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Taming the Wild West of Audio Content with Roger Gehrmann of Pandora

Roger Gehrmann, Executive Creative Director at Pandora and co-founder of Studio Resonate, joins the latest episode of Brand Safety Exchange to discuss the challenges and opportunities of what he describes as the “Audio Renaissance” that we are living in. 

He explained further: “We're moving to a world now where we're increasingly engaging with voice and audio on a daily basis... I think that it's a really interesting time for brands to figure out how to play in this space, because traditionally, audio used to mean just radio, and now it means so much more.”

How do brands that want to be seen as innovators join the conversation and advertise in new arenas without risking brand safety? And how can audio platforms foster a safe environment that makes everyone happy, including listeners?

During the interview we also discuss what makes audio such an intimate medium, the differences between brand safety and brand suitability, why it’s hard to ensure brand suitability within podcast advertising, and so much more.

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

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  00:11

Hi everyone, I'm Tiffany Xingyu, I'm the GM and co-founder of Oasis Consortium, a nonprofit organization that builds standards for brand and user safety. Welcome to Brand Safety Exchange, a podcast where I interview the veterans and practitioners who care about this topic. And today, I'm so glad to have my friend and veteran practitioner, Roger Gehrmann, who is the Executive Creative Director of Pandora and who co-founded Studio Resonate, which brought over half-billion in revenue to Pandora. Welcome, Roger.

Roger Gehrmann  00:46

Thank you. Happy to be here.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  00:48

So what is Studio Resonate?

Roger Gehrmann  00:51

We are an audio-first creative consultancy. We sit at the intersection of audio and data, creativity, and science. We bring brands to life through audio. I think we're in a really interesting time right now, where audio means a lot more than it did a few years ago, with a rise in voice technology and audio assistance, and the number of people listening to streaming music and podcasts growing so much, day-by-day. I think we're in what I like to call the "Audio Renaissance," where we're moving to a world now where we're increasingly engaging with voice and audio on a daily basis. And I truly believe it's becoming the main form of human interactivity for society. So I think that it's a really interesting time for brands to figure out how to play in this space, because traditionally, audio used to mean just radio, and now it means so much more.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  01:47

Absolutely. We kind of hit it off right away, because of our shared passion for audio first experiences. And you’ve mentioned that audio is the most intimate medium. Tell us a little bit about your views, and why audio is so powerful.

Roger Gehrmann  02:03

There are a few reasons for that. If we go back into evolutionary history, if we think about human beings and our biology, the part of our brain that develops first while we're in utero, while we're still in our mother's tummy, is the part of the brain that processes sound. Hearing is one of the first senses that we develop, it's one of the first things in your brain that develops and it's the first way we communicate as humans, as babies. So it's a huge part of our identity as a human. And if we look back at evolutionary history, if you look back at early cultures and civilizations, we figured out culture through sound first. We created music through drums, we chanted and created stories that we passed down through oral tradition. So while our cultures have evolved a lot, and we communicate using many different mediums now, at the core of who we are as human beings is sound. And because of that, it causes all kinds of things that happen to us, biologically. Some hormones get released, when we hear certain sounds, when someone whispers into your ear it can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. There are all kinds of biological immediate reactions that can happen to sound that doesn't happen through other senses. A lot of this has actually to do without brain processing; our brain processes sound faster than any other sense. So as a result, I think that we have these emotional reactions and deep-seated human connection to sound that's so different from other mediums. It's a space where these days through the power of a podcast or the power of a stream, through the power of social audio, you can connect with someone so directly. You can whisper into their ear. I have a microphone in front of me right now and I could whisper sweet nothings into someone's ear halfway across the world. I believe that this makes it the most intimate medium, and particularly for brands, I believe it's the most intimate media space that you could play in right now.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  04:01

Absolutely. Because audio is so powerful, obviously all brands or advertisers have to think about how to leverage audio. It's a long-standing, but also a very new medium for all brands and advertisers. So that brings us to what we want to talk about: brand and user safety. So what I want to do is to jump right into the segment that we call the Oasis Rapid Refresher segment, which we ask all of our guests to answer. It is a segment of three questions; are you ready for that?

Roger Gehrmann  04:36

I'm ready when you are.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  04:38

Why do you think brand safety is such an important topic, especially from your vantage point?

Roger Gehrmann  04:45

Brand safety, I think is key to the future of basically every platform that exists digitally at the moment. We're going through a reckoning right now where the few largest tech platforms in the world are being under increasing scrutiny about the ability to moderate user-generated content. We are now in a world where instead of the wider population consuming the same media through the same kind of channels, we have this world of decentralized media where people are consuming media in their own little bubbles at their own demand, making it a very, very complicated arena for brands to be able to play in. It used to be that brand safety was as simple as what show was running when you bought your advertising space. And that could be broken down even more simply to like, what time of day was your ad running on what cable network channel and which host was the host of that show, and whether they were going to say a bad word or not on that show. And it was as simple as that; if you had an edgy brand, it would be okay to be on a late-night show and have its hosts say a swear word. If you had a family-friendly brand, you go "Okay, we're not going to do the late-night segment, we're going to go for the more family-friendly, 4 to 5 PM segment where we know that there won't be any bad words being said." And brand safety used to be as simple as that. Now, if we think about the fact that within a household, you have multiple people consuming different types of media, both interactive and non-interactive on different devices all at the same time. And as brands, you want to communicate to all of these different members of a family, on their various platforms, whether they're listening to music on their headphones, or listening to a podcast, or watching a show on YouTube, or playing a game and listening to people talk. These are all spaces that are really attractive for brands to be able to play in, but they are also minefields because a lot of these are not controlled. And a lot of these spaces are where a brand could show up next to a message that is inappropriate for them to be in. And I think our technology and media and advertising have moved out of sync with the ability to control it, with the ability to create safe environments. And it's time that I think not just brands and advertisers, but platforms and publishers and industry standards need to look into how to do this in a way that benefits both the brands and advertisers but also the users and listeners in a way that is a happy medium for everybody. Because right now, there's a lot of disparity in both directions.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  07:27

Absolutely. That's really music to Mozart right there. And we have to circulate back, so you really allude to the distinction between brand safety and brand suitability, and between published content with more control versus the UGC content, which will be the future for all platforms. So let's come back to that later. The second question is why are you personally invested in this topic? 

Roger Gehrmann  07:57

For multiple reasons. But first I'm a technology nerd. I love new things, I love playing with technology. But at the same time, I'm an advertiser. And we're always in this kind of interesting juggle where brands want to be seen as innovators and brands want to be playing in new areas, and trying to catch the attention of groups and communities out there that are in spaces that might not be traditional spaces that brands advertise in. And it's a tricky balance between trying to figure out where brands could go to be seen as innovative and exciting. But also, how can you do that in a way that's not going to cause a massive PR controversy for the brand? My nightmare has always been as an advertiser coming up with this amazing advertising campaign only to have it backfire, because of some piece of UGC content that could get picked up and throw the whole thing upside down. But personally, I haven't quite seen something that could completely destroy a brand. But I've seen some really close calls, especially in this day and age where it's really common for brands to run competitions that involve UGC content. And in spaces now, where we have programmatic advertising, where brands can create ads that might show up in places that they absolutely weren't even aware of, and be placed next to pieces of content that aren't appropriate for them. But on the other hand, as a father I have kids and I'm a fairly digital-positive parent. My kids have their own personal internet devices that they use. I've got all the parental controls on them. But I also don't trust the parental controls, because I've seen how my kids can figure out how to get around them. And I've seen content that doesn't get filtered out correctly. So as a parent, that's also something that concerns me because I can't watch them all the time when they're interacting with digital devices. And I also don't want to take it away from them because I think it's the platform for them, for their generation, for the future. And that's how they need to interface with the world. So I've got this balance between being a tech nerd, an advertiser, and a dad. And this is why I feel quite passionate about brand safety and brand suitability.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  10:08

Oh, wow, I love it. And just a quick plugging for folks who don't know who haven't checked Roger's background. He created some amazing award-winning ad campaigns for major brands like Audi, Diageo, etc. So I just appreciate so much for an advertiser and a creator, like yourself to say, "Hey, I want to create an amazing ad campaign, but deep down, I do not want the potential UGC down the road that I don't have control over to affect all the initial work that I put into it. So to do the right thing from the very beginning, it's a very strong principle you put out there and that's what I usually call "safety by design," - how you think about that at the very beginning and working with the platforms. That leads to the third question here. So you are an advisor for Oasis Consortium, which is set to build the standards for brand and user safety. Tell us why do you think having these guardrails is so important for the industry right now.

Roger Gehrmann  11:11

We're at this kind of inflection point. I'm gonna speak specifically to my area of expertise within audio. The audio space right now is like the Wild West. You've got everything from really closed controlled environments like Amazon's Alexa with voice devices, through to more open UGC, content-related spaces like SoundCloud where anyone can create whatever they want, and upload it to a platform that may have advertising run against it as well. You've also got the environment of streaming music like Pandora, which is a very pristine advertising environment where it's just music; where it's a pretty low risk for advertisers because it's only looking at the difference between having music played that either has explicit lyrics or non-explicit lyrics. But then you have now the world of podcasts where, this is an interesting one because podcasts can vary, not just from show to show, but episode to episode. So you could have programmatic advertising that gets inserted ads into podcasts automatically, right. I don't know if everyone knows this, but when you listen to a podcast, depending on what platform you downloaded it from, where in the world you're listening to it, when you downloaded it, the actual advertising that runs in that specific podcast is different, it gets inserted to a whole bunch of different data signals that the advertiser might want to use. Now, this all happens on the fly. And the difficulty there is that the content within the individual podcast isn't quite clear. We're not quite live, there are certain categories that can be targeted, based on what kind of show it is, what kind of genre it is. Efforts are being made right now, where every single Podcast episode is automatically transcribed. And then keywords are picked up within the transcriptions to try and recategorize each episode. So for example, if you had a show, that's an interview show, because so many podcast interview shows, having one episode, talking to a sports person might be sub-categorized as a sports talk, but then the following episode with the same host might be categorized as political and might even be far extreme political. And that's really hot as an advertiser, they might want to buy space on that show, because it's popular, but they might not be wanting to run an ad next to an extreme political figure. And there are no industry standards, right? Basically, you can get podcasts from so many different platforms and publishers, and everyone's trying to figure out the advertising side of things differently. For podcasts to thrive, and I believe they will continue to thrive, but for them to be spaces that are appropriate for brands to play in, we need to come up with industry standards that across the board are going to be safe. We want to have brands be able to take advantage of the scale of podcasts. But at the same time, we want podcast creators to be able to run their shows - they need advertising dollars to be able to continue to produce the content that they do. So I think it's really important to create these guardrails, not just at the individual app and platform level, but industry-wide so we can take this audio medium and continue to thrive and be safe for both the listener and the advertiser.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  14:18

There is so much to unpack there. We talk about brand safety very often, but there's the other side of the coin as you mentioned, it's what the platforms do. So that's the user safety part. There is a lot of investment and talk around brand safety and my belief is not until you focus on user safety and encourage the platforms to do the right thing and raise the sea level by reducing online toxicity, that we as an industry can sleep tighter as advertisers and brands. Another thing you mentioned, it's so true that there is this whole evolution from brand safety to brand suitability, right, and you mentioned in the very beginning of the podcast as well. And I want to wrap up this podcast, talking a little bit about your distinction between the two definitions through your experiences so far.

Roger Gehrmann  15:18

They're related but very different. We're talking about brand suitability, now, because the context has changed. As I mentioned before, brand safety just used to mean where your advertising was going to run, was going to be appropriate for your brand, simple as that. Brand suitability takes that one step further. When you start thinking about what kind of audience you're going out to and being more granular and targeted with what kind of content you're going to be next to - not just in terms of the medium in the show that you might be on, but what other advertiser is going to be advertising with you? Do you want to have a political ad? I keep saying political because it's of the moment and topical, but a political ad that runs just before your ad, is that appropriate? Do you want to be on a show that might have controversy around diversity and inclusion and have your brand seemingly be sponsoring that content? Brand suitability comes down to controls, it's not just about blanket deciding that, hey, this platform or this show is brand-safe. What's brand-safe to one brand might not be brand-safe to another. Some brands have different levels of tolerance for what they deem as being suitable for their brand. We're in the day and age where advertising can be targeted. And if I want to run an ad that targets every single mother under the age of 40, that's driving their kids to school at night... they're probably not driving the kids to school at the moment, but if they were, I could target ads specifically to those people. As an advertiser, I want to have the same controls to be able to also shield myself from being played within the context of content that's not suitable for my brand. So brand suitability is the ability to give those levers and switches and controls to brands to be able to show up in a space that's appropriate to them.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  17:00

To your point, context matters. 

Roger Gehrmann  17:04

Yes, context matters and the context is becoming more and more nuanced. And again, this complicates further with UGC content, because when you publish content, it's considerably more controlled. And you can try to start applying meta tags and flags to it. But once you get into the realm of social audio and things like that, it becomes very, very complicated, where you don't know exactly what's going to happen. And how do you then use technology to your advantage to try and create controlled environments? That's exciting. It's an exciting space to try and tackle.

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  17:38

Yeah, keywords versus contextual, artificial intelligence as well as today, transcription-based voice moderation versus direct from voice to moderation and using spectral analysis. And this is all so new, we just started the whole conversation by saying how the audio-first economy is coming now, not mentioning the moderation of the voice. And we are really in a super, super exciting space. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with our audiences

Roger Gehrmann  18:13

Not at all, I really enjoyed this. This is something I love to talk about. 

Tiffany Xingyu Wang  18:17

Well, we will talk more! Thank you so much, Roger.

Roger Gehrmann  18:20

Thanks so much. Thanks for your time.