Turner's Nick Johnson on Digital's Intimate Relationship Between the Brand and the Consumer

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Years ago when Nick Johnson, Senior Vice President of Digital Ad Sales Strategy for Turner Ad Sales, launched into a career in advertising right out of college, he soon came to the conclusion that "media was not the right place for me."  His lack of enthusiasm for agency buying led to a complete change in lifestyle -- a return to Asia where he spent his formative years.  Leaving the agency in the early 1990s and moving to Japan, he joined a joint venture between Grey Advertising and Daiko.  "That in itself was fun, but what became my career epiphany ultimately was the launch of Netscape," Johnson recalls, noting that it allowed him a greater choice of English language content in real time in Japan.  "I didn't know what that would become, but I knew that I wanted to get involved in digital," he says.  The rest is history: He was hired as one of the first digital account executives at CNN almost 20 years ago.

I sat down with Johnson and asked him the following questions:

Charlene Weisler:  What are the major changes in the digital landscape since you first started?

Nick Johnson:  When I first got into the business at CNN digital was very nascent.  It was a rigid advertising environment at that time with limited video inventory.  In fact, when we started launching video, we built it as a subscription business, which I think slowed the growth of video overall as it was expensive to serve.  As there were a lot of companies competing in the space, it wasn't easy to turn on an ad server.  There were five of them and you had to figure it out.

Today you are dealing with high levels of addressability, massive distribution opportunities, video consumption and growth and new platforms that are launching almost every day, many of which have high consumer options and levels of video as well as ad inventory.  There are also layers of complexity to ultimately get the right ad to the right person.  But I think we are at an important inflection time in the industry, where this non-traditional video consumption is happening very quickly and people are getting comfortable watching video in different environments.  And, the advent of branded content, native and now this notion of building off-channel distribution of both your video content and branded content is light years away from where we were 20 years ago.

Weisler:  What aspects of digital are evergreen and non-changing?

Johnson:  Since the beginning, the consumer experience is very direct.  You can either keystroke in a URL or discovery through search.  But the relationship across time is a very lean-forward one, involving active participation, hands on keyboard and mouse, as opposed to a passive one where you choose to watch a show and lean back.  I think the relationship between the brand and a consumer digitally is very intimate.

Weisler:  What do you think will be the next big digital incarnation?

Johnson:  Active consumption of this content in these new distribution channels is big.  The volume of content being consumed through OTT is huge -- it is something that has gotten very big, very quickly.  We are spending a lot of time wrestling it to the ground and developing strategies to super-serve our customers.  Branded content is another initiative we are focused on.  We are seeing a lot of interest in that today.

Weisler:  Talk a bit about measurement.  What metrics do you use?

Johnson:  It is everything from leveraging our data solutions to identifying the best audiences.  Standard measurement is important for validating who and how we reach consumers and whether we are delivering the right numbers.  And viewability of platforms. There are so many that address different parts of the value chain.  We are focused on all of them.

Weisler:  What is the prime focus for this year?

Johnson:  A big focus for us is leading in the marketplace in terms of branded and native content.  We have some great internal assets.  For CNN, we have a brand studio called Courageous, which is winning awards and is our engine for creating all of that branded content.  And we have a social agency in-house called Launchpad, which we use to deliver that branded content both off and on channel with socially informed data. Getting organized around the wave of consumption that is happening around OTT is also priority.  Attention on our social and mobile brands is another. Also, turning programmatic from a back-office function to a consultative offering.

Weisler:  What is CNN Digital's long-term strategy?

Johnson:  It's very much about taking advantage of this brand that we have.  We have had a big moment in the spotlight in the last eighteen months around the election and adding to that is the hard work that [CNN Worldwide President] Jeff Zucker and his team have done building a great consumer destination.  Our audience has gotten younger and is very engaged.  Our goal is now to take advantage of all of this to grow and disrupt the business over the next five years.

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