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Dan Granger is CEO and founder of ad agency Oxford Road — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability
DG: Oxford Road is an ad agency that’s dedicated to audio as a core function. We were the first agency to plan our flag with a core focus on podcasts ten years ago. We’re now the leading independently owned agency that specializes in the space - as far as we can tell - by volume, and we have had the privilege of getting to be partners with a number of fast growth brands and household names. We’ve had over a dozen advertisers go from small tech, start up to unicorn, publicly traded lots of exits in the time that we’ve been doing this.
JC: It’s your 10th anniversary this year. How have things changed over the last ten years?
DG: It’s hard to even describe what a different world it is. When I started, I had to explain to a lot of people what a podcast was: and they were hard to listen to. There was no Serial. We started pre-Serial, and it was just a hobbyist or a niche emerging channel. Now, not only does everybody know podcasting, and not only has it become ubiquitous for people, I think we’ve seen a revolution in audio entertainment.
When you have multiple presidents launching their own podcasts - and some getting cancelled for not achieving ratings goals - you can tell something’s really happening.I think things have changed quite a bit.
We always talked about podcasting being the Wild West: but it’s not quite the Wild West now. It’s still a boomtown, but infrastructure is like halfway there. And so we’re in this middle phase now where we’re not a big city, we’re not like the more established channels yet. There’s a lot of challenges and a lot of problems, but great strides are being made, and I think there’s no question that podcasting is here to stay. It’s going to be a durable channel and it’s going to be a part of most brands growth strategy for the foreseeable future.
JC: When I worked in radio 20 years ago, we used to offer category exclusivity in each ad break, which was fun at certain times of the year. You’ve called for that in the past as well around host-reads. How important is that, do you think?
DG: It’s only important if you care about the credibility of the person you’re paying to advocate for you. It’s business polygamy for a host to be advertising two conflicting brands that are reaching the same target with the same value proposition. To ignore that is insane.
When people came into this space, they got to take the magic of what radio was at that time and get the best of all worlds, because there were low barriers to entry. You had this relationship with a host who is willing to try your product, get on a call to learn about your product, get to know some of the people at the business and talk about it in an organic, seamless, authentic way, really stitched into the fabric of the programming.
In the world we’re in today, everybody’s working so hard to commoditize, and to achieve scale and to get the big brands. I think we’re making some shortsighted compromises that are not going to end well. It is one of those shortsighted compromises that has driven the way that we have approached programmatic in this industry.
Programmatic is a great example of where the industry is taking what should be a slice of the ecosystem and trying to retrofit the whole thing around it. We get very carried away. We started with a business that was all baked-in ads recorded in real time along with the content, and then we said, Oh no, you know what? Instead of doing that, we’re just going to go entirely dynamic insertion. And you know what? How fast can we get away from even associating hosts with the advertising? And that’s what programmatic is doing.
It’s not a bad thing: it’s a lane. But the problem for the industry is that we don’t recognize lanes. We think one size fits all. And so we try to take a new idea and a reaction to the way this thing started and go - well, it doesn’t work for everybody, so let’s change all of it for everybody and force them into a new path. Ultimately, if it didn’t fit for some before and now it’s just not going to fit for others.
I’d like to see the industry recognizing that programmatic is a necessity, but so are live reads, so are baked in ads, so are dynamically inserted talent-read ads, so is remnant: they’re all lanes that media requires and that this channel will require. But we ignore the lessons of the past hundred years in radio, which could be informing our future. We act like we don’t have any precedent for this. And really what we need is a rate card that accommodates the varying values of the different types of insertions that can take place rather than a dilution of the whole value proposition of the industry.
JC: You were talking recently around attribution and measurement. Whenever you hear people talking about podcasting, it’s always “Oh, attribution and measurement, they’re really hard”. You recently published a post about a different approach than vanity URLs.
DG: It’s been a phenomenal discovery for our firm, and we’re just trying to spread the good news throughout the industry. If you go to oxfordroad.com/bonfire, you can download our white paper right now.
Basically, these vanity URLs are like cockroaches: they just won’t die. We’re in the age of artificial intelligence and we are still telling people to remember to go to a vanity URL or a discount code, which is nuts.
I think many people thought pixels were going to be the solution. I think for many people, pixels are a good solution - we work with all the pixel providers and I think they’re a helpful tool in the toolkit when you’re trying to look at the performance of your ad. But at the end of the day, I think sometimes we outsmart our common sense and we want to be so sophisticated that we forget that surveys work. Asking people “where do you hear about us” isn’t a perfect science, but it works for polls: and if you look at how much data we receive that’s based on polling and asking people a question and taking them at their word for their response, we can see that this is a tried and true thing that’s not going anywhere.
We did a program with Bambee, who’s a great partner of Oxford Road and has been for many years. We said - what if we stop using these vanity URLs because we know that a very small fraction of respondents to an ad actually use them? It might be 2% or 8% of the people that are going to buy are actually going to follow your instructions through that vanity URL, which means that you’re getting very small samples of data, which means that you’re extrapolating and on a small show that most of the shows that you can buy in podcast are at a size that even if this show is performing above the way that you need it to, it won’t send up a large enough signal for it to hit your radar because your sample size is too small.
So we took the “How did you hear about us” survey, which there are best practices on how to implement, and we said, okay, if they select podcasts, we’re going to ask them another question: “what did you hear us on?” It used to be that you’d get a long list, and you’d see people with like 80 shows on a list and they’re asking people to go through and handpick them - they’re not going to do that. So we used predictive text. We create a search box, you type in the name of the show, and we can organize it on the back-end so that whenever I start typing, predictive text maps it back to one source.
We figured out that we could increase our visibility into individual show performance by over 700%. As a brand, that’s a world of difference.
So: even though we like using the pixels, the pixels are helpers. There’s a lot of brands that won’t use pixels; and if you take some of the top providers and match them up against each other, you get wildly different results. We believe that a second layer survey question with predictive text solves the problem that vanity URLs have been trying to solve. Out with the vanity URLs, throw them on the bonfire.
JC: What do we need to do as an industry to keep growing and to grow faster? Can we be working together better as an industry? Are we still small enough to do that?
DG: It’s hard for anyone to work across different organizations on anything collaboratively in this day and age where we’re all connected, but we’re all so siloed and in our own corners.
But I do think there are opportunities for us to collaborate, and I think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier: if you have a brand you’re trying to serve and their need is something like programmatic, or their need is to have a relationship with the host, we need to create a different lens through which they can travel and until that happens, I think we’re going to be thwarted because we’re just going to vacillate between pleasing one and disappointing the other and back and forth we go.
We all got into this for a reason: there was something different here. Podcast is a different channel. We created a world of different opportunities that yielded a renaissance in programming.
The opportunity is to embrace the inefficient parts as well. I know that AI is going to retrofit the industry. We all know that that’s a good thing and it should happen that way, that we get more efficient and opportunities to scale. But at the end of the day, audio is important because we are connecting through a conversation. We are using our voices to explain things, using an amount of time that you can’t get in other channels to really talk through things in the abstract and actually have organic conversations. This intimacy, at least from a business point of view, yields the best opportunity in the world, which is that you can scale these relationships.
The host has a relationship with the audience; the host has a relationship with the brand; the host puts the brand and the audience together. Our relationships cannot be automated. Relationships are not built for scale. We can only have so many of them. We need to recognize that that is actually audio’s gift to us. That is a strength that is a source of value. And yes, do we need to jam in some dynamically inserted ads and some programmatic ads? Of course we do. Big brands are going to need that. But don’t kill the golden goose.
JC: Where can people learn more about Oxford Road?
DG: Our website. They can sign up for our weekly newsletter The Influencer and get industry insights, curated news and deep dives into a load of different subjects.
JC: Thanks for your time, and congratulations on ten years.
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