Irish Times
Credit: Still taken from Irish Times video

Last year The Irish Times ran a project with local start-ups called the Digital Challenge, which invited innovative start-ups into the newsroom to discover new opportunities for collaboration.

Buoyed by its experience from the first project, The Irish Times has followed up with its second "experiment" in this space. Called Fusion, the project is in part similar to the Digital Challenge, in that it involved working with a series of smart start-ups to help them hone their offering and uncover new opportunities to benefit both parties.

But the key difference this time was that the process was created with a specific 'problem' in mind – and that was digital advertising.

When it comes to online publishing, The Irish Times was keen to "do unconventional things that force the industry as a whole to move forward", chief innovation officer Johnny Ryan told

With this mission in mind, The Irish Times held the second installation of its start-up incubator project with the plan to "find start-ups who have created compelling experiences for the user", but, vitally, had "no reference or interest in advertising".

The idea is that each of the start-ups offers an experience, which can be turned into a piece of "experience inventory", or "advertising that is itself a product", he said.

"It's compelling, it's an experience," Ryan said. "It's not just something you read, and the ad is itself a product. That's maybe the revolutionary bit."

For example, the winning project, announced on Friday (14 June), was FrockAdvisor, which describes itself as "a social commerce platform connecting communities with an avid interest in fashion", followed by runner up GetHealth.

The process

At the start, the challenge received more than 100 submissions, from which 20 were chosen, and who were then invited into The Irish Times to work "with the leading creative directors in our particular market".

"We spent a week and a half with them," Ryan explained, "getting their pitches to move from being pitches to venture capitalists for money, to becoming pitches to brands, for user experience and for brand interest."

"Some of them actually did pretty well at jumping that bridge".

The next stage was to face a panel of "major media buyers", who whittled the 20 down to 10. Ryan said that the buyers then offered to act as mentors for the shortlisted projects,

"So now we have a situation where media buyers are coming into a newspaper, to mentor potential inventory that that a newspaper will try and sell back to the media buyers," Ryan explained.

On Friday, for "the finale", the start-ups were able to present their offering, and importantly, the advertising opportunity within, which was put to the media buyers to "decide whether it wants to support those things".

Following the finale, the winning and runner-up start-ups will spend six months as 'start-up in residence' at The Irish Times. "That will give each of them half a year to work on our advertising floor to work on joint projects," Ryan said.

The Irish Times is also continuing to work with the other eight finalists.

"The Irish Times now has 10 radically new offerings across mobile, physical/social, and web, and 10 teams capable of delivering them for the relevant market or brand," Ryan said. "That, in the space of two months and with a budget of virtually nil, is a good result."

Ryan added that he is now "working on a new initiative that takes the Fusion idea far further", and that plans for the "Fusion II" are also in the pipeline.

'Radical mental shift'

Reflecting on the impact of the experience, Ryan said the process was aimed at attempting to "radically change what inventory is understood to be," adding that is not just about changing its perception in the industry, but internally too.

Now the staff at The Irish Times are "all being forced to think about this, and it's having an impact on them", he added.

"We know that when the market is hard, the deeper, longer-term thinker has the advantage. Over the past months every single member of the advertising team at The Irish Times has had hands-on experience of working with the next generation of disruptive start-ups.

"Each person has had to make the mental leap between working with the inventory that currently exists, and conceiving entirely new inventory that the market has never seen before. This radical mental shift within our organisation is a long-term benefit that can not be underestimated."

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