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Podcasting’s major advertising power players are set to descend in New York City this Thursday for the IAB Podcast Upfronts, where studios and marketers will look to revitalize the audio industry with an influx of new ad dollars after a slower period of growth.
The day-long event will feature presentations from iHeartMedia, Wondery, NPR, Acast, Sony Music Entertainment, WNYC, Cumulus Media and SiriusXM, among others. In typical Upfront fashion, the audio giants are bringing out podcasting stars like Conan O’Brien (Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend), Ashley Flowers (Crime Junkie), Alaina Urquhart and Ash Kelley (Morbid), Emily Ratajkowski (High Low With EmRata), Heather McDonald (Juicy Scoop) and Kelsey McKinney (Normal Gossip) to make their pitches.
This year’s Podcast Upfronts will follow a period of massive spending driven by companies like Spotify, where talent commanded multimillion-dollar exclusive licensing deals, and audio ad revenue surpassed $1 billion for the first time in 2021, according to IAB. But in the year since then, most major digital advertising–reliant companies have laid off staff and curbed spending in response to a slower market; in podcasting, that has resulted in show cancellations and staffing cuts at companies like Spotify, NPR, Sony Music, SiriusXM and iHeartMedia.
The showcase also arrives in the midst of the WGA strike, where picketing writers in Los Angeles and New York have taken over studio entrances and city blocks to advocate for improved contracts with the studios. Though fiction podcasts are included in the WGA’s strike guidelines, few productions have been impacted by the work stoppage because the rules essentially only bar work on “virtually all self-produced fiction podcasts made for self-owned independent signatory productions companies, with the exception of a few one-offs done by Marvel,” a WGA East spokesperson told Vulture.
But the optics appear to have compelled at least one presenter, Paramount, to drop out at the last minute from the showcase. The company was previously scheduled to present in the late morning but will no longer be doing so, with the time slot remaining empty as part of an extended morning break, a representative for IAB told The Hollywood Reporter. (A spokesperson for Paramount did not immediately respond to a request for comment. THR is a media partner of the IAB Podcast Upfronts.)
Ahead of the company presentations, the Podcast Upfronts will kick off with IAB’s 2022 report on podcast advertising, which will include the latest figures for last year’s podcast advertising spending and projections for the coming years.
Though growth may not have matched the boom seen during the earlier years of the pandemic, Eric John, vp of IAB’s media center, says podcasting is still relatively in its “infancy” and is continuing to attract a wider range of advertisers in part due to the diversity of podcast creators and the medium’s rapidly developing ad technology.
“It’s a lower bar to entry for creators, and that has done amazing things for the depth and breadth of content. You can go deep in ways with podcasting that you simply can’t with other types of media, and that’s by virtue of the wide range of creators,” John tells THR. “The Podcast Upfront this year is going to highlight a lot of, I think, great case examples of how advertisers are working closely with hosts — that’s the alchemy that is continuing to drive the space. It’s the relationship of a listener to a topic that a creator is passionate about and the community building that happens around that.”
Presenters at the Upfronts may touch on the topic du jour — artificial intelligence — as advertisers seek out different ways to engage with prospective buyers at scale. “We’re interested in how AI can begin to inform the creative process,” John says, noting how AI has already been used to create translations of show episodes in multiple languages. “We believe in the importance of a host’s IP and their own voice, but I expect that when it is permissioned, we will start to see use of AI in [podcast content] as well.”
But the most evident through line will be buyers and sellers looking to be reassured of podcasting’s advertising strength at the Upfronts. “Despite the economic headwinds that we saw in Q4, everyone’s looking for the signal of what’s going to happen in the coming months. Podcasting has been extraordinarily resilient, and the growth has continued,” John says. “It’s all pointing to ROI. No one continues spending if they’re not seeing results, so yes, [there are] economic challenges, but I think brands are learning more, as the podcast base continues to mature, how … [podcasting] really gets them to their target audience.”
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