News & Opinion

Tracy De Groose: This is what happens next

A year into the job, Newsworks' executive chair tells Mediatel News about her strategy to see ad spend flow back to publishers.

This story was originally published by Mediatel.

A lot about Newsworks has already changed in the year since Tracy De Groose joined the trade body for national news publishers.

Within months of her arrival, Newsworks' then CEO departed, lobbying over trading currencies began, and the organisation upped sticks and relocated - notably sharing office space near London's Borough Market with the Ozone Project, the collaborative effort by publishers to pool its digital ad inventory.

Sitting down with De Groose, famed for running Dentsu Aegis Network between 2014 and 2017, to evaluate her first 12 months in post and ask what happens next, the answer is clear: it's about lots more change.

Changing market conditions. Changing stakeholders. A change of narrative. A change for audience measurement. A change, indeed, for the financial fortunes of publishers - well, certainly if De Groose has her way with things.

"We're going to reposition Newsworks next year," De Groose says, having decided the role of the trade body needs to evolve. 

"Rather than standing outside of an industry and representing it, I think there is a greater need for a trade body to come into the industry and facilitate and enable collaboration across it. 

De Groose says this is the "pivot" Newsworks must make to be truly effective for the market it serves - but was not one she believes CEO Vanessa Clifford wanted to make - hence her surprise departure in March of this year.

"Newsworks is a really credible trade body and has done some exceptional thought leadership," De Groose says. "And I think Vanessa did a great job stewarding all of that through her time. But the changes that are happening now require a different approach."

That approach encompasses quite a lot, but at its heart appears to be about using data to change the narrative and tell a much more positive story about newsbrands.

"12 months in, the story is even better than I realised from the outside," De Groose says. "And the appetite for collaboration is strong and the market is moving in our favour."

The almost certain demise of cookie-based advertising, the ICO's imminent move to force the industry into GDPR-compliance, and a subsequent return to contextual-based advertising has created "a perfect storm," she says.

"It's timely to be doing this role because I think there is a wind of change happening, certainly with the online world. And I think we're going to see some significant changes in which content creators will benefit."

The numbers - and the positive story they tell - are also on De Groose's side. Yet the message has not yet fully sunk in with the advertiser community. 

For example, the UK’s daily digital news readership grew by two million compared to a year ago, yet the advertising revenue to fund it still isn’t following that growth.

19 million people read a digital version of a national newspaper every day – a 14% rise on last year – but the latest advertising forecasts show that the ad money invested in national newsbrands online will only rise by a modest 1.1% in 2019.

"Why is the money not flowing to where the people are? Why is it not flowing towards environments that are trusted, brand safe, with audiences that are highly engaged?"

De Groose pins some of the blame on the "conflicted" and "confusing" dual measurement system operated (rather uniquely) by the publishing sector.

ABC circulation audits - largely used for trading - enforce a narrative of decline.

Meanwhile, the much newer PAMCo - which evolved out of the now defunct National Readership Survey - shows multi-platform audience data both in print and online and offers the 'true brand reach' of major titles. The latter, however, is used largely for media planning rather than trading and is not, according to De Groose, driving the narrative.

Meanwhile, complicating matters further, there is JICREG to cover regional news titles, a new system which launched earlier this year. "Part of the problem is the complexity," says De Groose. "We have a very fragmented measurement with three [systems] that tell our story about the numbers." 

Within months of De Groose's arrival, Newsworks was lobbying for change, speaking with media agency bosses to look for a solution, but nothing appeared to come from it.

Eight months later, and sensing renewed focus, would De Groose like to see ABC abandoned? She is not explicit in her answer, but it is clear what she and her publishing stakeholders want. 

"At the moment we have two systems which tell different stories and I think one is being used against the other. It's creating confusion and I'm a big believer in simplicity."

That's not to say she thinks circulation and audit data are not important, but just less so for huge, multi-platform national newsbrands. 

De Groose adds that she also believes the industry is set to witness "an evolution of PAMCo", not much more than a year after it launched.

"PAMCo has opened [publisher] minds to investing in data and research as a way of telling a story and creating opportunities around that."

What this might entail is not clear, but De Groose points to daily readership data as a possible avenue.

"I would really like to have something that demonstrates the daily power of newsbrands. 26 million people are reading the news every day - there's a lot that sits behind that that's incredibly useful to know and understand."

Selling the right narrative to agency stakeholders is what De Groose believes will help "shift the dial". But so will the simplicity of buying publisher audiences - which is where that other collaborative publisher scheme comes in: The Ozone Project. 

After many false starts and various iterations, The Ozone Project launched last year, pooling the digital ad inventory of multiple publishers into one platform. The scale of Ozone rivals that of Facebook and thus far the reception from the industry has been warm.

Whether symbolic or strategic, Newsworks and The Ozone Project are now housed in the same office space, and De Groose wants to link the story of audience growth with that of simplified ad buying.

"The challenge in the next 12 months is making this industry more buyable, more open, more accessible and easier to do business with. It's something we need to think about and work on... but Ozone is a defining proposition online that addresses many of the issues advertisers have got around brand safety and viewability and quality content. I think it's brilliant."

Despite all the change, De Groose says moving over to the role after a long career working in media agencies has taught her to be patient. "I remember an old boss saying to me, I don't have much patience and I need to learn that. And I think I've probably been given this job to learn patience."

Given the range of stakeholders - each famous for their rivalry - it might then feel like a daunting task to see change happen quickly. And the range of stakeholders is only set to grow, says De Groose. 

It will no longer just be about reaching media agencies - but with the rise of in-housing, brands direct - and consultancies too. "We will have to adapt," she says, but adds she sees more politics and challenging stakeholder management in agency groups.

To that end, De Groose says we are set to witness "big changes" early next year as she seeks to "reposition what Newsworks is for this industry."

And De Groose says she is up for the challenge no matter what. "I've changed brands. I've changed businesses. I've never changed an industry before."

Mediatel 24/10/19

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