3 insights from the first self-serve advertising conference

Lisen Zethraeus

Lisen Zethraeus


The digital advertising industry is in a very interesting place right now. We’re coming off the back of a record-breaking year (2021 saw roughly $490b in digital ad spend) and we’re heading into an uncertain period with record inflation and advertising layoffs. At the same time, the digital landscape is undergoing transformation: while the cookie’s death has been slow, it is inevitable. We’ve also seen major streamers like Netflix and Disney embrace ad-supported streaming, which amplifies the booming trend of an increasing number of industries seeking out new revenue streams through advertising.

Against this complicated and dynamic backdrop, digital leaders of some of the world’s foremost publishers gathered in New York City for our first Self-Serve Advertising Summit in October.

Self-serve is a revenue model whereby the publisher sells their own inventory directly to the advertiser via an automated marketplace or campaign manager, similar to how Facebook sells its inventory.

Representatives from Disney Advertising, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, DISH Media, and more spent a day in Chelsea discussing the transition from programmatic to self-serve, the growth of small business advertising, and the transformation of OTT and linear TV. There was an abundance of takeaways from the Summit. Below, however, I have summarized what I found to be the most urgent and fascinating themes and learnings that emerged from the event.

Efficiency and accessibility

Out of all the potential benefits of embracing self-serve advertising technology, the one which speakers and attendees most universally agreed upon was the need to create efficiencies.

Andrew Grillo, Director of New Product Revenue at Boston Globe Media, said: “Priority one for us is to create efficiency. About 40% of our accounts are SMBs [small to medium sized businesses] but they only make up about 10% of our revenue. They spend between $5000 and $10,000 with us annually… We want to make a platform that lets them buy in a more streamlined way so our reps can focus on larger deals.”

The sentiment was echoed by Stephen Jutras, General Manager, Products and Programs at DISH Media: “We started with creating efficiencies internally – everything from report automation to relieve our data science teams, and let sales teams go to market faster, to audience segmentation. Internal efficiencies lead to external efficiencies.”

The takeaway? Publishers want tools that reduce manual work and create a baseline of efficiency from which to seek out new revenue streams, such as being able to serve the growing SME (small to medium enterprise) advertiser segment. Sylvester Phifer, Vice President, Self Service Platform – Hulu Ad Manager, Disney Advertising, agreed. He said, “We built self-serve with the goal of giving small and medium-sized businesses the chance to advertise within a streaming environment.”

Alternative to search and social

Another topic that came up again and again was the standoff between traditional publishers and big tech. It’s no secret that platforms like Facebook and Google have eroded the advertising revenues of news media over the past 15 years. At the summit, many publishers conceded that news media had been slow to learn the lessons of search and social. Affordability and ease of access are the way to win over smaller advertisers.

Julia Belanger, General Manager at The Washington Post’s Zeus Technology, laid out her thoughts: “We’re trying to give publishers an alternative to search and social. If you’re going to search and social just because it’s easy and fast, we want to give you a way to do that with us.”
If publishers can match the accessibility offered by big Tech, with the added value of trusted brand contexts, it might shift the current power balance. More on the topic of brand value in the next section.

Support journalism and reach real audiences

In recent years, everything from government subsidies to newsletter subscriptions have been touted as ways for journalism to survive financially. One of the most interesting points of discussion was the way in which self-serve advertising can support quality journalism.

Touching upon the need for quality, well-funded journalism, Andrew Grillo said: “We want to create the association that buying with The Globe is supporting journalism. It’s in a trusted environment, and it’s a very real audience. We’re a subscription-based online property so it is a real audience, not just scrolling in a feed.” There was agreement that when news publishers control their inventory with self-serve, their ability to leverage that trust and reputation are much stronger than with programmatic.

The theme of audience quality was also covered by keynote speaker and ad fraud researcher Dr. Augustine Fou. Highlighting the myriad of ways in which advertisers are duped into buying fake audiences through programmatic loopholes, he stated succinctly: “real publishers have real audiences.” He continued: “Self-serve is a great way to bring advertisers back to the publishers, because for the last 10 years, I’ve seen too many middlemen take too big a cut of the pie.”


Final thoughts

It’s hard to draw one overarching conclusion from an event with many varying and insightful perspectives. But if there was one area on which consensus could clearly be found, it was the need for industry standardization. Self-serve is still in its infancy, and each publisher approaches it differently. This is an exciting phase, but ultimately a resource-heavy process – one which will itself benefit from efficiency.

When publishers start to find those best practices, and make advertisers more comfortable with their platforms, it will be a lot easier for others to get started. Everything from audience segmentation to creative formats are features that can be streamlined and standardized. The fewer looming question marks and the more successful use cases are out there, the easier it will be to get other publishers, brands and agencies onboard.

The flipside is that those early first-movers who are already integrating self-serve into their revenue model have the opportunity to set the standards that they want to see. Whether that means an always-on, fully automated marketplace, or a consultative, managed-service process, it is up to them to find the balance that best suits their business, their audience, and their customers. Ultimately, the beneficiaries will be publishers and the advertisers who work with them.

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