Identity

Growth Drivers for Publishers in 2021: A Discussion with NBCUniversal

February 17, 2021  |   LiveRamp

2020 was a year like no other, especially for the television industry. What lessons did it teach us, and what steps are needed for publishers not only to survive but grow in 2021? Jason White, LiveRamp’s SVP and Head of Publishers, sits down with Ryan McConville, EVP, Ad Platforms & Operations for NBCUniversal, to discuss data-driven activation and measurement and key drivers for better customer experiences.

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Transcript:

Jason:
I’m honored to have Ryan McConville from NBCUniversal with us today. We’re going to be talking about some thought-provoking topics in the industry at large as we close the door on 2020 and turn the page to 2021. Ryan, I’d like to turn it over to you and get a little background from your perch.

Ryan:
Thanks for having me, Jason. I’ve been at NBCUniversal for just over a year and I’ve been in advertising for over 20 years. I started out in what I like to call the original mobile media, which was magazines, at Rolling Stone in 1999. It was my dream job. I spent some time in the magazine industry and I went straight to mobile when the iPhone launched. I still remember when Steve Jobs talked about iAds. It seemed like such an exciting frontier. Since then, I’ve worked for a number of mobile adtech start-ups, most recently Kargo. I was there for nearly seven years, working with Harry Cardman, someone I’m sure a lot of your listeners know. We built a really good creative and programmatic ad tech business, and we did a lot of work with NBCU. And much like my excitement for the concept of iAds, the advent of streaming and connected TV seemed like that next big thing on the horizon. I was excited for the opportunity to continue my career here, knowing that Peacock was imminent.

Jason:
As you look back on 2020, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the past year?

Ryan:
On a personal front, the biggest lesson that I learned last year, which we probably all learned, was how adaptable and resilient people are. The idea that we could run billion-dollar companies from our laptops at home was crazy to think about, but we did it. I had just started at NBCU prior to the pandemic, so I didn’t know the people on my team all that well, and it was incredible to see how strong they were. A lot of them are parents, and I saw them trying to take care of their kids while launching a new streaming product at the same time. On a professional front, last year I kind of learned the TV business. My background is in magazines and mobile, but in my adtech days, I was a digital native. I had a lot to learn about TV. I’m familiar with ad servers, SSPs, and DSPs, but I had to learn what a log scheduler is and all sorts of other technology that is a huge part of our business. So, for me, that was a big net-new learning in 2020. But even more broadly than that, I learned how progressive NBCU is, and truly what it means to be a television company. If you put the two together, you could say I joined a company with resilient people who are reimagining what a TV business is going into the future. I think the company has a real vision of the future that TV is evolving and that we need to evolve with it as consumer trends change. We know that the future is digital, automated, and targeted, and NBCU is doing all of those things now to meet that future as it arises. The most obvious example was the launch of Peacock, which I had the honor to work on with my team. The business has just exploded, and it’s been really fun to watch.

Jason:
It’s good to hear that NBCU has been able to launch such an incredible product like Peacock. From my CBS background, I can tell you how Herculean that was, and to be able to do that during this past year, I was just blown away. As you look ahead to 2021, how are you planning to continue this amazing growth?

Ryan:
When people talk about the future of NBCU, the first thing they think about is Peacock, which makes sense, because it’s the flagship leading our march towards the future. But I do think it’s important to recognize that the company is bigger than just Peacock. The strategy we launched in 2020 that we’ll continue in 2021 is what we call our “one platform” strategy. I’ll take a quick second to explain it. It’s really about an audience- and consumer-first approach vs. budget, so when a marketer or advertiser comes to NBCU, instead of buying a linear or a digital plan, we help them find their audience and realize their business objectives. The idea of buying a linear plan to reach an audience is very outdated, given the state of the world. Our audiences are vast, and as they move around between platforms and devices, the person a marketer may want to reach could be in any number of places. We’ve built a set of technologies and products that enable that to happen. One platform is our ability to reach a specific audience, then build a plan that optimizes across the entire ecosystem to reach that audience. That is the essence of one platform. It was our strategy in 2020, and we’re doubling down on that in 2021.

Jason:
What do you feel the media industry needs to solve most for?

Ryan:
I think we need to continue to put the consumer and the audience first in how we approach everything. A lot of what LiveRamp is trying to solve for is part of the crux of the problem. Trying to stitch together a full picture of incremental reach of audiences across disparate distribution points can be tricky, and companies are taking different approaches to it. There’s the open internet approach, which I know LiveRamp is a big supporter of, and then you have the walled-garden approach. As we look ahead, the industry has to start thinking about a consistent way to target audiences and manage frequency across different supply pools and distribution points.

Jason:
I’ve worked with CIOs at agency holding companies who have said their ideal is to be able to global frequency cap and target and measure across platforms so they can have better outcomes for their marketers. Can you talk a little bit about cross-platform measurement?

Ryan:
I’ll start off by talking about measurement, because again, when it comes to television, I think historically the measurement currency has been Nielsen audiences. We’re trying to get to a place where we’re measuring campaigns on impact and not just impression delivery. So, broadly speaking on the reach and frequency side, we are not just doing cross-platform optimization in planning, but also in reach metrics and reporting. In the measurement reports we provide to clients, reach estimates are de-duplicated across platforms, which is important for advertisers. We want to get to a place where more of those impressions across screens and platforms are measurable and can be directly connected to point-of-sale data, foot-traffic data, website visit data, or whatever the advertiser is utilizing as their KPI. All of these things are powered by the first-party data strategies we’ve been talking about.

Jason:
And we have been beholden because of the way that this ecosystem works. You’ve got walled gardens of data, like you were illustrating earlier, but you’ve got walled gardens of identifiers as well, and that’s really where we’ve focused and where we’re partnering. To be able to do that and deliver on that is the Holy Grail.

Ryan:
I would say the shift from linear to a direct-to-consumer streaming model plays well to solving all of that. As we roll out with apps like Peacock, we have a direct-to-consumer log-in that’s consistent, regardless of where we’re distributing the app. I think we probably both agree that this comes down to first-party data. We need to build a direct and trusted relationship with consumers so they are logged in when they’re interacting with us.

Jason:
That’s a great point. My next question was going to be, “how do we create better consumer experiences?” It’s achieved by doing exactly what you’re saying. Can you illustrate more on that point?

Ryan:
As consumers become more savvy about how they trade data, it comes down to the experience they get in return. NBCU has been a leader in that, even prior to the connected TV revolution, and for a long time has been lightening the ad load to improve the consumer experience. People are seeing fewer net ads per hour of consumption. Peacock actually has the lightest ad load in the industry, with under five minutes per hour.

Jason:
I’ve experienced that first-hand as I’ve hit the Peacock archives quite a bit recently looking for old Eddie Murphy stuff on SNL!

Ryan:
If you combine great commercial innovation and ad experiences with data, you actually create a really great viewing experience, and that creates a flywheel. If customers have to watch one ad in order to watch the rest of the movie ad-free, we feel that creates a good value exchange. We’re confident that if we continue to innovate, we will be able to offer a fair value exchange for logged-in users, which then enables the use cases that are important for our marketing customers.

Jason:
How do you adjust to changes in third-party identifiers and that world? You’re talking about building trust and transparency and owning the consumer relationship, and it’s a logged-in state, which provides better consumer data that marketers can use for targeting and offering more relevant ad experiences, which ultimately provides a better consumer experience. But how does that safeguard and grow your monetization? Even taking away some market share from the walled gardens that have owned identity for so long?

Ryan:
Connected TV is the opportunity for companies that traditionally may have relied a lot more on third-party data to reinvent themselves through that first-party data connection. I would say though, NBCU has really great consumer-direct relationships. We’re working on a new data strategy, making a concerted effort to look at how we incorporate those identities across the portfolio platform in a way that benefits both consumers and marketers. There is a new opportunity with the launch of streaming to get more into the identity game and bring TV to the next level. A lot of people like the ads on Instagram because the data is so good and the ads are personalized, in a good way. If you were to take that type of precision and apply it to the power of video and storytelling in a connected TV app, you’d really start to see the potential for what a modern TV company could be if they handle their data strategy in the right way.

Jason:
That’s right. It’s above and beyond what you can do in linear today, and you’re right, some of the walled gardens just aren’t there in those spaces.

Ryan:
As we think about building a data business, it all starts with a great experience for the consumer. Creating a value exchange gives us the tools to create a great product for our marketing partners.

Jason:
Ryan, thanks for taking the time with us today. This has been an enlightening conversation and I’ve enjoyed hearing what you’re working on. On a personal side, what’s the first vacation you plan to take after all of this? 

Ryan:
I think my wife has a running list. We love to travel. It would probably be Africa. We’ve been to Africa many times. We went to Tanzania for our honeymoon, I’ve been to Rwanda, and we went to South Africa in January of 2020 to celebrate my wife’s birthday. My son is four now, and every year I get more excited about taking him on a proper safari. That will probably be our first choice when this all ends.

Jason:
I love it. And how about the best series that you’ve binged or a book that you think that we should all read?

Ryan:
I’m very passionate about this best book idea. It’s a book called Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal. It’s about creating a team dynamic at big companies. As companies get big, they get siloed, and it gets hard to work together as a team. I read and reread it because it’s just infinitely wise, especially in terms of how we collaborate with each other in these times. I highly recommend it.

Jason:
This has been fruitful. One of the better humans in our industry, Ryan McConville. Thanks for joining us today.

Ryan:
Thanks, Jason.