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Big Brands Are Embracing Audio, But Where Those Ads Turn Up Remains A Critical Factor.

The growth of podcast advertising during the past few years has been driven largely by a realization at the big national brands that, for many, their drift away from audio advertising was a mistake. The result is many brands have made a return, often to podcasts but also to broadcast radio, too. But as was laid out during an Advertising Week panel in New York on Tuesday, the focus is quickly turning to a finetuning of how those ads are placed.

“In audio, and podcasts especially, you're dealing with a very engaged audience -- talk about that magic of the right message, at the right time. If you're reaching them in podcasts, there's very good chance that they're listening,” said Mark Proulx, a brand manager at Johnson & Johnson which has increased its spending on podcasts.

Magna Global VP Sara Tehrani agrees podcasts are ready-made for advertising. “It's a really great space to find engaged, tuned-in listeners, who don’t mind hearing an ad, as long as it's relevant to them. It's also a really great space for advertisers to experiment with new audience types,” she said.

But as they have spent more, Proulx says J&J has hit what are now-familiar hurdles. “The challenge with that is some concerns about brand safety and suitability. We don't have control over where we appear,” he said. Proux thinks third-party, independent verification will help brands feel more comfortable with where their ads are turning up, saying no platform is exempt from “grading their own homework” when it comes to brand safety. “We have a responsibility as advertisers to stay away from content that is unacceptable. The audio space is no different from that,” he said.

Even as ad tech improvements have made brand safety tools more widespread, Tehrani said it remains a “top priority” among their clients. If anything, she says it has become a bigger component as parameters move beyond just naughty words and risqué content. And audio requires more nuanced reviews since the tone of a voice needs to be considered as much as the words as they appear in a transcription.

“Brands are really starting to care even more now about putting their ads in environments that are in alignment with their brand values and their company's values,” Tehrani said. “So there's a brand safety floor that every advertiser expects.”

David Byrne, Spotify’s Director of Global Advertising Brand Safety, believes a level of transparency and accountability will go a long way to meet those demands. But he thinks the responsibility relies with audio companies. “It doesn’t mean anything unless we truly hold ourselves accountable, and I think that's where the measurement space plays such a critical role,” he said.

The Downside To Brand Safety

For brands avoiding things that may cross their line, Proux said it still is important to reach a critical mass of listeners in order to make their audio investments worthwhile. “Programmatic solves the scale issue,” he suggested, pointing out it brings with it other benefits. “If a room full of our brand managers and our agency support team tried to individually select podcasts where our audience is, they're going to miss. Programmatic is going to open up more opportunities to reach the right audience in the right place,” he said. Proux said it also allows brands to quickly update ad copy or respond to current events.

Looking ahead, Byrne said he is excited about using technology to dig deeper into the granularity of the content, and potentially move beyond whether something is simply safe or not, and toward a focus on the standards of adjacency.

“If you have a two-hour podcast, and there's a curse word in the last five minutes, does that make the entirety of the podcast unsafe for a brand who doesn't want to appear next to curse words? I think those are questions that we still need to answer,” Byrne said.

While no brand wants to appear in an unsafe environment, Tehrani said the good news for audio companies is that “progress over perfection” is typically the mantra. “There's no expectation for platforms to anticipate every possible brand safety scenario that could happen,” she said. “But there is an expectation to take swift action if something does occur.”

The other good news for content companies, said Byrne, is that those investments pay off. “Every single platform that has invested in safety has grown, grown their business, and has stronger partnerships with agencies, advertisers and third parties,” he said. “Once we have this infrastructure in place, it's going to mean that everybody truly benefits from it.”

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