Neal Thurman

Episode 8 – Neal Thurman from the Brand Safety Institute

Neal Thurman from the Brand Safety Institute talks about some of the great work that the BSI is doing.

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Welcome to Episode 8 of the Breaking Through the Mayhem podcast, where we explore marketing and advertising in a time of constantly shifting risk and opportunity.

Brought to you by Sightly, our goal is to share the insights of industry leaders from brands, agencies, publishers, and partners as they discuss the challenges and possibilities emerging from the ever-shifting media landscape, such as real-time marketing, brand safety and purpose, influencers, cancel culture, data privacy, technology and more.

Today's guest is Neal Thurman.

He's one of the founders of The Brand Safety Institute.

Neal Thurman brings many threads of his career together for the founding of the Brand Safety Institute. His career started in Industrial Psychology, managing major standardized tests and certification programs for higher education and professional organizations. After receiving his MBA from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, he worked for Fortune 500 clients, including Sony Electronics, UPS, Coca-Cola, Axciom, Hard Rock Cafe, and Fannie Mae on how to harness new digital technologies to enhance existing business models and create new ones.

He had an entrepreneurial bug that led him to be on the founding team of two successful bootstrapped professional services start-ups – Customer Value Partners and Black Turtle Services – where he served in a variety of executive management roles, including oversight of Product Development, Profitability, Accounting and Finance, Human Resources, Contracts, Facilities, and IT while continuing to work with clients like AOL, Cricket Wireless, the McGraw-Hill Companies, and the US Federal Government on solving critical business problems.

While helping build Customer Value Partners into an Inc 500-winning firm, he co-founded a blog about English Premier League soccer that moved from the Blogger platform to YahooUK to SBNation to the Rotoworld.com division of NBC Sports Digital. In addition to his duties as Co-founder of the Brand Safety Institute and for Rotoworld, Neal serves as the Director of the Coalition for Better Ads, championing customer experience in digital advertising.

In the episode, which was recorded live at the Brand Safety Summit NY on November 3, 2022, Neal discusses:

  • How he got involved with creating the Brand Saftey Institute
  • His view on the most important ways the Brand Safety Institue can have an impact
  • Why he believes that a common language between marketers and publishers is paramount

GuestNeal Thurman

Brand Safety Institute

The Breaking Through the Mayhem podcast - Episode 8
Host:  Adam Katz, Chief Revenue Officer & GM, Sightly
Guest:  Neal Thurman, Co-Founder at Brand Safety Institute, Director at Coalition for Better Ads
Recorded live at the Brand Safety Summit NY, November 3, 2022

Adam Katz 

Welcome to the Sightly’s Breaking Through the Mayhem podcast.It's been a great day, right? Obviously still energized, knowing we have such an amazing guest right now who's going to be talking to us about some critical things that he's doing in the industry. Here at our company, we've been impressed with everything you've done, and we're honored that you're joining us. 

And we’re looking to have a great conversation with you today. So what we've been discussing is marketing in a time of constant shifting risk and opportunity. Right. That's been our big topic today. Right. But with you, you know, we'll rift a little bit and we'll go off topic knowing that some of the questions we've been thinking about today are a little different when it comes to your world.

But starting out tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got to where you are and what keeps you going.

Neal Thurman

Yeah, so, Neal Thurman from co-founder of the Brand Safety Institute. And it is really kind of an odd journey. So I have been friends with Mike Zaneis, the CEO of the Trustworthy Accountability Group for 20 odd years. And I was kind of running to the end of a federal services firm, not in digital in any meaningful way. 

He was getting, you know, a lot of conversation around hey, how can Tag really expand its mission? They've been doing really well on fraud, you know, and we've got all these other issues popping up. And it really wasn't, you know, just wasn't in the cards for Tag to expand its mission. But he wanted to get some advice on, you know, how do we create something for the industry that's more flexible, that can think about all these Whack-A-Mole issues that everybody's been talking about on stage as they come up.

And so I helped him build a business plan to present to his board, for his Tag board to say, hey, can we get your permission to form this other thing? And he gave me the expectation, yeah, this will probably take a fair amount of time to go through all the red tape and whatnot and get people bought in

Not two months later, he came back and was like, everybody's in. They think it's a great idea. When do you start? And so all of a sudden -

Adam Katz 

So you jumped right in.

Neal Thurman

Yeah, all of a sudden, I went from I'm not really sure what this industry is all about. And I enjoy talking about the issues with Mike. And I've been in digital. I started out my career post grad school as a digital consultant. So I've had history in the industry, but had been out of it for a fair amount of time.

And so it's just fascinating getting in and getting to know all the issues. And, you know, I have done consulting. So, you know, you don't get into that business unless you love learning new issues, you know, learning new things. So that's what's getting me up is like, hey, I'm a problem solver and want to find ways to apply those skills and you know, being in a nonprofit as opposed to working for a company, I get to go tug on all these, you know, capes of people who are doing fantastic things and say, hey, donate this little bit of it to the industry and let's see if we can move something forward and kind of come up with collaborative solutions where, you know, the industry is maybe lagging on, you know, commercial driven decisions.

Adam Katz 

Gotcha. So ultimately, when I kind of hear that, you know, obviously for you, it's pretty important to help people learn.

Neal Thurman

Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

Adam Katz 

So, you know, I think you're an expert on that. So how would you recommend for vendors or brands or agencies to go out and learn what they may not know today that's out there? And then on top of that, obviously not to promote your own thing, but this has been a big week for you guys.

Neal Thurman

Oh, absolutely.

Adam Katz 

So what's been so awesome for you about this week?

Neal Thurman

Well, so I think and maybe I can answer both questions in a kind of a similar way. So the most gratifying thing for me about this week has been seeing like the multiple years of partnership with Rob Rasko and Garm kind of coming together. You know, the fact that we were able to put, you know, jointly put together educational materials, both kind of at the master class level for people who are experts already in brand safety.

We want to try and push them a little bit further and then, you know, kind of more a bootcamp level thing this morning where, you know, we were able to get people who are relatively new to the industry or kind of just coming into the brand safety and suitability side of things and kind of get them closer to like, hey, I understand the breadth of the issues and kind of where the industry is now.

And I think that has been incredibly rewarding to see that our hope is to take what was a live session, which is obviously not very scalable and, you know, now turn that into virtual education and hopefully we can then offer that up.

Adam Katz 

To that point, do you find when you build out standards that sometimes it makes it harder for people to think outside of the box? Do you find that it creates a rigid perspective or do you find that it helps people more comfortable? Where have you kind of seen that play out?

Neal Thurman

Yeah. Well, so and we don't really, I don't feel comfortable thinking about us creating standards. I think our job is to try and look around the industry and find out where standards -

Adam Katz

Beautiful.

Neal Thurman

- and just good practices are emerging and try and get them in everybody's hands. 

Adam Katz

I love that.

Neil Thurman.

So it is, you know, Rob and Garm are creating the framework and I think framework different than standards, meaning, you know, hey, we all sit around tables and at conferences and talk about that we want to do better on these things and being able to have just a common language for talking about it. 

We would never say you should buy this way, right? Every brand is going to have their own opinion on what that is and how that, you know, kind of presents in the marketplace. But we can say, hey, here's a way of going through the conversation.

Adam Katz

Gotcha.

Neal Thurman

You know, this is why when we started talking, I was so fascinated because that's where you guys are investing your time and your energy is how do we help marketers have the conversation among themselves to say, who are we?

Adam Katz 

And I think, you know what's so interesting as we go on these journeys together, the amount that I've personally gotten better or learned is crazy, too.

Neal Thurman

Oh, I’m sure.

Adam Katz

So I feel like what's lost is like when you actually start to have a lot of these conversations with each other, how much you learn too -

Neal Thurman

Oh, absolutely.

Adam Katz 

- about life, about people, about going forward, about getting better yourself. So I think ultimately there's a beauty in that, right? So as we start to invest more into the future, how do you think organizations, if you had your perspective could come together and have more of these conversations and how they could help the person who has their own bias not feel like they're feeling the need to feel like they're in a tough situation?

So just curious how you think about this.

Neal Thurman

Well, so, again, for me and the reason that we, BSI, turned out the way it did and kind of has taken the path that we've taken around education and building community and things like that is you need someone at all levels of the supply chain to kind of have a common basis and a common language, because until you're speaking the same language, you're not going to have any of those conversations, right? 

Adam Katz

You can’t even start.

Neal Thurman

Yeah. You know, if I'm a marketer, and I say brand safety, like when we started this and it was more about the word safety than suitability, you know, a marketer meant, hey, what is my ad show up next to, you know, kind of that proto adjacency, your airline example, an airline crash example -

Adam Katz

Yeah, of course.

Neal Thurman

- everybody kind of cited early on.

But you know, if I talk to the publishing side of the house, you know, they're worried about viewability and how much my inventory is going to get, you know, go away because you know, somebody viewed it as unsafe or unsuitable or it didn't render properly and I'm losing revenue. And so, you know, you look at those two sides of the house and they were not speaking the same language.

And, you know, then every step along the way to get you from point A to point B had their own little version of what that meant to them. And so I think you know, for us, you know, starting that conversation and saying we all first need to get together in our individual groups as parts of the supply chain and agree amongst ourselves.

And then we need to start talking collaboratively. And so, you know, the marketers need to have their own safe space to talk. Publishers need to have their own safe space to talk. And eventually we need to get them together and say-

Adam Katz 

How do individuals get that safe space to talk in this ? I think that's been something you're working on heavily right?

Neal Thurman

It is.

Adam Katz

You have an advisory board that you've built that allows individuals to have those conversations, which I actually think is even bigger than the brands and the agencies a lot of the time, because you're now allowing different humans from different places to have the conversations.

Adam Katz 

I think it will take it even further.

Neal Thurman

Yeah, well and we want to do more of that, right? So when we get the marketers together, it's in that same kind of you know, closed door session. Hey, you know, the marketers tend to want to talk about, hey, we're very resource constrained. There aren't a lot of us focused on this issue -

Adam Katz

How do you help us? 

Neal Thurman

- right? How can you help us focus our effort and time, whether it's with tools, with process, with, you know, resources that can be common to the industry and we can just adjust a little bit, you know, whatever it is that those are the conversations they're having.

It isn't, you know, and we're not talking at CMO level right? We're talking about the people who are pushing the buttons and making the day to day decisions and that affect media buys

Adam Katz 

That brings up a huge point. How do you then get those people to get the types of budgets and respect that they deserve within their organizations? Right. That to me seems to be a critical topic.

Neal Thurman

I think, at, you know, not to let everybody out there in podcast land in on the advisory board session. But you heard Lou Paskalis talk very passionately about how the journey happened for them at Bank of America and that is crucial to it, that they were very fortunate that they crafted a business case and got resources before everybody was really talking about this and that's always what has fascinated me about Lou and Terry's journey together is that it hasn't been broadcast as well.

Like, hey, here's the path. Like, here is the business case to take to your CFO-

Adam Katz 

So their blueprint to you is a great way to educate others. 

Neal Thurman

Absolutely.

Adam Katz

So this brings up, you know, some as we close in here, brings up a big topic that's been brought up to me today that I actually, I didn't even think to ask until I started hearing this. How do we bring brands, agencies and people together and then not create an inability to have a competitive advantage?

I think it's been a big topic today and it's been interesting.

Neal Thurman

Well, so this has been my theory since we started BSI and I started getting to know the industry. You know, everybody has come to all of these organizations, whether it be the APB, it the forays or whether it be here Brand Safety Week or at A&A or any, you know, any of the places that people gather and talk about these things.

And they've always talked about brand safety and suitability as this very collaborative thing that we all need to work on together. And, you know, my commercial like consulting the entrepreneurial background is like, no, at some point, if this is important to everybody, you're going to start competing on it, right? 

Adam Katz

Correct. 

Neal Thurman

I have a better path to an end result and that result is valuable -

Adam Katz 

And can that result because I'm better at it drives something that moves a business forward. Right? So I think ultimately that's where it's heading right now.

Neal Thurman

Yeah it is. 

Adam Katz

And I think you're doing a phenomenal job of trying to help everybody. If you were to close thinking about yourself, right? Who do you look up to today?

Right. Who's helping you make some of your decisions outside of the BSI, outside of people that you talk to every day? Who are some of the people that you look up to?

Neal Thurman

I, you know, it's funny. I don't know if I have a great answer for like, here's a person I look to. I think I tend to lean back on upbringing. My parents, you know, the example my parents set for me growing up and, you know, other role models, probably too many to remember or think about along the way that like, you know, that's where you get your moral compass or North Star or whatever people want to call it.

And, you know, trying to just remember back to that like what would my parents, you know, I like the notion of, and social media has made this pretty real, like if there was a newspaper story written about the decision, the dumb ass decision, you just made, how would you feel about that? And if you aren't sure what the answer is, maybe don't make that decision.

Adam Katz 

Yeah, it's like, think before you tweet has always been one of the things, but it's a good point. Listen, we all have our own personal mentors. We all and that's amazing that your family meant that to you. Very similar in that. So thank God. But in terms of, in closing you know, what would be your advice to anybody that’s financially struggling to join programs like yours?

Adam Katz 

Which I'm not saying is, we're in it. 

Neal Thurman

Great.

Adam Katz

I'm not calling it overly expensive. I think it's very fair. But I'm just curious with the restraints right now and budgets and things, how could somebody learn without having to spend as much money?

Neal Thurman

Yeah. So we ultimately, you know, we think that a lot of this should be shared as much as possible and the way we're evolving our approach to content on our site and you know, that we engage in you know, we want to try and have things, you know, we have to keep the lights on. And so we have sponsors, we have some membership fees and things like that.

But we really have three levels of how we provide information to the industry or guidance to the industry. So there's stuff with plenty of stuff that's free and it's a great way to get started. I think you know, in return for an email address and just having access to the audience that we care about, there's kind of a second level to unlock that's, you know, we hope to maybe convert you into a paying customer member eventually.

And then just to join as an individual is not, you know, it's like a grant, right? So if an individual wants to go through that, hopefully we tried to-

Adam Katz 

I think you guys are extremely fair as I said and I think you're actually even more than fair. So I think you guys are a great option for people to start learning and thinking. Thank you so much, Neal, for joining us.

Neal Thurman

Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Adam Katz 

If there's anything else you want to share? I'm open to it otherwise. Thank you so much.

Neal Thurman

No, my pleasure. I really appreciate it and looking forward to our partnership.

Sightly
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