The Idea Lab at the New York Times is perched on the 16th floor of the Times’ building and commands an impressive view of the Hudson river. The setting is an inspiration for the Lab’s staff, who are charged with developing creative advertising products based on new digital story-telling styles that are emerging from the newsroom.
Many of the ad innovations have been a hit with brands and the trade press. But what they haven’t done is stanch a troubling decline in the Times‘ digital ad revenue. What’s the problem? To get a better idea of how the Idea Lab fits into the Times‘ operations and the company’s revenue strategy, I dropped by for a chat with Todd Haskell, the group’s VP of advertising.
Haskell began by explaining that the Idea Lab was spun off in 2010 from the Times’ R&D Lab, a blue-sky experimental forum, in order to create practical products for advertisers in a short time. He described recent examples:
- A Prudential campaign that invited readers to pull up the front page of the New York Times on the day they were born. The ad format, which drew on pre-existing Times’ archival tools, was a hit on social media. Here’s a screenshot:
- A Wisk campaign that was derived from a Times’ culture story about how Picasso painted over canvasses. The original story invited readers to wave their mouse over a Picasso photo to reveal what lay underneath. For the detergent ad, Wisk asked readers to use their mouse to undercover underlying dirt stains. According to Haskell, those who did spent an unusual amount of time fussing over the ad. Here’s a screenshot (you can touch up Picasso here and play with stains here) :
- The Times‘ city guide app, The Scoop, inserted a Citibank map for New York City’s new bike-sharing program
- A National Geographic campaign drew on the “Times Machine” (which Haskell says is normally used only by “history geeks”) to provide historical backdrop for its Killing Lincoln show
According to Haskell, the New York Times‘ digital story-telling machinery is appealing to companies as a way to convey heritage and complicated brand stories. He adds that clients like Prudential say they have had tremendous response to their campaigns, including huge lifts from social media.
But despite the promise of such ad tools — and clever platform tools like Ricochet and Sparking Stories — the Times’ overall ad performance is limping. Recent earnings results show that digital ad sales are not just flat but actually declining — a troubling development at a time when digital revenue is supposed to stabilize the company as it faces a permanent decline in its print business.
Haskell says the company has been unable to pre-sell all its inventory, and attributes the overall ad challenges to two factors — “an explosion of inventory from social channels” (read Facebook) and the rise of
automated or “programmatic” buying which lets advertisers purchase digital ads on real time exchanges.
He predicts, however, that the new formats will help woo brands back from the programmatic trough; he adds that the Times‘ reader data and performance metrics will also persuade
companies to spend more money. Finally, Haskell also sees programmatic as an opportunity as well as a threat — the Times is offering customers who make premium buys a chance to participate in a private exchange of Times ad inventory (where prices will stay higher since the Times ad slots aren’t sloshing around with shady fly-by-night websites like Toothbrushing.net).
All of these questions will be sitting on the doorstep of the Times’ newly minted head of sales. The company announced the new position in April, but says its still having a good long look for candidates.