When Etienne Uzac graduated from the London School of Economics in the mid-00s, he heard a lot of talk about the so-called BRIC economies (short for Brazil, Russia, India and China), but he thought the media offered too little coverage of those economies, and what they did offer was not particularly sophisticated or thoughtful. So in 2006, with his business partner Johnathan Davis, Uzac founded International Business Times, a global business news website that now comprises 11 national editions. Today IBTimes is the flagship publication of the privately held IBT Media Inc., headquartered in New York’s Financial District.
Uzac, the company’s chief executive officer, grew up in France and South Africa. In an interview, he said that while IBTimes has grown significantly in terms of reach, it’s still in the early phase of finding its voice on the larger digital stage. But he hopes the site will become a global answer to the “established business media” in New York and London. It’s a lofty goal, to be sure, but with globalization reaching unprecedented levels, Uzac believes there is a vast opportunity for digital publishers to provide coverage not only of the dominant markets in the U.S. and Europe, but also ancillary economies and emerging markets on every continent.
IBT: Digital media is a crowded arena, and business news is particularly crowded. What is IBTimes offering that no one else is?
EU: I think our vision is broader than many of our competitors'. We are also in the early stages of our development, compared to where we want to be. When I look at other publications, I feel that a lot of our competitors -- maybe not all, but a lot of them -- are in the mid- to late-stage of their growth process.
IBT: Media professionals are talking about the shift from computers to mobile devices, which I think is presenting a big challenge for digital publishers. What is IBTimes doing to stay ahead of that curve?
EU: It’s true that we’re seeing more traffic on mobile than before, but we still see a higher return on monetizing non-mobile content and also mobile video. The reason mobile doesn’t monetize as well is that the mobile CPMs [rates] are lower. Basically, even though there is a big shift to mobile, I still feel that the advertising environment is not mature enough to invest in and push a lot of our traffic there.
IBT: I think a lot of publishers are just crossing their fingers and hoping mobile doesn’t disrupt things in the same way that the shift from print to digital disrupted the entire media landscape.
EU: Well, let me clarify -- I do believe that mobile will be monetizable, much more than it is now. So I am not saying that it is not going to happen. I just feel that it’s delayed. People -- Internet users -- change faster than advertisers, I guess. I’m not too worried that if we move slowly into mobile we will be at a disadvantage, that a year or two down the line we won’t be able to monetize it, because I think that there will be more and more solutions to do so in 12 months or even more. So basically our attitude is, yes, we need to have good execution on mobile, but I don’t want to force all of our readers to consume everything on mobile yet. Some publishers indeed have done that, and they now have more than 50 percent of consumption on mobile -- and they are struggling to make money from that shift of their audience.
IBT: What is IBTimes’ mobile percentage?
EU: I believe it’s around 25 percent.
IBT: What are your thoughts on native advertising -- that is, sponsored content designed to blend in with a specific platform and integrated into the user’s experience?
EU: It’s interesting, but I think it needs something else to take it to the next level. People who are being served native advertising don’t know whether the content is good or not. They basically are encouraged to click on a link, but they don’t really know the quality of that sponsored content.
IBT: Companies like BuzzFeed don’t even use traditional ads anymore. It’s all about partnering with brands to create sponsored content that goes viral. So what do you say to people when they tell you that display ads on the Web just don’t work and that they’re not relevant anymore?
EU: I hear that from people, of course.
IBT: That’s sort of the buzz.
EU: And it’s also what we have experienced. The CPM that we receive from banner advertising is lower than it used to be. So we can definitely see that banner advertising is losing its luster.
IBT: Since we’re taking about advertising, the biggest complaint I hear about IBTimes is the auto-play videos that show up on the website. Why use them?
EU: A lot of the advertising dollars have shifted to video. Whereas you used to be able to generate a good amount of revenue through display banners, it’s no longer the case. We now generate over 30 percent of our revenue through video advertising, versus 5 percent a year ago. And video advertising has consumed a lot of the budgets that used to go for display advertising -- and also that used to be earmarked for traditional TV and cable. I think particularly the cable industry is going take a bigger and bigger hit from the shift over to Internet video advertising.
IBT: It already is. I think Barry Diller’s Aereo service, which allows subscribers to pull broadcast signals out of the air and watch TV online, is going to help kill cable.
EU: So I do think that some of that money is going to shift to online. Content providers must be proactive in this marketplace, so that’s why we are doing all that we can to stay ahead in video. For example, we launched Bizu.tv, which is a premium video platform and portal.
IBT: How is that doing?
EU: It’s going pretty well. The reason we launched this platform is because we saw a lot of demand for premium video content. And not enough supply. We had advertisers coming to us and saying, ‘How many videos do you have? We need more and more and more.’ There are obviously big video sites out there, but they don’t necessarily appeal to a B2B audience.
IBT: How does IBTimes show that it values its talent and that it encourages good morale in the workplace?
EU: We can always do better. There are a lot of improvements that are possible in terms of communication. But I think it is improving, and we are working to make things continuously more positive. We do have a great story. We have a great space in the marketplace, and we need to communicate that more actively to our employees so they can feel like they are a part of something exciting, something unique.
IBT: Do you have any big goals for IBTimes that nobody knows about yet?
EU: One of our big goals is to work on creating a platform for publishers to share content that is very socially driven. It will allow publishers to share content around topics and also allow users to vet and approve or disapprove of content. I think there’s a big opportunity for an organic creation platform that would allow people to exchange information not based on algorithms or keywords but based on interest and topics and quality.