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Building a Business Case for Sustainable Media with Angela Johnson and Kris Doerfler of Dentsu

What is sustainable media and how can it impact your brand and its audiences? Join us in discussion with Angela Johnson and Kris Doerfler, two practitioners at Dentsu working to bring sustainable practices to many of the world's largest advertisers through innovative environmental programs like DIMPACT.

Angela and Kris provide valuable insight into challenges that top spending clients face in 2021 with a particular view to brand safety. They discuss the importance of a holistic approach around KPIs, the opportunities presented by a public that is more educated in the advertising process, the business benefits of doing the right thing, and much more.

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The following interview transcript has been edited to make it more concise.


Tiffany Xingyu Wang 00:12

Hi everyone, I'm Tiffany Xingu. I'm the GM and co-founder of Oasis Consortium, a nonprofit that builds brand and user safety for the industry. Welcome to Brand Safety Exchange, a podcast where I interview the experts and the veterans in the space. Today I have invited Angela Johnson and Kris Doerfler to join our show. Welcome, Angela and Kris.

Angela Johnson 00:36

Thanks for having us.

Kris Doerfler 00:38

Great to be here.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 00:39

So, Angela, you are the Client Development Officer at Dentsu, and Kris you're the Planning Supervisor and Media Ethicist at Dentsu. So tell us a little bit about your roles and tell us a little bit more about Dentsu.

Angela Johnson 00:54

Dentsu, as you can tell from the name, we're headquartered in Japan, but there are 12,000 of us in America working across the whole gamut from creative, media, consumer experience, into data - so the whole marketing mix there. At Dentsu, we say we're champions for meaningful progress. So we're partnering with clients to make sure that whatever it is, they need to grow their business, whatever challenges they face, throw it at Dentsu, and we'll catch it. So we're working with 90 of the top 100 marketing clients in some capacity - we don't do everything for them. But we're working in some capacity with many of the big, big clients. So as we get into our discussion today, we can give a perspective on what is vexing and challenging a lot of these top spending clients in 2021 and with a particular view to brand safety. So looking forward to getting into it, but over to you Kris first. 

Kris Doerfler 01:49

Thanks. Yeah, I'll give a little bit of background on my role. First, the Planning Supervisor part it's pretty generic in that sense, mostly strategy, high-level things, client interactions mainly on the Home Depot account at Carat here. But now I'm transitioning over to the WebEx account, which I'm excited about. So a lot of new and exciting opportunities there. The Media Ethicist part is I think the more relevant aspect for this podcast, and that's probably something people may be a little bit unfamiliar with, or it might be a new title. And really, my role is about bringing some of the things that we're going to talk about today - brand safety, environmentalism, reducing algorithmic bias, stuff like that - into the forefront of our decision-making within Dentsu so that we can tackle some of the problems that Angela was hinting at for our clients in a very concrete actionable way, and can turn it into a reality so that consumers win, brands win, we all win. So that's kind of the idea there.

Angela Johnson 02:43

Kris and I first got to know each other when we were working in separate pods if you like, both with the same intent of bringing sustainable media to our clients. And then we found that we were both doing the same thing from a slightly different angle. And we came together and made sure that now we can offer a solution to clients so that their media and their marketing are truly sustainable. And that covers so many different areas and brings to bear all the different expertise we have across Dentsu to make sure that we can give that advice to our clients. So I'm working with a lot of the top spending clients across the portfolio.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 03:17

That's awesome, we should come back to this concept of sustainable media. Nowadays, the definition has been enlarged. I see Kris has his thumb up, that's great. Angela, in your role you're so close to clients. So what are the major trends you've seen that preoccupy our clients these days?

Angela Johnson 03:40

Well, right now, it's what consumer behaviors, and the changes in those consumer behaviors - which ones are going to remain as we come out of this COVID experience? And which behaviors are going to reverse to where they were before? So really trying to understand the consumer and the audiences and what's been changed for good and what was changed because of the situation we're in? And clients are looking for help on that. They're looking for help in how agencies and their consultants and their advisors can move to super hyper-agility, hyper-connectedness, etc. So those are the things that, driven by the year that we've just had, both from how do I structure myself and my teams to become more agile to become more connected? But also, where's the consumer moving? What are they doing differently and what will stick? Those are the two big things that they're asking for help on those trends right now.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 04:45

Interesting. So you're saying that basically, your clients are trying to understand how the behaviors have changed since 2020 and COVID since everybody is moving online, and where they should spend the media budget; is that right?

Angela Johnson 05:04

Where they should spend their media budget, how they should spend it, what content they should put out, what's appropriate content? How can they even create content in this situation? We run from the whole content creation through to the media placement through to the media mix right through until, how do I set myself up be a company that lives and truly breathes its purpose under all these restrictive practices? And how do I keep my supply chain working? And how do I then market to a supply chain that might be compromised, etc? One client challenge we should touch on is, how do I make sure that when I am advertising, my content is in a place where yes, I'm getting the eyeballs, but I'm also making sure that my brand is in a safe place and is not compromised in any way? Not every single client is working programmatically now, but the majority are, and clearly, a human can no longer check and look at the millions of decisions that are being made programmatically. But that balance of still needing that human element to come in and to have the checks and balances on what's going on and setting guidelines and guardrails, etc. So anyway, over to you Kris to build on that.

Kris Doerfler 06:26

And just one thing I'll add to it, Angela was kind of hinting on this, it's one of the consumer behaviors that has been changing for a while but COVID brought to bear, is the acute awareness of how the advertising process works, right? Consumers are more aware of how they're being tracked, we had events like January 6th that woke people up to a lot of the issues that we have with some of our content curation and things like that. So one of the trends that picked up in 2020, that will stay alive in 2021 in the future, is that the cats out of the bag, right? Consumers are very aware of what's happening. And that might seem at first a little scary for some brands, but it's a great opportunity because it's an opportunity to have a more honest, real conversation in the digital space. Because once consumers are a little bit more aware that there's a back and forth happening, that there's an exchange, that also allows you to enhance the value of that exchange. So I think overall brands are trying to figure out, "Okay, hey, we know that there are some issues here, and we want to correct them. So how do we turn that into an opportunity, rather than just something that has to be done?" And so that's what we're here to do is make it a real opportunity, and bring consumers with us on that journey. So it's empowering people across the spectrum.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 07:43

Thank you. Yeah, there's a lot to unpack here. I just picked up a couple of keywords here. Angela, you mentioned that it's really a whole supply chain that we're looking at, and then you mentioned, it's not only "where," but also to "who," and then it's about "what" that's suitable. And then how the brands and agencies need to potentially change the "how." So can you share with us a little bit about your definition of sustainable media? And how does that impact where, what, how, and whom?

Kris Doerfler 08:16

So I really love that you asked that question because I think sustainable media goes into what Angela was talking about, and what you were talking about Tiffany, where it's trying to tackle all aspects of our business, from the data we're using to the media we're activating on and the technologies we're using. To prepare our brands and ourselves for a rapidly evolving future that is only going to get more intrusive, right. So we need to tackle many of these environmental problems, many of these misinformation problems, these DEI issues that exist out in the larger space. And so sustainable media is about creating a coherent, easy, actionable plan that can be tailored to each of our clients and say, "Hey, you want to invest in a healthier internet, but you don't necessarily know how. Here's a roadmap that we can get you there. Here's how you can invest in the future of a healthier digital ecosystem. Here are outside experts, here are internal experts, let's get you what you need to do to make your business sustainable," and make it feel like we are having a truly honest, healthy advertising conversation with consumers. And they're feeling valued and rewarded from that. And so the overall idea is we play a really big part in that and so how do we make that better?

Angela Johnson 09:32

We know there's physical well-being, and we're talking a lot more since COVID about mental well-being and the importance of that, but for Kris and I, we always talk about digital well-being as well. And I think that a healthy internet, a healthy ecosystem is so important. And one of the things that Dentsu does outside of all the work we do for clients is we are on a mission to make sure that we don't leave pockets and parts of our society behind without access to digital. We believe everyone should be able to come with us on the progress that society is making. But then as we do so, we create healthy digital well-being for consumers and for companies and employees that work within that. So trying to make sure that as things get connected, we still provide that level of authenticity, making sure that we're not leaving people behind, nor are we bringing them into something toxic or unhealthy. 

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 10:28

I love it. I have a two-sided question from what you just said. Beyond for good, why do customers or your clients care about this topic? How do you translate that into the brand's growth and the company's business growth? And second, while we try to justify that and fight that battle, what are the biggest challenges that you are dealing with to guide your clients to be a more ethical and sustainable brand?

Angela Johnson 10:57

The evidence is clear that if you are a company that is purely focused on growth, then yes, you may well grow, but the evidence is you will not grow as fast as companies that are balancing growing for growth and for good. And the companies that are succeeding like the P&Gs of this world, they're not doing it just because their consumers are demanding it. They're doing it because it's the right thing to do and it's translating into business success. So yes, they absolutely are listening to their consumers and they're enacting a lot of great initiatives. And they come to us to help them with that because they are asking, "What are other companies doing? How do we succeed? How can we put ourselves into a place where that when the consumers come asking the questions, what are you doing with my data? What are you doing with anybody's data? Where are you getting that data from in the first place? How are you storing it? What are you doing with it? How are you sourcing your products? And how are you creating your advertising?" Consumers are pushing and poking into every aspect of a company's ecosystem and the way they do business and how they source everything. And enlightened marketers are having the answers ready, and they're pushing their own companies to make sure that this is a really important topic. So I think my keyword when we talk to clients is vigilance. You can no longer create a blocklist and leave it to sit there for a year, you constantly have to be listening and vigilant about how things are moving on and changing in the world. And making sure that you've got that human overlay to what a lot of the algorithms and the data and the systems are doing, and making sure that that human component is making the right ethical choices.

Kris Doerfler 12:39

Yeah, and actually, I'll add something there. I think the fact that you brought up environmentalism is excellent because I think many of the same problems are associated with both. Because everyone knows we have a big issue, right. And I'm a devout environmentalist. And one of the big obstacles I see with people getting into better environmentalist behavior is paralysis from fear, right? They don't know how to act, they don't know what next step to take. They don't know where to go but they know they want to do something. And so I think that's a big part of where we can come in and say, "We know you want to do this. But you just don't necessarily know how so we can help you do that. And we can create a plan that is not only going to communicate this, it's not just going to be a gimmick, it's the content you're going to create that is going to be more environmentally friendly. It's not just going to use environmentally friendly materials or imagery." So there's a lot there that I think the environmentalism history plays into what we're dealing with today. The second thing I want to say is kind of hinting at the second part you brought up, Tiffany. What are the obstacles we're running into with clients? And I think Angela brought up a really good aspect, hinting at the fact that the brands are going to grow more as a result of this. And the reason why I think this is the case is that not only consumers will reward the brands to do this, but the return on ad spend is much higher. The click-through rates are much higher, the engagements are much higher, the data quality might have lower amounts of data, but it'll be significantly higher-quality data. So it would be certainly more accurate so you'll have a much healthier and better understanding of what the consumer is doing. Privacy is not the obstacle to understanding consumers, it's actually a window. Because if you understand your consumers' privacy concerns, you understand their vulnerabilities, you can reach them in a way that is true to what they're looking for. And at the end of the day marketing is about bringing people what they want, right? And it's helping them make wise decisions. And so we want to help them make wiser decisions rather than just bombard them and we know that brands want to do that too. And so long story short, trying to get at is it's much more beneficial in the long run to the brand to be engaging these behaviors. And it's a little bit of a myth right now that we're trying to get over that it's not as profitable to do this because it's anything but.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 14:57

I like that you highlight the fact that when you do privacy, it might take more cost, and maybe have less data at this point, but you potentially will have more quality data over a long time and you add more trust, and equity, to your business. And you can drive longer-term growth. So that leads us to talk a little bit about the KPIs. As we all know, to achieve the long-term goal where you do not have a yearly return right away, you need accountability from a long-term perspective. So what are the KPIs that you guys have seen working, or the KPIs that you suggest your customers look at?

Kris Doerfler 15:50

So that's a million-dollar question. And that is something that - I'll just be transparent - we're actively working on because there are so many different facets to it and we're trying to quite literally pioneer in that space a little bit. There's a lot of different groups doing that, certainly not just us. But it's something that the industry as a whole is trying to figure out. So I just want to be transparent. There's a lot of growth to have there. However, I think one of the things that are becoming apparent is that you need to have different metrics based on different concerns. So for example, one of the things that Dentsu is pioneering worldwide right now is a carbon score through our program called DIMPACT that's attaching an environmentalism score to content creators. And so that will allow us, for example, to say, "This brand has a click-through rate of this, and this brand's click-through rate is this, but the environmentalism score is this high." And after the campaign is over, we can say the environmental score of your campaign overall reached this level so that brands can at least have that transparency that they know what they're investing in. And they'll at least say, "Okay, if it's a comparable performance, I'll go with the partner who's more environmentally friendly." And then there are things like DEI, right? We have to have metrics that showcase how much we're supporting, for example, if you're trying to reach Black Americans, you should be investing in Black-owned media. So we should have KPIs that monitor that performance. And then I think at the end of the day, we will need to as an industry, engagement metrics will always play a part, but we need to move beyond that. And we need to showcase more metrics that are about digital well-being as Angela brought up, rather than just, snapping up eyeballs. So end all be all, of right now what's the KPI that people should be going towards? I try to avoid click-through rate if I can. Certain KPI metrics must be used, but I think brands should be looking at how they first invest in the content that is valuable to consumers and the data that is ethically sourced. And then, after the fact, how do I make sure that I'm testing out different messages to understand which messages are driving an actual click-through rate that is meaningful, as opposed to an overall click-through rate. But we have a lot of growth to go in the space and I think that's something we're trying to get at right now.

Angela Johnson 18:17

Yeah, I'll just add to that, because it is a pioneering stage, it's not just what the KPI is, I think it's about the frequency with which you're looking at that. And back to this vigilance point, things are moving so fast and changing and new areas are opening up, where brands can potentially have issues, that I think the setting of the KPI is one thing. I think that the constant commitment to renewing and reviewing performance and making sure that you're on the cutting edge, because of things changing so rapidly right now. It's a key part to not just set the KPI and say "Done," because the very next day a new KPI could be needed. So never rest on your laurels and make sure that you're working with partners who are really in tune with where the industry is going.

Kris Doerfler 19:07

One other thing I'll just add on there. It's really important for brands to not just take a higher click-through rate or higher engagement rate and just make that the end-all-be-all, and just have a spreadsheet of only comparing partners on that - it's got to be a more holistic analysis. And then particularly from the brand safety standpoint, we use a lot of blocklists and things like that, but there are a lot more advanced brand safety tools. For example, Vice is doing wonderful things in that space that allow them to curate content in a more brand-safe way that will make sure that it's being seen by the right people and a brand-safe environment. And so even if that click-through rate, for example, is a little bit lower than a programmatic partner that's being driven towards efficiencies, brands should still see there's a real value in having that high premium content. And so we have to work on some KPIs from our end to say, this is high premium content, and we're doing that. Overall, we need to as an industry, be pushing ourselves to be very broad about our thinking and reach the consumer in a way that they're happy with.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 20:16

Yeah, research shows that your purchase intent will decline by two times if your ads are shown besides unsafe content. So how you create safe content, and how you make sure that your brands are suitable to the content around you, becomes super important. Because coming back to you Kris, you mentioned over some time or over mid or long-term, it comes down to the LTV of a customer. It's great that you can get more eyeballs right now, but if you do not drive the purchase intent then LTV will be low. How you make sure that your brands are shown near safe, healthy, and positive content is super important. And to Angela's point, you mentioned vigilance and agility, it relates to one thing that we talk a lot about at Oasis Consortium, which is how you bake those principles into the design phase. So we call out three pillars, "Safety by Design," "Privacy by Design," and "DEI by Design." How you make sure that when you construct your teams, when you build creatives, and how you make sure that you have privacy technology baked into your platform to ensure data privacy and content management. How you make sure that you have a human moderators team, from a platform and publisher perspective, to work with technology to proactively safeguard the environments. Those three principles will allow us to be less reactive, but more proactive to create a sustainable environment. What's your experience looking at those three principles? Which principle today, do you think your customers spend more time on than others? What's your reaction to the three principles as to the adoption and the thinking from your client's perspective to privacy, safety, and DEI by design?

Angela Johnson 22:20

Every client is different. I'm seeing the third pillar of DEI is front and center for every client right now. Everything from the investigation of the algorithms that they're using to make sure that they're not favoring certain cohorts of society versus disadvantaging others, through to the construction of teams in their businesses themselves, etc. And then pushing that to every aspect of their marketing. We are working closely with every client now on minority-owned media, businesses, etc., and making sure that they are set up for success in that area. So yeah, I think the DEI one is getting the focus. 

Kris Doerfler 23:19

I think that brings up a good reason why we're doing a sustainable media program is that different clients are in different spaces at this; there are different levels of being ready to dive in. And they're not necessarily sure if they want DEI or privacy or how much they want to dive into each one of these things. However, we all know that they're all important. And so we want to make it easier for them when they are ready to have that conversation and so they have someone to talk to that can provide the answers, and then can provide them with meaningful actions they can take. And then also, if they aren't ready for it, we can push them a little bit, right, because we have that relationship. We can say, "This is valuable to your business because we've seen it work for P&G, we've seen it work for Microsoft, MasterCard, and such. So we believe it'll work for you too." And so to Angela's point, DEI is important, particularly with some of the events that happened over the summer being at the forefront of almost every client's mind. However, I think what we're all realizing, and I'll just touch on this thing from an environmentalism standpoint, for example, you can't separate environmentalism from racial issues because they're intricately connected at the end of the day. And those are often the communities that are most affected by some of these decisions. So privacy, for example, many marginalized groups will often be the most impacted by privacy concerns, but everybody cares about their privacy. So once brands start to say, "Okay, this is an issue, this is an ethical issue, I'm ready to dive into it," we could then expand them out and say okay, here's how it filters into all of this other stuff and how you can create a holistic plan that can tackle so many of these things at once without sacrificing anything. Brands are opening up to the conversation and we're trying to take them further.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 25:06

Thank you for sharing all of this. Angela, I agree with you I've seen personally that we have more focused on the DEI pillar, and less so on safety and privacy. Though, we do see that in 2020, there is an uptick on safety for obvious reasons, like disinformation and online toxicity. So my hope is that the new decade will open more sustainable environments taking all of these three principles into the design phase. So to wrap up the podcast, would you leave some wise words as to not only what the industry has been doing, but what the industry should be focused on and doing in the next decade.

Angela Johnson 25:54

I think two things are going on. Getting good media, good content, good publisher material out there was more difficult, more stressful, more expensive. Yet, at the same time, some of the most premier outlets like Washington Post or CNN see their ad revenues are going down. So you've got this thing happening with the publishers who desperately need advertisers' help to continue to be the publications that they are and they want to be, so you've got the stress on them. And at the same time, advertisers are waking up to the fact that if they've got a blocklist that says "I don't want to be next to this content, that content, whatever it is, it could be controversial," - that's discluding a lot of that great content. We're getting to a more nuanced phase where people are going, "I would like to support these great publication institutions, and recognizing it's getting harder. But I want to do it in a way that my brand is still safe." And having a blocklist that stops you going anywhere near anything, basically, but good news reporting is no longer the best way. How do you find that nuance and find those areas? So I think that's where most of the clients are getting to now, they're working through that it's hard because you can either block everything and not go there at all, so I think that hard work is being done in conjunction with agencies to make sure that in the future, we can have great content locations in which to put our advertising but not compromising brand safety. So I think that nuance now is being worked through and that I applaud, I think it's a good move.

Kris Doerfler 27:30

Yeah and from my end, I'll say that the whole nuance thing is really big because I think too many brands when it comes to brand safety, have set it and quit it. And with the blocklists, I think that's a great example. Oftentimes, they're outdated. And I'll say my big thing is, get excited about this stuff. I think too often media professionals see this as a drag or something that's going to hurt their business. But I think there's going to be growing pains; that's unquestionable. But this is an exciting moment. This is a chance for us as advertisers to empower consumers, which traditionally we may have not done. Advertising as a tool really can be wonderful, there are always going to be some potential downsides, but the free and open flow of information is really important to our society, particularly for low-income people. And also, if we can use advertising to enhance things like social goods, the amount of social good that will come out, even if it's a fraction of a percentage of advertising spend, will be enormous. So we have an enormous opportunity to provide a lot of good in the world by making some small changes. And there's a lot of low-hanging fruit there. So what I would say, for anyone who's an advertising professional, media professional, or data professional, really dive into this, there's a lot of good readings out there, and then don't feel like you're in this alone. You might not have a Dentsu to reach out to to get your answers, but there's a lot of companies out there, there's a lot of nonprofits and that's a lot of the expertise that we're getting is by working with some of these nonprofits, some of these industry groups, some of these up-and-coming startup companies that have brand new innovative ideas about how to do this. A lot of B Corp companies are excellent, and opening up a lot of opportunities. So my big thing and I try to hit home just to clients is, this is an opportunity to build your brand to expand even your profitability to create deeper relationships with your consumers and to dive into that even if you are a mom and pop shop, just one advertiser, or a global powerhouse. It's a great time to get excited about this and dive in.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 29:37

Yeah, sustainability is the new sexy.

Kris Doerfler 29:41

Yeah, that's for sure.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 29:43

Yeah, we often say at Oasis Consortium that we believe that the speed to trust will differentiate a platform and a brand in this decade and potentially make a new generation of decacorns; like a new Facebook, a new Google, a new Amazon because they build ethical brands. Thank you so much for being part of the think tank at Oasis Consortium and as you well said Kris, this whole industry needs to come together to build some standards and principles. And, Angela, to your point, I think we will work more closely as to how we solve this brand suitability issue; how we go beyond just a blocklist but potentially use AI technology to be embedded into the supply chain so that you can be both safe and inclusive.

Angela Johnson 30:38

AI developed with a DEI lens.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang 30:42

Thank you so much for coming to the show.

Angela Johnson 30:45

Thank you! 

Kris Doerfler 30:46

Thank you very much, it's been wonderful.