Media Insights: Interview With Allison Schiff, Managing Editor at AdExchanger
The world of advertising technology is a small but mighty segment of the media. The ongoing evolution and growth of adtech demands the constant attention of journalists like Allison Schiff.
Allison is the managing editor at AdExchanger, and despite the hundreds of PR pitches she receives everyday, she reads and responds to each of them.
For the next installment of our media insights blog series, I connected with Allison to discuss her main takeaways from the thousands of pitches she sees, tips and best practices for PR professionals looking to gain traction in the adtech space, the ins and outs of adtech reporting, and whether the cookie apocalypse is still a viable media topic years later.
Tell me a little bit more about your background and how it’s led you to managing editor at AdExchanger. Have you always had a passion for the adtech space?
I’ve always had a passion for writing. It’s sort of a funny story: When I told my parents I wanted to be a writer, I was in high school and they were very supportive of me. But then they went upstairs, closed their bedroom door and said, “Okay, we’re going to have to support her, so I guess we’ll take out a second mortgage.” They were focused on me and wanted to make sure I could pursue my dream but still eat, and they were not convinced, even though they believed in me, that I would be able to make a living writing.
It’s a meandering path, but it’s really an interesting industry, so I’m glad I landed in it. I was a medical copywriter for a while. I worked for a trade organization for certified public accountants on their newspaper. When I was there, my editor moved to Direct Marketing News, which was owned by Haymarket at the time. When there was an open position there, she let me know, and I followed her, which was my first introduction to marketing. And then Ryan Joe started working at Direct Marketing News and he and I became friends. He left to go to AdExchanger and let me know there was an open job there, so I applied and have been at AdExchanger ever since. So I’ve followed people into adtech.
Do you feel like Twitter is one of those spaces that you’re constantly interacting on? Are you mainly following people in the ad community? Is it one of the main spaces that you interact in for your career in general?
It depends how you define interact, because I’m a creeper. I get a lot of information from Twitter — I just don’t tweet a lot. I follow Eric Seufert and Ari Paparo and then sometimes follow all the people that follow them or that interact in their threads. If I don’t hit follow, I still read what they’re posting because Twitter is funny in that there are these weird little pockets. There’s NBA Twitter, cat Twitter, knitting Twitter, adtech Twitter, and people really go down their rabbit holes. Adtech Twitter has almost replaced adtech Reddit for me. People have really interesting, honest conversations in the comments, so I use it, but I don’t tweet a lot.
What are you responsible for at AdExchanger? What specifically are you focused on and how do you source content for those different areas of the outlet?
I inherited AdExchanger Talks after Zach Rodgers went onto his next phase as a consultant, and I do a lot of the line editing in my day to day. So when our writers file, I usually grab those edits.
I’m also working with our new younger writers. We have two new hires, Anthony Vargas and Alyssa Boyle, who are great, but new to the industry so they’re learning. It’s been really helpful for me because there are these things you just accept as immutable truths, and you don’t really question them anymore — buzzwords for example. You know what they mean, so you’ve stopped really thinking about them deeply. But Anthony or Alyssa will ask a question and I’ll think, “Actually, I don’t know how to explain that.” Then I go back and do some Googling to keep myself honest, which is good because you don’t get mentally stagnant.
So I don’t write for the newsletter, but I edit it before it goes out. And as I edit, I still do a lot of writing. Usually the managing editor role is really not just an editing role, but is very focused on making sure we’re feeding the beast and keeping the site populated. But I really like writing and have structured the role over the last six months so I have the time to also write my own stories in addition to editing. I’m also, for now, responsible for vetting our columns.
In terms of the content itself, I think people don’t have an appropriate understanding of the term thought leadership. It really is just thinly veiled self-promotion. Most of the pitches we get are really thin. They’re boring, they’re not spicy in any way, they don’t fit the bill of an op-ed — and that’s 80% or 90% of what we get. I would encourage everyone who has actual opinions to share them because that’s how an industry reflects on itself, not just trying to use our columns as a selling tool.
What kinds of PR pitches do you like receiving? Are there any in particular that you think, “this is good,” even if you can’t write about it or need to table it for the time being?
We get a lot of pitches about this new feature, this new technology, this new rollout and so on. That’s fine, but often you never really get to (unless you push for it) talk to a brand, a publisher or a client about actually using or testing whatever “X” thing is. Sometimes the product is too new, but that doesn’t mean a client of that company can’t talk about the potential or give some kind of validation point. Otherwise, we don’t really know if we’re writing about vaporware. Talking to a client of the company can also make the story more interesting, and it vouches for the company itself when they can make their clients actually want to talk to us.
If there’s a name brand or an interesting brand — it doesn’t have to always be McDonald’s — a smaller brand is fine if the person is interesting and smart or published. Clients always push a pitch over the edge.
Sometimes things are interesting to us, even if it’s not something we would cover. For example, we rarely cover partnerships, so we usually think of them as FYIs. I just got a pitch about Mediaocean and TikTok partnering. We wouldn’t write a story about it, but it might be a, “but wait, there’s more,” in our newsletter. I don’t want other journalists to suffer if I say this, but I like being kept in the loop. I don’t like my inbox exploding, but even if it’s stuff that I don’t cover, I want to just know about it because those nuggets are helpful. Then you draw conditions in your mind, even if you really cannot or really would not write about something in a full-length story.
I understand that there’s a lot of work that PR professionals have to do on your end, too. You can’t craft personal emails to everybody as you’re pitching, but I get a lot of what are clearly automated emails. Sometimes that really is strange to me because the pitch is about something super niche. It makes me think, “How many people could actually be pitched about this thing?” For a niche adtech topic, there might be 10 people who would even consider covering it. Why is this email so long and robotic and clearly not written to me? But I take the time to respond to all emails. I like a personal email, and I prefer to get an email from a human if possible.
Of all the pitches you receive, how many would you say are relevant?
I get well over a hundred emails a day and maybe 50 are “What is this?”; 40 are, “Okay. This is not a company we cover much. Cool. Thank you for the FYI”; and 10 are, “Okay. I could cover this.” Realistically, you can only cover one or none because you’re already working on something.
Does the subject line matter to you? Are you sifting through emails and going line by line or is there something that really stands out to you?
Some people will send subject lines with tons of emojis in them or just the, “Woo, big news,” siren emoji and I’m like, “What is this?” If it’s not a marketing email, I think a subject line should just be stark because that’s really all I need to know. It doesn’t have to be super catchy. It just has to have the information. Obviously, you can’t have the whole pitch in the subject line; but for example, just “TikTok plus Mediaocean equals partnership” is enough, and then if that’s interesting, you read the rest of it.
Also, I get really long pitches, sometimes around 300 or 400 words. I will sometimes write an article that’s only 400 words. Shorter pitches are better because you just want to scan the information and say, “Okay, they’re offering this person, this is the technology, this is the embargo and its date.” If that’s enough to decide and if I have follow-up questions, I’ll follow up. Just a few bullet points is enough.
Then I get these pitches that are just explaining the industry. They’ll say, “Because privacy regulations are coming into force around the world …,” and I know that. The pitch doesn’t have to be an article in and of itself.
Based on what you’ve said, it doesn’t seem like you need a CEO or a CMO source, but is that true? When you’re looking for sources, is there a specific title that you would be more compelled to speak with as opposed to Director of Marketing or something like that?
Sometimes, but it really depends. We’d want to talk to CMOs and SVPs of marketing at brands, and even at publishers, because they have something to sell. They’re selling their inventory. But salespeople and CMOs at tech vendors and publishers play a different role. In those cases, we would want to speak to the growth person, the performance marketing person or somebody who’s smart — it doesn’t have to be the CTO. We want somebody who knows what they’re talking about, but they don’t have to be the CEO.
I say it depends because sometimes if I’m sourcing something and I have some time writing a feature, I might want a specific person or I’ll really think about who is a good source for this. But if an acquisition happened today and I just need two comments from someone to just add some context, I’m less concerned about who it is as long as they have an interesting line or two to share with me quickly.
You mentioned acquisitions and product launches. The adtech industry has new announcements all the time, from a partnership, to an acquisition, to a new CEO. Which announcements do you think are worth covering?
Acquisitions with a little lead time are really nice. Sometimes something exclusive will go to someone and then you have to fast follow, but with acquisitions it depends. Sometimes we get pitched on these really small acquisitions, and they’re either tangential (we just don’t have the bandwidth) or they’re not sharing the deal price. Often a deal price will push us over the edge, but I understand why that can’t be shared all the time. We used to cover funding a lot, but now we don’t as much. I think there aren’t as many funding rounds, but funding can be a way for us to cover a smaller, interesting company for the first time. It’s an entry into their business.
There really is only so much time in the day. They might have an interesting client and it might be a cool case study you could write about and you can talk to their client, but there’s really not enough time to do that for all of the smaller, interesting companies. To cover a specific news item, like a funding round, for a smaller company, it helps to have an interesting angle or a well-known person from the adtech industry involved.
A lot of the stories I’ve been covering recently are not really based on pitches. I’ve been doing some Q&As with interesting CMOs if I can come across them. I’ve been to some conferences recently and I try to write about that, like the impact of what came out of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. And I try to read the news and see what’s coming out and what spin we can bring to it.
You mentioned getting a good lead time on an announcement. What would that be?
Ideally, two days. We’re very deadline-oriented and there’s always something going on. So, if I have an interview the week before, I’m not going to write it until two days before. If the lead time is one day, I’d just sit on it anyway.
So two days is amazing, and if it’s the day before, early in the morning. I get pitched a lot at 3:45 or 4:00 PM for a 9:00 AM embargo lift. In that case, it’s clear to me that you pitched it to somebody else as an exclusive, and you really wanted them, but they said no and now you’re coming to me. The answer is also no, because there’s no time.
You mentioned not all of your stories are formulated from a news pitch, for example, an interview with a CMO of a brand isn’t coming from a pitch. Do you meet them at conferences? Do you ever reach out directly? If there’s a CMO of a brand that you see on LinkedIn or Twitter, are you reaching out to see if they would be interested in chatting? How do those usually come about?
It’s all of those things. I went to Collision in Toronto and talked to a VP of data insights at Levi’s. There was an opportunity to set up a meeting with her because of the conference. It definitely would’ve been more difficult if it was just me reaching out. When we get to talk to those people and build relationships with them, they can then sometimes become speakers at our own conferences, which is something we think about.
Also, in a way, some of these conversations are based on pitches, but are not always directly related. I’ll get pitched on only the creative aspects of a campaign, which we can’t really cover, but I’ll use that as a jumping off point. I’ll say, “Well, we can’t cover this part, but can your CMO talk more technically about the programmatic strategy, or would they want to do a Q&A about their digital marketing strategy?” Then I’ll share a link as an example. It’s the brand or the brand’s agency reaching out about something different, but we’ll make our own ask. So it both is and isn’t based on a pitch.
I wanted to ask you about the cookie apocalypse because obviously it has been a topic of conversation for years. Do cookie-related pitches still stand a chance?
I get a lot of people trying to test if it’s something I’m interested in. I do get pitches that will say things like, “The end of third-party cookies are coming. Brands need to focus on first-party data. Do you want to talk to my client about this?” I’ll keep them in mind as a source, but there’s nothing there. If there’s a company that has an interesting idea for how to evolve beyond third-party cookies or something like that, I’d be interested. But at this point, just sharing some bland platitudes about the end of third-party cookies is a no.
Thank you, Allison, for sharing your experience and perspective, as well as some helpful tips for adtech PR professionals. Get in touch with Walker Sands to learn more about how we can use our industry expertise to support your business in reaching its goals.