Pinterest Wants to Show Advertisers It Can Run With the Big Dogs


At the recent advertising conference in Cannes, France, Pinterest announced its presence with zeal and whimsy.

Up and down the festival’s main boulevard, displays showcased new technology that allows users to search the digital scrapbook site using pictures taken on their smartphones. It claimed a beachfront space for the week and called it Pinterest Pier, a place where colorful signs highlighted the company’s popularity among its users and the potential that represented for brands. (“See the possibilities,” a sign declared at the beach’s entrance.) Refreshments based on popular Pinterest posts were served, complete with physical cards that mimicked their appearance online.

The pageantry represented Pinterest’s renewed efforts with advertisers, which have escalated in the past 10 months as it looks to regain its early buzz and show what it believes sets it apart from the likes of Google, Facebook and Snapchat. Part of that includes breaking from its understated style and playing the game: In addition to its setup at Cannes, it made a splashy appearance at this year’s South by Southwest festival and has attended at other industry events.

“It’s a focus for this year, building better tools and better relationships,” Ben Silbermann, the soft-spoken chief executive and co-founder of Pinterest, said in an interview at an ad agency conference in April, where he was a speaker. A major part of that has been “educating marketers who may not be that familiar with the platform on what it is and what it isn’t,” he said.

Pinterest, based in San Francisco, has grown to 175 million monthly active users who bookmark ideas and images on the platform’s virtual bulletin boards. Already among the nation’s most highly valued start-ups, it raisedanother $150 million last month for a valuation of $12.3 billion, and is expected to bring in more than $500 million in revenue this year. (Mr. Silbermann said in April that the company was not feeling pressure to go public, adding, “We’re just kind of focused on building a business out and we’re fortunate that we have capital.”)

While the company started selling ads two years ago, it has often been forgotten or miscategorized in conversations about online advertising, where attention is heaped on Facebook and Google for their size and Twitter and Snapchat for their social aspect.

Yet Pinterest’s users, the majority of whom are women, often provide a gold mine for advertisers with their searches and by “pinning” posts that they are interested in, indicating if they are exploring items tied to home redecoration, weddings or everyday needs like recipes and clothes before they have decided what to buy. Pinterest has been positioning itself as a better alternative to Google for search marketing, saying its connection with its users comes a step before someone types words into a search engine, especially now that it offers nascent visual search technology.

“The pitch to advertisers is explaining what people do on the platform,” Mr. Silbermann said. “What they do is try to design their life. That’s always a good place to be; Google’s pitch is, ‘People find stuff here.’”

But changing perceptions has not been Pinterest’s only hurdle with advertisers. The company asks that ads on Pinterest mimic user posts, providing their own beautiful imagery and helpful tips — another parallel that Mr. Silbermann drew to Google, given how its ads blend in with search results. While they can be more effective than ads that interrupt photos of friends on social networks, it’s a different kind of work for marketers and means that they have one more platform that they need to specifically design content for.

“We’ve seen brands achieve return on investment with Pinterest that blows away Facebook and Instagram, but that only happens when marketers share useful content and inspiring ideas,” said Bob Gilbreath, chief executive of Ahalogy, a marketing technology company. “It takes a shift in habits, which takes time.”

The company was also hampered by taking off “at the tipping point of the desktop-to-app transition,” GroupM, the media investing arm of ad giant WPP, said in a report this year, adding, “It’s likely that its commercial progress was slowed by its immaturity and a need to build for the desktop platform for which it was conceived.”

Still, the firm has a positive outlook on Pinterest, adding that with the introduction of promoted pins and search ads, the company “may be a serious challenger as a natural link between interest (not quite the same as intent) and commerce.”

Google dominates search advertising, which brings in tens of billions in revenue for the company a year — and it too has a visual search technology called Google Lens. But that has not stopped the ambitions of its rivals, which were on particular display in Cannes during a panel hosted by Omnicom’s Hearts & Science agency. The panel, called “Consumer Discovery and a New Way to Search,” featured Pinterest’s sales chief speaking about image search and Amazon’s vice president of global ad sales on voice search, making it clear that they were representing the new ways of searching.

Pinterest assembled a 15-person “partner advisory board” last September composed of ad industry heavyweights including marketing executives at L’Oreal and JPMorgan Chase and those who oversee digital media budgets at GroupM and Publicis Media. Since then, it has also rolled out ads tied to search, new data and measurement tools and a program to support first-time advertisers called Pinterest Propel.

The company has also been trying to enhance its appeal with the public, running its first brand campaign in the United States last month around the phrase “What if.” The ads featured the phrase and Pinterest’s name on striking photos, like that of a decadent pink milkshake topped with candy and a doughnut and another of an extremely fluffy poodle.

Some in the industry viewed Pinterest’s prominent setup in Cannes last month as a sign of more to come from the company.

“There’s an order of operations for Pinterest and it speaks to the methodological nature of Ben Silbermann — don’t get flashy until you are absolutely confident,” said Kevin Knight, the chief marketing officer of Experticity, who led Pinterest’s creative and brand strategy until last year. “They had to wait until they were absolutely confident they could stand up in that bright light and withstand the scrutiny, so you’ll see them get way more vocal.”

This article first appeared in

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Sapna Maheshwari

Sapna Maheshwari is a business reporter covering advertising for The New York Times.

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