CNN International Commercial (CNNIC) formed in 2013 to unite all the network’s sales efforts under one roof. Rani Raad has led it since its inception and was promoted to president in January 2016.
The media giant saw its digital revenue grew 40 percent last year in APAC, and more than half of all business now involves its in-house content studio, Create. More recently, the addition of a video-centric site, Great Big Story, has diversified the audience and attracted the likes of ANA and Land Rover.
Raad talked to Campaign Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong recently about building the data-savvy “2.0” version of the business, keeping programmatic in perspective, the willingness of Asian brands to experiment, and why even people in media sales should worry about ‘fake news’.
On being digital-led
"We embarked on a very ambitious initiative called CNNIC 2.0,” Raad said, the goal of which was to “move us from being a TV-led business with digital attached to it, to a multi-platform business with digital driving the conversation”.
"This multi-platform leverage strategy was built on the principle that we use the power and scale of TV to amplify big campaigns and command high CPMs, while we use the power and scale of digital to inject more metrics into the sell,” he said. At the same time, the digital medium affords more flexibility to work with clients on sponsored content than the heavily regulated TV medium, he added.
On data, which is not just a buzzword
The 2.0 effort was about moving away from subjective measures of success and toward making data paramount “to ensure that all of our decision-making, both internal and external, was pegged against insights, and specifically monetisable insights."
CNNIC set up an audience insights unit, and appointed an analytics expert, Mark Sear to lead it. “Everything channels through that department, such that whenever we create content for our partners, we are able to harvest, from social feeds and other listening technologies that we have, real-time information about whether the creative is working, whether it's resonating, whether it's being received in the way it was intended, and whether it's potentially converting into acquisitions or transactions" for the client, Raad said.
On co-creation of branded content
An example of this data orientation in action is CNNIC’s relaunched branded-content studio, now called Create, which had been around for 10 years under a different name. "We revamped it and redeployed digitally focused resources,” Raad said. “And we put in mechanisms to help us measure what we produce for partners, so that we can give them insights as to whether the creative that we produce with them will work and resonate and connect with their consumers.”
A branded content piece for Korean Air
More than half of all CNNIC business now involves some element of co-production with clients, Raad said. If you just look at digital revenue, the figure is closer to 65 percent.
"The big-ticket advertisers that work with us directly, for the most part, there's regularly a content-creation element to the partnership," he said.
On programmatic and its proper place
"When we first looked at programmatic many years ago, there was a fear that it was a race to the bottom, and if we engaged in that space, then we are going to give up our high CPMs," Raad said. "Once we realized that programmatic doesn't have to be either/or, we fully embraced it."
The key to doing so was a structure that allowed the commercial team to maintain focus on maximising yield. “We had to make sure our teams were trading both programmatic and direct, all in one,” he said. “We have a separate programmatic team that does the technology bit, but from a trading or front-line perspective, our teams are across all of it, and therefore they are able to see and manage the yield much more meticulously.” This ensures that “prime” inventory goes to the highest-CPM sales or any direct deals that are in place, while “anything that's remnant, or isn’t seen as prime, can be used in a much more effective way in the programmatic space.”
Header bidding, which lets multiple demand-side entities bid on inventory, has been a key aspect here. “We're making sure we deploy technologies in a way whereby we're using programmatic for helping our business rather than siphoning off inventory," he said.
On diversifying beyond a news audience
The commercial side has to work closely with editorial, “without compromising church and state” to deliver a product that’s appealing to business partners as well as consumers. "We are identifying where the common thread sits, to take to market and monetise our business more effectively," Raad said.
One successful outgrowth of this has been Great Big Story, a video-centric site that’s not overtly branded as a CNN property. It offers adventure- and travel-oriented video content, alongside clearly marked videos produced for and with brands. Since its 2015 launch, Great Big Story has produced more than 1,300 original stories from 75 countries and has 1.5 billion multi-platform video views, the company said.
As it’s not the typical type of content you would expect from CNN, Great Big Story expands the diversity of the audience CNNIC is able to offer up to advertisers, Raad said.
"We were able to launch a non-CNN branded platform at a time when there's a lot of clutter in the market, a product that has been able to not just cut through from consumer perspective but also deliver phenomenal commercial results,” he said.
At Cannes, the company announced an additional investment of up to US$40 million in the property, to develop it into an always-on OTT channel.
On Asia-Pacific clients
“If you look at Great Big Story, some of the biggest investments have been from Asia,” Raad said. “For example ANA has embarked on a huge partnership with us.” Korean Air is also a prominent Asia-based sponsor on the site.
The most popular video in the site’s history, more than 33 million views across YouTube and Facebook, features the fastest mochi maker in Japan.
"There's a big appetite for the content that's being produced from the region, on the region,” Raad said. “And from a commercial perspective, and what I get excited about, is the level of creativity in this region, and the level of willingness to embark on new techniques and try new platforms.”
On 'fake news'
While the issue may seem remote to people in APAC, Raad asserted that everyone should be concerned that legitimate news organisations are under attack while organisations that actually spew fake news are being treated, at least by some, as legitimate.
"There are consumers out there who buy into some of that rhetoric, and that ends up creating a cloud for a business like ours, where our raison d'être is credibility, our honesty and our authenticity in everything we report on,” he said. “So for me that creates a distraction and a noise that can detract from not only the incredibly important work we do as a news network but also what we do commercially.”
CNN has done a brand survey in the US that thus far shows zero negative impact on CNN's brand, he added.