Industry Preview: How ‘Subscription First’ Transformed The New York Times

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Seb Tomich

Industry Preview is a special, limited-run audio series, featuring interviews with key leaders in marketing, media and technology who share their predictions and key priorities for 2021. This podcast is sponsored by IBM Watson Advertising.

It’s probably safe to say that Sebastian Tomich, SVP and global head of advertising and marketing solutions at The New York Times, is one of the few ad executives in the publishing world to dial down ad revenue on purpose.

Over the past three years, the Times has downplayed its advertising business in a bid to strengthen its direct relationships with paying subscribers. Reader experience, not ad yield, is the driving force behind most of its decision making.

“It’s logical to think the head of advertising would want more ads because… more revenue,” Tomich says in this kickoff episode of AdExchanger’s Industry Preview podcast. “But I don’t think more ads sets us up well for the future.”

Instead, NYT has focused on enhancing and broadening its content platform by hiring world-class journalists, launching new podcasts and advancing its entrepreneurial initiatives in games and cooking.

On the hiring front, in the past year alone the Times has signed a roster of heavy hitters, including Kara Swisher (former editor and founder of Recode Media), Ben Smith (former editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News) and Ezra Klein (Vox Media’s co-founder). Poaching major talent from three media startups that themselves had set out to dethrone the Times is, well, a sign of the Times.

“I can’t see a future outcome where having the best talent in journalism in The New York Times building is going to fail us,” Tomich says. “For [our] business as a whole, not just advertising, it’s pretty clear that in the future of media, we’re heading to a direct-to-consumer model that is going to be winner take most.”

That’s not to say the Times is neglecting ad experiences. In March, it removed all app inventory from open programmatic exchanges, resulting in fewer – but higher-quality – ads. Simultaneously the Times has rolled out new ad offerings focused on using its first-party data to offer targeting based on emotional states and reader motivations with a goal of supporting more powerful ad experiences.

In this episode, Tomich reviews some of these big changes and offers his predictions for 2021.