Adland is still sleeping on podcasting

Podcasts are still a footnote on many media plans, but there’s hope on the horizon

Last week gave me an interesting object lesson in the power of bubbles. On Thursday, the PodPod team had the pleasure of attending the annual IAB UK Podcast Upfronts for the second year, before hot-footing it across town to join Campaign’s MediaWeek Awards, which celebrate some of the advertising industry’s best agencies and campaigns. 

It was particularly notable, as the former event was full of audio companies explicitly attempting to woo the exact brands and agencies present at the latter. What it hammered home to me, however (other than the fact that trying to get from Cannon Street to Marble Arch at rush hour is hell on wheels) is that, for many brands and agencies, podcasting remains a footnote.

The bulk of the Awards is devoted to showcasing ad campaigns across various categories, and the wider audio was comparatively well-represented; Spotify’s Ed Couchman co-chaired the judging panel, and the most-awarded campaign of the night was Global’s partnership with the British Heart Foundation, which saw third-party ads across Heart Radio and Global’s podcast portfolio suddenly silenced to raise awareness around sudden cardiac arrest.

However, while it’s amazing that podcasting featured in any entries at all (considering that five years ago it would be unlikely to even get a look-in), the winning campaigns placed the greatest emphasis on their radio elements. Despite podcasts like the Ministry of Justice’s A Prison’s Guide To and Cooperative Funeralcare’s Let’s Talk About Grief making the shortlist in the audio category, podcast creative was a comparative minority among a slew of TV, film and outdoor advertising campaigns. 

All of the winning entries were excellent, but it was a shame not to see podcasting more represented - and while I don’t have any special behind-the-scenes insight, I suspect it’s more down to a lack of podcast campaign submissions than anything else. 

You might argue that all of this is of limited relevance to the wider podcast industry, but awards like these are a chance for the advertising industry to make a song and dance about the work that it’s proudest of - and if podcasting isn’t in the mix, it’s an indication that advertisers still don’t rate podcast campaigns on the same par as other channels.

There are any number of potential theories as to why brands and agencies don’t seem particularly excited about podcasts, but to my mind, one of the most significant elements is simply a lack of deep familiarity with the medium. TV, radio, print and out-of-home advertising has been a firm fixture of everyone’s lives for decades - we’re all constantly surrounded by it, and so we understand it on a much deeper and more immediate level. On top of that, the industry has been working with those mediums for decades, and has established playbooks, models and strategies that can guide their thinking.

Podcasting doesn’t have that. It’s still new enough that there’s probably a pretty good chance that many buyers aren’t that familiar with podcasting; a brand’s CMO might have listened to a few episodes of Diary Of A CEO or the Lex Fridman Podcast, but they probably couldn’t reel off their top ten podcast ad campaigns in the same way they could for TV. 

The Podcast Upfronts is one of the ways the IAB and its industry partners are attempting to address that, pulling in as many brands and agencies as they can muster and trying to familiarise them with what podcasting can offer. Last year, there was a heavy reliance on stats and metrics to demonstrate that podcasts can compete with other formats in terms of performance, but this year, the emphasis was on premium content, wheeling out the big guns of well-known talent to show that they can match the shine and sizzle as well as the deliverables. 

Whether that will be enough, however, remains to be seen. Anecdotally, most of the really successful podcast campaigns are driven by passionate advocates for podcasting within the buyer’s team; that’s what leads to exciting, creative partnerships, rather than a minor programmatic allocation as part of a wider media plan. 

So how do we square this circle, then? How does the podcast industry unlock this understanding in the minds of buyers - and in the minds of the agency gatekeepers that play such a big role in deciding spend?

One option is to start creating speculative pitches - finding a brand that you really want to work with, creating a suggested campaign outline and a few mocked-up assets, and sending it directly to its agency or marketing team. It gives a prospective client something tangible to aid understanding, but cold-emailing isn’t always the most successful tactic, and podcast companies may balk at essentially doing unpaid work in the hopes of a later deal. 

Another potential tactic is to highlight the excellent work that’s already being done in the space, following in the footsteps of events like the MediaWeek Awards and letting pioneers in the industry lead by example. Showcasing innovative and successful campaigns gives advertisers a frame of reference, highlighting not just what they could be doing, but giving them an aspirational reason to do so. 

That’s something we’re already doing on PodPod - with case studies covering brands like HSBC, AutoTrader and BrewDog - and you can expect to see more of the same in future. For the reasons mentioned above, it’s not always easy convincing clients and agencies to talk about the work they’re doing in the podcast space, but if you’ve got a case study you’d like to shout about, then we’d love to hear from you.

Podcasting is starting to chip away at the dominance of established advertising channels like TV and out-of-home - Global’s Grand Prix win at the Awards marks the first time in a while that an audio ad has won the top gong, for example - but it’s still got a long way to go. 

There is hope, though. I spoke to a number of agency representatives at the MediaWeek Awards who have been creating nuanced, impactful podcast campaigns for clients, and the universal feedback I got from them was that once the brand gave podcasting a proper chance, the results led to consistent renewal and expansion of those campaigns. In short, while brands may not be familiar with podcasting, once they see (or hear) it in action for themselves, they get it.