Back of Napkin: The Wild West of Podcasts and How Brands Can Stake a Claim

December 17, 2018


FleishmanHillard’s brand marketing practice recognizes some of the best ideas start as doodles on the back of a napkin. For that reason, the practice created a podcast to honor that great tradition which focuses on hot topics in marketing and communications. Meet inspiring and influential marketers from leading companies, join CEOs and experts as we spitball challenges keeping them up at night and learn from innovators who are transforming industries and sketching solutions that capture our imagination.

This episode focuses on podcasts and how brands can use them to reach new audiences. As traditional media continues to fracture brands are looking elsewhere to reach customers. Will podcasts, a habit-forming, emerging media territory be the solution for marketers looking to grab the attention of a diverse, young and affluent audience? We’ll chat with Deborah Clark, senior vice president and general manager of Marketplace – creators of some of the most listened-to audio programming in the country – to get answers.

Click here to listen to this episode and visit Back of Napkin on iTunes to listen to previous episodes. Below is the transcript of The Wild West of Podcasts and How Brands Can Stake a Claim.

Episode three of Back of Napkin Podcast features Deborah Clark, SVP and general manager of Marketplace.

The third episode of Back of Napkin features Marketplace’s Deborah Clark.

The Wild West of Podcasts and How Brands Can Stake a Claim


Candy Peterson: Flashback to 2005. Steve Jobs announces Apple is taking podcasting mainstream and declares it will be the next generation of radio. What was your initial reaction?

Deborah Clark: I wish I could actually tell you that I remember him saying that, but it was not on my radar whatsoever.

Announcer: Welcome to Back of Napkin, the podcast created in honor of that great tradition of big ideas doodled on little pieces of paper, where we here at FleishmanHillard are passing a napkin to top marketing majors who will sketch out what’s on their minds about the topics that are on ours.

Candy Peterson: I’m your host, Candace Peterson, global managing director of brand marketing at FleishmanHillard. Welcome to today’s podcast about, well, podcasts, where we’ll be taking a closer look at podcasting and the opportunities it presents to brands. Let’s get started with a few stats from a study done by Edison Research. According to the study, a quarter of Americans listen to podcasts and of these people, they tend to listen to five podcasts per week on average and a surprising 85% of people who listen to podcasts listen to the very end.

Candy Peterson: As popularity grows, we’re seeing behemoth brands like Google, Pepsi, and Starbucks plugging in to capitalize on the emerging ad format. Why is this? How do podcasts add value to brands positioning and values? Does audio storytelling differ from other mediums? What value does it provide brands that other formats can’t or don’t? These are just a few of the questions we’ll be asking Deborah Clark, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Marketplace, creators of some of the most listened to audio programming in the country. Welcome, Deborah and thank you for hosting us at the Marketplace L.A. studio.

Deborah Clark: Thank you. It’s funny to be a guest in my own studios. I kind of like it.

Candy Peterson: You’ve got your water, you’re all set up, we’re good here. So, Deborah, with Marketplace, you’ve obviously been at the front lines of spearheading a transformation in the audio space. Tell me a bit about your experience and how you found yourself in your current role.

Deborah Clark: Well, that’s a long story and probably a lot of it is boring. This is my second time at Marketplace. I came back about 10 years ago and in the last few years have really focused on taking Marketplace from what it’s been, which is a suite of radio programs, into creating a multi-platform enterprise and that includes, although isn’t limited to, of course, podcasting. That’s a huge piece of what we’re doing now and investing in.

Deborah Clark: But really, platform aside, it’s really about growing Marketplace with an eye toward where the audience is and that’s actually at the heart of the podcast revolution is that audiences are driving. They want content when they want it, how they want it, etc. Podcasting is a piece of that. It’s no longer about turn on your radio and there’s the program that’s scheduled to be on at that time. You get to decide when you want it. Anyway, I sort of skipped into a bigger topic there, but that’s a lot of what the Marketplace transformation is about as well as what’s happening across the industry.

Candy Peterson: It looks like you’ve really been able to create a modern media brand by pulling a suite of independent radio shows about business and economy into one with the primary channel being podcasts. In terms of a modern media brand, if I’m a CEO or a brand marketer, what do I need to know about podcasting and how it’s changing the landscape of media outlets, especially ones that are audio first like yours?

Deborah Clark: Let me go back to actually some of the stats that you shared at the top from Edison. I think there’s another piece of that one you didn’t say, which is that, this is also quoting Edison actually. I think the number is 64% of people are aware of podcasts, i.e. know the word, and then only 17% of those actually listen. So as big as those numbers are that you shared about how many people are listening, think about how many more are not. How are they, how is anybody, how am I as a consumer, I’m an avid listener to a ton of wide-ranging podcasts, how do I choose with the vast number that’s out there?

Deborah Clark: And then, if I’m not aware of podcasting, how do I even figure out how to get into this to figure out how to listen? I think the opportunity for brands is that there’s still, it is a little bit the wild, wild West now. It’s not clear how it’s going to shake out, who are going to be the key players, who’s going to be left standing at the end. I think that’s a piece of what’s so attractive.

Candy Peterson:  I think that 17% status is really interesting too because those are obviously a highly unique audience and you can really target specific messaging that’s very obviously interesting to them and that they’re kind of coming in droves in small niches to listen to content that’s very unique to them, which I would imagine as a brand, that can be a very highly valuable asset to them because they’re able to find podcasts that kind of align with them and their spirit and their brand ethos and be able to kind of join in the conversation with consumers that really care about the things they have to say.

Candy Peterson: In addition to the evolving landscape of media outlets, it’s been interesting to watch the evolution taking place with monetization of podcasting and how brands are beginning to use it as a legitimate ad channel. Tell us a little bit about how you’ve been able to capitalize on this trend and monetize podcasts.

Deborah Clark: I think, again, this is still really shaking out and I think the models are changing. Whether it goes from being sort of CPM based to sponsorship to dynamic ad insertion, that whole thing is really changing the potential for monetization. For us right now, we’ve seen our digital numbers really grow, digital underwriting, which is pretty much just podcasting. There’s some web stuff for us, but most of it’s coming from our podcasts and that’s I think been mostly about downloads, but increasingly I think we and other media outlets and brands are experimenting with brand sponsorship. What does that look like? What does sponsored content look like? Which is different again.

Deborah Clark: I don’t think there’s going to be one model and I’m not sure where it all ends up landing. I think the niche, you mentioned some of these audiences are tiny. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth trying to do selling to. It just means you’ve got a really specific targeted audience. But then you’ve got podcasts with huge mass audience and that’s a different kind of monetization model. How we think about it is trying to be at the front of those. Being nimble enough to adapt to the changes and so not getting wedded to, let’s compare for example to how we’ve run our broadcast sales for the last, whatever, 30 years, Marketplace is almost 30 years old.

Deborah Clark: The broadcast salespeople have certain things they tick through, how they sell avails, etc. That hasn’t changed too much over the years. They’ve started to throw in digital as kind of an add-on. I think in the digital underwriting space they’re constantly evaluating, pivoting, switching how they’re looking at partnerships. Whether we go to an agency like a Midroll and use them to sell the kinds of podcasts that we have, but the ability to be nimble and adjust I think is key.

Candy Peterson: So maybe some tips CMOs might find helpful when planning for ad buys on podcasts. What do you think? What would you say to them?

Deborah Clark: I think about this in two ways. I think about it as a consumer myself and what resonates. I’m no different than most listeners.

Candy Peterson: We’re all consumers.

Deborah Clark: We’re all consumers. I think about what I listen to, what turns me on, what gets me listening the whole way through and then what gets me to hit my 15-second skip button. Then I also think about it as a businessperson. As the person who’s got her finger on the 15-second skip button, take somebody like, there’s an organizational psychologist called Adam Grant who has a podcast. I don’t remember the name of the podcast, but it’s about work life. It might actually be called WorkLife.

Deborah Clark: His model is, and he tells you this in the ads in the middle of the podcast, he talks about how he really respects this company and I think one of them, for example, is Warby Parker. What he talks about a lot is how you behave in the workplace, best practice, how you create a vibrant, healthy culture, etc. He has gone out and found a company that he thinks reflects those values. That to me, as a consumer, that really resonates. I go, “Oh, that’s really interesting. I kind of dig this Adam Grant guy and how he thinks about culture,” and, “Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t mind buying stuff from a company that actually lives that.” So that’s one model. You can’t do that with everything. So I think that’s one option.

Deborah Clark: I think there’s something to be said for host, and I feel very mixed about this because my hosts in most of our stuff are journalists and there’s a tension with having journalists do ad reads, frankly. But the things I listen to that are not journalism but are sort of in the news space, I do take value from hearing the host do the read. There’s a podcast I listen to, it’s Ben Shapiro’s show and he sort of talks about these things and he does it seamlessly. One minute he’s talking about Russia and Trump and the investigation and the next minute he’s talking about Casper mattresses or whatever his thing is. That’s of value, to me I think. That’s how I think of it as a consumer.

Deborah Clark: How I think about it as a businessperson or somebody looking at how we’re growing this business, I do think about affinity and I think differently about our news programs, which we podcast so that the audio programs are also available as podcasts. I think about those slightly differently than as we move more into podcasts that are just for the podcast space. That brand affinity becomes far more important with some of our non-broadcast entities.

Candy Peterson: You mentioned Adam Grant and Ben Shapiro. When I think about brands who are using podcasts well, it’s the ones that use them to support their brand positioning and storytelling so I think those were good examples of both of those. The real stand out for me, you mentioned Casper, I think Casper mattresses, the In Your Dreams podcast that help people interpret your dreams was just a really beautiful marriage between using podcasts in a way to help tell a deeper brand story, but do it in a very entertaining way.

Candy Peterson: Then, of course, there’s this current series that I am a fangirl on, which is Fortune Favors the Bold, and it’s about unique and changing role that money plays in our lives and it’s actually being done by MasterCard. You mentioned a couple that …

Deborah Clark: I’m writing both of those down.

Candy Peterson: Yes. In your opinion, what do you think makes a great podcast and who is doing it best, maybe even outside of your space?

Deborah Clark: Oh, gosh. It’s subjective. I think a good podcast, speaking of my own interests, I range from … I like hearing smart people talk. I just really enjoy that and whether that’s something like a Ben Shapiro or an Adam Corolla. I have a high tolerance for just yap, yap, yap apparently. So I think that’s one type of podcast. I think there’s also the highly produced. I think that’s been a really interesting challenge and opportunity and probably mostly opportunity for public radio and public broadcasting because for many years we have had the monopoly on producing high-quality audio. If you wanted to do that and have any kind of, it is about value, you came and did it on public radio.

Deborah Clark: Now all of a sudden there’s all these entities like Gimlet, PRX, whatever, all these things that are existing where you can produce high quality and you don’t have to do it in the confines of public radio. I think that’s exciting, I think it’s challenging for us because it also means suddenly there’s talent competition in a way that there hasn’t been. I think looking at some of those places, I think Slate was really early into the podcast space and then has done their stuff through Panoply.

Deborah Clark: It’s interesting to see, they’re in a little bit of turmoil now. They were sort of early, they did very niche building, and now I think you’re seeing them kind of turn over and I’m not sure where they’re going to land, but I think there’s a lot of different players that are coming in to the game, but it’s not going to stay that way. I think that it’s going to end up with a few really dominant players. That’s my gut, at least.

Candy Peterson: I also find it really fascinating there are a lot of people out there, myself included, that don’t have a journalism background. I listen to a number of podcasts where the hosts are quite awkward, quite peculiar folks that you wouldn’t imagine them being able to carry on a conversation for any length of time, but the topics that they are discussing are just so fascinating it keeps people coming back and maybe just that vulnerability and having some level of imperfection is something that is really pulling people in.

Deborah Clark: Yeah. It’s really interesting, isn’t it? I think a good example, not of that because he’s actually not awkward at all, but this Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye has a podcast called Getting Curious, and boy, that guy is just, he’s charismatic, he’s not a journalist, and he brings on people that, some of it is sort of light and fluffy, but then he’ll bring on some scientist to talk about brain research and you’re just like, “What the … ?”

Deborah Clark: But it works because in part, he leads with that vulnerability. He doesn’t try and come off like he’s an expert. He’s done a lot of things on politics, especially leading up to the midterms. I was really surprised to hear, it was a good reminder that just trying to ask questions that regular people have is actually just a really powerful way to give information.

Candy Peterson: I think that’s a good lead into the topic of storytelling. There’s clearly an art to that storytelling and perhaps that’s the reason we’re finding these new interesting characters so dynamic and we want to listen to them more because they are great storytellers. There’s a bit of a debate these days about what storytelling format actually reigns supreme, short or long form. It’s interesting that they’re two of the fastest growing formats, but they’re at complete opposite ends of the spectrum.

Candy Peterson: You’ve got brands that are toying with both three second gifs, depending on how you like to call them, and then on the other side we’ve got podcasts which are averaging around 45 minutes. With this great divide, what in your opinion makes the longer content format so special?

Deborah Clark: Well, I think it is, and I’m not ruling on that debate or weighing in on that debate, I think there’s appetite for all of it. But I do think the value of long form is that it allows you to build an arc into a story and it allows you to pull people in and bring them along on a journey that feels really different. I think that’s what’s really special about the long format.

Deborah Clark: I don’t necessarily listen to a ton of really long stuff, but when I do … Think about the success of Serial. That’s not necessarily the standard, yes, we’d all like to hear that, but that’s sort of above and beyond. That was successful because it was really able to take its time and bring you along and unfold it as these episodes and the who done it, or the who didn’t do it, part of that story is really compelling.

Deborah Clark: I think that certainly we’re seeing repeated in a number of different successful podcasts including the one called Slow Burn, which they’ve done two seasons now. The first was on Nixon and Watergate and the second was on Clinton and the Lewinsky incident and again, using that long form to really tell, to bring sort of chapters to that story that made me want to come back. Every time that was dropping I was on it to download it.

Candy Peterson: And we invite them in, so they’re coming and meeting us at this time where we want to listen as well, which I think is also just this fascinating dynamic. Now just a matter of hopping in your car and listening to whatever happens to be on the radio, it’s that we are choosing to listen to this in those moments where we want to the most. And just that a good story will always win.

Deborah Clark: Yeah, for sure. And a good story does also help you overcome even an awkward, right?

Candy Peterson: Yes. Absolutely. So true. I guess the next question coming out of that is, with this longer format as it relates to brands, what do you think it offers that other formats don’t or can’t?

Deborah Clark: The intimacy. I think you get intimacy with the length that is different than that short. That is where you commit and you build that relationship and I’m coming back week after week and I’m sticking through that long story. A brand that’s there for that, there’s that halo effect. I’m feeling that affinity and that warmth as well. It was meaningful and of course, now I’m going to flub this because I can’t actually remember who … No, I do remember. MailChimp was one of the early sponsors for Serial and I remember being really aware of that as I followed Serial through that first season in particular, I thought, “Oh, good for them,” because nobody knew Serial was going to be that, and I thought, “Oh, good for them for supporting this thing that is great that I love to listen to,” and, “Oh, I wonder what kind of company they are?”

Deborah Clark: I truly remember actually thinking that. Maybe I’m weird. I think some people would say that’s true. But that’s a great relationship. It is a relationship in long form that doesn’t exist in the short form. Again, it doesn’t mean that’s superior, there’s other things as well and we’re all pressed for time, so the more stuff I can cram in to listen to, great. But I feel a relationship for the brands that are with those long guys.

Candy Peterson: Yeah, that’s interesting that you would kind of pull out MailChimp because if I look at Serial, it was such an entrepreneurial, such a new kind of creative disruptive show and then you look at MailChimp as a company, they’re all about helping entrepreneurs in growing business from the grassroots up. So that alignment’s really interesting. Again, I think a great example of a brand getting it right and finding a show that actually kind of help sell their purpose and values to consumers.

Deborah Clark: Yeah. I think about that a lot. Not about MailChimp specifically, but about that idea. As we are launching new products, I’m really thinking about the importance of getting not just selling those pre-rolls and midrolls, but getting the right partner and thinking of it as a partnership is really different. That’s probably the opportunity. That’s your world, not mine, but that feels to me like the opportunity for brands is to think of it as a partnership.

Candy Peterson: And just being authentic.

Deborah Clark: The authentic is so key, so key. Sorry, I jumped on you, but I just get so, because I think that’s absolutely true and that eliminates. Otherwise, you’re so cynical as a listener.

Candy Peterson: You’ll be hitting that 15 second button ahead, “I don’t care about that.”

Deborah Clark:  Just somebody who bought the thing who cares, I’ve got to get to my content, but the authentic matching, you can hear it.

Candy Peterson: Absolutely. It’s really interesting to see those marriages happening and the ones that are doing it well are the ones we remember that you’re able to have that recall after listening to Serial from a number of years ago.

Deborah Clark: I think there’s another opportunity for, I think that podcasts have provided another opportunity, which is really big, which is looking at them as a pipeline for great creative story ideas and so Homecoming, it just has hit Netflix. That came from a podcast. Dirty John is now a series, that came from a podcast. We are in conversations with some talent agencies about some of the work we’re doing and how can that become other TV series, movies, whatever. There’s so much demand for content and I think that podcasts are being seen as a place that is a fairly reliable producer of good quality ideas.

Candy Peterson: That’s interesting. It’s kind of becoming the proving ground for an opportunity for these ideas to kind of then go out into other mainstream media and produced into different types of shows.

Deborah Clark: Yep. Yep. I would say that 10 years ago nobody was paying attention to radio in terms of a place for ideas, even though they should have. Now suddenly it’s like, “Oh, right. Look at all this good stuff,” because the audience has gone there. The audience has said, “Yes, this is the kind of thing we want. This is what we’re consuming.” That’s really an interesting shift and that’s extremely recent. That’s, I’d say, in the last two to three years really.

Candy Peterson: Yeah, that’s really astute. I hadn’t thought about that. We talked about some of your favorites. Do you have any standout podcasts that you really just say, man, they’re doing it right or they’re doing it really different in a way that just is driving you to want to listen to them more?

Deborah Clark: I was just sort of mentally thinking. I don’t have my phone in here, but I was thinking about what I’m currently downloading. I’m in the middle of needing to make a big switch. I actually periodically purge and then add a bunch of new stuff, so I’ve just been [crosstalk 00:24:23].

Candy Peterson: Well, there’s a human truth right there.

Deborah Clark: Yeah. It’s true. Like most people, I really love that true crime stuff.

Candy Peterson: Yes, I know. And then you feel like you’re a bit mental for listening. I don’t know.

Deborah Clark: Yeah. I can’t do all of it. There’s actually a guy who, his name’s David Ridgen I think and he does a podcast through the CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Company. I guess he’s a documentary filmmaker up there and has in the last few years started taking his long form storytelling and moving it into podcasting. Boy, that guy, it’s slower than I like, it’s very Canadian, it’s very nice, but the more I listen, I’ve now listened to five seasons of this thing, he takes a different old crime, 20 year old thing, and goes back and tries to figure out why it didn’t get solved and if it can be solved. That guy can get anybody in the world to talk to him. He can get the guy who’s the key suspect in a murder to actually talk to him and it’s incredible.

Deborah Clark: Anyhow, that’s sort of a random riff, but I’d say there’s no one brand that I go to now to look to. I am more likely to favor something that’s This American Life Serial adjacent. I’ll start there if I’m looking for, oh, they did this as well. The Gimlet folks, but I’m kind of all over the map. There’s actually some stuff inside of our company outside of Marketplace that I think is super strong. I love the In the Dark franchise. It’s more true crime, really well done, great storytelling. And then also in our company, something called TBTL is a favorite of mine. It’s Too Beautiful To Live and it’s just two guys riffing and they have some sound in there. It’s not high end long ambi beds that take you into a forest deep in the middle, but I love it. I was listening to it on my way in. Oh, and then I’ve loved the foray of the New York Times into this space. The Daily, that is a home run for sure.

Candy Peterson: Definitely.

Deborah Clark: That’s become absolutely mandatory listening for me. Compulsive, every day for sure. Except today. Don’t ask me what was on it. I just haven’t gotten to it.

Candy Peterson: You can listen to it after this.

Deborah Clark: Exactly.

Candy Peterson: Okay, last question for you, Deborah. What impact has the explosion of AI and voice assistant devices like Amazon Echo and obviously Alexa and Google Home had on your business? Are there any watch-outs that you’ve kind of come across or any flags that you would give for brands and marketers trying to play in this space? As disruptive as podcasts have been, so to you has this technology?

Deborah Clark: I’ve been saying for a while now, and we’ll see whether or not I’m proven right, but that when we talk about digital disruption, what’s going to happen as a result when voice really hits in terms of recognition which gets to the point where they really understand you and it becomes a much more seamless experience, I think it’s going to make what’s happened thus far look like very calm. I really think there’s a much bigger disruption coming. I was just reading the other day, and these stats seem to change all the time, but Comscore projects that 50% of all searches will be voice searches by 2020. That’s tomorrow basically.

Candy Peterson: Wow.

Deborah Clark: There’s 33 smart speakers currently in circulation. It’s not just Google Home, it’s not just Amazon Echo. I don’t even know what all those other ones are. I think it’s really fascinating that the super user, the voice super user apparently, voice on demand, smart speaker, super user, is … And I didn’t make this up because it happens to be me, is a 51-year-old woman who spends an hour and a half a month with assistant apps. That’s two times the average user. To me, that means that there’s potential for those. Why is that? Those are people who need help in running their lives. I’m assuming.

Deborah Clark: Gosh, I just think there’s tons and tons of potential there. We have moved pretty quickly into that space. We did a very quick sprint development launch of an Alexa, Google, Make Me Smart, and we moved aggressively to do that because we want to be in that space early and we want to be able to iterate now and see where it’s going to go. Amazon’s been very supportive in that and has helped give us a lot of promotion and we’re the number one business skill, but we’re also in the top 100 of all skills and that’s pretty compelling to break through in that space I think is big.

Deborah Clark: But yeah, I don’t know what advice I would give on that except that you have to be in there and figure out a way to cut through because I feel like I use my Alexa and smart speaker devices probably at one tenth of their full capacity.

Candy Peterson: I don’t know. I think I’ve watched too many episodes of Black Mirror now.

Deborah Clark: Oh, yeah.

Candy Peterson: I have anxiety about it.

Deborah Clark: I tell you one that scares me is the Facebook video one. “No, I’m sorry Facebook. You’re not coming in to my house and seeing what products I have that you can then … No, no, especially not the way you’re behaving. Thank you very much.” Anyway.

Candy Peterson: Yeah. It’s a whole new world out there. It’s definitely really interesting and I just wanted to thank you so much for joining me today. I really enjoyed having you on this rather kind of meta episode of talking about podcasts on a podcast and just looking at how radio and TV ratings continue to take a nose dive. It’ll be fun to watch and see what brands and marketers do with this emerging media territory. That’s it for now. Be sure to check out the episode notes and links mentioned in today’s episode. Thanks for listening.

Announcer: This has been a production of FleishmanHillard, a global public relations and marketing agency serving the world’s top brands. For more information about this podcast and to listen to previous episodes, visit Back of Napkin on iTunes.