Chuck Townsend Has an Answer for the Ad-Blocking Conundrum

Condé Nast Chief Doesn't Fault Consumers for Shunning Digital Ads

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Condé Nast Chairman Chuck Townsend
Condé Nast Chairman Chuck Townsend Credit: Nathan Skid

If magazine publishers removed advertising from their print editions, there would be an "uproar," but if they took away digital advertising, no one would miss it, contends Chuck Townsend, chairman of Condé Nast.

So Chuck doesn't fault consumers for blocking digital ads. "Ad blocking is really a way to articulate the fact that consumers have negative reactions to advertising out of context," Chuck told me during a video interview prior to his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

"I would say this to advertisers: Put your advertising in digital content that has perfect context, so that it brings something to the party and then why would someone ignore it?"

"So put it in context. Don't just run it in mass digital. Don't just run it on the side of search. Don't just run it in social media. If you want to put great digital fashion advertising to work, put it on content with great fashion editorial in digital form and you won't be blocked."

Chuck, a big, robust guy at 73 who loves sailing and has won a lot of trophies doing it, maintains that the answer to ad blocking is also the key to good branded content.

If the content is "interesting and pertinent, people will react."

Ad blocking, he said, is simply a technological answer to a demand "driven by the fact these consumers are saying, 'Not for me. Thank you. I don't want it.'"

Chuck drew comparisons to the current state of politics. "Listen to what consumers are saying. It's almost universal through politics and everything else. Don't dictate how things are going to work. Listen to what they're saying."

So I asked Chuck if Trump blocking would work any better than ad blocking?

"No one has been able to successfully block his messaging. It's an interesting thing. ... This guy's winning and winning. And the combined old establishment stuck in their ways is losing. They're not listening to what is happening out there. They're saying, 'We will control this.'"

Chuck admitted that's he's "really disappointed" in the amount of digital advertising Condé Nast is carrying -- about 15% of total revenue. "I'm disappointed because we've never worked harder on any business effort than we've worked on growing digital revenue."

He said he would have thought that in the U.S., "given the effort that we've put into it ... that we'd be more like 50% of our print revenue in digital." Chuck said the company has accumulated 100 million users and is in the top 20 in total audience, which he calculates should convert to a half-billion dollars in revenue.

"So at the top, you've got three or four big boys and then some others like us." The big boys capture the lion's share of digital ad revenue, Chuck says, because "it's a safe buy. It goes back to the advertising community. Why are they doing that? Why put your money there? Why not take the time to understand how the content, this content digitally really fits your messaging?"

Chuck says buying search and social media are safe because "what's the CMO going to say? 'I don't think I want to be a part of the search community. I don't think I want to be part of social media.' He's going to be just criticized out of his seat" by the CEO.

Chuck admits that Condé Nast was slow to embrace the contemporary thinking on branded content. "We were pure church and state. We have come a huge way and I'll say that just for this company. I think others in the industry have come further faster."

I asked Chuck what was the overall lesson the company learned from moving into branded content.
"Look, the world's moving and we've got to move along with it, and that's the toughest message in managing a company today, particularly with a 105-year history, particularly the 40 years under Si Newhouse's management of this company. You know, he really put huge value on quality content. The idea of commercial messaging being part of it wasn't something he even had to deal with; we just didn't do it."

Condé Nast recently opened a digital outpost in Austin, Texas, and I asked Chuck what the company hoped to accomplish. "There's an interesting message that I think we're sending and that is, even though we occupy 24 floors in One World Trade Center and we've only been here for a year, there is business out there beyond the Hudson River. ... It doesn't all start and end here. We have to make this as vital a community as Austin and the Valley is. That kind of balanced messaging is a good thing to do."

Chuck joined Condé Nast 23 years ago from The New York Times Co. at the age of 50, and he had "the really unusual privilege of working almost desk to desk with Si Newhouse for almost 20 years. I had the privilege of working with not just an unusual man, and not just an unusually gifted man, but in a way a genius, an extraordinary human being with a wonderful insight into why consumers really appreciate quality content.

"I know my mission. I mean, he's the owner and I'm the driver. … Maybe a co-pilot would be a nice way to put it, but with my hands on the controls. And I will never regret what we created here. I will never regret it."

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