We exchanged emails for this interview and it has been slightly condensed and edited.
Marc Goldberg: Tell me about your work history , where did you start?
Neal Thurman – My first full-time job was as a Research Assistant at a non-profit called the American Institutes for Research. I know it sounds more glamorous than a 22-year-old deserves but I spent my days building and running statistical models on data sets measuring human performance in jobs and helping a large multi-company project team make a significant revision to the Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles. I also worked as a project manager overseeing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) which included selecting reading comprehension passages that would appear in the test and writing questions based on those passages. For someone who did a psychology thesis on racial bias in standardized testing, it was pretty cool to get a job that gave me exposure to how standardized tests are created and how the organizations in charge of those tests evaluate new questions.
I’ve had an odd career. I graduated with degrees in Economics and Psychology fully expecting only the former to be at all useful in finding a job. Turns out, I spent my first four years in Industrial Psychology helping on large projects to describe the component parts of jobs (e.g., skills needed, knowledge required), predict job performance, and then measure the success of those predictions.
From there it was off to business school and the realization that I liked being involved in new things. Whether it be new product development at established companies or being involved in start-ups, I picked up the entrepreneurial bug and haven’t been able to kick it in the just over 20 years since.
I had the good fortune of graduating with my MBA at a time when being in your 20s and having an MBA was about all the qualification you needed for companies to assume you knew about the internet. As a relatively junior consultant, I was involved in developing digital strategies for companies like Sony Electronics, Fannie Mae, and AOL.
After the bubble burst in 2001, I was recruited to my first start-up as an employee rather than a consultant. From that time through the start of the Brand Safety Institute, I got to build a wide variety of skills as both Customer Value Partners (the first start-up I joined) and the spin-off that I was trusted to help lead, Black Turtle Services, both enjoyed exceptional growth providing consulting services to Federal Government and Fortune 500 clients and outsourced contact center services respectively.
As a side light to my “day jobs” during these years, I also started a blog offering advice on fantasy games based on English Premier League soccer with a friends who is also now our head of Digital Strategy at BSI. Somehow, over the years our blog has gone from being an independent thing to being hosted by Yahoo UK, Vox Media/SBNation and now NBC Sports Digital.
MG: So,What is the BSI?
NT: Given your position on our Board of Advisors and author of some of our curriculum, I’d hope you’d know but since we have readers (you do have readers, right?), I’ll give the quick summary. There are a lot of organizations – TAG, CBA, DAA, IAB, et al – that provide guidance on elements of brand safety to corporations and even certify business processes. The Brand Safety Institute (BSI) offers an educational platform to ensure that there are individuals, Brand Safety Officers, that understand brand safety issues and have the knowledge, skills, and tools to protect the brands they represent.
MG: Why did you start it?
NT: For me, it was the perfect alignment of a few factors. I took Mike Zaneis, CEO of TAG and a long-time friend who I’d never really spent too much time talking about work, out for lunch for his birthday about 4 years ago. He knew I was a consultant so one of the topics we discussed was a thorny issue he had. TAG had developed a strong track record for success which was leading to requests to expand the scope of their mission. He didn’t want to dilute what TAG was doing but he also wanted to be able to say “yes” to helping with other things. He asked if I would do a consulting engagement to help create the outline of an answer that would create an organization with a broader scope.
He and I went back and forth and created a proposal that ultimately ended up becoming the Brand Safety Institute. Once we finished the presentation, he told me it might be the better part of a year before he’d hear anything back from his Board giving him permission to take this on in addition to TAG.
Maybe a month later he got back in touch and said that the Board had moved much faster than expected and been very supportive of what he’d proposed. Then he asked me if I was ready to come over and help him make it happen. As it turned out, the timing was perfect. We were in the process of selling Black Turtle Services and I wasn’t interested in staying past the transition (in fairness, I don’t know if the acquiring company would have been interested in having me either). I was looking to get out of anything related to federal government services to the opportunity to work with a friend and start something new that I’d had a hand in creating the plan for was too good to pass up.
MG: Brand Safety is important to me, it is important to Madison Avenue and Fortune 1000 advertisers. Nobody wants to support hate, porn or other evils. However , the internet is funded by advertising dollars and a large portion is the Main Street advertisers. They don’t read adweek or care about “safety” . They want conversions. How do we get more people to care?
NT: That’s a great question and a situation we saw play out last summer as some of the biggest advertisers in the world boycotted Facebook but didn’t make a dent as they saw their strongest quarterly advertising revenue to date on the backs of small and medium-sized businesses.
As for whether we can get more people to care, I suspect that the answer is “yes”. It’s hard to characterize the SMB community as being myopically focused on conversions any more so than the big guys. The difference is that the Fortune 1000 and the big agencies have the luxury of scale that allows them to have people focused on issues like brand safety. If we can find a way to educate more advertisers on the issues and what they can do to buy brand safe inventory then I suspect that we’ll find a willingness to do so.
MG:How many BSOs have gone through the certification?
NT: For that reason, our goal at BSI is to get all parts of the supply chain educated on these issues. We are currently hovering at around 200 certified Brand Safety Officers. We are also getting ready to launch a streamlined version of our training for people who are critical to the success of brand safety efforts. Brand Safety Officers will lead brand safety efforts but they will need educated partners in the executive suite, buying, ad ops, account management, product development, legal, contracts, compliance, procurement, and more.
MG: Is there a part of the digital advertising supply chain that you are focusing on?
NT: It is impossible to achieve brand safety results without the cooperation of the entire supply chain. That said, if the marketers insist on brand safety-related provisions as a condition of the contracts that commit their ad buy dollars, that is the biggest thing that will drive positive change across the supply chain.
MG: Are there any other projects that BSI is working on beyond education and the certification?
NT: Yes, the Brand Safety Officer curriculum and certification is the core of what we do but we are committed to advancing industry knowledge and creating tools that allow Brand Safety Officers to take action. Our biggest recent project on the tool-building front was our collaboration with the Local Media Consortium. At the onset of the pandemic, it became clear that news outlets, especially local news outlets, were experiencing record volume as people looked to better understand the situation as it evolved from day-to-day.
Despite record traffic, revenue did not follow due largely to the relative lack of refinement of approaches to brand safety. There was ample evidence that consumers did not consider news to be brand unsafe. The membership criteria that the LMC requires of its members led us to believe that their domain list was a great place for BSOs to start if they wanted to build their own inclusion lists and open up inventory that had been excluded previously.
MG: What are the front-of-mind topics in brand safety right now?
NT:There’s a lot going on related to brand safety right now between privacy regulations, the ongoing fight against criminal activity, and the push for stronger adjacency controls but the topic with the highest profile is the confluence of digital advertising and corporate social responsibility.
Whether it be how ad spend supports (or doesn’t support) a brand’s sense of civic duty or reflects their desire to be inclusive, the past twelve months have seen a real awakening to the notion that marketers’ ad dollars support the ecosystem for better or worse. Marketers are starting to be more introspective about where and how they are spending their money and thinking more actively about what that spend says about them as brands and corporate citizens.
MG: Do you think you are making a difference?
NT: These are such big problems and there are many organizations who are spending time on these issues but I do believe that we have been, and will continue to be, and important part of the industry’s efforts to create a better digital advertising ecosystem for both the marketers who fund so much of our digital lives and the consumers who have to continue to consider the trade-off of ad-supported content to be a fair one.
MG: How does one sign up?
NT: Go to https://www.brandsafetyinstitute.com/certification and click on the register button
MG: What have you learned due to the changes in your life during the pandemic?
NT: What a great reminder this has all been that necessity is the mother of invention. The flexibility of working from home and the value of video conferencing have been slow to be adopted widely but with everyone forced into new circumstances, the transformation has been remarkable and, I suspect, long-lasting.
I also learned that we really had no use for our garage as a garage. With an 8-year-old at home and a neighborhood full of kids whose houses he wasn’t allowed to visit anymore, we decided to turn our garage into a screened-in porch. We installed rubber indoor/outdoor flooring, a TV, some patio furniture, and a retractable screen. Instant open-air theater for the kids to watch socially distanced movies. We haven’t missed using the garage for its intended purpose even a little bit.
MG: What is your first meal when you are allowed to dine in?
NT: Perhaps it’s cheating but I already know the answer to this one since we’ve already done it. We went all in and did a steak dinner
MG: What is the first trip you will take once travel is a viable option again?
NT: I can’t wait to go back to London. As I mentioned, I write about the Premier League and was fortunate enough to have a trip there in January just before things went on lockdown where I got to see matches at Stamford Bridge and the new Tottenham Stadium on consecutive nights. I’m excited to be able to get back and continue adding to the number of stadiums I’ve been to.
MG: I finished Netflix during quarantine, what are you watching these days?
NT: After consuming most of the talked-about content on Netflix and Prime, we found ourselves going back and watching things we’d heard about but never gotten around to. We binged Justified (Hulu) and Superstore (Peacock/Hulu) over the past few months and both were excellent. We’ve just caught up to the current episodes of Superstore so we’re back in the market for something new.
As far as stuff that I’ll watch by myself, I have enjoyed the depth of documentaries on both Netflix and Prime. It started with things that I enjoy and got to learn more about – Rush, Monty Python, Sunderland til I Die, etc – but via the magic of the recommendation engine led down a bunch of ratholes that I wouldn’t have guessed I’d enjoy as much as I did.