'Subscription system with no adverts is not enough to pay for content': CNN's Rob Bradley

'There’s a hurdle every year and this year it’s ad blocking,' says the global director of digital advertising revenue and data of CNN. Edited excerpts from an interview with Campaign India:

May 05, 2016 09:46:00 AM | Article | Raahil Chopra

What brings you to India?
A booming digital market is the reason I’m in India right now. It’s at the cusp of becoming incredibly sophisticated when it comes to digital in terms of advertising, how content is consumed on different platforms. I think at a time when CNN is investing in digital, we need to be in these markets that are growing fast so that we can be thought leaders and be part of the booming story.
You joined CNN last May and your role was to expand the network's digital advertising sales and data offering. How much progress have you made? One of the changes you introduced was the new brand - 'Audience Insights Measurement' (AIM).
The first thing to do was to try and understand the audience in a deeper way than CNN has ever done. And be deeper than other media companies have been before. We are blessed that we have resources.
Launching AIM has been a big new initiative. It allows us to tell stories to our users on behalf of our clients using data. Information like what site have they visited before they come to us has helped. It then shows how have they interacted with the client’s campaign. All the learnings from a campaign are then delivered to the client so that they can be implemented for the client’s next campaign.
Where has it been introduced, how has it helped CNN Digital and its advertisers?
It’s been introduced all over the world. It’s as relevant in India as it is in the UK. That’s the reason why we are here. We have to introduce this to people who are not used to these insights and show them what we can do. That’s why when we build things we look at tools that can be used worldwide. Having said that we do have local strategies because different technologies work in different markets.
Advertisers have taken to it. The bigger brands like TCS, Ministry of Commerce, Accenture, Lufthansa and the likes are working with us on these smart campaigns. It’s now pretty much on all campaign plans. It was a key thing to launch. With that we are probably as sophisticated as the market can be. It takes us away from just being a media company – we are now a data company, services company and research company.
How much does CNN Digital contribute to the total revenue today, and how is this growing? On the same subject, where does Apac stand? How is India doing?
I can’t share numbers or percentages. But, it’s becoming as important as TV for us now. TV’s scale is so big, so the numbers stay high there. But the way we treat the platforms is that we set the audience first and we break them down – mobile, TV, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the likes. When we sit with a client we give them data from all these platforms to execute the smartest campaign. So, actually sometimes it makes more sense for the digital budget to be more than the TV budgets.
The way that we see it is that TV is becoming digital anyway.  
How does the cost change online? When it comes to cost per thousand online, as against cost per thousand on TV?
The models are completely different. I don’t think you can compare the two. You have this vast scale on television, and if you’re looking at that, you go on TV because you can deliver that single message to millions of people at once. What digital allows is that the impressions are part of the story, but it’s about utilising the targeting and the insights, with technology to be homed in. So actually what held digital back was that the insights weren’t there before. It was about impressions only and guessing then how it worked. Now, it isn’t about guessing.
Ad-blocking: Some publishers are disallowing readers from blocking ads, to be able to consume the content. Is that the right way to counter the issue? How is CNN International looking to combat ad blockers?
I think there are different ways of tackling it, and that’s just one way of doing it. I don’t think it’s the right way for CNN today. We have a huge scale so ad blocking (at this stage) doesn’t keep us awake. But the way (foreard) that we see is actually through (acting) responsibility.
On the media owners’ side we have a responsibility to educate people that these ads help create the premium content. These ads help delivering free content that means something to the world. I don’t think users understand that. So, there’s education for them.
Then, there’s responsibility from the advertisers’ side and the media buyers’ side. They need to deliver messages in a way that won’t want to make people turn on ad-blockers in the first place. Follow people in a smart way. If they’ve bought something already, don’t bombard them with ads. The technology exists to be smart.
Also, don’t deliver ads in people’s faces and annoy them. This leads to native content. It’s our responsibility to deliver content in a creative way. Majority of our digital ad budget is native and brand and sponsored content. That’s where our biggest focus is. We have an in-house creative agency called CNN Create. We’ve had it for 10 years, before it became a big term.
We integrate native across the site, with clear labels. We don’t see it only on CNN, but distribute it on social media too. Wherever we find our users.
Ad-blockers are a major disruption but we and technology are smart enough to get over it. We have the resources, the reach and the quality of advertising to protect (against) that.  
How many people do you have working for CNN Digital in India? Where are the offices? What are you immediate growth plans for the Indian market? Who heads the digital mandate in India?
At this stage there are at least six on the commercial side. We don’t have a digital head in India. Commercially, there’s a digital director (Marc Lourdes) based in of Singapore who looks after Asia Pacific. I look after digital globally, and while we treat India in its own right, when we launch a solution, whether it is data targeting, solution or something else, we make sure that it works in India as much as it does in the UK. So, actually we don’t treat India as a market that is behind the curve. So, ultimately, I’m the head of digital in India too.
CNN’s offices are in New Delhi and Mumbai.
How have consumers taken to the 'Opt-Out' mechanism for targeted ads on CNN.com? There are still some advertisers who do not offer the option. Where do you think this is headed?
I think every market is different when it comes to this mechanism and every publisher has a different strategy.
In general, people can opt out on their own browsers. It’s not something that a media owner needs to offer, it's something a user can do. We feel it’s better to offer people as much insights as possible. When you go to our site, we tell people what we can collect (data) from people and what we can’t. This (transparency) helps meeting legal regulations as well. But, I think that the switch on it is that we shouldn’t annoy people at large (with advertising).
If we look at only a subscription system with no adverts, it’s not enough to pay for content. Users need to understand that, and we need to do better advertising. There’s a hurdle every year, and this year it’s ad blocking. And we’ll get over it. Just like we got over viewability.
(Editor's note: Comments on CNN Digital's editorial content from India and editorial team in India have been expunged on request from CNN. An exception has been made to accommodate the request, following the company's clarification that the interviewee was not qualified to comment on editorial and had stated his views  'off record', but this was not articulated clearly during the interview.)