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‘You have to go beyond the algorithm’: NBCU’s Linda Yaccarino takes platforms to task

Linda Yaccarino, chairman of advertising and client partnerships for NBCUniversal, says media must get moving on solving problems. Our conversation is lightly edited and condensed.

Last year, you talked a lot about the need to address brand safety, media measurement and transparency issues. Are your priorities the same for 2018?
I certainly think some of those or all of those issues are the same. But broadly what I’m vocal about is the illogical inertia that is plaguing the advertising industry. There’s safety and transparency issues facing one side of the business. There are measurement issues on the other side. All of those need to be addressed. The industry hasn’t been doing enough. We’re just not willing to wait for other companies that the industry has traditionally relied on to measure viewing reliably or that we offer brand-safe environments.

What specifically is on your road map?
Since Comcast bought NBCUniversal, we thought of the traditional competitors to be the Viacoms, Foxes of the world. That has changed. The competitive set is Google, Facebook, Amazon. It’s why we’ve invested in digital capabilities, why we have a relationship with Comcast for set-top box data, why we have an in-house agency. One you’ll hear much more about is the escalation of consumer experience. [After this interview, NBCUniversal announced it would decrease its ad load by 20 percent.] You’ll be able to marry data capabilities with the scale of NBCUniversal and data once only thought of as the tech platforms’.

You hosted an industry gathering last year that got a lot of attention for bringing competitors together to discuss safety and transparency. These kinds of gatherings often end up going nowhere, though. What do you think was the impact?
I was frustrated by having identical conversations with the brands, advertising agencies and our peers. Just merely calling the gathering was overwhelmingly positive. The positive outcome was, it gave us permission to change. It has surfaced the need for the big tech platforms to come into their own.

Do you consider them media companies?
If you’re in the business of securing billions of dollars of advertising budgets from big brand marketers, it would seem to be that’s what they want to be.

How would you grade the efforts by Facebook, YouTube and others to address fake news and other problems this past year?
It demonstrates something I’ve said a lot of last year — you have to go beyond the algorithm. A machine can’t do everything. I’m happy to see it’s a conversation, and it seems they’re taking it seriously. That’s a good thing for us all.

Is the decline of public trust on social platforms and institutions an opportunity or a risk for NBCU?
The last two years, there has been a wave of marketer money coming back to television because the overall revenue to platforms wasn’t proving out on sales. When you overallocate on the bottom of the funnel, you don’t have enough of the top stuff working, you’re out of luck. Money has been coming back for that. But what I think is really disappointing is — and it affects NBCUniversal — is that we’ve lost the public trust. This needs to be a year that the trust needs to be established. And most of the onus is on the tech platforms.

What can NBCU do to improve public trust?
Communicate consistently that it’s a nonissue for a company like NBCUniversal. There should be a long line of brands that want to support that content. I’ll give you a good stat. This blows everyone away. Over the weekend, NBCUniversal reached 140 million Americans with content called the Olympics. We’re in a unique position as opposed to a lot of other companies. Who woulda thunk a show 43 years old would be fueling social conversation? That’s “SNL.”

You got attention for calling out Facebook in particular last year.
On Facebook, I said, I’m not sure if a like can walk into your store and buy a product. Last year, several of [the platforms] had “Oops, we did it again” moments. I’m unsure why the success metric is very, very different for the linear side of the business compared to the social side of the business. The advertising standards are extraordinarily higher for us than the tech platforms. That said, I’m optimistic for the future. They’re taking the challenges seriously. I just hope they deliver change soon.

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