Letting in a giant: will commercial realities take us back to firmer advertising ground?

By: Rob Corbidge, 08 February 2024

 A nordic giant stands over bustling marketplace, neo gothic style

"Tech giant makes deal with publisher" is a headline that seems often to conclude in tears and acrimony for the publisher. But, new vistas are opening up.

The UK's biggest commercial news publishing group, Reach PLC, has just signed a deal with Amazon that will see the media business provide first-party data to the retail giant, a move largely driven by the upcoming cookiepocalypse  of third-party data.

This is being seen as somewhat of a landmark deal and certainly that's true given a comparison to how such data has been handled ever since cookies - conceived as a way to resolve partial transaction states on websites - were buccaneered into straight commercial use by the advertising industry.

Yet there is feel of a return-to-the-way-things were about it all. 

Reach (the company...) can provide eyeballs. Amazon has stuff to sell the owners of those eyeballs. So why not team up to the benefit of all? That first party data means Amazon can better aim the right stuff at the right people. It's an old-fashioned business relationship in that most important of respects.  

Much is being made by Reach of the efficacy of its Mantis system in its advertising offering, described as a "brand safety and contextual advertising tool". The proof can only be in the bottom-line pudding as the end of third party cookies looms.

Returning to the general perception that publishers never get a good deal from the big tech units, let's be clear, this is still a David and Goliath scenario. Amazon is a vast business, currently market capped at $1.7 trillion. Reach, by contrast is market capped at ¬£195.55 million ($246m) as of the time of writing. 

Yet just as bigger fleas have smaller fleas on their backs to bite them, and smaller fleas have lesser fleas and so on ad infinitum, Amazon now has some serious competition. Outfits such Temu and Shein are eating into its market share and the business is aware of it at the highest level. Even given the vast amount of data Amazon has, new and solid data on who they can sell what to is vital to retain an edge. Publishers like Reach hold that gold.

Reach themselves have many critics among the media chatterati in the UK, as all media do. In fact, our collective difficulty in formulating a shared viewpoint is arguably one of our industry problems in these discussions about how Big Tech muscles us around, but... that's for another day.

But what those critics fail or choose not to see is that in a big picture view Reach keeps regional titles in the UK alive in an advertising market so unfavourable as to resemble a South Seas pirate captive auction, with our content as the captive.

As a user of a couple of Reach's regional titles, I can attest they still report on matters of local importance as well as possible given the global skew of resources modern regional news gathering has experienced in comparison to the pre-digital past. 

If a change in the market structure sees more small standalone local news operations become properly viable, without having to survive as unintended non-profits or condescendingly handed some Silicon Valley guilt pennies, then I'd be very happy indeed.

The truth is, every part of the world is averaging out to be underserved by local media. In the UK, Reach and similar firms keep titles alive and serving the public.

Setting the cookiepocalypse alongside a rapidly metastasizing internet of cortex-melting schlock content, as exemplified by this week's piece in The Verge about this AI clickbait maestro, then the need for advertisers to find reliable publishing partners become even more pressing.

Know thy readers has always been a solid maxim in publishing and media. Now more than ever.