Questions for MSN’s Joanne Bradford

Joanne BradfordAs the industry’s fortune’s have improved, MSN has emerged as one of the more robust players in online media, rising along with bellwether publisher Yahoo, even while rival America Online has floundered. ClickZ recently caught up with Joanne Bradford, the portal’s chief media revenue officer. She has been in her post since late 2001, a troubled time for online advertising.

“Since I’ve been at MSN, I’ve seen a deeper, richer experience for users,” she said. “MSN has really done a lot in terms of perception, performance and outreach to change the perception of creative online.”

Q. How has the landscape changed for MSN in the last year?

A. I think we are viewed as, if not the leader, then a leader in the online ad space. MSN reaches 350 million unique users in a month. We operate in 37 countries. We have broken some new ground in the video service this year. We held a summit thinking about how online should play a role in the mix.

Online has grown from being at the children’s table to the adult’s table. We are the butterfly; we have come out of our cocoon. It’s been very exciting. I’ve had discussions with bellwether marketers that have asked us to come educate their brand managers and marketing team on how to use the online medium effectively. Marketers who didn’t take our phone calls a year ago now want to work with us in a strategic way. It’s great to see MSN come out as a thought leader.

Now we’re trying to come up with more compelling formats for creatives to use, giving a broader canvas. We’ve included video. We’ve included the IAB’s recommendations for universal ad packages. We’re offering Flash and sound and lots of other tools for creatives.

Q. MSN Video has been available to Web users and advertisers for two months. How has the uptake been for each of these groups?

A. The video service is still in its test phase with a few key marketing partners, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive with both users and advertisers. Marketers always ask, ‘How much do you have, and can I buy it all?’ They don’t necessarily ask how much it costs, because they’re so compelled by the product.

Q. How does MSN approach selling search to marketers, outside the Overture relationship? How well has that relationship served you?

A. The thing that MSN has done really well is package up the network, and how the audience moves through the network, for the most impact for the marketer. Search is just one lever. While you can buy parts of MSN search through Overture, there are some search products you can buy only through us.

While we sell to a few thousand advertisers, Overture sells to over 100,000 advertisers. We service a very different level. It’s a great partnership.

Q. What about new ad products that may accompany MSN’s upcoming algorithmic search product?

A. We always continue to innovate in all of our ad products. For that, you’ll have to speak to the other side.

Q. What are the key challenges faced by large online publishers right now?

A. I break it down into three buckets. Number one is making it easy to sell and easy to buy, across the board. That means a campaign can be placed and executed against [inventory] easily. It’s an industry-wide problem.

Also, I think we have a supply and demand issue in key placements. The MSN homepage is sold out for the rest of the year. Speak to any major publisher and you’ll find their most heavily trafficked pages are sold out. How do you create higher value across the entire network? We’re addressing this by redoing our entertainment page and auto page, things like that.

Third is education and outreach in the industry. There’s no marketer today that can deny digital marketing as part of the mix. Industries like financial, automotive and travel; their online spending is in the teens [as a percent of overall budgets]. As other advertisers realize this, they’re going to spend more of their dollars online. They understand why. They just have to know how.

Q. Does MSN have its hands in behavioral targeting in a major way?

A. We’ve done a great job at learning the behavior around the network and helping marketers get value through a lot of placements. We’ll continue to develop that through technology.

We’re very cautious of how we approach it from a privacy, pricing and inventory predictability perspective. It’s difficult to do. If you said you want to reach people in the market for a minivan on X site, it’s difficult to know who’s out there. It’s something we think about a lot; we haven’t nailed it completely. I’d like to meet the person who has nailed it.

Q. Is planning inventory getting easier? How do you balance technology-driven forecasting with a human touch?

A. I think the search market has taught us that technology and automation can only take you so far. You still need some level of human analysis. If you left it all to a machine, you’d miss some of the nuances. That equates to job security for me.

The value that MSN sales staff offers to marketers is critical. It helps guide them in their thinking about how to maximize results. It still takes a high amount of human touch to think about what opportunities to next take advantage of.

Q. How are things changing for the sales team at MSN?

A. I think they feel good about our renewal rate for customers.

MSN’s goal is advertising revenue; we are in the advertising business. But that wasn’t always clear to them before. It’s clear now. They’re feeling very empowered, and they’re feeling very optimistic.

It’s an amazing time to be online. I worked at BusinessWeek in 1999 and 2000, a very exciting time, and this is more exciting than that was. The reason is, we knew the number of page views we were carrying then wasn’t sustainable [because the dot-com boom inflated interest]. Now it’s sustainable.

We’re taking a very methodic approach. The video service is a great example. Before, we would have launched it [incautiously] and said, “everybody in!” This time we’re being very careful. Nobody wants another bubble.

Q. Describe a day in the life of Joanne Bradford.

A. It’s never the same. That’s the beauty of it. I can be in meetings at Microsoft all day. I’ve done as many as 13 customer meetings in a day. I’ve had four lunches in a day.

I work out. I have two children, 5 and 10. I like to buy shoes, for other people and myself. I bought shoes for my entire sales support team. I might move onto handbags, I’m not sure yet.

People are always interested in what Microsoft and MSN are doing. We’re trying to be more thoughtful and transparent about what we present. It’s really important to me that MSN not be shrouded in mystery.

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