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The Guardian US' SVP of ads on brand strategy, green ad dollars, and soccer

Luis Romero, SVP of Ads, The Guardian

Illustration by Holly Warfield / Getty / The Current

When Luis Romero joined The Guardian US as their head of sales in March 2022, it helped that he was already a big soccer — make that football — fan. “When The Guardian knocked on my door to help lead their U.S. marketing, the first thing that came to mind was their football coverage, because I’m a huge fan,” Romero says.

He’s followed the Portuguese coach José Mourinho from his days at Chelsea to his current role as coach of Roma. But beyond The Guardian’s football coverage, Romero quickly realized he was dealing with a publication that had a tremendous legacy in the United Kingdom — a newspaper harking back to 1821. His team’s challenge was to create more awareness in the United States ad-buying community to keep pace with a growing American readership, with an average of over 50 million unique visitors per month.

More than a year into the role, Romero and his marketing team seem to have found a winning formula, despite the economic downturn of the last year. At the end of its first 2023 fiscal quarter, which ended on June 30, The Guardian US reported that ad revenues were up 42 percent year over year, a remarkable uptick given the contemporary challenges for ad-supported digital media. When Romero posted this news on LinkedIn, one commenter posted, “Results are synonymous with Luis Romero.”

On July 25, The Guardian Media Group (GMG) announced “double-digit international revenue growth” for 2022/2023— up 17 percent to over $119 million, which accounts for 35 percent of the publication’s revenues overall. Such growth is part of GMG’s strategy to become “more global, more digital.”

Given his more than 20 years of success in sales and marketing with the likes of Group Nine Media, NBCUniversal, and Univision, Romero is an old hand at driving revenue growth for media companies. Romero credits his experiences selling multicultural audiences to advertisers as fundamental to his success. “You know, 20 years ago, when you were selling the Hispanic audience, you had to talk about what that audience profile looked like and why it was important,” he tells The Current. “And I find that you need to do that with news as well. This is probably the best audience because they’re highly engaged with the content that we’re creating.”

For Romero, the key to getting The Guardian US into the consideration set for advertisers was being “unapologetic about the brand,” showing them that the publication was a news force to be reckoned with, having been in the American market for over a decade. It even won a Pulitzer Prize with The Washington Post back in 2014 for its groundbreaking reporting on the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities based on the leaks of Edward Snowden.

Romero was able to lean into this brand strategy because he knew the value of what he was offering. “There’s a kind of cycle back to quality. And I think news isn’t typically viewed that way,” Romero says. “We are a quality, premium site in terms of the content and what we produce. And advertisers are looking for that.”

The Guardian US generates between $40 million and $50 million in annual revenue, the lion’s share of which is split between advertising and reader support, according to figures shared with The Current. The publication doesn’t have a paywall subscription but instead opts for a strategy that asks dedicated readers to sign up and contribute voluntarily. “That’s one of those differentiating points that sets us apart from most of our competition,” says Romero. And it helps drive scale.

Romero’s perceptions about the importance of that kind of trust are well founded. A recent poll by YouGov compared the net trust in media organizations among Democrats and Republicans, asking respondents to rate a media property’s trustworthiness. Among Democrats, The Guardian held its own alongside big U.S. publications like The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider. Some assert that ad effectiveness on a given media property is indexed to consumer trust, regardless of political affiliation. “I want to see publishers and advertisers unite around the idea that originality and quality matter for business results,” Adam Heimlich, the co-founder and CEO of Chalice Custom Algorithms, tells The Current.

To hear Romero tell it, The Guardian US is attracting advertisers because of the quality of its journalism, its long-standing liberal values, and because it knows its audience. “We have a vetting system on our end to make sure that if we’re going to bring on an advertiser, they align with what we believe in, and also what our readers believe in,” he says.

A case in point is The Guardian’s commitment to sustainability. The newspaper was one of the first to use the term “climate change” in 1978, and more recently, published its Environmental Pledge 2019 and formally updated its editorial style guide to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world, using “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating.” In 2020, the company announced that it would no longer accept advertising from “fossil fuel extractive companies” on any of its websites, apps, or print publications.

As head of ad sales in North America, Romero is on the front lines of this commitment. “As much as we’re courting green dollars, it’s really a two-way street. Those corporations that have green dollars to spend are actively looking for the right environment to place those ad dollars,” he says. “They see The Guardian US as a true leader in the green space where we walk the talk.”

At the same time, The Guardian has boosted the output of its custom-content offerings by means of editorial series that yield ad solutions for advertisers. Romero is quick to point out that there’s a clear line of separation between editorial and sales. One series called Green Light — exploring the critical role that corporations play in curbing the climate crisis — was sponsored by Amazon; Radical Thinking — exploring how innovative ideas (“A Six-Pack of Sauvignon: Could Canned Wine Help Save the Planet?”) might change the planet — was sponsored by Lexus. Last year about 30 percent of total ad revenues came from custom content and this year it’s pacing closer to 40 percent.

In addition to branded content like this, The Guardian US makes up the balance of its ad revenue from its other inventory, which is divided between direct deals and programmatic. “We want to trade with our advertisers,” says Romero. That said, he has shifted the publication’s strategy toward direct deals, calling it a “more controlled environment” for news, especially in a world where marketers are cognizant of brand-safety issues and use keyword blockers to avoid campaigns being juxtaposed with potentially “bad” news. Such a scenario can lead to programmatic dips for publications like The Guardian US that cover breaking news.

Which brings us back to the brand-trusted realm of soccer. It’s a huge draw for readership and advertisers alike, says Romero. The Guardian US has 16 million readers who are soccer fans and who spend an average of 2 minutes and 31 seconds on its soccer channel, the highest engagement versus all other sports channels. With its three global editions, The Guardian can offer live real-time reporting for readers. And since there’s no paywall, the company can claim it’s democratizing soccer coverage. “We have legacy and authority in this space,” says Romero.

For Romero, the explosion of soccer in the United States is a commercial opportunity, and he says he plans on putting more focus on the sport. His timing is good. With the FIFA Women’s World Cup underway, drawing huge interest in the U.S., Romero says The Guardian US is well positioned to capture diverse audiences, which can potentially segue into the Premier League, and greater engagement around Major League Soccer (MLS). The buzz around Argentine football legend Lionel Messi making his debut at Inter Miami is already creating an economic ripple effect for the franchise.

These are all milestones leading up to the next men’s FIFA World Cup, which will take place in North America — Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. — in 2026. “The more we cover the game now and the more we put our stamp on it, the more we’re going to continue to grow,” says Romero.