Ad Portals: Meeting a Fundamental Need
Not long ago, the magazine industry in Canada came together to look at the relevance and feasibility of ad portals. The impetus for the investigation was a presentation by Kin Wah Lam, Director of Digital Development, Time Inc., at a conference sponsored by Magazines Canada. Lam discussed Time Inc.’s implementation of a browser-based ad portal allowing advertisers to quickly and easily upload, preflight and approve ads online. As a result, Magazines Canada, working with ad delivery portal provider SendMyAd, set up a portal system that is available to all publishers in Canada: AdDirect.
“Publishers are required to do more with less as business models evolve to embrace new digital opportunities,” notes Gary Garland, Executive Director of Advertising Services at Magazines Canada. Ad portals allow publishers to “find new efficiencies while freeing up resources which could be deployed against higher value, more strategic tasks, rather than constantly dealing with everyday jobs that could more easily and cheaply be automated.”
In making this case to publishers, Magazines Canada needed to overcome some myths and misconceptions about ad portals: that portals constitute an added expense when in-house production services are free; that automating ad submission will cause production people to lose their jobs; that portals are difficult for smaller advertisers to use; and that manual ad production strengthens relationships with clients.
Ultimately, the case for ad portals is made—strongly—by the real-world experience of publishers themselves. Ad portals have proven to bring cost savings, more productive workflows, an ability to focus on growth strategies and new revenue streams, and more satisfied clients.
A Financial Argument
As part of planning for implementation, St. Joseph Media, one of Canada’s largest publishers, conducted an in-house study to assess the effect of ad portal implementation on the bottom line. Kim Latreille, National Director, Production, did a cost/benefit analysis and study examining inefficiencies, workflow liability points and how these could be resolved with ad portal file delivery. Her research also looked at benefits for advertisers and ad agencies.
For publishers, the liability points of ad submission through traditional methods such as snail mail or uploading to ftp sites are clear: the often drawn-out process of manual preflighting and contacting clients to resolve problems with ads, a process that can sometimes stretch into days.
“When we first started looking at portals I think the state of the industry in general was mass disarray,” says Len Goins of Rogers Publishing, which partnered with St. Joseph Media and TC Media in bringing AdDirect to Magazines Canada. “There were so many methods of getting files to us—via ftp, via e-mail, via a proprietary, client-based delivery system that we were monkeying with. Depending on the supplier, there were so many options and restrictions on what systems they could use or were willing to use. It was chaos.”
As production departments continue to evolve, other pressures have made for strong arguments in favor of ad portals. Like many publishers, TC Media implemented production time-cycle reduction. By chopping days off the production cycle, time-cycle reduction “made the need for a service such as an ad portal even more important,” says John Palmeri, production manager at TC Media.
For St. Joseph, the process went the other way: Latreille created a revised workflow built around the AdDirect portal that, she found, created an overall time-cycle reduction of 33 percent.
As a growing company, the time saving enabled by AdDirect allowed existing staff to handle an increasing volume of ads. For every 1000 ads, Latreille found, 166 hours were gained by using the ad portal, equal to four work weeks at an average of 40 hours a week. This translates to a savings, at current entry-level pay, of $2300 a year. In other words, AdDirect provided for current workloads plus additional ad volume without increasing staff or paying freelancers.
“I looked at overall productivity and what we could be doing with that extra time,” Latreille says. “I was taking the approach of a smaller publisher, thinking we have multiple books and are always looking for growth. In some really small publishing operations the person who is editor is also art director and is also answering the phones—so you now have 33 percent more time to do something else. To me that was a big sell.”
A Plus for Clients
All these savings are made possible by a very high acceptance rate among advertisers. The AdDirect portal was implemented by St. Joseph in July 2009, and within a year, acceptance was at 85 percent. As of June 2012, Latreille says, 95 percent of advertisers were using the portal. “We launched it with each publication one at a time so we could call clients and help them through the process the first time. After using it one time, they were OK. Then the conversion rate really took off.”
Rogers Publishing has achieved a 98 percent acceptance rate from outside suppliers. Remarkably, within a month of implementation, 65 percent of ad clients were using the system; the rate stood at 75 percent by the end of the second month and 95 percent after six months. “That’s a pretty short cycle to get everybody on board,” Goins notes.
It took TC Media less than a year to meet its advertiser use goal of 90 percent. “A couple of ad agencies have a written exception because of technical issues on their end,” Palmeri notes. But for nearly all other advertisers and agencies, no matter their size, the system quickly proved itself to be hugely beneficial.
For clients, AdDirect offers a simple to navigate, easy-to-use portal that saves the hassle of worrying about whether a submitted ad is correct and approved. At any point during the process, clients can push a button to send an e-mail asking for help; in addition, if an ad fails twice, an automatic alert is sent to production staff, who can then call to offer help. According to Latreille, this structure improves the tenor and quality of production’s interactions with clients.
“In our old workflow if we got an ad that failed preflight we were calling the advertiser and saying, ‘Hi, we have a problem’ … whereas now, with the way these alerts are set up, we are calling clients and saying, ‘Hi, we see you’re having a problem, how can we help you?’ So it’s a different take. We aren’t calling them with a problem, we are calling to offer help. It’s a completely different conversation”
Another advantage of the system is sophisticated archiving, allowing publishers and clients to easily search for and retrieve any previously submitted ad.
Above all, advertisers and agencies appreciate the system’s ease of use. “Usability first and foremost,” Goins stresses. “In dealing with smaller mom and pop and freelance clients, to be able to login to a comprehensive solution and use it as simply as a search engine, or as easily as placing an order on a popular online website—it keeps them happy. It does not matter what the system is capable of, if the features are buried or the simple act of queuing a file and sending it is buried under menu after menu after menu, people will not use it.”
The Internal Challenge
When Goins went to visit the Montreal offices of Rogers Publishing to present the new ad portal to production and sales staff, he was treated to lunch by the production director. “[He] put down a pile of food in front of me that was so enormous I thought it could feed a family of five,” Goins recalls. “He looked at me totally deadpan and said, ‘You are showing this stuff to sales today. This might be your last supper.’”
Change is always tough to swallow but in Goins’ case, the AdDirect system pretty much sold itself to the skeptics. “I expected the worst, but could not have experienced a more opposite set of events,” he says. “They were accepting and excited to use the system. The presentation showed them how ridiculously easy it was to get materials in, and the only [creative] material that’s delivered is material that’s approved by the client—so the accountability is on the supplier.”
This is a particularly attractive feature of AdDirect, Latreille agrees. “It’s like the old days when clients sent film. If they wanted to change the ad they sent you new film. We didn’t touch it; we weren’t liable if anything was wrong in the printing. I wanted to bring that back—if something is wrong, we don’t touch it.”
In fact, Latreille found it could be hard to get production staff to “let go”—for people used to shepherding a file every step of the way, it was a mental adjustment to hand the workflow over to an automated process. “They had to learn to trust the system,” she said.
Of course, once this is achieved, production staff have more time to do the many other things expected of them today—and do them better. As Goins notes, removing the repetitive aspect of the job truly allows staff to work smarter, rather than harder.
For salespeople concerned with changing levels of personalized service, Goins had the sales force at Rogers Publishing distribute a short guide to clients outlining the AdDirect system. He told them to have advertisers call him with any concerns, guaranteeing he could address any concern in 10 minutes or less, or would buy the client lunch. “I haven’t bought anyone lunch yet,” he says.
Magazines Canada also presents information sessions and webinars explaining the portal, and provides documentation on its website, http://www.magazinescanada.ca.
Resistance from publishers to the idea of browser-based ad portals usually comes from a failure to understand how expense can equal cost savings. Because production people have always handled ads, the assumption is that paying for a service traditionally done “free” (because staff is not paid extra to accomplish it) does not make sense.
Those whose job it is to analyze and understand production cycles know otherwise.
As production teams are asked to do more and more, including internal jobs related to multi-platform efforts and new high-value services for clients (such as online metrics and analytics), publishers find themselves needing to hire new staff, work with freelancers, radically revamp workflows or pass duties along to other departments. As Palmeri points out, in this environment, manual ad services are far from free: people must be paid to do many hours of preflighting, corrections, and interaction with customers and sales reps. Instead, they could be concentrating on areas in which the company is basing future revenue growth.
Ad portals are a “transactional cost,” Palmeri says, meaning that no matter if publishers get 100 or 1000 ads a month, the cost per ad is the same—unlike with traditional processes, where more ads mean more staff time spent and higher costs incurred as the level of work increases.
After moving to AdDirect, St. Joseph annual ad volume coming through production increased 33 percent without increasing head count; annualized freelance expenses were reduced by 37 percent; and file errors caused by incorrectly preflighted ads were reduced to less than 1 percent.
Another source of savings comes in eliminating make-goods. If you can avoid one make-good a month because of the portal, it has already paid for itself, Goins says. “I personally think it pays for itself and reinvests dividends in itself. There are so many areas where it’s improved efficiency, it’s improved accuracy, it’s improved the logic of the workflow. It’s enabled us to automate a lot of points of our workflow.”
Then there’s the idea that ad portals will lead to staff layoffs. This has not proven to be the case at St. Joseph, Rogers or TC Media, as all three publishers are focused on maximizing production workflows for current products and future growth. “If a publisher is looking at this and wants to reduce staff they are free to think that way,” Palmeri says. “They can make that case for themselves. We like to say your people can be doing more value-added tasks.”
A third myth is that smaller advertisers will not use the portal. Again, publishers using AdDirect have not found this to be true. Once they have familiarized themselves with the interface and terminology, customers of all types and sizes tend to be very happy with the system, Goins and Palmeri note.
A fourth objection is that manual production services are seen as a valuable part of a publisher’s customer offering. This, too, does not reflect the reality of how portals are perceived, especially when production staff and sales reps are properly trained in how to provide support for use of a service that vastly improves the ad submission experience for all.
“As a publisher, we are selling space,” Palmeri says. “We are selling a page or part of a page. We do not make money on preflight services or prepress services; we spend money on that. We are continuing to offer a service to our advertiser—we are paying for the portal. It’s giving them the same thing in the end. So technically, we have not taken the service away, it is just a different implementation of the service.”