Firstly, we hope you and the team are keeping well at the moment. How are things over at Awin during this time?
Ian Charlesworth: The organisation is stronger than ever. We have been focused on a shift towards flexible working for a couple of years now, both culturally and technically, we were able to adjust with no disruption to clients or staff. In fact, our client NPS and employee NPS scores have continued to increase despite the challenges of the pandemic.
Just in terms of UK business performance, we have really seen the benefits of having a large and balanced portfolio of clients. We have launched over 300 new clients so far this year, up 24% on the same period last year, new publisher sign ups have increased by 41%, we have tracked £215 million of commission (up 15%), and have facilitated over 300,000 new partnerships, up 20% on the same period last year. Not bad for a “legacy network”! Our recent success at the Performance Marketing Awards showcased the client benefit associated with our depth of expertise.
I know from the other regions I am responsible for, and my colleagues in other markets, we are seeing the exact same positive effects globally, making this a record year of success for Awin on every level. Remembering that our success is a function of our advertiser and publisher client success, I think this is a good bellwether for the industry.
The last few weeks has seen the performance marketing industry shift and adapt in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. What are your thoughts on the industry’s response during this period?
IC: I think the first thing I should say here is that, whilst we have seen record performance for Awin and some of our clients and publishers, I am acutely aware that this is of no consolation to those who have been through a stressful and distressing period of time. We have witnessed extensive furloughing across certain sectors, businesses going into administration, and some dramatic shifts in commission from paused programmes. Faced with these challenges, one of the most impactful responses from the industry is the efforts undertaken to find new roles for talented people whose misfortune it was to be in the wrong industry at the wrong time.
Also, I think that too much of the talk has been about the impact of the pandemic on brands, almost forgetting that there are publisher businesses who also rely on predictable income. One of the advantages of our open network is that publishers have been able to divert focus to high growth verticals, giving up-and-coming advertisers some amazing growth in the process.
More widely, managing short notice programme suspensions, commission reductions and closures have undoubtedly proved problematic for the wider industry; a situation that Awin tried to address for its publishers via regular updates on the latest programme changes. Our unique ability to pre-pay publishers (before Awin gets paid by advertisers) also allowed us to share some of the risks and give publishers financial security during uncertain times.
In fast-moving situations, emotions can run high, and managed incorrectly, valued long-term partnerships can easily run aground. For this reason, Awin’s people have at all times sought to bring clarity, transparency, but most importantly context for any difficult decisions made by its clients, acting as a true intermediary. This is where Awin services, people and the personal touch have made all the difference. This level of empathy and understanding cannot be automated.
From your perspective, what trends have you noticed in the last few weeks that have affected the channel? (programs, relationships, verticals etc.)
IC: There is so much to talk about here, indeed our Client Partnerships and Strategy Departments has been producing loads of content and insights to help organisations and senior decision-makers to understand these rapidly changing dynamics. Naturally, and as already been widely covered, we have seen major disruption to the travel industry and certain retail segments too, with the knock-on impact to parts of the financial services sector.
As a general positive observation, we have seen an explosive growth of SME and challenger brands, driven by very pronounced ‘waves’ of consumer interest in things like sportswear, home and garden, subscription services, beauty, staycations, and home parenting.
On the publisher side, there has been a significant growth in both new and existing partnerships of scale expanding their activity with Awin, a number of which were impacted by detrimental measures by Amazon and display budget reductions. Our early investment into relationships and technologies to support media houses has continued to pay off as we see more of them pivoting towards the affiliate model.
Even though the pronounced lockdown period is now behind us, we are still reporting exceptional levels of YoY growth across many sub-segments, further illustrating the shift to digital during this period. Nationally, I believe we have seen four years of organic online growth compacted into two months and I do not see any reset on the immediate horizon.
Let’s talk about Awin. Particularly during this time, how has your business adapted to the pandemic and what sort of strategies have you implemented to support your clients?
IC: Through it all, Awin and our teams remained focused on advertiser and publisher support. We have over 150 client (advertiser and publisher) facing staff in the UK alone, and this scale allows us to reallocate resources pretty quickly, for example from paused programmes to fast-growing ones.
This theme of agility is key; we moved rapidly to onboard publishers adversely affected by Amazon commission cuts, we developed new reports and market insights with a view to sharing what we were seeing with the wider industry, and deployed flexible service packages to support clients large and small. Culturally and technically we were already set up for this transition with an established remote working culture, embedded tools, with client and publisher support in markets around the world.
Earlier in the year we unveiled Awin Access, our new solution for the start-up ecosystem, which has been immensely well-received by businesses that either needed to pivot to digital during the crisis or wanted to use our channel to accelerate growth. We saw a surge in sign-ups during the pandemic and offered discounted pricing to allow them to get going quickly. Publishers have flocked to these programmes, eager to work with new fast-moving advertisers who have almost unlimited appetite (and budget) for growth.
With lockdown restrictions easing, what sort of opportunities and expectations can we expect in the coming weeks for the performance marketing industry?
IC: I think these opportunities exist across every aspect of the industry, but you need to deeply understand the context of the different verticals. From travel, where we are dealing with unprecedented demand for UK staycations and tentative growth in international bookings, retail where the channel can help drive online customers back in store or facilitate affinity partnerships for like-minded brands, groceries where supermarkets are scaling up for a new round of digital customer acquisition, finance where opportunities exist to bring more sophisticated price comparison services to consumers, and of course telecoms which has to balance digital media growth with infrastructure investment and installation logistics.
One area that we all need to focus on is ensuring the investment that was removed from the channel (when programmes cut commissions) returns, as well as giving additional support to our travel brands and publishers. We also need to make sure that validation periods don’t slip and we speed payment times up as much as possible so publishers can keep reinvesting.
I know I’m biased but I think the industry is perfectly positioned to help companies small and large to get the most out of these rapidly changing consumer patterns. The key for us is having the expertise within our business to talk the language of our client context at all levels; from operational programme management with affiliate and partner teams through to strategic engagement with heads of digital – that hard-won expertise cannot be replicated in any form through AI!
Lastly, as we enter the second half of the year, are there any updates from Awin we should keep an eye out for?
IC: As you recently reported, we have announced our acquisition of Commission Factory, which further extends our business into many of the fast-developing markets across APAC.
In addition to this, you can expect us to focus on further evolution and adoption of our Advertiser and Publisher Mastertags. These secure tags deliver platform integration with our expanding ecosystem of technology partners and also unlock our most enhanced tracking capabilities, such as bounceless tracking, which has already tracked £400K of publisher commission this year.
Also our partnership with SingleView has recently been extended to include trial access for qualifying clients and fully integrated attribution reporting has been established within the Awin UI. This allows clients to clearly understand the value and contribution at a digital channel level down to an individual publisher level.
We will also focus on establishing and driving best practice throughout the industry and will be announcing new initiatives and solutions to deliver these at scale for the benefit of publishers and advertisers.
Finally we should talk about the recent launch of our adMission solution. With industry regulators increasingly scrutinising the commercial relationships that exist between bloggers, social media influencers and other types of publishers, and the brands they promote, they are demanding greater transparency on when links are monetised. Awin’s adMission provides publishers with an optional, customisable solution for link and page disclosure.
And these are just the things I can talk about; there’s a lot more to come!