Reinventing Advertising in the Age of Influencers

Most consumers are no longer watching conventional television in the same way they used to, so advertising agencies are finding new ways to reach them. In this episode of Mastering Innovation on Sirius XM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, guest Greg Isaacs, Chief Product & Marketing Officer of Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), shared how his company is using data creatively to help brands insert product placements into the popular culture.

Isaacs discussed two trends that have forced brands to reinvent ways to reach their audiences: reduced commercial viewership and the rise of social media influencers. BEN helps major brands such as Microsoft and Cadillac authentically market their products through Netflix, television, YouTube, movies, and social media. They do this by analyzing demographic and psychographic profiles of viewers to target a specific audience, then conveying the brand message with creative storytelling. On a larger scale, Isaacs spoke about the cultural mind shift required among brand marketers to think beyond traditional TV and digital advertising to connect with today’s consumers.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.


Greg Isaacs Portrait
Greg Isaacs (Chief Product and Marketing Officer, Branded Entertainment Network)

Saikat Chaudhuri: What is the Branded Entertainment Network and what does it do for its clients?

Greg Isaacs: BEN (as we call it for short) focuses on getting global brands to connect with consumers through popular entertainment. That could be streaming, TV, film or social media influencers. Think about it as the old-school business of product placement, which has been in existence for 100 years. But we add a 21st-century model on top of that in terms of our technology, which enables a brand to target a particular audience. And once that brand gets integrated into content, we measure the results. Next time you’re watching Netflix, HBO, YouTube, or something on broadcast and you see a product integrated, hopefully authentically integrated, chances are we had a big part in making that happen.

Chaudhuri: Fascinating. So, integration and authenticity are two things which are clearly very important to various audiences nowadays. Is that why you focus on those?

Isaacs: Yeah. There are a couple of trends we’re betting on. And if you think about your behavior and your audience’s behavior, there are a few things that are happening. The first is consumers are no longer watching advertising at the same rate, and that’s been going on for many, many years. The most pronounced has been in the television business where consumers are either historically just skipping commercials because they’ve had DVRs, they’ve been distracted with mobile phones, they’ve gone to the bathroom, or they’re cutting the cord. That’s the first trend.

The second trend is this massive adoption of social media influencers and how important they are to particular millennial audiences in terms of the content that they create. With those two trends, what BEN is looking to do is work with some amazing innovative brands and help them authentically integrate into that content. And why authenticity is so important, to your question, is that the more natural it seems, the better the results will be in terms of the KPIs that a brand cares about. If the consumer feels like they’re being sold to, typically the results don’t work. If a consumer feels like, “Oh, you know, I’m seeing a product on TV,” this consumer is using a Microsoft Surface or there’s a Cadillac integrated into a particular scene, those are two of our clients, then they’re going to feel, “Oh, okay, Cadillac and Microsoft are amazing brands, this feels real.” And at the end of the day, the brand’s going to hopefully garner the benefits of that.

“The more natural it seems, the better the results will be in terms of the KPIs that a brand cares about. If the consumer feels like they’re being sold to, typically the results don’t work.” – Greg Isaacs

Chaudhuri: I love that. We’ve seen that in movies for decades, but it always came across as a little artificial. I agree with you. The more authentically you can place them, the more natural these things seem.

You started talking about trends. One trend has to do with the technologies that are being used, and you mentioned social media and digital technology. Clearly, that plays a role by allowing you to measure all these things. Another area is in terms of the behavior of the consumers. How easy is it to innovate — when it comes to your offerings, your models, your technologies, and the services — in a world which is changing so quickly?

Isaacs: I think one of the most innovative things that we did, that I’m particularly proud of, is when we would be meeting with clients, and we would say to them, for example, “Netflix and Amazon and Hulu have large audiences. They are creating these great productions that everyone is watching.” The questions we would get from brands would be, “We believe you, but how big are these audiences, overall, for each particular show? How big are those shows? What is the demographic makeup of those individuals that are watching those shows? What is the psychographic makeup? (Meaning, what do they like to do?) What are their interests. We’ve heard about this thing called bingeing, what is that? How often does it happen? And then, finally, what does bingeing mean to my brand, my KPIs?” And we would say, “These are amazing questions. We don’t have any answers.”

The reality was that Netflix and Amazon and Hulu, for a variety of reasons, don’t release their data. They’re not in the ad-based business, so it’s not important to them. So, what we needed to do was to innovate. Typically, if you wanted to find out about viewership and audience behaviors and makeups, you would leverage a partner like Nielsen. Historically, they hadn’t tracked that data either. So, we effectively stood up, about a year and a half ago, our own insights program. And actually if I can give a plug, a Wharton graduate, Aaron Frank, runs that program for BEN.

What was really interesting was that we needed to create our own panel, so we needed to go out and do that quick and dirty. We needed to go out into the general internet population and find out what shows consumers were watching on these streaming services, the demographic makeup, and the psychographic information. So, for example, a company like GM would like to know: of everyone who’s watching shows on streaming, which shows over-index for people who are going to purchase cars in the next three months? We needed to create this all ourselves, and we did that. And it’s been a huge boon to our business because it makes our clients informed and smarter. It allows us to better match a brand with content and make sure they’re targeting the right audience, and it’s something, when I started at BEN three years ago, we hadn’t thought of.

“We needed to go out into the general internet population and find out what shows consumers are watching on these streaming services… We needed to innovate ahead of the market.” – Greg Isaacs

That was an example where we needed to innovate ahead of the market. And now, as we see, other companies like Nielsen starting to do this tracking behavior. The good news is we can adopt those services, but back then it was really one of these things that was a barrier to us scaling. And once we were able to solve that, it’s been very beneficial for our clients and for us.

About Our Guest

Greg Isaacs is the Chief Product and Marketing Officer at Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), a Bill Gates company. Over his career, Greg has gained extensive experience in managing many facets of business, product, marketing and technology. Greg joined BEN after serving as VP and GM for the NFL’s Digital Media Team. Prior to the NFL, Greg served as VP and GM for AT&T Interactive. Greg began his digital career at eBay where he was the Director of eBay’s Developers Program.

Greg is a graduate of Brandeis University and the London School of Economics with a Bachelor of Arts. He also holds a Masters of Business Administration from the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.