Cathy Ibal's interview with INfluencia

Cathy Ibal in French magazine INfluencia

Ibal discusses CNNIC's next steps towards the new normal

May 4th, 2021

Cathy Ibal spoke with French digital marketing magazine INfluencia on the role of CNNIC during the pandemic, our objectives and our Audience First Strategy. 

Read the article online in French here.

Read the English translation of the interview below

“We benefit from the power and values of the CNN brand.”

Cathy Ibal, Senior Vice President, Ad Sales EMEA, CNN International Commercial

Between the U.S. news and the pandemic, the past year has been full of lessons and opportunities, says Cathy Ibal, senior vice president of CNN International Commercial (CNNIC) for EMEA. She leads teams of around 20 nationalities based in four countries, as well as the in-house Create production studio.

INfluencia: What type of advertisers does a media company like CNNIC, which markets CNN outside the US, target?

Cathy Ibal: We cater to advertisers who want to run their international campaigns on a single CNN medium, but across all markets reached by the Europe Middle East Africa (EMEA) signal, as far as my region is concerned. Our teams in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London and Paris have very different clients. In Western European markets such as France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, we reach advertisers who are more corporate in the luxury, hotel and logistics sectors. In Africa and Eastern Europe, they are more institutional advertisers who want to promote their country in terms of tourism or investment opportunities. CNN is aimed at a very high-end target that is quite complicated to reach, decision-makers who travel, speak several languages, are very well equipped... The public comes to watch this channel for its main mission of information, but we also offer premium verticals on travel, health, fashion, politics, business... which allow us to offer a context and an environment adapted to the universe of the brands.

IN: What dynamics do you observe in the different countries of this EMEA zone?

C.I.: Part of Asia has already returned to a certain form of normality, which is gradually shifting towards the West. In the Middle East, the market is starting to move. In the United States, where vaccination is very advanced, people are returning to a travel dynamic. Europe is a bit in the middle and we hope that this dynamic will gradually arrive in our markets. There was a "before" the crisis and, with the stop and go periods, we are still "during" the crisis, even if we all want to project ourselves into the "after". Everyone is trying to prepare for the recovery: traditional sectors that are repositioning themselves, as well as new sectors in which we have positioned ourselves and for which we have many briefs.

IN: How did you cope with the crisis that particularly affected your two biggest advertising sectors, tourism and luxury?

C.I.: It was a big challenge, but we also benefited from new opportunities. All the decision-makers in the world were prevented from traveling and were therefore more available. The agency was able to have contacts with CEOs and CMOs that we would not have had access to before. On the commercial side, we set up a task force to try to diversify the portfolio very quickly into new sectors. For example, tech, finance, pharmaceuticals, energy, which has become more important with messages on sustainable development or renewable energy. We hope that this broadening of our portfolio will be sustainable and also that tourism will come back quite strongly in the second half of 2021. Our production studio is working with the World Tourism Organization to adapt the campaign messages.

IN: Business travel is likely to be permanently impacted by new video-conferencing work habits. What impact could this have on your business?

C.I.: Business travel will undoubtedly be considered differently but, for key clients, it will still be necessary to have direct contact and a human relationship. Business travel will have to reinvent itself, just like air travel. For our part, we will always find a way to reach this target group of decision-makers who travel. We will accompany them on trips that will no doubt be fewer in number but perhaps more qualitative.

IN: In the US, CNN - which has been constantly mocked by Trump - has lost almost half of its peak audience since he left the White House. Are you seeing the same phenomenon in the EMEA region?

C.I.: CNN's audience in the U.S. is much more mainstream than the channel's international audience, which reaches more decision-makers. The year 2020 was very marked by American news with record audiences, which had never been reached since the creation of the channel. CNN passed Fox News in the 25-54 age group, which is the main target of American media and advertisers. After such an outstanding year, ratings will decline, but the news coming out of the US continues to attract interest. As CNN International, we are benefiting from the fact that the new US administration is putting more emphasis on international news.

IN: Does the weakening of the news media in the light of fake news mean that they have to "sell" themselves differently?

C.I.: In the United States, CNN is the news media considered the most reliable by 28% of the public, with a 10 point difference compared to Fox News. Viewers come to this medium because they can trust the information it delivers and we need to stay true to that primary mission. I've hosted panels in countries that lack information sources and we see how important this diversity is. In recent months, there has been a revival of confidence in the traditional media. So we have benefited more from the power and values that the CNN brand embodies. These values are also embodied in various actions around the common good: a Facts First campaign to respond to the rise of fake news, but also other speeches to encourage the public to go and vote, to encourage respect for barrier gestures... We have freed up a fund of advertising inventory with other broadcasters to promote health messages internationally.

IN: How has the "Audience First" strategy changed the nature of exchanges or relationships with partners?

C.I.: As soon as the advertising sales team receives a brief or a request for proposal and right up to the execution, the audience is at the center of everything. Historically, we used to work on major socio-demographic criteria and socio-professional categories. Today, we position ourselves as a consulting firm for advertisers and we go much further in our analysis. Starting with a category of business travelers, we need to know what interests them in detail during a stay in a country. A team is also dedicated to key clients. Any creative or editorial solution is now supported by data. We rely on semantic analysis tools to avoid blacklists of words, targeting tools... The studio helps advertisers orchestrate their messages. We can also benefit from synergies on technological innovation from our parent company, the WarnerMedia group (subsidiary of AT&T, editor's note). All the brands in the group can amplify the messages.

IN: Segmented advertising is a new horizon for broadcasters. How do you approach this subject when the countries in the distribution zones in which you operate are not at the same level of maturity?

C.I.: The United States was the first market to launch segmented advertising. In Europe, we are working more specifically on a few countries. A partnership has been launched with Rakuten in Germany and the United Kingdom, which are our two major countries in terms of audience in Europe.

IN: What levers of action can you activate with the Create studio that you also supervise?

C.I.: As of now, 60% of our campaigns include brand content and the studio. Create also complements the creative ideas of CNN's editorial department, which works on sponsorship. It is one of the specificities of CNNIC - and of international publishers - to work on messages based on their values. We rely on storytelling and emotion. The CNN Film School video program, sponsored by the luxury automotive brand Genesis and conducted on a global scale, highlighted the art of visual storytelling. It was also a way to support the 7th art and the students. With its eleven short films produced for BMW, The Art of Leadership series pays tribute to the talents that transform our society for the good of all. These powerful and moving stories produced by Create are a key component within our offerings. They will continue to grow for a prominent place on all platforms to reach a global audience that shares our values.

IN: You lead a team of nearly 20 different nationalities. How is this a source of complexity and/or enrichment?

C.I.: Working with teams based in several countries and with a wide variety of nationalities naturally brings differences, but also great richness. And also a respect that makes it work in the way we work. It is often when we are too identical that friction is created. Probably more than a local media, CNNIC tends to mix very different nationalities. We have created a committee with cultural champions to ensure that this culture shines and is shared. Beyond this richness, we must also work on gender diversity.

IN: What does this mean?

C.I.: the questions that women ask themselves about the initiatives they can take in the company are sometimes expressed differently depending on the culture, but they are nevertheless quite widely shared. We are in a group with an American culture, which offers many coaching and mentoring programs. As a manager, I talk a lot to young women about key issues, to reassure them that they are perfectly capable of taking on responsibilities. At the management level, we are fortunate to have a chairman, Rani Raad, who has always pushed both men and women into executive positions. The framework helps us but there is work to be done. I hope that this period of Covid and working at home can shake up the mentality that a woman can have a professional life and a family life. And that this year will also mark an inflection point on these societal issues.

Read the article online in French here.