In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

The Economist and Creative Display


When The Independent fills its page with display ads, it provides so many ways to leave. (Source: Cream Global)

The most apt description of The Economist was provided by a friend of mine: “it is the debaters’ magazine”. The magazine described itself as “a product of the Caledonian liberalism of Adam Smith and David Hume”, during the recent debate over Scottish independence [1]. Those long articles oozed an appeal to undergraduates and professional workers.

As this article by Ben Davis of Econsultancy notes, this aura had an unintended consequence of turning away young ‘progressives’, or other advocates of progressive liberalism, which are a crucial demographic for British and American markets [2]. In order to expand its digital readership, The Economist began a campaign of creative programmatic display advertising in October 2014.

Terms of reference

For those unfamiliar with digital marketing terms, a ‘creative’ in an advert is simply refers to the image, or video, that is used; and ‘programmatic’ means using software to buy digital advertising [3]. Display adverts are those spaces on a web page that may be filled with text, images, video or audio.

(Video: Adwords)

Putting these terms together means setting certain rules and criteria for buying display adverts, and matching a creative to the spaces where those display adverts were placed.

The Economist sought readers who were intellectually curious, and so wanted to link their own articles to stories that their potential readers were currently looking at. This involved an analysis of the web and application usage of existing subscribers to The Economist, thereby identify their reading preferences.

They also matched data sets, from their cookies and subscribers and others, to build seven segments based around seven sections of The Economist: Finance, Politics, Economics, Doing Good, Careers, Technology and Social Justice. ‘Lookalike’ audiences, that is, audiences that are similar based on their cookie data to specified templates were then created.

The creative for the ads was built in real time, relating the page context and the viewer profile to The Economist’s content. What this meant in practice is that a prospective reader, on a different website reading about a topic, would be linked to The Economist on the same topic, with an appropriate creative.

Creative and predictive

Through more targeted advertising, potential readers were then drawn into registering and subscribing, with The Economist learning what sequence of topics lead to the strongest prospects.

The results are impressive. The target was 650,000 new prospects on the basis of £1.2m media expenditure, and half of this target was achieved in nine days. During the course of the campaign, over 3.6m new people sampled The Economist. The return on investment was over 10:1, on the basis of the initial revenue stream.

Whilst display advertising has been traditionally seen as a way of delivering lots of impressions, it can be a powerful tool for direct engagement with a website too.


[1] The Economist, 2014. Don’t leave us this way. Available from: [Accessed: 1st February 2016]

[2] Davis, B., 2016. The Economist: finding new readers with creative programmatic display. Econsultancy. Available from: [Accessed: 1st February 2016]

[3] Marshall, J., 2014. WTF is programmatic advertising? Digiday. Available from: [Accessed: 1st February 2016]



This entry was posted on March 5, 2016 by in Other Interests and tagged , , .
%d bloggers like this: