Radio programmatic at scale in 2016: A conversation with Jelli CEO Mike Dougherty

jelli logoProgrammatic radio advertising company Jelli released a press notice which summarizes the firm’s 2015 progress in distributing its platform to radio stations and expanding its listener reach. It sets the stage for a 2016 agenda of increased programmatic buying of radio ads.

Prominent among the 2015 milestones is the partnership with iHeartMedia which saw the Jelli programmatic platform integrated with over 800 radio stations, and a related partnership with iHeart-owned ad-rep giant Katz which will extend the platform to over 4,000 stations in 2016. Right now, Jelli can count 1,276 radio stations in 193 markets using the RadioSpot programmatic platform, representing a growth rate of 219% from the previous year. The company notes that the audience represented by all this radio adoption adds up to 245-million U.S. listeners.

Laying Down the Tracks

mike dougherty 300w

Mike Dougherty, CEO, Jelli

To some extent the Jelli press release is a brag sheet, but more than that, it documents the advance of programmatic in the radio realm. Before 2015, programmatic in audio was a mysterious concept shrouded in confusion. (Some confusion about programmatic’s definition and benefits persists.) In talking with Jelli CEO Mike Dougherty, we heard that 2015 was a year of furthering awareness of programmatic principles and building out the distribution of the Jelli platform, laying down train tracks for marketplace development.

“The theme for 2015 was education, as the market was trying to figure out what programmatic was,” Dougherty told RAIN News in a phone conversation. “2015 was about rolling out an operations footprint to be ready for operational scale.”

Additionally for Jelli, 2015 was about new capitalization; the company received $21-million in venture funding mid-year. At that time Mike Dougherty said the war chest would enable scaling the platform, and this week’s business summary can be read as a fulfillment of that promise.

Trains on the Tracks

The availability of programmatic to radio is one piece of the adoption puzzle. Another is putting ad inventory into the platform. That ramped up in 2015 also, and Mike Dougherty told us that the ad units placed into Jelli by radio stations grew by a multiple of 10 in 2015. So — tracks laid down and trains put on them. The plan for 2016 is to get the trains moving by activating the buy-side marketplace. This is where the rubber meets the road, as a distributed platform holding scaled inventory meets buyers eager to include audio in their campaigns.

One upcoming news item will be when Katz launches Expressway in Q1, the version of Jelli distributed to 4,000 radio stations. The launch will have a “meaningful number” of those stations, Dougherty told us, with the others brought on board during the year.

Advertiser Demand

We asked the key question: What is the state of buy-side demand for programmatic audio? If 2015 was about the build-out of supply, will the buyers come flowing in this year?

“The largest advertisers and agencies all want to buy radio and audio using the same tactics they buy digital,” Mike Dougherty asserted. “At the agencies there is a more advanced way to think about advertising budgets. It’s about data and efficiency. As they get better at using data to be more efficient in their advertising spend, they are pushing every media type to be bought that way.”

Local vs. National

One reason that radio’s adoption has been vulnerable to confusion lies in a local vs. national polarity that naturally exists. Local ad selling is an intensely human-powered enterprise. On the other hand, national advertising is increasingly automated on software platforms that use layers of consumer data to ferret out audience segments and target relevant ads to receptive users. Mike Dougherty addressed this equation when talking about advertiser demand for programmatic.

“This is starting from the largest national advertisers,” he said. “It’s not starting at the local end. One reason there is confusion in radio is that radio has so many local sellers and advertisers. Nobody is talking about it much at that level. But there is a huge amount of discussion at the national level. The largest buyers are saying ‘We’re ready,’ and they’re the ones lining up to buy the supply. Whoever is ready to work with that type of buying is going to get the money.”

The challenge for radio is that it risks being left out of cross-category national campaigns if it’s not up to speed with programmatic. Mike Dougherty agreed with that thesis, and also doubled down on the opportunity factor: “Not only do you have an opportunity for existing buyers to flow in  your direction, but there are new incremental budgets that are being unlocked from digital, now that radio and audio acts more like programmatic digital [e.g. display and video]. So you get the opportunity for new spend, which the industry can certainly benefit from.”



Brad Hill