Michael Bologna, Chief Accelerator of BrightLine, joins Michael Beach to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the connected TV advertising space, the importance of ad personalization, and the role of data in CTV advertising. Watch our latest Screen Wars Thought Leader Interview here and read the full transcript below!
Michael Beach: Hey Michael, welcome to Screen Wars.
Michael Bologna: Thanks for having me.
Michael Beach: Well, you and I have known each other for a while, since your days at 1to1 Media. Do you mind giving our audience some background on the path that led you to BrightLine?
Michael Bologna: Sure. This is going to be my 24th year in the media business. I’m an ex-agency guy. I spent close to 20 years within the GroupM WPP organization. Most of that time, I focused on what started out as convergence media, leading into emerging media, and then emerging video, advanced television, and advanced video, whatever terminology was the flavor of the day. Emerging technology was always my primary focus.
In late 2016, I was part of the team that launched MODI Media, which was GroupM’s advanced video internal operation. All the new and emerging forms of video and television were highly fragmented and complicated. They required a specialized skill set to plan and execute, so that’s exactly what we did. There was a group of us who focused only on these specialized forms of media for a living.
Then, Cadent acquired a portion of MODI Media, which changed names to 1to1. That was our transition from an advanced video unit that serviced only GroupM and WPP clients, to a unit that could service agencies and advertisers across the entire industry. All of this adds up to more than 21 years.
I’ve been at BrightLine for almost a year and a half now. I’d always been familiar with BrightLine since it launched in the early 2000. The founders, my current boss, and I got to know each other since we worked in the same sphere. And a year and a half ago, we met at a restaurant in Westport, and my now boss, Jacqueline Corbelli, asked me, “What do you think about coming and helping us move BrightLine in a new direction?”
Historically, BrightLine focused on building interactive ad experiences within the Set Top Box that linked to traditional 30-second commercials. Then, when Smart TVs appeared, you really didn’t need smart Set Top Boxes anymore. Televisions could now connect to the internet, and viewing became available via apps on your television, BrightLine shifted their business towards enabling publishers and streamers to offer different types of advanced ad units within their apps. That’s the current business of Brightline, and what I’m helping run, lead, grow, and develop.
Michael Beach: What kind of particular problem do you solve today?
Michael Bologna: We all see the change in viewership and the evolution of viewing in a CTV environment, in an app-based environment. But the viewing experience on an app is very different from that on linear television, so the ad experience has to be consistent with the viewing experience.
What we solve for is, we give the major streamers and publishers the ability to offer ads that are more compatible and conducive to the viewership. For example, instead of just running a 30-second spot in the pod of an app on Peacock, Hulu, or any of the major streamers, our ads are dynamic, expandable, addressable, and shoppable.This approach engages the viewer with the advertisement in the same way that the app and the viewing experience itself engages the viewer and the content.
Michael Beach: Is your customer primarily the media buyer or the media seller?
Michael Bologna: We actually service both. We serve media sellers in the sense that we’ve spent time doing technical work incorporating an SDK into the apps and the systems to allow them to offer these ads. Then, the publisher’s sales team, along with the sales group at BrightLine, go out to the agencies and the advertisers and express the value of these advanced units from a qualitative and a quantitative perspective.
We don’t sell or resell media, and we’re not involved in the transaction of media, units, and inventories between the agency, the advertiser, and the media publisher.
We service the agency by helping them understand the value proposition of an advanced unit versus a standard unit. Then, we in turn service the agency when it comes time to create and design the advanced unit, pulling all the assets together and putting it into one of our unit formats. And, of course, we service both the agency and the publisher simultaneously on the return path with the performance-related data and analytics that go along with the campaign. In summary, we service the buy side and the sell side, but it is important to note that we don’t get involved in the media transaction.
Michael Beach: What’s possible today that many people probably don’t even know about?
Michael Bologna: This business is far less complicated than people think it is. People automatically assumes that anything that is new is complicated, and that’s not always the case. But, as media people, we’re trained to do things a certain way, and there’s a certain reactionary time in our business between when something new becomes available to when it’s actually considered simple, easy, and executable.
The 15-second spot, 30-second spot, and 60-second spot are always going to be there, but what we (and other companies like us) offer is an alternative to that. We offer an ad that allows the viewer to engage with. Like a QR code, or engaging with more content, or expanding the ad, or addressing a specific person in the ad, and even sometimes it’s not the ad, it’s in the show itself, with an in-content application. All that stuff is very available today, and I think everybody knows that.
What I think is available today, that many don’t fully understand, is the scale of it. This is available across every major streaming publisher in the industry right now. But not everyone knows the scale of it. It’s the same when it comes to the qualitative and quantitative analytics behind it.
Since this is CTV, we’re able to take the very best of the measurement requirements and techniques that we’ve applied to the digital business (desktop and mobile), and now apply it to television. We run all these ads along with full length television programming on streaming apps like Hulu, Peacock, Discovery+, Roku, and Paramount+.
There’s a lot more analytics available than people might realize, but the biggest thing is the capacity and scale of these ad units. We can compare it to the internet. At first, we only had those 468×60 banners, fast-forward 18 months and there are more ad units than I have hair. And in order to get the most out of digital based internet advertising at the time, we had to cut through the clutter. And by doing that, ad units became standardized. That’s happening in the CTV space right now.
We all know that viewership is up, but the ad experience needs to evolve with the viewing experience. So, I think those ad formats that Brightline and similar companies are doing, are very important to help cut through the clutter of advertising within a CTV environment and align the ad experience with the viewing experience.
Michael Beach: At the NBCU’s One23 event, they showed some examples of your ad units, and I thought that was really interesting, and a big possibility. Do your customers measure these ads purely like a CPA, or a transactional, or are they trying to mix brand impact and more top of funnel metrics?
Michael Bologna: It’s a combination of both. You definitely want to do the quantitative analysis, which is basically the premium paid for an interactive ad. It is important to measure that alongside engagement, and things like that. You want to count your impressions, and your unique audience, and you want to look at reach and frequency. But then we also provide the qualitative analysis, and that goes back to awareness, purchase intent, message association, and all the lift in engagement factors that go along with an advertisement, or a commercial message, that isn’t just a straight 30-second spot. It doesn’t mean those metrics don’t apply to traditional units, they do, but they apply much more to a unit that stands and sits outside the box because those qualitative metrics are what in turn helps calculate what the appropriate price is for each advertiser.
We went through this exercise over the past eight years with addressable advertising. It is great that we can target a specific household with a specific message, but how much is that worth? And the value of that ad to that specific household has a different economic scenario per brand. So we’re doing the same thing with CTV, but unlike the addressable space, CTV is in everyone’s homes. Everyone has some type of connected television. Most homes have some type of connected television. For some homes that’s all they have, for others, it’s an extra, and a secondary device. But in many cases, particularly with younger audiences, that’s all they use.
You see it every day when you watch streaming. The major media companies are producing content specifically for a streaming environment. In many cases, this content is airing consistently alongside a linear environment, and sometimes, it’s airing only in that streaming environment.
We believe that’s the right approach, and we’re following suit when it comes to the advertising. Let’s produce and create advertising specifically for the streaming environment that doesn’t necessarily live alongside its linear counterpart.
Michael Beach: With that in mind, is the customer more excited about your offering of a digital background, or a linear background?
Michael Bologna: It’s very much both. That’s always been the case with new and emerging formats. This is a true story: About two and a half months ago, we had three separate campaigns for a particular brand, with three separate budgets within the same agency. One campaign would fit the specific objective of the traditional video buyer. The second one would fit the objective of the digital buyer. And the third one was a very last minute piece that was incorporated programmatically.
Our solution incorporates all the elements of the buy side chain. It just depends on how the structure of the account, or in some cases, who has the time and the bandwidth to think it through. There isn’t a right or wrong. Every agency is different, and that’s one of the big learning curves for me. Not every agency operates like the one I worked at for 20 years.
Michael Beach: For sure. We had Brian Wieser a couple of weeks ago, and one of the things we talked about was the overall market. We talked about the fact that streaming will lead to fewer overall impressions, but we all assume that the video market will continue to grow, so the CPMs have to climb a bit to make up for that. I assume that your product is exciting for companies like NBC Universal, because it adds value to their advertising. Theoretically, they can charge more if they deliver more value. Do you see buyers starting to change how they value CTV inventory when you add this additional kind of interactivity to it?
Michael Bologna: I do. And that’s always a topic of discussion. Price is important, but one of the biggest changes in the business that I’ve seen over the past 18 to 24 months is that it’s not all about price and volume. The agencies and advertisers are definitely shifting their metrics, and something costing a bit more isn’t always bad.
If you think about how things were 10 years ago, it was unthinkable to get something that costs more. That’s not the case anymore. This does come at a premium, but it’s rare that we see a case where the value doesn’t far exceed the premium. And the value is there for everyone.
To your point, this is a tool that all of our network partners have, and they can offer all the benefits of an advertising environment that’s consistent with the viewing environment to their agency and advertiser clients.
Michael Beach: Thinking globally about the industry. Where do you see the biggest disconnect between buyer and seller when it comes to conversion TV?
Michael Bologna: That’s a good question. I don’t know if there’s a disconnect, but I think the misalignment goes back to legacy. For right or for wrong, this business has always been confined to a certain set of rules, with legacy principles and, to some extent, a legacy culture. The buyer always wants to pay less, and the seller always wants more money. That doesn’t exist as much anymore. There is an alignment in the sense that buyers are willing to pay more, and sellers are willing to take less. I don’t think there’s a misconception.
I think what buy side and sell side could always improve on is collaboration. The more collaboration and communication buyer and seller have, the better the outcome. As we evolve in the media business, the one size fits all model becomes less and less relevant, and that’s okay. There are a lot of brilliant people in this business, but it’s needed to have more time to address the challenges on an individual brand, or project, or advertiser, or agency level. That takes a little bit of time, but A lot of the old culture, and older legacy rules are fading, and that’s a blessing.
Michael Beach: On that note, we’re recording on April 18th here, so we’re getting ready to go into upfront season. Any bold predictions for us?
Michael Bologna: I think we’re going to see and hear a lot of what you would expect. Everybody knows viewership is going to be up, so we’re going to hear just how much. I think the focus of these upfront presentations and discussions are going to center much more around CTV than they ever have in the past. The reason for that is that we’re in a reactionary business. It takes us some time to take action after we receive a piece of data. This past year we received a lot of great data on CTV viewing, and behavior, and we now understand the value of all these different types of ads and innovations.
So I think we’re going to see a lot more execution. When the publishers go to market, they’re going to do it with a lot of this stuff packaged together. Just like when the digital space blew up. When I started in the business, if you put a couple of ads in the Popular Mechanics magazine, they gave you free banner impressions. Then those banner impressions became an actual business, and that business became integrated with the larger print organization, and with the larger television organization.
Everything that we’re talking about related to connected television, innovation, addressability, and advanced ad units is going to be much better packaged and aligned this year, because it makes it easier for everyone. It’s easier for publishers to package all of their inventory together because that’s how they can make sure that their customers get the very best of their audience at the right frequency and at the appropriate reach levels.
And this helps agencies and advertisers to actually align the content that they’re associating their messaging closer to their objectives. So, now there’s more math going on than in the past, and it’s a bit of a different kind, but it still all goes back to, “Where am I spending my money?” and “Am I spending it most, efficiently and effectively?”
I’m looking forward to the upfronts this year and listening to what all the networks have to say. I’m interested in seeing how well attended these events are, because we went from six hour presentations, a decade ago, to hour-long presentations now. We went from thousands of people to hundreds of people. I’m looking forward to it.
Michael Beach: Definitely. We’ll get you out here with a couple more questions. If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the video ad industry, what would it be and why?
Michael Bologna: That’s a good question. If I could change something about the video industry, I would have to say, don’t spend all your money at once. This counters what we were talking about before, but everybody’s used to this scenario where we spend money for the upcoming year in advance. We have to do that to some extent for all the reasons we know, however, because of how fast this business is changing, and due to all the evolutionary and innovative tactics that are becoming available, and all the new data that supports the value, or lack of value, for these tactics, I wish that there wasn’t so much done in advance.
On the sell side, I wish that halfway through the year, there was not as much, “We’re sold out.” And on the buy side, I wish there was not so much, “We’ve spent all our money for the year.”
If you’re selling something, there’s nothing you hate more than when it’s May 1st and the advertiser says, “We’ve spent all our money for the year,” and the same thing on reverse. That’s what I would change.
Something I think has changed, and I love, is that the skill sets of the buy side and the sell side have combined and aligned very well. It is very rare to find an agency where you have somebody that’s part of an investment team, or a strategy team, that doesn’t understand all sides of the coin. Same thing at the network side. That makes me very happy.
Michael Beach: All that first answer describes us being in the local space, with pretty much all of our TV purchases bought, we still have people that do annual planning, but the money isn’t necessarily spent all the time. And so there’s an interest in shortening the planning cycle so that you could make more decisions and changes throughout the year. That’s one thing that, when we mention to a national group, they look at us like we’re aliens. And that’s because of their annual cycle, but I think there’s a huge benefit in changing that.
Michael Bologna: Right. If there’s something that the national world could learn from the local world (and there’s more than one thing) it is what you mentioned. The local space knows what they’re going to spend, and has a budget like the rest of the world, but they can change the budget. They can move spots, push budgets, and adjust allocations., And that’s a very good thing.
And you will run into people saying, “The local business is an old school type of advertising,” and it really isn’t. If you look at things like what you just said, and how quick they’re able to move, how they think, particularly by not allocating all of their dollars in the first week, that’s an important piece.
Michael Beach: Michael, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, and I know our community will, as well. Where can our audience find you, and find more about BrightLine?
Michael Bologna: You can find me at [email protected]. And at 917-922-1157.
Michael Beach: Excellent. Well, I appreciate your time today.
Michael Bologna: Thanks, Michael. I appreciate it. Take care.
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Michael Bologna is Chief Accelerator at Brightline, a data-powered CTV ad experience firm specializing in personalized, interactive, and commerce-driven ad experiences. In an industry driven by data, technology, and creative experience, Mike’s role is to serve as the connective tissue between the various industry stakeholders on both the buy and sell sides of the business.
Cross Screen Media is a leading CTV activation managed service for marketers and agencies, built on a proprietary technology platform that enables advertisers to plan and measure advertising across Connected TV and audience-driven Linear TV at the local level. We seamlessly fit into existing workflows to help agencies scale, differentiate and deliver high-impact campaigns for their clients. For more information, visit CrossScreenMedia.com.