Survival Summit

When bad news coverage and big ad campaigns collide

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Ad Age Editor Brian Braiker (l.) and USA Today Network executive Michael Kuntz at Ad Age's Survival Summit.
Ad Age Editor Brian Braiker (l.) and USA Today Network executive Michael Kuntz at Ad Age's Survival Summit. Credit: Ingrid Bonne Photography

Publishers love to sell a big ad campaign. They don't like following it closely with an article about how the advertiser behind it is simply the worst.

That's basically what happened last March to Michael Kuntz, president of advertising sales and brand partnerships at USA Today Network, who talked about the experience at Ad Age's Survival Summit in Chicago on Wednesday.

A major auto brand had just started a massive ad campaign with USA Today Network, which includes 110 publications such as The Indianapolis Star, The Arizona Republic and The Cincinnati Enquirer, during the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, Kuntz recalled. The very next day, USA Today covered Consumer Reports' finding that a corporate sibling of the undisclosed brand was high among the worst car brands in America. (Kuntz didn't name the brands involved, but the article is here.)

And that story then ran on USA Today Network's 110 different properties.

Once Kuntz and his team saw the story, they reached out to the marketer and avoided the worst. "Any situation like that the best thing to do is to proactively notify the agency or comms team to get ahead of it," he said. "They heard about it from us and as the day went on and as more info trickled in."

"We didn't take the story down and there was no pressure to take it down," Kuntz added. "Five other auto brands that were also current or recent advertising partners were on that list."

If he could have changed things, he would have given the brand a heads-up that the story was coming. "I know that is a big ask" of the newsroom, he said. "They aren't thinking what an advertiser is going to think because they have their own situations they have to monitor and maintain."

Reporters and editors also usually prefer not to anticipate advertisers reactions in the first place. Kuntz said the newsroom was sympathetic when it was brought into the discussion after publication, but did not apologize.

The brand has kept spending with USA Today, he said.

Overall, Kuntz said he believes there is more collaboration between product or sales divisions and the newsroom. "I want to be clear," he said. "I do not think the lines are blurring, but I do think there is a greater willingness to generate more advertising interest."

"I think there is a recognition that times are changing and to fund journalism at the local and national level, you are responsible to help monetize those brands," he added.

Surviving Facebook

When it comes to Facebook Watch, the social platform's answer to YouTube, Kuntz said "there are people there and we're seeing a lot of traction, but not a lot of revenue."

When asked about whether the Facebook algorithm changed affected traffic to the USA Today Network properties, Kuntz said, "I think that is one of the most overstated stories in the last six months. I think if you're a digital native, like BuzzFeed, they were all in on that. We didn't feel the pain in those changes."

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