The Washington Post on Zeus Prime, first-party publishing… and NFTs!

In this exclusive interview for FIPP, The Washington Post’s Head of Commercial Product, Jeffrey Turner, provides a deep-dive insight into the company’s newly launched ad-buying network, Zeus Prime. He also speaks to us candidly about industry collaboration more broadly, the shift towards first-party data, and it turns out has his finger very much on the pulse when it comes to NFTs… so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get his views on that side of the industry as well!  

Heading up Commercial Product at The Washington Post, Turner oversees two brands: 

  1. RED: The company’s Research, Experimentation and Development group
  2. Zeus Technology: a media monetisation platform that encompasses both the original Zeus Performance advertising framework, and the newly launched and afore-mentioned Zeus Prime. 

And those two hats are a good place to hang our article coat-stand on – or vice-versa – as it has been through the process of evolving better products and solutions for itself over the years, that the Post appears to have stumbled upon a game-changing, industry-wide solution for the post cookie era…

“Zeus started out as an incubator project on The Washington Post,” Turner begins by telling us. “We had a mandate from [Jeff] Bezos back in late 2016 – early 2017, to speed up the rendering of sites on our own domain. And the biggest kind of hurdle there was advertising. So we tried to get the entire pageload under three seconds and advertising was holding us back. We decided that we needed to build a tool to speed up the actual ad-calls and limit the ad-load impact on the page.” 

“So that’s what our SAS software and foundational product, Zeus Performance, started out as for The Washington Post. We patented it in 2017 and about 18 months ago started rolling it out to other publishers as software to improve the ecosystem as a whole.” 

“And it’s not just that the ads load faster… they’re more in view so it’s better performance for the actual advertisers. They get better click-thru rates, the auctions are more performant, so that way publishers get more revenue. It’s also better for readers, the page is less jumpy, the ads are there, and also because it’s faster we’ve seen an increase in subscriptions as well because the page is just a better quality.”

One of the key driving forces behind the Post’s decision to develop its own technology in this way was that ad-tech is for the large part still created by vendors, rather than media owners themselves. And so when it worked, the publisher began to realise that this was a tool that could revolutionise the entire industry, not only its own offering. 

While still currently a US-only product, Turner says that the company does have plans to rollout both Zeus Performance and Zeus Prime internationally in the future. So far, the development of Zeus Technology at large from in-house advertising framework to scalable ad-network product has been a relatively organic process, based on tangible goals. 

“First of all, when you start to look at the entire publishing ecosystem, viewability as a whole across the industry is at what, 55% right? So that’s the first thing.”  

“Then additionally, you have all these publishers that are trying to compete with these big platforms… and we thought to ourselves, ok well who is our biggest competition? What are we trying to do as a publishing ecosystem? And how do we support quality journalism, as well as helping publishers better monetise their own pages?” 

“And that’s kind of where Prime was born. We wanted to improve the quality of supply for all of these publishers, and then we wanted to better enable advertisers to connect to that supply as well. So that’s kind of what in-turn brought about the birth of Zeus Prime, which is the demand side to power advertising into this ecosystem.”

And power it, it does. Where seamless digital ad set-up was once the preserve of the Facebooks and Googles of this world, Prime brings an extra dimension to Zeus, in that it makes the premium content environments of publishers just as accessible and user-friendly.  

“So think about a small business, you’re a dry-cleaners or a real estate agent, right? All of those dollars right now are going to those platforms. And that’s not because they’re the best place to run advertising – there’s a lot of issues there. But it’s really accessible, it’s really easy.”

“With publishers, you don’t have that accessibility. You can go through traditional means like calling up a salesperson, and having a rep, and spending a lot of money… or you can go through programmatic means, where you really have to have expertise. So Prime is anchored in that idea of accessibility and the question of how do you connect a small or medium sized business, as well as big global brands, with quality journalism.” 

First-party publishing

One thing that’s important to remember within the context of the industry in which we currently sit, is that the original Zeus Performance product was actually dreamt up eight months before the beginning of the end of cookies. So this was not actually a first-party data solution invented through necessity, but rather a new approach to digital advertising, specifically designed to leverage the unique strengths of quality journalism.  

“Third-party cookies are in the process of being deprecated. So that is when obviously somebody sees a blender on one site and you’re using that for a variety of sites, and you’re targeting that individual users’ history. What we’re doing here is we’re not targeting the user at all, we’re targeting the articles that they’re actually on.”  

“And I think of it like levers. There are a lot of levers you can pull to increase performance… You can know that someone looked at a blender, you can know someone is on a home shopping article. There are all these levers you can pull, but I think historically levers that haven’t been pulled by the publishing industry are speed to market, or viewability – the latter is actually a huge lever you can pull, because if you’re viewability is now 50% higher then this is also going to produce huge increases in engagement, click through rates, and brand impact.” 

“So we’re thinking of it not just as like what is the replacement, but what are all the levers you can pull to better connect an advertiser to a publisher in a reader positive way.”   

Industry collaboration

The Post’s decision to extend this technology to the wider industry was an innovative one, so how did this come about? And how did the initial relationships with publishers begin? 

“Yeah so the Post in general has a viewability of 50% higher than the industry average and the numbers don’t really lie,” Turner says. “So we went to these publishers and said hey, you’re currently using an open source software – it takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of engineering power, you are not seeing those viewability improvements. Therefore, how do you expect to compete and where can we look to partner?” 

“And we really wanted to set this up not just as like a network that is ours. We really wanted to set it up as a publisher conglomerate where we help facilitate learnings and when you join you’re really part of the club, and also make it really easy as well as helping to monetise. Because if you’re a small or even a large publisher, do you want to be spending all of your time in ad-tech? Or do you want to be spending it creating content and doing other things?” 

Zeus Performance is based on an annual fee, determined by a number of different factors including system complexity, publisher impressions, etc. And Turner is adamant that this is the best model to work to, as it allows publishers to own their own relationships, and means that the Post is not incentivised to tweak the system in any way to increase its own revenue share. 

The Prime model works slightly differently, in that the company does take a tech fee advertiser side. But because the platform is essentially automating a direct deal and cutting out a lot of the middle-men traditionally associated with biddable programmatic advertising, the cost to the publisher is a low one.  

“You don’t have an SSP fee, you don’t have a DSP fee, you don’t have a creative fee, there’s no targeting fee… so we cut out a lot of that and as a result we’re able to pass on about 50% more net dollars to these publishers than traditional programmatic means.” 

“And that’s important for us. Because when you see a dollar in the advertising ecosystem that’s being spent, where is that going? The biggest competition is not between a bunch of different publishers, but rather between publishers and other areas of media that that dollar could be spent. So I do think it’s a niche value proposition, but it’s one that hasn’t been solved before and opens up an lot of new dollars to these publishers.” 

Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)

One thing we’ve looked at a lot over the course of the past year here at FIPP is NFTs. And for anyone who is still none the wiser as to what an NFT actually is, this interview we shot with Flipkick Chief Technology Officer, James Kirk Cropcho, provides a great introduction (IMHAO). 

So when I saw on Jeff’s Twitter bio that he was big on NFTs, I knew I had to get his media industry analysis on the emerging phenomenon… 

“I’m a HUGE fan of NFTs!” he tells us. “I have taken it seriously for the past 10 months, and I’ve invested a lot of money. I am very long crypto and even longer NFTs. And I don’t think it’s a fad… I think people think of it as a fad because they think of it as the end product. They see an image and they think why would someone pay for that image? Why is that image valuable!?”

“But really NFTs are a medium, and the value is in that new technology. Because that new technology is actually changing the pricing structure of collectables, of art, of venture capital, and I think that is game changing. There are companies for example that are being set up almost like VCs with NFT and it’s changing the revenue model from rewarding stockholders and having customers as clients, to your customers are your shareholders, and it’s incredibly fascinating.” 

“For publishers too I think the key here is diversification of revenue and connection with the reader. As the publishing ecosystem has really moved from physical to digital, I think this is just another example of there is now a digital connection between a media publisher and their core fans and core readers. Whether that’s in the form of a subscription or a token or whatever, that digital connection is really relevant.”

So as one of the most recognisable and respected media brands in the US and probably now also the world, The Washington Post must surely have a bit of insider investigative information for me on the non-fungibles, right!? 

“Yeah I’m laughing that you brought up NFTs because I’m trying to reel everybody in! I just got off a call yesterday and one of our video game journalists was like ‘I think it’s a fad’ and I was like I will schedule thirty minutes with you to tell you why it’s not!” 

“One project you should look at is called CyberKongz. The entire idea is they basically wanted to build a video game. And they wanted to build token rewards, so they released a thousand NFTs and sold them – that was like Seed A! Then what they did is said ok we’re gonna create a currency called banana… and every day you’re gonna get 10 banana. Once you hit 60 banana, you can birth a new avatar and sell it to somebody else who wants to play the game, and that’s going to be Series B.” 

“So if and when in two years time the game gets built and people are making in-game purchases, you’re going to be minted! Now could the game tank? Or could it be the next Fortnite? That’s what people are gambling on.” 

“I think that Time magazine is also doing it really good, whereby if you attend one of their webinars on tech innovation they drop you a free NFT. And those NFTs grant you access to certain things like in-person events, exclusive chatrooms with authors, etc., so it’s used almost as an access token, which is really smart.”

Finally, I was keen to know what was next on the horizon, not only for Zeus Technology, but for the Post at large. 

“In terms of Zeus Prime specifically, what we really want to explore is how do we really grow the publisher network ,as well as make the creatives themselves really accessible? So to that end, we’re in the process of integrating additional APIs to actual social platforms, we’re introducing improved cropping to make it really easy for advertisers, and so on…” 

“And then for The Washington Post more generally, we’re looking at the first-party data side and really beyond basic machine learning. So we want to go beyond understanding just what the article is about, and into more sentiments like is it a positive or a negative story? What are the emotions it involves? And looking at all of that from a cluster analysis pov. That’s what we’re focussed on, but obviously always as well how can we unlock value for our readers from both an editorial and an advertising pov.”  


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