The Christmas ad conundrum for podcasting

Why the ‘big ad moment’ in podcasting will elude the industry until we tackle the ‘elf-ant’ in the room

T’was the month before Christmas, when all sorts of brands drop festive creative - except in podland.

Today, the Christmas ad reveal from our favourite retailers is as synonymous with the UK festive season as mince pies and crackers. Whilst the competition among brands to create the most memorable and heart-warming television ads is a tradition in itself, so is the media buzz around them. 

For me, it’s going to take a lot to top Asda wheeling out Bublé this year, beating out John Lewis’ still-excellent Venus fly-trap creative, and the debate in the office is still ongoing as more campaigns launch. Whilst our American friends across the pond have their own version of this festive throw-down come February’s annual Superbowl - with CBS already reporting it has sold out of ad slots for 2024’s game, according to Marketing Brew - in a time when we consume our media on so many different platforms, the Christmas advert season is one of the few big unifying moments in the UK media calendar. 

Working in podcasting, which continues to grow as a media platform, and with teenagers in the house who get all their news and entertainment from YouTube and TikTok, it’s fascinating to me how traditional this advertising moment remains. It is an entire category of ad which is always designed for TV. Why aren’t we seeing more experimentation? Why, I ask with jealousy, are we not experiencing these big ad moments on podcasts? 

The creative directors amongst us, I imagine, would argue that Michael Bublé simply talking through Asda’s Christmas offerings just wouldn’t have the same impact as the visual verson. Nor could John Lewis bring one of its animated characters to life in quite the same way (or then sell the cuddly toy version). Television advertising offers a visual experience that's hard to replicate in other formats. In addition, Christmas has long been associated with TV specials, Christmas movies and family moments around the TV - so it makes sense for ads to focus there. 

Tackling this creative argument head-on, even if John Lewis isn't prepared to ditch the TV version just yet, there is no reason why podcasts can’t have their own piece of the mince pie, and there are more creative opportunities to be explored that would bring ads to life via audio. M&S Food, for example, has chosen to just use the voices of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney in its ads - so why can’t that work for audio too? Similarly, I can think of any number of iconic food podcasts that would love Bublé to pop up and dissect the great British Christmas Dinner in a sponsored ad slot. 

What’s more, research from UCLA identified that when audiences listen through headphones, their experience creates an immensely strong bond between the listener and the communicator, and it also acts as a catalyst for encouraging people to act. In fact, listening via headphones allows a voice to be twice as persuasive as one coming via a speaker. 93% of podcast listening is done through headphones, meaning it’s not a huge leap to suggest that podcasts have a more emotional power over us than watching TV in the traditional manner. 

But let’s be under no illusion, these ads aren’t just about winning the Christmas creativity battle; they’re about business, ROI and where our hard-earned Christmas cash is spent. And we know that the brands making these big-impact TV ads do advertise on podcasts. IAB figures for 2022 showed that podcast ad spend grew by 32% to £76.3m, and big brands are investing in audio. These companies know the value of podcasting.

Here in the UK, 32% of UK adults listen to podcasts on a regular basis, and you don’t accidentally consume a podcast in the same way you might watch a TV advert. These are intentional listeners who have hunted out a show, who are listening with intent. And once they have listened to the show, they take action. 

According to 2022 research from The Guardian, Cumulus Media and Signal Hill, podcasts deliver the highest level of attention of any media channel – 65% pay attention (versus 39% for TV and 38% for radio) and attention leads to a great likelihood to buy. 33% of people followed up on ads they heard in podcasts and 17% searched for a product they heard advertised. In fact, 45% of listeners said that they are receptive to brands if they are relevant to the show and delivered by the host. The power of podcasting, when it comes to attention and listeners who then act, has been proven again and again. 

So, what is the issue?In my opinion, it is this. In the world of podcasting, a significant blind spot persists - one that hampers substantial media investment in the platform. In the world of podcasting, there is a notable dearth of standardised metrics and a uniform system for measuring ad effectiveness. This is in stark contrast to TV advertising, where ratings and viewership numbers are meticulously tracked and reported. Media agencies can confidently confirm to their clients exactly how many people tuned in to watch their TV commercials during a specific time slot.

Media planners, at present, grapple with the lack of consistent and measurable formats when considering podcast advertising. They know podcasts are popular, they have the data on attention and on engagement, but they don’t have the ROI. To instil trust and confidence in the medium, the industry requires attributable data, ensuring that advertisers understand precisely what they are investing in. As much as we all know in our gut when something is a ‘great media moment’, the ad world still runs off metrics. And the fact is that podcasting is still relying a little too much on the emotive moments over the data that agency planners need to provide to the big brands in order to justify their media spend.

This is especially evident in key calendar dates, when the stakes are significantly higher - such as here in the UK at Christmas or in the US come Superbowl season. It's no longer enough for podcasting to rely on its audio influencer reputation. We need to be able to articulate to media buyers exactly what they are purchasing and why. Until we can do that, TV and radio will continue to be the leading media platforms, because their level of clarity in measurement offer a sense of security which is appealing to advertisers when their big budget ad must win not only in terms of talkability but also deliver ROI.

For podcasting to guarantee its place on the ‘big ad moment’ media plans, we need to be able to provide independent listener figures and unique listener numbers. This means, as an industry, joining forces and working together to take on the challenges and pains of independent auditing. If we want to command our premium CPMs and be regarded as a competitive media platform for the big buck, big moment campaigns, then we need to be verified in terms of these metrics. 

It isn’t going to be easy, but it needs to be done to bridge the gap between what we all know is audio advertising's effectiveness and the concrete confidence (i.e., data) that brands need to invest even more in this medium. However, if we come together to tackle this, then there is a good chance that we will see podcasting front and centre of big budget media plans in years to come. We are overdue for a cracker of a Christmas ad campaign, but it is on us, as an industry, to get us there.