How CNN outperformed in 2020 and faces the year ahead


Interview of Sabine Petrossian, Account Director, CNN International Commercial

Today, CNN is one of the most watched TV channels and a major source of information and reference worldwide. Can you tell us a little bit about your company’s history, how CNN has come to occupy such a position today, and how it may interact with Warner Media’s other activities?

CNN has been informing the world for more than 40 years now. Obviously the core brand promise for CNN is news, where we have been particularly essential in the last year, but we are more than news – people come to us for content around sport, style, business, tech and travel. As a news leader, I admire the hard work of our journalists in reporting the facts and putting them into perspective. This is what the public is looking for above all and our ratings prove it. Since the American election last November, CNN has been the most watched cable news channel in the United States, ahead of MSNBC and Fox News. We are also the world’s number one source of information, accessible to 475 million households worldwide across all media. Not to mention our strength in digital, where last year CNN reached its largest digital audience in history in 2020 according to ComScore, shattering all records and ranking #1 in every available month to date for global unique visitors. We ended the year with a monthly average of 215 million unique visitors globally.CNN is part of Warner Media and AT&T with whom we work hand in hand, particularly for the distribution of the channel to key partners allowing everyone to access reliable and verified information everywhere in the world. And from an advertising point of view, we provide solutions that integrate audience targeting tools based on the strength of WM and its fans.

Is there a definition of CNN’s « mission » in terms of its development axis?

I will explain this from the perspective of our commercial mission. The audience that watches CNN is very unique. It is the most powerful and influential audience at scale of any news organization in the world. Our audience analysis shows that people who watch CNN make or influence government policy, are senior decision-makers in global businesses, have significant spending power, and are frequent travelers in normal times.Therefore, we are now putting this audience at the start, middle and end of all client conversations and campaigns. It’s all about understanding our clients’ customers, defining who they are against our CNN audience and using a tech and data approach to best prove an advertising experience to generate the most effective response and results. This is an evolution of what we have done for many years so that the campaigns we develop together with clients have a better resonance with audiences on CNN platforms.

In light of this exciting history, what are the next major innovations that we can expect from your group and from CNN? For example, how can the emergence of Artificial Intelligence be integrated into the development of your products and services?

I think there will be much going on around immersive experiences and its wider application through VR and AR especially with multiplatform advertising, content creation and marketing campaign. Tech is changing our lives and the way we consume media and the way brands communicate and that’s why we need to really understand how beforehand! The media industry evolving and mutating at such a rapid pace, CNN as part of WM and AT&T is well positioned to bring greater innovation to our customers and audiences. Let’s see what the future holds especially when you think about 5G and machine learning that can definitely develop new ways of engaging with audiences. At the heart of this – think about what you want from an advertising experience when you consume media. You want something relevant, transparent and in the context of the media you are viewing. The advertising innovations we are working on are all designed with the audience in mind, to enhance the advertising experience on our platforms. 

How did you experience this completely atypical year 2020, on the one hand because of the pandemic, and on the other hand with the American elections? What is your assessment?

2020 has proven to be a challenge for all of us out there as we had to adjust our new way of working and communicating with our team members but also with our clients. As complex as it may seem, we have never been closer as a team and present to accompany our clients through these unprecedented times. I am proud of working for CNN as more than ever international news organizations have an important role to report on developments and share information that can help stop the spread of Covid-19. It is particularly important to have trusted news sources to turn to because of the danger of misinformation growing exponentially during the current crisis. The pandemic accelerated a period of already rapid change in the media industry. Both advertiser and consumer behaviour has changed dramatically, particularly in the digital space. For many years now CNN has acted both editorially and commercially as a 24/7 multi-platform company rather than as a solely linear TV business. This long-term strategy positioned us well for this year as COVID has made us evolve our product offering to reach audiences in new ways and develop different solutions for advertisers. Brands will need to understand their audiences to better respond to these new habits and communicate effectively with them and through our services we can accompany them to do so.

Has the unfolding of the year 2020 forced you to review or redirect certain products or services?

2020 enabled us to be very proactive with our partners. At the beginning of the pandemic, we created a special taskforce across CNN International Commercial comprising experts in brand strategy, data, creative, media planning around the world. It enabled our sales teams to offer bespoke guidance to our clients based on their needs, sector and geographical nuances. This is a service that only CNN can provide based on years of trusted partnership and knowledge of our clients’ business. To better serve our largest partners, we have also formed a new unit of Client Services experts that work alongside sales and creative teams to ensure alignment, success and clear measurement. Analysis from Kantar shows that 60% of brands that ‘go dark’ see a negative impact on brand relationship metrics, losing affinity, image, loyalty. While according to Global Web Index, 80% of consumers approve of brands running campaigns that show how they are responding to coronavirus/helping customers. Our learning from this period is that it is important for brands to respond positively to a crisis while showing authenticity to their consumers and staying true to their brand values.

Did the first wave of the pandemic force you to redefine your prices?

As a listed company, I won’t comment about CNN pricing specifically. However, as a general comment it is quite natural that a media with a premium environment and with high end global audiences like CNN will often be at the premium end of pricing. Our clients and the market know this because ultimately it is about a value exchange. Our clients who were present on our platforms during the last year clearly saw the value of this as audiences flocked to CNN in record numbers.

Have you noticed the same trends on the different platforms (TV, website, app, social networks)? In terms of business volume and in a period where it is difficult to make any forecasts, what prospects can you already feel for 2021? Will they impact your pricing policy?

Whether it’s on TV, digital or social, a clear trend that I see is around sustainability. In fact, many brands are committed to build a better future for our planet and want to communicate more on how they can make a positive impact. At CNN, we’ve been committed for years to tell stories of these incredible individuals, corporations and communities who really want to act and make the difference at their own level. Each sector is different on how they are reinventing themselves and how they were impacted. Travel and Tourism was mostly impacted but we increased our strategic counsel and supports, and other sectors showed growth such as in tech… We’re constantly working with them focusing on audience understanding as we plan mid and long-term for how brands will communicate post COVID. Every conversation is different depending on the client to offer the best bespoke solution that truly meets their needs and audiences’ needs. Good quality journalism and essential news and information are vital for everyone to navigate these exceptional times… As per my previous answer, I can’t speak specifically about our pricing and revenues, but when I look specifically at the brands that I work with, I am optimistic for the year ahead.

Are some regions of the world more aggressive and creative in terms of marketing than others? Are new markets emerging? If so, what suggestions would you like to make to the major Swiss brands with an international presence?

TV advertising was already in a significant state of flux pre-Covid-19. At CNNIC we’re working across over 200 countries, and we’ve tracked the development of ad market maturity. Highly data-led markets such as the U.S. and the UK set the trends in many aspects, but naturally advertisers across all markets are embracing new technologies and sophisticated solutions to connect with consumers. The democracy of much digital technology means many ad solutions travel to any market where connectivity is strong enough. My advice for Swiss brands that would like to communicate internationally is to stay authentic, invest in audience understanding and be a source of truth and positive impact.

You have a very regular business relationship with Mediamix. Can you tell me, from your point of view, how you would characterize this relationship and what constitutes its added value?

My team and I have been working with Mediamix for more than a decade now. We have built a strong collaboration through the years, one that lies on trust. I believe the added value comes also from the Mediamix team understanding our products and solutions and therefore together providing our clients with the best tailored made and authentic solutions. I am particularly excited about the year to come and the partnerships we will work on together.

Finally, would you have some thoughts that you would like to share with us about Larry King, who left us on January 23rd?

I have been a CNN fan for as long as I can remember, and Larry King was an incredible journalist with more than sixty years of career interviewing the world’s greatest from Madonna to Jacques Chirac. He was a great emblematic figure of our channel and will forever leave his imprint globally. Everyone wanted to be on Larry King live and we can’t forget that.




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