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December 14, 2023

Guardian US ad chief on how publisher is navigating ‘toughest ad market since 2008’

But the brand has developed a few strategies to mitigate the troubles.

By Bron Maher

The current advertising market for news publishers is “the toughest since 2008”, according to The Guardian‘s senior vice president of advertising for North America, Luis Romero.

But the brand has developed a few strategies for mitigating the troubles.

They include entering new verticals, appealing to smaller businesses and “educating” advertisers about brand safety in a bid to get them to spend their marketing budgets with them, rather than the tech platforms.

‘It’s very unlike anything I’ve seen in the years I’ve been doing advertising’

The Guardian launched its first US-facing website in 2007. Romero joined the organisation in 2022, but has spent more than two decades doing advertising for publishers, including at NBCUniversal, Univision and Group Nine Media (now part of Vox Media).

He told Press Gazette that publishers are currently facing “the toughest ad marketplace since 2008”.

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“It’s been going on for a couple of years now,” he said. “It really started last year, but it’s really taken hold, unfortunately, this calendar year.”

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He said that The Guardian had been able “to really buck the trend” in 2022, and even the first half of 2023, but now “it’s definitely slowed down”.

“We see advertising budgets going either on hold or going away completely. It’s very unlike anything I’ve seen in the years that I’ve been doing advertising.”

Romero suggested economic and political instability, as well as “the war factor” and upcoming elections, as possible causes.

“It remains to be seen what happens here in the US [2024 election], but it’s probably going to continue to be challenging…

“Everyone’s been affected some way or another, but it makes it particularly challenging for news organisations. Because marketers… are very wary of advertising on news. So I think we’re unduly impacted by a downturn.”

Asked whether there were any strategies the Guardian US had adopted to try and hedge against those difficulties, Romero cited tactics “like lowering our cost of entry into doing advertising with the Guardian US” and carrying out The Guardian’s own proprietary research, “because we know that advertisers have to show an ROI to whatever they do”.

[Read more: Finding big revenue in small customers with self-serve advertising]

The third strategy he listed was good old-fashioned direct sales.

“The Guardian’s brand is not as strong as it is in the UK, so some of this is just really educating clients on who we are – and hopefully having them feel like we are a great place for them to be in,” he said.

The Guardian has an audience of 45 million unique monthly visitors in the US, Romero said, and it had been “really proud” to have held onto much of its Covid-era audience bump.

“I like to think that [existing] advertising partners are obviously interested in our reader demographic, but they really know the brand very well. 

“There are times when we’re talking about big business in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t like, but advertisers see that as a way to engage users and readers. So they like being part of what we do.”

And he said being “journalistically independent”, publishing “independent, well-researched articles, having a global perspective and not having a paywall” all helped Guardian US stand out in the market.

“I think the no paywall factor, particularly in the US, is key. As we see, unfortunately, more crises du jour in the world, people are looking for as objective or factual reporting as possible. And they find us – sometimes, they’re just searching for news and they happen to find us and they like us, they tend to stay with us.”

As well as the website’s lack of a paywall, Romero said that when he pitches The Guardian to advertisers he often touted its “unduplicated reach”.

“People who tend to read us are less likely to read some of our key competitors,” he said. “So it’s a whole brand new audience that perhaps is not being reached by others.”

How to convince advertisers to spend their dollars on the news? In person, apparently

Romero said that although The Guardian US benefits from the funding of the Scott Trust and the publisher’s million-plus paying members, “advertising does play a big part in what we do. And brand safety, and this whole issue of not being around sensitive issues, is a big obstacle in that formula”.

In recent years news publishers have found their advertising income hit by marketers’ preference against advertising alongside “brand unsafe” content – i.e. anything, even within a news report, that may be reputationally damaging.

Romero explained: “I think for us in the news category, not just The Guardian, brand safety has become a very blunt instrument.

“It started off as a good thing for advertisers, where they were being careful about the places that they were at. But it’s become just an overall blanket statement of: ‘We don’t wanna be anywhere near news.’”

He said blocklists – lists of words that advertisers ask for their promotions to not appear next to – can run to hundreds or even thousands of words.

[Read more: Ad blocklists could force publishers ‘back to cats on skateboards’, Reach revenue boss warns]

“We’re really critical to really upholding democracy,” Romero said. “As we do that, as we’re making sense of the world for our readers and the crises du jour – whether it’s war, corruption, advocating for underrepresented communities, laying out the facts and science of the climate crisis – we’re reporting on important, life-threatening issues.

“And that’s not what an advertiser wants to hear.”

Various efforts at making the news more brand safe have been attempted in the industry – including campaigns, technical tools and news-specific ad formats. But Romero’s approach is more direct.

“Part of what we do, besides all those great things we say about The Guardian, is really try to educate, and continue to educate, marketers and their agencies and even the programmatic the DSPs [demand-side platforms, i.e. automated ad buying services] about who we are and what we are,” he said.

Presenting them with research was a useful strategy: he cited an October Ad Fontes report that suggested “not only are brands not affected by being in news environments, but that brands will actually grow and amplify by being in news environments”.

But he added: “I do delicately remind advertisers that if you think we’re brand unsafe, you should really be taking a look more deeply at the long tail of the web. This is where we talk about things like MFA [made for advertising] sites, or just money being spent where you don’t really know where you’re targeting, especially on a programmatic front.”

More specifically, he said, “let’s just say it: even in well-lit places like X [formerly Twitter], there are very dark corners there, as we’ve all read and seen. And there’s still over $2 billion being spent on that particular platform.

“That’s $2 billion – and it doesn’t all need to come to the Guardian – but it should go to organisations that are providing this public good, that are really reporting on the facts of these issues that seemingly come on a daily basis nowadays.

“Really, advertisers need to start shifting more of their dollars away from places like that and redirect them to us.”

Asked whether advertisers had been receptive to that pitch, Romero said: “Once we have those meaningful conversations with the right people, I think it is effective for sure. It’s not scalable though.”

He said he tends now to “ask the question about news sooner in my discussions with advertisers rather than later”.

Earlier in his career, “my assumption [was] usually that when they take a meeting with me that they know who I am or who I represent and that they would be OK with it – but I don’t assume that anymore. So I specifically ask: what are their feelings on news?”

“Eight out of ten times, they’re gonna tell me it’s like they don’t have an issue. So I think direct conversations are really key to all this.”

Go west: Guardian US sees room for ad revenue growth in travel

Amid the shrinking ad market, Guardian US had identified some promising areas for growth – in particular, travel.

Romero said The Guardian had seen “more and more readers gravitate to this sort of content” since the pandemic lockdowns ended.

“And with that, we’ve been able to go out to different advertisers in this particular sector, and win businesses here in the US – which is a brand new thing for us, here in the US, to have travel partners.” So far those partners include tourist boards and an airline.

Nearly 90% of Guardian US readers have passports, the publisher has found, compared with 56% of all Americans according to one estimate.

Romero said travel had become a valuable advertising segment in the US, “so it’s a great category for us and we’re going to be doing more with it”.

That would, he believed, translate into more investment in The Guardian’s editorial travel content: “We’re actively looking at how to expand, particularly for the US travel coverage. We haven’t really landed on exactly what that looks like – we’re doing some research on it, but it could come in the form, as an example, of a US-dedicated travel newsletter.”

Guardian chief advertising officer Imogen Fox told advertisers last month that she thought the brand might “have become a little bit more famous for the advertising that we don’t take rather than the advertising that we do”, citing its policies against taking ads from fossil fuel or gambling companies.

But although The Guardian has partnered with an airline – part of an industry often scrutinised by climate activists – Romero said there hadn’t been a backlash because the organisation was “really careful” about who it worked with.

“We’re not gonna mass target tourism and any and all airlines,” he said. “There are some big companies that – hopefully they’re not greenwashing – but are making real efforts to try to lower their carbon emissions. And we want to partner with those people who are trying to make a difference. So we’re selective… we always work with the editorial team to make sure that we’re not compromising our principles.”

Romero’s theory is that The Guardian can work its advertising fastidiousness into a selling point.

“One of the things that I noted when I first got here was the incredible journalism that we do,” he said. “And I felt, as a salesperson, that we should be unapologetic about who we are, what we are and the type of partners that we should be partnering with.

“I also have the opportunity to say that because the advertising market is a lot bigger in the US than it is in the UK and we’re a challenger brand here. So we’re really fighting for advertising attention. 

“And again, I don’t want to go en masse and take any advertiser – so I think that quote about being more famous for advertising that we don’t take rather than the ones that we do – it’s very clever on the UK side of things. [But] in the US, we’re not famous for advertising we don’t take – we’re just not famous.

“So part of my job is to just get out and let people know who we are and what we are. So it’s a different position, where we’re establishing a position and a perception… I don’t really feel like I’m hamstrung by it. I think that there’s great opportunity here in the US.”

[Read more: Guardian gets around readers who reject cookies with new advertising product]

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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