Publift CEO, Colm Dolan shares his advice for publishers about riding the highs and lows of online publishing in this chat with IAB Australia CEO, Gai Le Roy and James Prier, General Manager of local surf publisher Beach Grit.
Gai: Welcome to the IAB Australia podcast my name is Gai Le Roy. I’m the CEO of the IAB in Australia and this is our last Christmas podcast with the year. I’ve got two guests with me today and hopefully we’ll have a bit of fun.
I’ve got Colm Dolan, the owner and founder of Publift and James Prier who is a founder and owner and General Manager of Beach Grit, which is a small publication which we will talk about … maybe not so small … for the surf community.
Gai: Now we’ll just get to know you guys a little bit better first. So Colm you’ve been a friend of the IAB for a few years now. You started your own business, but your background is at Google and Telstra is that right?
Colm: Yep that’s correct, I started the business 5 years ago now and before that I started originally in Dublin, working at Google in 2007 … it’s coming up almost 13 years now. I suppose I moved over here in search of the sun after spending many a summer in Ireland in constant drizzle.
So I came over here and found a great way life, worked for Telstra for a while and then worked for a start-up which didn’t really work out but always in the back of my mind, I had an idea of helping publishers – helping small publishers navigate their way through the tech landscape so I started a business, Publift. I started out on my own about 5 years ago and it’s developed into what it is today, which is a tech platform and helping small publishers and larger publishers like James and Beachgrit.
Gai: So why the interest in small publishers? Is it that you’re a media consumer? What was the challenge that you wanted to tackle?
Colm: I think, having had a discussion with James this morning as well, I think the biggest thing I really liked about it is, and small businesses in general, is that they are changing the landscape, and if you think about it, the reason why people start businesses is that that there’s a problem or they’re annoyed about something they’re really passionate about. I love dealing with passionate people who want to be efficient or want to make something better than it is today, I think that’s why I love it … anyway today we’ve got I think 120 publishers now we work with, and it’s always really great talking to them or having an interaction with them because I learn so much about how I can make the business better or just about a specific industry.
Gai: Fantastic, and James tell us about you – where’s your desire for publishing come from?
James: I guess it’s interesting, coming into this world because of the different facets of the business. I was saying to the Publift guys when I was in there, that generally my day-to-day is dealing with content; creating content, creating films, creating advertising projects and then this part of the world is something we sort of meet with once a month, we have it there because of the programmatic side and then we circle back to once a month and delve into it. And I think what’s so interesting about this part of the world is how, from my perspective, it has changed the media landscape in terms of the people who have stakes in the business. It’s particularly changed in the surf industry in the way it has allowed us to become an independent voice. Whereas traditionally in the media space you were supported by the people you were writing about so there was a general conflict of interest. Whereas the programmatic side allows us to have a revenue [stream] that is not supported by the people we’re writing about.
Gai: It separates some of the branded content.
James: Yes that’s right. And I think that’s been pretty much related to our success and our growth as a company.
Gai: You think the audience appreciates that delineation?
James: Yes absolutely, because you can be honest. You can be critical without having a conflict of interest. It’s been a very interesting way that it’s changed the world. We were talking about it before, you know we’ve come from starting a couple of years ago, 5 years ago, we started, and now we’ve just become the largest publication in the surfing world and I think it’s directly come from, to be honest, from being transparent.
Gai: And is your background in the surf industry?
James: Well I’ve surfed since I was a teenager.
James: I guess that’s the pre-qualification for most people in the surf industry – is the fact that they surf. I’ve bounced around between various different roles and startups since I was 18. And so I worked in entertainment and I’ve worked for big company entertainment, William Morris Endeavour which is now Endeavour, which has an office in Martin Place. I was there when they bought Drager 5 the advertising agency and I’ve also worked in travel as well, and so I’ve been in corporate travel and worked in small business, just bouncing around between different businesses – the story of my 20s. I always enjoyed working at small startups as well, because you can be passionate and really care about it.
Gai: And is it a team of people that have started Beach Grit?
James: Three people – there was Derek and Chaz who started it and then I came into the business about 2 years after it started, and we now have 12 staff around the world – but like Colm said, we were talking a lot about efficiency today, and you know, we’ve got 12 staff but we work basically on a contract basis, with everyone so we have no fixed costs. So traditionally in media, you have huge fixed costs whereas the way we’ve done it is we started as an internet company, so we can come in and basically shut the walls down and vary our costs where the revenue goes as well, and you wouldn’t be able to do that in the old world.
Gai: And Colm, you’ve been running Publift for 5 years, did you say, how has the publishing / programmatic world changed or improved over that time?
Colm: Yeah I think the publishing world is so different really – in the last 5 years especially.
I think it’s as James alluded to there, like traditional publishers are the ones that are really suffering at the moment, and it’s been a constant decline for the last couple of years. I think it’s well noted, big companies in the U.S. like BuzzFeed, mic.com … all these guys got a lot of funding maybe 5 years ago, and the new venture capital funding that was going on over in the US, and they have all laid off staff, they’re not going very well at all.
We’ve seen similar things in Australia, with the breakup of the top 5 publishing companies here that have navigated through having a big list of sales teams selling direct campaigns. It’s just a very tough environment to be in, especially when the content consumption is all going to streaming devices. You know, it’s going to Netflix, it’s going to Disney, it’s going to Kayo Sports, Optus – all these kinds of guys, so I think if you transform from being a magazine to being an online publisher and have a traditional mindset, it’s a very difficult thing to get out of, that’s why it’s really interesting to work with publishers like James who really came in online.
"My advice, always, to publishers has been to cut costs, streamline and scale and try to get more traffic, especially in the US market which is what Beachgrit has done. It’s really, really good and that’s what a lot of our role is, from an independent company really like ourselves. It’s well noted that we work with a lot of different partners, and all we care about is giving the most money possible to the publisher and that’s the ecosystem we’re trying to [create]."
But also I think it’s very, very important for the publishers as well, that historically, as James kinda said, maybe publishers have to align with a certain content that makes them advertising dollars for whatever agreements, but that has been thrown out of the water now with programmatic.
Because if I’m an advertiser I’m just looking for efficiency, whether it’s branded whether t’s return on investment whether it’s CPC campaigns, I’m just looking for the best ROI and the best ROI is probably through programmatic channels and even through open auction-based channels, not wasting time with setting up a lot of programmatic deals which can again be so manual.
Gai: So you’re looking after the small publisher’s programmatic businesses – do you help them also I guess with – because you have a myriad of different types sites you’re working with – design, making sure they’ve got the right formats that work for the market at the moment?
Colm: Yep 100%.
"I think what we look to do is always try to stay on top of ad technology and what is working out there, what’s providing the most impact – we’re always trying to see what works best."
Is it the latest kind of scrolling ad on mobile that provides a good user experience, provides a great opportunity for advertisers to connect to those users that they want? So that’s constantly it, and it’s also stuff that we do in terms of looking at analytics data of a publisher to see if they have high engagement rates. If they have high engagement rates that’s great. If they have low bounce rates and high engagement rates – can we use an ad unit refresh? If there’s a long time spent on-page, it’s doing a lot of analysis on all that.
If certain traffic is coming from the U.S. we have to keep on top of it, they might have different partner’s over there – if a lot of their traffic is coming from different browsers, if it’s highly iPhone Safari based that could be a red flag because of the recent changes that we’ve had to cookies, you know all of these kinds of things are constantly the kind of stuff we want to put forward to a publisher because if our publishers are making more money we’re making more money and the advertisers – it all comes back to the advertisers – that they’re getting a good bang for the buck as well. That’s the most important thing because that’ll make sure that the dollars are continuing to go back into the ecosystem and to that particular website.
Gai: And James, I was having a look around your site and I must say I’m not a surfer though I know the surf community quite well, but you seem to have a range of revenue models on the site. The thing that did amaze me, I guess, is the number of high-end partners that you have so the amount of money in that must be in that community … you’ve got lists for accommodation and compared to little bungalows that I would have stayed in, in Indonesia 20 or 30 years ago … so you’ve got revenue coming in from programmatic and then a bit of commerce?
James: Yes we do – I was talking to the guys about how I structure it in my head and even though we don’t have an app, I look at it like an app with the tabs down the bottom, so you know, so you see what the public sees every day, which is the front-facing side of Beachgrit which is the daily news cycle, which is where the programmatic really comes in to play and that’s the revenue that supports that. So that’s the first piece of the revenue pie. Then we’ve just launched our commerce site like you mentioned which is the second piece of the pie that we’re looking at growing as well at the moment. We’ve also got another major part of our business which is the creative house, where we actually create. We act as a creative house, where we create content for campaigns and we, in some cases, we just create that and in other cases, we have the full vertical production. We make the campaign we execute it, we place it and do that which is that side of the business, and then on the other side, which is the fun part, is the film production where we make surf films, so that part of the business is fun.
Gai: That’s fantastic … and have you got someone focusing on audience growth or has it happened organically?
James: It’s mostly happened organically – and we – it’s interesting, where it’s a surf website but the golden egg in surfing and for the past 5 – 10 years at least since the internet has taken hold, is how to reach this person who doesn’t surf, the Middle America, the guy from Minnesota who lives in a shack who constantly admires the ocean but doesn’t surf. How do you reach him? And everyone from the world surf league, to our competitors, have always tried to go to that. They have focus groups set up, and they and they tried to tailor it to what it is. Is it health? Is it yoga? Is it what’s going on with the ocean? Is it the care about the environment? What is it? And we’ve sort of flown in the face of that. We said we’re just going to create what we think is cool and what we enjoy, and what we think is core surf, as we call it, which I almost shudder at saying that because it’s … ah … we just said we know surf, and this is what surfers do. We think surfers who were trying to do what they’re trying to do, and what they believe surfing is, is almost counterproductive to what actual surfers want. So we’re just going to give them what surfers want. We’re just going to make it fun. We’re gonna make it funny, it’s sort of counterculture is what it is – we just held that line. And it’s interesting that we’ve captured the market of people who don’t surf, but who just want to come and have a laugh and read interesting points and read what great journalists write – and that’s what is propelled our growth.
Gai: And is that traffic just mainly coming through Google or …
James: … we’ve got a really high returning base, so we’ve never actually invested in any sort of paid advertising. A lot of media companies traditionally have invested in Facebook and Instagram …
Gai: It’s not good news for the interactive advertising bureau I let you know James!
James: I’m sorry! I’m sorry! But we didn’t! We shied away from it because our focus was on what we call micro engagement. We want people to come to the site, we always aim for single figure bounce rates – that’s one of our KPI’s – is the bounce rate on the site. We’re always gunning for a single-digit bounce rate, and we always want people on the site for over 2 minutes … and in our opinion we just thought that investing in that social media that people were coming and going to quickly it wasn’t going to hit those targets for us, so we invested in trying to create quality content and creating content that people will stay on there and engage with and want to come back and keep reading.
And Google has been a massive part of it, in terms of bringing people to the site as well. Because we figure that there is this almost symbiotic relationship between the programmatic advertising and the people coming – and from Google making money off us. Therefore because Google are now sending us traffic almost because they know that when I get to the site they will stay there, they will be engaged and Google get the revenue because, if we make money Google makes money, and now Google are sending us more people every day.
Gai: That’s great … and Colm, you work with a whole lot of small publishers. I guess the market at the moment has been very obsessed with data and identity. I’m presuming a lot of these small publishers don’t necessarily have a lot of first-party data. Or am I misreading that?
Colm: Yes that’d be correct.
Gai: So in terms of the sell then, for you guys is it purely content audience-based?
Colm: It’s audience based. I think that there’s a lot going on out there in the world, wondering about what’s going to happen in a cookieless world, but as James said, Google are so invested in advertising that that’s not going to happen that quickly, and anything that transpires down from a major industry change, it never rolls that quickly.
So I think the most important thing for us to do – and that’s one of the things we’re keeping in our back pocket for next year – is just seeing what happens in the identity area.
I think it’s very good for the whole industry, it’s like the brand safety side of things as well. We all want a really good ecosystem from advertiser to publisher and I think with the identity stuff what will happen is that any publishers that are really invested and on-board will get the right data segments to the advertiser. And whatever medium that happens through, whether it’s first-party data, whether it’s the universal ID – whatever kind of format it is, advertisers are still going to want to reach those particular users, so I think there is a lot of noise in the industry about it, but look, it’s not going to … I think it’s more scaremongering than anything else.
Gai: We are a clever and creative industry and I think the focus on the consumer, on people, the audience has been a great thing that has come out of all of it
Colm: Yes and I think the thing that James correctly alluded to there, is as a publisher you have to
"Concentrate on your own user base and making sure that the end-users are getting good quality content, and if you focus on getting good quality content that’s engaging content, and you’re looking at those figures about bounce rates and high engagement and returning users, you’re going to have a really good business."
I think that if you have those fundamentals, everything else will fall into place really. But I do think publishers, small to medium-sized publishers, need to be looking at other revenue streams. Because e-commerce stuff is really interesting. Some publishers like Concrete Playground are really doing some good stuff on events and James is talking about the production stuff that they do because e-commerce is really, really, interesting, because you have an audience that trusts you. You can just easily sell (via) e-commerce to them.
Gai: It seems like we might finally be there after 20 years of miss-starts in Australia, e-commerce is finally picking up. A couple more questions before we finally wrap up. So, if you would believe trade press, and actually our own IAB numbers, it’s been a particularly tough year for the ad market including digital. Has that been your experience?
Colm: Yeah 100%. I think we’ve been looking at figures, overall figures in programmatic last month I think it dropped 27% or something, year-on-year which is absolutely astronomical. But it is definitely an environment, especially in Australia and New Zealand … are we in a recession? Well probably we more-or-less are, apart from the exporting of iron ore, and retail confidence is not that high.
But look, I think in uncertainty you have probably advertisers that aren’t as willing to spend budgets but it all goes back to return on investment. Advertisers and people that make products still have to sell those products and then if they’re delivering a higher return on investment from campaigns, programmatic is the way to go.
You know we’re talking in this podcast, and we’re talking to marketeers like where are you gonna get more efficient buying than through programmatic, where you can see everything transparently?
You know especially buying through, whatever mechanism you buy, whether through Google, through the Trade Desk, through AdWords if you’re a small advertiser – it’s all transparent, you can all see what your CPC is, you can all see your return there.
"So I think it’s really good – and I’ve said this before – I’m quite vocal about it – a recession has done a lot of wonders for Europe and the US because it streamlines businesses and it makes them more efficient, which is only going to be a benefit for the programmatic space in the long-term."
Gai: And the advertisers who do spend when it’s quiet get a bigger share of voice and a bigger bang for buck.
Colm: Exactly yeah.
Gai: Let’s leave on some happy notes. What are you both most excited about? It can be your Christmas break but possibly for your business next year – what are you really excited about? James?
James: For next year, well I’m really excited because this year has been our biggest growth year that we’ve seen. Every month we’ve been growing between 20 and 30% and I’m just excited to see where that goes next year in terms of the traffic side of the business.
And now we’ve got a couple of great campaigns going on next year, we’ve got a film schedule locked in for next year, we’ve got a couple of fantastic advertising campaigns that we working on for next year to build – and that’s all set up this year. You know last year at the end of 2018, I was kind of scrambling to put together the pieces. This year I started planning in July and have it all in by now, so now it’s like, ok cool this year great, I know what I’ve got to work on until probably July next year and then I can start planning for 2021
Gai: And are you still getting time to surf?
James: Yeah, I surf every day!
Gai: Good! What about you Colm?
Colm: Yeah, I’m just really looking forward to delivering the return we’ve given to smaller publishers over the last couple of years to larger publishers. I think we’ve made our technology so that it’s agnostic now and it can work with any larger publishers. So in talking to some of the larger publishers in the last couple of months as well, I’ve just seen how much improvement can be made.
I think for larger organisations, there’s so much to focus on so many different projects, and sometimes programmatic gets left behind. So I’m really enthusiastic about having conversations with larger publishers and seeing what technology and the platform that we have, can (do to) help grow their business and really make an impact on top-line revenue. So I’m really looking forward to that and also looking forward to a break over Christmas just chilling by the beach.
James: Someone said to me, they said “after the 20th of December, when it gets quiet and we’re closed down for Christmas well have a break” and I said, “Don’t you need opening hours to us to actually close?” Because in terms of our businesses, as a small business, you’re still working … I have some people saying to me “I can’t believe you’re writing back on Sunday”, and I say “why not? It’s something I like to do.” So I guess Christmas break kinda scares me actually. When it goes quiet. Like I hate Mondays because that’s Sunday in America and we have such heavy work in America – and Mondays my worst day of the week because it’s so quiet.Gai: I’m sure you can find things to do.
James: Haha … yeah I can find things – there’s always stuff to do.