration of context, environment and quality content, rather than focusing on frequency of usage, time spent and clicks.

McCabe says the venture is significant because it now offers advertisers and agencies a quality environment, reach and great targeting all in one place.

“It’s not that Facebook can’t offer some of that but it’s a differentiated position because it’s equally easy to use and has comparable scale,” he says.

“The downside is that it doesn’t necessarily have the same amount of time being spent on it. The upside is that it’s a quality environment that brands want to be associated with. This is a stepping stone in a journey to try and reclaim advertising for quality content in digital.”

The challenge will be that the three publishers have very different audience strategies – the Guardian is free, for example, while The Times is behind a hard paywall and the Telegraph sits somewhere in the middle.

“There will be some friction there,” McCabe says. “But as long as they can negotiate that territory they should be able to develop a service that works very effectively for agencies and ultimately for advertisers.”

Celine Saturnino, chief commercial officer at independent media agency Total Media, says the focus will need to be on differentiation rather than direct competition.

“Google and Facebook combine reach and performance for most advertisers,” she says. “While a combined buying platform could signal a positive move towards a collaboration between publishers, asking if this will allow effective competition against the range of scale opportunities that exist within Google and Facebook is perhaps the wrong question.

“Publishers have far more in-depth understanding of their audiences and can often offer a better customer experience in terms of advertising than the opportunities available on Google and Facebook. If publishers really capitalise on both these factors, proving the effectiveness of better audience understanding and less interruptive ad formats, there is a real opportunity for growth.”

Saturnino says new products such as NewsIQ, for example, which allows advertisers to target people based on their emotions and attitudes, are a real point of difference and will certainly be attractive to advertisers seeking a more connected experience with their target audience.

Dino Myers-Lamptey, UK managing director at MullenLowe Mediahub, says Project Ozone is a welcome move that should ultimately lead to higher standards across digital advertising and make sure that high quality content and journalism can thrive.

“It will give advertisers a controlled environment, free from fake news and clickbait, as well as scaled first-party audience data,” he says. “Collaboration is the key to achieving true value in the digital advertising ecosystem. Publishers already have engaged and loyal audiences so I am hopeful that this time round, we are on the road to industry-wide improvement.”

Read all  of Marketing Week’s Cannes Lions 2018 coverage, sponsored by MiQ, here.