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Brand Safety & Suitability: Explained

Brand Safety & Suitability: Explained

The Sounds Profitable Podcast

Season 2 • Episode 19

Today on the show, Bryan Barletta sits down with Brendan Kelly (director of ad quality measure) and Stacey Hultgren (senior manager of ad quality measurement) of SXM Media to break down the concepts of brand safety and suitability. How do advertisers determine what shows are brand safe and brand suitable for them? They also discuss a proposal that Brendan and Stacey recently brought to an IAB working group, focusing on how transcripts can be used to ameliorate the process of determining brand safety and suitability for podcasts and audio.Listen in to learn about:

  • The different between brand “safe” and brand “suitable.
  • What is the IAB and how can you join?
  • Why Bryan, Stacey, and Brendan think there’s still ample time to get in on the ground floor and make changes.
  • Why transcripts are so crucial for advertisers to acquire and consider.
  • And much more!

Here’s our favorite idea from this conversation: Bryan uses the recent example of the Applebee’s ad running on CNN’s wartime coverage of Ukraine to explain brand suitability.


Bryan Barletta: What is brand safety? What is brand suitability, and how can brands make sure they're advertising on the right podcast?

Arielle Nissenblatt: That's what we're talking about on this week's episode of Sounds Profitable: Adtech Applied with me, Arielle Nissenblatt.

Bryan Barletta: And me, Bryan Barletta. Thanks to this month's sponsor, Claritas. As a third party provider, Claritas White Glove Service offers the science proven methodology for accurate, transparent and scalable podcast campaign measurement. Find out more at

Arielle Nissenblatt: Special thanks to our sponsors for making Sounds Profitable possible. Check them out by going to and clicking on their logos in the articles.
Brian, how have you been? What have you been listening to? What is going on in your world?

Bryan Barletta: I've been really good. Me and the family are really enjoying the warmer weather, and kind of figuring things out here in San Antonio. And I've been listening.... I've still trying to get through Dungeons & Daddies and I've come to a revelation. I need to get caught up with that show, because when somebody asks you for an example of something in podcasting, you reference a show that you've been talking about a lot. And, it's a nerd podcast about four dads in the forgotten realms, but the subtitle of it is, Not A BDSM Podcast. And so when I'm talking to somebody who doesn't know Dungeons & Dragons, and doesn't know podcasting that well, and I say Dungeons & Daddies, I catch myself going, not a podcast. And so I need a new addiction and I need to get caught up because I have to stop saying that, especially in business meetings. What about you?

Arielle Nissenblatt: You need it now.

Bryan Barletta: What are you listening to?

Arielle Nissenblatt: I blew through Cast Media's The Opportunist, I met with my friend, Natalie, who I went to Salt with. Salt is an audio documentary program in Portland, Maine. I did it last year. It was great. That's awesome. My friend, Natalie then went on to work for Cast Media. She writes for The Opportunist. She told me about the show. I am now giving free press to it because I love it so much. It's such a good show. So everybody should listen to The Opportunist. I don't hear people talking about it. People should be talking about it. That can be your new obsession.

Bryan Barletta: I'll have to check it out. But the free press thing is a big component of what me and you have built together with the Rells Rex, right? Like we always hear about recommendations and right. And word of voice and that being what gets people into new podcasts. And so we're using that through the art that Jake makes, through the shows that you highlight. That's the goal there, right? We don't charge anybody for that. That's literally the things that we're passionate about and we want to share with other people. And that's kind of our way of giving back to the space as much as we can. So heck yeah. Give as much space to things that take up your time in a positive way and make you enjoy podcasting and enjoy audio entertainment.

Arielle Nissenblatt: There's so much good audio out there and there's not enough time the day.

Bryan Barletta: There definitely is not enough time in the day.

Arielle Nissenblatt: And we are here to give you more to listen to. So let's get onto this week's episode. Today on the show you are talking with Brendan Kelly and Stacy Holguin from SXM Media. You met them at an IAB meeting where they were proposing a framework for brand safety and suitability, and they were proposing this because initially they had the idea within SXM Media, but thought, "what if we can expand this for the benefit of the entire podcast space?", which is lovely, which is definitely something that we agree with as a mission.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah, it's such a cool idea for them to have had this internal vision and this goal that they were trying to accomplish and realize that part of podcasting is this open framework, right? This open RSS, this mindset that we're all building on something that's distributed everywhere and people catch it and do their own thing with it. So instead of continuing to build it internally, they made it a major point to get as much buy-in from the industry as possible.

Arielle Nissenblatt: So first let's have ourselves a refresher because over time, the listener base of this podcast has evolved from ad tech people to lots of publishers all over the podcast space. So let's make it inclusive for everybody. What is the IAB?

Bryan Barletta: The IAB is the Interactive Advertising Bureau. It is a nonprofit and it's an interesting organization that kind of groups together everything from publishers, to tech companies, to brands now, and agencies to kind of agree and formalize how we're going to approach advertising and content. It is a big, massive machine. It moves slow sometimes. It moves fast, not very often. And it has a lot of events that are interesting, and it's got a lot of really influential people in it. But it's the closest thing that we have in podcasting to like an industry center point on the business side.

Arielle Nissenblatt: Got it. And how does one become a member of the IAB? Are you a member?

Bryan Barletta: I am. So you have to pay to do their homework. That's the truth of it. The IAB, because it's a nonprofit, they want you to pay to join their tech lab or their audio committee. And I got a special discount rate because I didn't want to pay a lot of money as an individual. And what's cool from that is they took that response and realized that for individual companies like a company of one and amazing contractors like yourself, we're in a situation where we have a great voice to contribute, but probably not tens of thousands of dollars to come to a monthly meeting and do homework. So, they've opened it up more. If you're interested, IEB tech lab, I believe for smaller companies, is only a thousand dollars a year and I would love, love more voices involved there of people who are interested in changing and bettering the space.

Arielle Nissenblatt: We're going to get into a lot of interesting topics in your chat with Brandon and Stacy. So listeners here is what to listen for. First up, we're going to talk about what is brand safety. We're also going to talk about what is brand suitability, and though they're similar, we'll get into the key differences between them. We're going to talk about why transcripts are important for brand safety and suitability. I would say that's really the crux of the conversation to listen for. And I'm saying we, but I mean you, Brendan and Stacy, I just really feel part of this.

Bryan Barletta: You are part of it.

Arielle Nissenblatt: We're going to talk about making changes in the podcast industry, even at this stage 20 years in, we're going to break it all down after your conversation with Brendan and Stacy. So Brian, why don't you introduce the interview for us?

Bryan Barletta: Heck yeah, I hope you enjoy this interview with Stacy and Brendan from SXM Media digging into transcripts, brand safety, brand suitability, and how to present new ideas to the IAB.
So I had a chance to meet Brenda and Stacy for an IAB meeting, where they were talking about proposing a framework that was really interesting. And I want to talk through it a little bit today with both of them, because it's about brand safety and suitability, which I think is really important to every industry in advertising right now, but podcasting, because right now the core thing that we have in podcasting is the episode file itself. And we can do so much more with it than we're doing. So I'll pass over the first question, what is brand safety and suitability and through what technical means can podcasting provide for it?

Stacy: Yeah, I can take that one. So just to take a quick step back to do a brief history, I wanted just to mention that at its most basic level, brand safety and suitability is around protecting brands reputations in the eyes of consumers. And really where this came about in the digital space was, several years ago, a well known CPG client ran on a well known video platform against a really graphic terrorist video. And it really damaged the reputation of both the brand as well as the platform. So, it's not anyone's first thing that they want to be a part of an oops moment, but we're still talking about it years later and that's sort of where we are at in the industry. So coming out of that moment, these terms, brand safety and brand suitability came to be.
So the way that we really think about brand safety is what we call the quote unquote floor. And the floor is truly those dark corners of the internet, right? Where no advertiser really wants to be aligned to that particular type of content. Think of this as being the most graphic egregious content, it's pretty cut and dry who doesn't want to be there, right? Like no advertiser wants to be against these really dark corners. And then suitability is where it gets more customizable and a lot more challenging because it's based on each brand's comfort level with different types of content. So the way that I usually present this is that a diaper brand suitability is going to look very different than alcohol brand, right? Just because they are different kinds of brands, they have different audiences, different types of content that they want to be around.
So that's where it gets really challenging from both an advertiser perspective and a publisher and platform perspective. So just thinking through that more closely to podcast and why we're here today is knowing that when podcasts have really grown in popularity over the last few years, advertisers really want to be in this space, but it's confusing in terms of content alignment and how they protect their brand in that space. I kind of think of it back to the old ad network days when ad networks first came to be and buying blind against that type of content. Advertisers are really wary of that these days. So when it comes to podcasting, we want to think about it in a way that advertisers can both reach their audiences where they're at and also scale.
So right now a lot of advertisers are tending to default to the top, let's call it hundred podcasts out there. They want to use host range. They want to use things of that nature. And there's just not enough inventory as more advertisers enter the space. It's just not available and they're not reaching their consumers across all of the podcast inventory where they are.
So to bring it back to the IAB conversation that we had a couple weeks back, our idea that we've got is to really look at the content of each podcast episode itself and the way that we want to do this and the way that we are doing this is through transcription of each of the podcast episodes. So each podcast episode is transcribed from a speech to text technology, and then we're able to understand the context of each episode and then allow brands to say, we want to align with this type of content. We don't want to align with this other type of content and really look at it that way. But the big challenge here is that this process is also not super scalable, right? Like even with AI and machine learning, it's very arduous and it's very challenging to do so while we had some ideas and solutions and ways that we can go in the podcast space, it's still super early and we're trying to figure it out.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah. One of the things you said, and I want to make sure I got this right because I liked it was, brand safety is about content that probably shouldn't be monetized period and brand suitability is about association of content that you want to be with. Right. So everybody, when we say brand safety and the push to talk about brand suitability was because when COVID happened or right now with, the attack on Ukraine, we're looking at a situation where it's easy to accidentally defund the news because you don't want to be associated with that content. That's not brand unsafe content, but an advertiser can probably pick that a gyrating Buffalo wings ad probably doesn't go very well with a news story about bombing of Ukraine. And so that is about suitability, probably on the ad level and more about suitability about the entire content. Whereas safety, if I got it right, is about, this is non monetizable content and we need to cut that off at the source.

Stacy: Yes, that's absolutely right. Like we don't want to monetize anything that's not considered brand safe. And that is being pulled from the platform and things of that nature. So you hit the nail on the head.

Bryan Barletta: I like that a lot because it really does set that bar brand safe is stuff that meets minimum criteria.

Stacy: Exactly.

Bryan Barletta: But you talked about it's like not scalable in that process. And the transcription process can take a quarter of a time to a third of the time of an episode length to get the transcription up. And then you have to process it on top of that. And there are so many different ways to process it. I know that, part of the parent company that you work for, Ads Wiz, has their own keyword and solution and con score solution as well, that can help contextualize that content and find out different ways to target it. But even at that, that's not entirely the quickest thing in the world and that's only one aspect of it.
So one of the things you brought up with the framework that I thought was really neat was that this isn't a problem that any one company can solve. So I wanted to hear your thoughts on that. Like how do we all come together on that? Because so many companies in AD tech view this as well, we have brand safety and suitability, and your presentation was really neat because it was about, well, we as an industry need a standard for all of us to have it. Anybody left out hurts all of us.

Brendan: As Stacy was talking about kind of some of the learnings we've had from past interactions with digital advertising. This is another one where we saw the same thing in mobile, and we had mobile advertising and we had their own SBK. And whoever you wanted to work with to get measurement, you had to do an integration with them, whether the advertiser, the publisher, the platform, there's a lot of work to be on as manual. And that's what we're seeing right now. When we look at this transcription process and it works. There are solutions out there that are really actually pretty elegant and they work well. But the problem is that everybody's doing their own thing and it becomes very arduous for the advertisers, for the platforms that you have to figure out, okay, if I'm going to go buy this, what do I have to do?
How do I get a measurement done? And so if you're working with a few different partners, that's a pain and that's a pain point in the industry, and it's not something that is necessary if we look at trying to find an industry solution. And due to the nature of how podcasts are distributed, that's kind of why we get this as well, that the podcast creators want to be able to work with multiple platforms and get their podcasts out to the largest audience possible. And it becomes, hectic for that piece as well, where if you're working with different platforms and trying to make sure that they all understand the content of your progress and are being able to monetize it the best way possible, there's a lot of work to be done there. So we wanted to look at how do we provide an idea that can provide a solution to make this more scalable, make it better for everybody.
And also looking at the technical limitations from podcast where it isn't something at the top of ad load you can be running a JavaScript tag, that's going to be able to provide you information, that technology, it just doesn't work because of the way the podcasts are supplied to the end user. But what does happen is that you have the podcast uploaded and then it's static and it doesn't change. And, you know if it changes, because it would be a new upload and you'd be able to see a trail. So what if we were measuring at the time of upload and allowing for companies to get in and understand the content of an episode from its upload, and then any time that episode is played on any platform and there's a measurement vendor who comes into contact with it, they're able to understand already what's entailed in that episode because they've already measured it.
They measured it when it was uploaded and it hasn't changed and they can provide that information to whomever is giving the value out of that information, whether it be the advertiser to ensure that their content is running where they want it to be running. There's potential here for it also to be contextually used on the platform side, to understand what's in their inventory and make sure that they're not producing or providing inventory that they don't want to be putting out there, but looking at it from a different angle and trying to understand what are the different ways we could actually be doing this, I think is essential to providing a scalable solution that is going to allow for advertisers to get what they need and allow the platforms to have an easier time in providing that.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah, my hot take honestly, is that no advertisers should be buying a show that doesn't have a transcript because it just it's insane to me, right? These shows, these producers are spending so much time and money to build these episodes. And the transcript is a continuation of that episode. And so the idea that they don't do it, or they allow a complete third party that doesn't have to send it to them to transcribe. It has always blown my mind. So the idea like that really needs to be owned by the publisher or the hosting platform that they choose. And it all has to be integrated. That information has to come from them as a source. And, and I like what you presented because it allows for multiple different options. It allows for that true third party, but it also allows for publishers to say, Hey, it's really important to me that nobody misinterpret the words that my podcast is putting out and that it is graded appropriately, which every publisher should really be prioritizing.

Brendan: Yeah. I really appreciate what you bring up there, Bryan, around having multiple entities, providing the measurements and doing the work. Because I think that is essential to having a healthy ecosystem too, to making sure that this is accessible by anybody who's able to do the work because we want to make sure that the best aren't doing it and the ones that we can depend on are doing it from transcription to verification, to everything that's happening. We want to allow it to be a bit of a self policing system that only those who are doing it properly and doing it well, end up floating to the top cause are the ones getting worked with and getting paid and being able to sustain. And so I think that is a great point there that we want to have more people involved in everything that's going on. We want to have as many entities as possible. Because that's the best way to ensure that everything's being done really well.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah. And I like, I think a lot about the like paying for the IAB and being part of it, right? Like so much of it now is on the hosting platforms. And third party vendors can to a degree get certified. But I think that's sticker, right? That ultimately that logo you get to place on your content or your site, or say that it's been vetted and it's been audited to some degree is really important. And I think that the more companies we can call out to and say, Hey, come be part of this, come get certified, come get audited. Come say that. Let us say that your output is perfect is great, it's ideal, it meets the minimum standards or it exceeds it, whatever that really helps because that gets more people invested in the space to grow it. It creates a process to call in those different companies.
And I love it. And the last thing I really want to ask you on this is, a lot of people don't believe they can make change in this space. This is so cool that you presented this, you had an idea and you presented this and what you presented was an idea. It was a call out to say, can we, as an industry, do more with this? And so far the response has been great. It looks like we're going to do more with the IAB with it. I guess if someone was interested in presenting an idea to bring this forward, how do you recommend they get started? And what advice would you give them if they wanted to make change like this?

Stacy: Yeah. I mean, my main thing is like join in like get involved in as many industry working groups as possible. There's a ton of working groups out there today across podcasting, across brand safety. And a lot of times across both of those topics, inter you know, intertwined, the way that Brendan and I presented this idea is that we had been sitting in the IAB podcast technical working group for probably a few months at this point. And we just had a side conversation and was like, what, if we flip this on its head and brought an idea to the industry, rather than trying to solve brand safety and podcasting, just for SXM media and brought more people in. And even in that presentation, we already got some conflicting and challenging opinions to our ideas. And I think that is really important because our idea isn't perfect.
We're humble enough to say that it's not perfect. We want as many voices and as many companies to come to the table and bring different pieces and parts to this idea to make it as cohesive and strong of a product as possible for the industry. So like, if you want to present an idea to the industry, or if you do want to make that change, I think just getting involved in one of these multiple working groups across the industry, whether it's the IAB, the MRC, the BSI, the Brand Safety Institute, Garm, any of these working groups, there's places to have an opinion, have a voice and really have impact around this particular topic. So please join us. We love the help.

Bryan Barletta: That's awesome. That's such a great opportunity and a great example that you're setting by just going ahead and doing it. And yeah, I mean, sitting in there hearing the presentation, it was neat to hear the pushback, but none of the pushback was no, it was, well, here are hurdles. And then the cool part there is that you are able to lead how we respond as an entire organization to that, and then eventually in the industry and invite in more voices and grow it. Because again, the goal is if, for industry wide adoption, we need industry wide buy-in. And that doesn't mean that anybody's coming to the table saying this is the defacto solution. It's really cool. There can still be a lot of change in this space. There's a lot of room for growth. And I hope everybody here really learns from Stacy and Brendan about the fact that anybody can affect change.

Arielle Nissenblatt: Absolutely.

Bryan Barletta: Well, thank you both so much for joining me today.

Brendan: Thanks a lot, Brian. Thanks for having us.

Stacy: Thanks for having us.

Arielle Nissenblatt: So Brian, brand safety and suitability is all about protecting brand's reputations and how consumers perceive those brands. What was Stacy and Brendan's goal for their proposal that they brought?

Bryan Barletta: I think adoption, right? I think we are in a point of podcasting where every time a company builds their own thing and it's not transparent and it's not replicable and it's not brought up to their peers, potentially competitors to adopt. Then what happens is we have siloed approaches to everything, right? Transcription happens everywhere. Right now. We have amazing insight tools like Magellan and Podscribe, Thought Leaders, Sonnet, Veritone, all transcribing content that's relevant to their clients and then doing different things with them. But they're transcribing them in different ways. And the publishers don't necessarily have access to that data. And there's no central way to figure out who is transcribed what, what is important to transcribe, who has a thumbs up on being the right partner to do that. So their goal was really kind of to come up with a way of saying like, Hey, this is going to happen. This is how we should do it. Let's weigh in. Let's all agree how to do it before we all build in a direction different from each other.

Arielle Nissenblatt: This being transcript, transcripts are going to help us. Let's figure out how they can help us in a uniform way.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah because audio, video, images, all of that need to be turned into text, to be contextualized, to be broken down for brand safety and suitability to be used further by a lot of ad tech tools out there. So that's really critical. We need to take these formats and normalize them altogether. And the transcript is the core of that. None of these other advanced things, contextualization safety suitability can happen without a transcript at its core.

Arielle Nissenblatt: You made mention of this in your conversation, Bryan, the dancing chicken wing situation, maybe it wasn't quite a chicken wing, but either way it was not brand suitable. Let's break it down. What was this situation and why was it bad for the brand that it was associated with?

Bryan Barletta: Yeah. I like specifically that they talked about the difference between brand safety and suitability and safety really is about the content. Should this content have ads period?

Arielle Nissenblatt: It's a yes or no.

Bryan Barletta: (inaudible) What a powerful thing. Now it's not about how safe it is for a brand, like a knife is not safe, right, for my toddler, that's it, period. The end. There's no in between of it, different types of knifes let's not get into that. A knife is not safe. And so suitability is different, right? Suitability is how does my ad mesh with the content and what we saw during the bombings in Kiev was that there was some restaurant chain...

Arielle Nissenblatt: Applebees.

Bryan Barletta: Applebees had an ad for a man in a cowboy hat gyrating about chicken wings. And I honestly, the way that should have been handled is simply just like, maybe that's not a news ad. Maybe that just doesn't belong in the news.

Arielle Nissenblatt: It could be prevented entirely.

Bryan Barletta: Or maybe there's certain... I don't know what part of the news I want to see that like little banner pop up on, like wholesome family or when they're like talking about the grocery store prices, maybe I guess. But I think that could have been handled by the content being contextually identified, right? By saying like, Hey, this is a sensitive topic. Do you want a sensitive ad? Right. There's so many other ways to talk about chicken wings in that situation that would've been less alarming. We wouldn't be talking about it if it was just a simple ad for it, because Applebee should be sponsoring the news. We need that without that journalism, isn't a viable thing if there's no ad dollars for it. So I think a lot of that is contextual and creating different creative executions to make sure that you are hitting your audience in the moment they're in.

Arielle Nissenblatt: Yeah. To be clear and just to bring it all home Applebees is brand safe for the news, but that ad was not brand suitable.

Bryan Barletta: Yeah and the news is brand safe for Applebee too right?

Arielle Nissenblatt: It goes both ways.

Bryan Barletta: That's the important thing. But that specific execution was not suitable for that specific piece of content.

Arielle Nissenblatt: Going in the opposite direction. Can you give me a great example of brand suitability, a really great match that you've seen or heard?

Bryan Barletta: You know, that's a great one right there. So I'm obsessed with Wow in the World because my son listens to it. And it's a great bonding experience because I get to share podcasts with him and they go grownups, this message is for you. And then they dive into... They say, support for the show is brought to you by Hooked on Phonics parents, you might remember Hooked on Phonics. And I'm just like, I definitely asked my parents to buy that when I was a kid. I don't know why. Right? But to me, they've confirmed that they're part of what helps fund this content and it's contextually relevant. And it's aligned with the message, right? Wow in the World is education and entertainment, Hooked on Phonics is education and entertainment as well. So that's a good contextual match. That's a good suitable arrangement between the two.

Arielle Nissenblatt: Absolutely. Bryan, what can independent podcasters learn from this conversation?

Bryan Barletta: I think we're going to see a shift towards transcripts being very important. And I think that we're going to need to be aware of how we provide them, whether that's independently providing them so that we maintain ownership of it. It's working with hosting platforms that offer those services. But the biggest thing is that all podcasters should remember. The only thing you own is that episode. You use a platform to broadcast that episode everywhere. The transcript is no different than the audio file. So you should want to own that as much as possible.
I think we're going to see a lot of offerings out there that make it compelling to switch hosting platforms or work with different providers that can provide transcripts to you as part of the other services they offer. So I think indie podcasters should be aware of the need for transcripts, why they should own them, because once they're out of your hands, if someone else transcribes it, they're not going to let you edit their version of your episode and then really evaluate the partners you're working with and make sure they're servicing you best by providing you these industry leading features.

Arielle Nissenblatt: And then my last question for you is where can folks go to get more involved with the working groups that Stacy mentions at the end of your conversation?

Bryan Barletta: Yeah, the best way to do that is to join the IAB. And like I said, for independent, single committee companies, it's a thousand dollars a year. And so the IAB tech lab for podcasting. Absolutely. If you want to be part of this, all you need to do is join the IAB tech lab for podcasting. I believe they just started the committee now. When this episode is live, it'll be just kicking off shortly after and it's still plenty of room to join.

Arielle Nissenblatt: What do you think of the show? We want to hear from you. Please reach out if you have any questions or comments we're on Twitter at soundsprofnews@BryanBarletta or @Arithisandthat. And if you want to send us an email that's podcast @

Bryan Barletta: This show is recorded with SquadCast, the best place to record studio quality video and audio for content creators. I use Squad for every interview and product deep dive, and I encourage you to check it out, go to for a free seven day trial. And please let me know what you think and heck invite Ariel and I onto your podcast recorded with SquadCast. We'd love to be a guest.

Arielle Nissenblatt: And we could take squad shots. Do you want more from Sounds Profitable. We have two more podcasts that you can explore first up is Sounds Profitable, The Narrated Articles and next The Download, our podcast about the business of podcasting and both of those are available in Espanol find links to them in the episode description, thank you to Ivo Tara and Ian Powell for their help on this episode.

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