Brand Strategy

Host-read podcast ads mean the host, not the brand, is in control

Brands handing over creative control to podcast hosts can be risky, but “the payoff can be greater,” says one audio ad agency exec.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

“What the fuck am I selling? Did I approve this? This is fucking ridiculous. Who the fuck is gonna buy this shit?”

That’s comedian Bill Burr in 2013 on his Monday Morning Podcast, reading an ad for Shari’s Berries.

He went on to say that he’s going to “get in trouble for that fucking read, and I’m not changing it because that was hilarious.”

Evidently, he didn’t get in that much trouble with the company, because it commissioned him to read another ad later.

Shari’s Berries parent company 1-800-Flowers, which didn't acquire Shari's Berries until 2019, did not initially respond to a request to comment on the ad. But Krystina Rubino, general manager of the offline practice at marketing freelancer platform Right Side Up, who said she’s familiar with the deal but wasn’t involved in it, told Marketing Brew “Do I know for a fact that that ad printed money for them for years? I do.”

This ad, though extreme, represents a fairly unique conundrum for the podcast industry given the predominance of host-read ads: In some cases, brand safety doesn’t always have to do with the content surrounding the ad. Sometimes, it can be about the ad itself.

Keeping it real

As podcasting’s advertising revenue continues to climb, podcast publishers have started to field more questions over the past couple of years about how, exactly, they can offer marketers more control over their ad experience.

Advertisers can, of course, run their own pre-recorded ads in podcasts. But those who see the value in a host-read ad, as many do, worry that the efficacy of their campaigns could diminish if they’re too hands-on.

The “audience feels a stronger connection to a podcast host—and inevitably, the brands they represent—due to the nature of the content, the realness, and authenticity,” said Mikey Fowler, VP and general manager of podcast network and production company Audiorama.

But, “that can sometimes present as risky,” Fowler said, largely because the advertisers that opt for host-read ads don’t always get approval of the final product.

Cameron Hendrix, co-founder of podcast media planning platform Magellan AI, said the brands he works with don’t get to listen to baked-in ads ahead of time. Jennifer Laine, head of marketing, innovation, and special projects at audio ad agency Oxford Road, said that, in general, advertisers don’t get to hear their host-read ads before they’re published. Kit Gray, president of PodcastOne, said clients “sometimes” request to hear ads in advance.

Crooked Media communicates with advertisers about parameters for host-reads beforehand, but never allows them to weigh in after the hosts have recorded, according to VP of sales Giancarlo Bizzarro.

“When you hear an ad for the first time its content. And when you hear it the second time, it's just noise. So we really want to make sure that our hosts are doing a new, fresh read for every single episode,” Bizzarro told us. “In order to do that, they have to do live reads when they record, so we don’t allow advertisers to listen.”

Reaping the rewards

Handing over that level of control can be a risky move that requires a lot of trust in the podcast hosts, Laine said. Plus, host reads are more expensive than pre-recorded ads. But for those who take the leap, “the payoff can be greater,” she said.

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Job-search site Indeed, an Oxford Road client, has had some luck on this front, according to Olivia Gerving, who does airchecks for the agency. The hosts of The Command Zone podcast often push the bounds of the script, ad-libbing in pirate voices about pirates recruiting for their ship crews, which “definitely sets this spot apart from the rest,” she said.

Of course, not all host-read ads turn out well. Advertisers are rarely so surprised by hosts that they’ll end their relationship with a pod, Rubino said, but “it absolutely happens sometimes.”. Once, a client of hers approved a comedian host to read an ad, but the result was ultimately “super raunchy,” she said, which upset the brand.

“We wound up paying the show for two more spots they never ran, just so we wouldn’t get any backlash,” Rubino said.

In some cases, brands can have some measure of control over their host-read ads. Right Side Up “onboards” hosts to the brand they’re reading ads for, Rubino told us, by giving them a doc with a CliffsNotes-style explanation of the brand and explaining that info on a call.

Oftentimes, the doc will include do’s and don’ts, such as “hot-button” words the brand would like to avoid, according to Rubino.

While many of Crooked Media’s sponsors enter annual or longer-term commitments if they’re pleased with an initial ad, some brands have been caught off guard by the humorous tone of voice the network’s hosts tend to adopt during ad reads, Bizzarro said.

“It’s always important to onboard a client before a campaign begins to ensure that everyone is aligned,” he told us. “Also, it’s important for advertisers/agencies to listen to the podcasts before they buy them to manage expectations accordingly.”

As podcasting continues to become more mainstream, the hosts of popular shows can certainly be picky about the brands they work with. Though they won’t be locked out of the medium entirely, brands that decide not to loosen the reins on their podcast ad campaigns could miss their shot at working with some of the most in-demand hosts.

“You’re gonna buy the shows that are leftover from the ones that I buy,” Rubino said.

Update 6/24/22: This article has been updated to reflect the date the ad ran and the year Shari's Berries was acquired by 1-800-Flowers.

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