‘We’re here to close the gap’: do brands really need a specialist podcast media agency?
The Media Leader Interview
With their podcast media agency Telling Media, Acast execs Georgie Holt and Christiana Brenton want to close the performance and education gap in podcast advertising in the UK and Europe.
“The [podcast] medium is so resilient and so sustainable, and that is ultimately due to the effectiveness.”
This is why Christiana Brenton, along with her co-founder Georgie Holt, have taken the decision to leave Acast, a giant among podcast media owners, and start a new venture called Telling Media, which they are promoting as the first specialist podcast media agency and consultancy in the UK.
The pair met at Acast three years ago, with their respective previous backgrounds covering publishing, outdoor and radio. Their favourite podcasts of the moment, for readers who are wondering, are Diary of a CEO, Normal Gossip, and Witches.
Brenton thinks it is “absolutely phenomenal” to be launching an agency that “champions the most effective channel within the marketing mix at the moment”, which she also describes as “a unicorn” — not because of its financial stature but because it can prime, prompt, and purchase, driving results throughout the entire funnel.
She explains: “We are at a point in our lives where we could probably pick any channel, and it’s very intentional as to why we’ve chosen podcasting because of its editorial benefits and how effective it is for advertisers. It’s a dream role we get to advocate for a medium that actual works.”
However, Telling Media is much more focussed on the potential of performance advertising in podcasting, something Brenton and Holt learned about during their time in the US working at Acast, where the idea to launch a dedicated UK podcast media agency “crystallised” within their first six months.
“We just felt that the opportunity was too compelling to ignore,” Brenton says, almost visibly bouncing with excitement as she explains how UK direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands could make the most of 20 years’ worth of insight from US direct response (DR) podcast advertisers in terms of best practice for formats and creative.
The US and UK podcast advertising markets can be seen as the inverse of each other when it comes to what types of brands that make up the majority of the historical and current investment, Holt and Brenton explain.
Brenton says DR advertisers were the the first in the US to build the podcasting market, most famously with Mailchimp advertising against the smash hit Serial. However, in the UK podcast market the opposite has been true — brand budgets and briefs from big agency networks have historically been behind the investment and scale.
Holt cites an IAB and PwC study which forecasts the US podcast market will be worth $2.3bn this year, with 52% of that coming from DR advertisers. In the UK, Holt and Brenton estimate DR advertisers make up less than 20% based on multiple sourced marketplaces’ internal data on spend trends by advertiser type.
Holt says the goal with Telling Media is to close not only this gap in investment, but also understanding, expertise and potential for podcast performance marketing for DTC clients.
“Our primary goal is getting the UK DTC clients who are looking for fast growth or in high growth mode or are looking to grow other sectors of their businesses to look towards podcasting, and then also for US DTC brands to understand the potential of the customer base in the European and UK market.”
In particular, the strategy for the first six to 12 months is to work with existing US-based DTC clients and local UK-based DTCs like Huel, Gousto, Gym Gear, Wayfair, and educate new DTC brands to the medium about the “sheer extent of the potential that podcasts deliver in sales conversions”, Brenton clarifies.
So what is holding back podcast advertiser investment?
When asked about how they deal with those who are sceptical about the power of podcast advertising, or those who have never used podcast before on a media plan, Holt and Brenton highlight an education gap when it comes to measurement, innovation, scale and effectiveness, as well as “legacy buying behaviours that are not delivering the strongest performance to clients”.
“Measurement is always a key question for any smart marketer, particularly in the current slowing economy and measurement has really really evolved in the podcasting space,” Brenton stresses.
When she started in the podcast space six years ago in Australia, she says there were not any real measurement and attribution options, and now it is more than just discount codes and downloads, but pixel-based attribution that can follow IP addresses and prove out multiple different metrics that help determine a successful campaign.
Brenton says it has been “pretty eye-opening to see how much education there still is left to do” and that legacy buying behaviours and personal bias towards more familiar channels or “the path of least resistance” in times of economic uncertainty, as Holt puts it, is also a factor.
She highlights 44% of all US spending in podcasts goes to just the top 500 shows, when target audiences and customers live across hundreds of thousands of shows.
Also lack of scale is another perceived obstacle as she says podcasting in the UK is still deemed “an emerging medium” even though 18.9 million people listen to a podcast at least once a week according to the latest Rajar MIDAS data.
Brenton says it “takes time” to shift these perceptions and behaviours, but Holt does acknowledge there is “still a way to go in terms of industry standards and benchmarking” in the space.
Many podcast marketplaces innovate their own best practice and the IAB tries to consolidate this, which she says is still important. However, it does leave clients wondering about best measurement tools and routes to understand podcast return on investment (ROI).
Brenton and Holt say Telling Media can help with the tracking, measurement and best practice to optimise campaigns, not just from a client perspective but from a creator point of view, too, so they can get advertisers repeating spend and ensure that podcasters can keep creating.
Podcast investment is also being held back by being “bucketed” with audio, they warn, which means the medium does not get “a fair share” of investment so brands are “missing their true value”.
Out of $30bn spent in audio annually, according to PwC, podcasts are only getting between $4bn and $6bn. This, incidentally, was something that Acast CEO and their former boss Ross Adams hinted at in an interview with The Media Leader last year.
Holt and Brenton, perhaps unsurprisingly, agree with their former boss Adams. Holt sees podcast as sitting in the influence and performance category which is particularly good at mid to lower funnel advertising.
Podcasts resilient to economic downturn
Some might say it is a very brave time to start a new agency venture in such a challenging macroeconomic climate. Inflation in the UK remains stubbornly high and digital channels in particular have faced a tough 2023 as major advertisers trim costs on channels that are easier to turn off than TV, for example, where campaigns are normally planned months in advance.
To this, Holt remarks: “During the Covid years, what we saw as marketers were trying to find another route to customers that felt authentic and was delivering the objectives that they wanted it to do, that choice ended up being podcast. So actually, when marketers are scrutinising budgets and in times of economic moves, I would ask them to look back to the time during Covid when the whole industry went into a crisis (that I hope it should never experience again), it was podcasts that came out as a choice that worked for clients, for marketeers and for audiences.”
When she and Brenton were working the US, Holt recalls, it was hit harder by the economic downturn and in particular a decline in the ad economy. Despite this, what they saw was “a really robust and resilient” podcast performance marketing spend coming from DTC clients, and brand clients moving towards a performance model because of the return on adspend becoming more important in difficult times when consumer spend takes a hit.
She thinks that this is because podcast advertising allows brands to speak to consumers sensitively in a cost-of-living crisis, which has been “a huge question for brand strategists” recently.
Holt says podcast advertising is “a great choice” both for economic uncertainty and certainty and that they are “really confident” in times of uncertainty that podcasts can deliver for clients.
Tech innovation will help grow budgets faster
Another layer of Telling Media’s strategy will be to champion tech innovations to podcast marketplaces, creators, advertisers and the industry as a whole. Brenton is particularly keen to examine opportunities in first party data onboarding, audience-based targeting and AI.
Last year Acast launched its first-party data targeting solutions for advertisers in the US, made possible through first-party data onboarding. Brenton and Holt want to champion something similar in the UK and Europe within GDPR restrictions.
Historically podcast audience targeting has been more based around contextual relevance, because of a lack of evolved ad tech, Brenton says. However, now there are a lot more opportunities to gain more audience-based insights which could “flip” best practice podcast planning.
Brenton additionally thinks it is important to “mirror the best of both worlds”; namely creators and tech, when it comes to AI applications in podcasting. This balance has to be “thoughtfully managed” so creators can still bring their creativity and authenticity.
AI could be leveraged in certain instances like creating multiple versions of an ad to include city names, postcodes, or shop locations, which could work well for retail clients.
Also Brenton wants to test and make the most of new innovations in 30-second audio ad tech so their work is “not biased around host-reads”, although she thinks these will still make up the majority of podcast campaigns.
All of these tech innovations will lead to “phenomenal” and “faster” growth in budgets, Brenton predicts.
Reach a redundant currency, it should be attention
Holt and Brenton also see “a big gap” in audio and podcast spend versus the total time audiences spend with each of the media channels, which, in turn, relates to the attention the medium commands.
Holt states: “We really want to help the broader industry understand that the attention that the audiences give podcasting does not necessarily represent the amount of revenue that is spent by advertisers reaching them and we know that the attention and the attention economy that listeners give podcasts is what actually drives the results.”
Brenton goes one step further to say that in our lifetime we will see the entire ad market shift to attention-based impressions and planning.
“Unfortunately, the entire multibillion dollar global ad inventory and ad market is based on a redundant currency of reach — that reach equals results. We know in today’s finite attention economy when we’re so overwhelmed, I would say reach is the lowest metric that I would consider as a marketer. Just because you reached me, doesn’t mean I have engaged or been impacted in any way.”
“We really champion that attention equals results, podcasts equals attentive impressions and they’re a bit of a challenge to this whole outdated notion of reach equals results, but the entire holding co, and the entire advertising world has really been built on legacy metrics like reach, but that was from a different time when your daily ad exposure may have only been a handful, now it can be hundreds at a time, so it’s about attention.”