How Accenture is trying to bring programmatic product placement to Netflix

Accenture's R&D division has spent the last year developing breakthrough product placement technology that can seamlessly insert a brand into online video, including the ability to replace existing labelling.

The management consultancy, which has ambitions of further embedding itself into the media industry following several high-profile acquisitions in recent months, claims its latest offering could be a billion-dollar revenue generator within just five years; provided it can land deals with original content creators, like Netflix and Amazon.

Talks with regulators are already underway and patents also currently pending, Accenture is now pitching its latest programmatic video tool as a solution to the "inevitable" negative impact of adblocking and positioning it to advertisers as a much-needed evolution of the well established practice of product placement, promising developments in audience evaluation.

After the product was debuted at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, The Drum caught up with Alex Naressi, managing director at Accenture Interactive, to gauge how the latest offering will mean commercial tie-ups between content creators and brands are no longer interruptive.

More AI disruption

This is not the first time that inserting brands into programing during the post-production process has been attempted. For instance, Channel 4 tried it back in 2012 by manually inserting the PG Tips logo onto mugs of tea being drunk by contestants on Deal Or No Deal.

However, Accenture has sought to disrupt the space by using advances in adtech and artificial intelligence (AI) as a way to rapidly scale and personalise the products and logos that might appear in content.

"[We wanted] to [be able to] monetise huge back catalogues of existing video content as well as offer content creators a way to place advertising in a non-disruptive way, open it to the marketplace and give them the benefit of a programmatic platform," said Naressi.

"We believe this could be a billion-dollar opportunity. We're moving fast in this space, casting a very wide net and talking to clients across industries and [content owners] that have a huge back catalogue of content they are struggling to monetise or only monitise through interruptive ways [like pre-roll]. We've filed several patents to protect the invention and create the prototype which we can now take to brands."

Cracking the nut

Accenture sees this offering working in two ways. Chiefly that brands will buy product placement programmatically for the same reasons as they previously would – to get in front of a certain demographic all watching the same thing.

However, it also sees it being used in a more granular way; specifically, as a more sophisticated retargeting tool. Say a person has been browsing online for a new Apple phone; they might then watch an episode of Orange is the New Black on Netflix and that same phone they'd been looking at could appear on a character's table or in the form of an advert on a billboard in the background of a scene.

This is entirely theoretical as Accenture has yet to sign any deals with content creators, media agencies, or advertisers. It's still trying to navigate the thorny issue of how something like this is regulated.. But it nonetheless claims the capabilities are there for it to be done and, more importantly, be done well.

"The first breakthrough was changing the logo on a video of an aeroplane. It was hard to work with because it was very shaky and [due to] the position of the logo, so we had to consider a lot of unpredictable movements, trees passing by, and the blur that happens with the depth of field," continued Naressi.

"But we managed to crack the nut and change the logo to just about anything," adding that it can also detect surfaces to put objects on "as if it was there when it was filmed".

To get to the stage where this can happen in a matter of seconds, Accenture is using an artificial intelligence to scan scenes in a piece of content for where a brand could be placed.

"It doesn't replace the human understanding but it helps if, for instance, the brand doesn't want to be associated with a particular setting or object."

And despite the rumblings that Accenture is out to create its own programmatic platform for clients, it said this solution will be able to connect within existing programmatic networks within both agency and client walls.

Counting eyeballs

Unlike traditional product placement, whereby a brand will permanently appear in a piece of content at a fixed cost, Accenture is offering the ability to make both the duration of the placement and the cost flexible. And AI is helping to determine that cost; the human eye has a limited field of view and it has developed a way to determine the value of the placement based on how close it is to a viewer's centre of attention.

"Instead of eye tracking in the traditional way (40-50 people using eye tracking device and watching a video to create a heat map) what we've done is train AI to behave like a human and simulate human attention. Long story short, this can be helpful in terms of trying to understand an impression. If there's a lot of attention in the centre, then a placement far from it will have little to no value and vice versa," explained Naressi..

"This is a complete breakthrough and we have a patent pending just on this capability,"

Catching the white (and red) whale

The success of this will be predicated on Accenture's ability to convince content owners to give them access to their video catalogues – be it vloggers on YouTube or the likes of Amazon and Netflix, Accenture is casting a wide net to find those willing to hand over the keys.

"We need to have the content owners on board. There are several ways to allow them to keep control of the placement; at a granular level they have to be able to filter and select which placement they're open to putting on their content. It's about altering their content and most content owners will want to have control of that. So, we're offing some flexibility," said Naressi.

He went on to reveal that Netflix "was the one that popped up in our heads months ago" as an ideal client as it's in the position of being both owner and distributer of content. It also has a catalogue of films and TV series from its early experiments with original programming when product placement might not have been an option that Naressi suggests is ripe for monitisation.

"It could be a completely new business model for Netflix. It could have a free version and premium, and the free would have this placement. The spectrum is wide in terms of where we can take it," he said.

As new users to Amazon Prime Video and Netflix plateau, how to more effectively monitise existing subscribers may lead it to consider such pitches from Accenture. Signing up other content owners won't be so easy. As one agency exec pointed out; if it wants to work with YouTubers, it will need to ink a deal with Google and convince the tech giant of the revenue gains that would make it worthwhile.

Naressi declined to go into detail about the advertisers it was approaching, but reiterated it's approaching brands across industries, including FMGC, sports, telco sectors. "There are a lot of conversations happening but we're still at an early stage," he said.

Aside from finding the right partners, the next biggest barrier to success is regulation. Admitting that it could take nearly a decade until it really scales, Accenture claimed to be working with regulators right now to ensure the processes are in place to protect privacy and signpost content accordingly.

"This is really sitting at the intersection of traditional product placement – which is very mature industry and has a lot of regulation already – and programmatic. It's probably too early to say as it's a completely new channel so we must work with the regulators to essentially make it happen in the best way possible," Naressi said.

"From my perspective, this will come gradually to ensure we, for example, make it clear that the content will include targeting or retargeting and that we offer a way to opt out of it. Ultimately I think that's it's probably too early to say."

But do marketers really need it?

While talk of pending patents and revolutionising a predominantly analogue sector of marketing make for an intriguing pitch, the reality for many agency execs The Drum spoke with is that this kind of tool simply isn't solving an immediate problem of evaluation that many advertisers already using product placement are faced with.

Meanwhile, the issue of effective measurement and brand safety still exist in other mediums where programmatic technology is used and will need to be addressed fully by Accenture if it's to convince the industry this is worth testing.

"Product placement on TV shows isn't done hugely in the UK because it's so regulated but, more pertinently, because no one has really worked out how to put a value on it from an advertiser point of view. It's difficult to know what it gives to an advertiser's communication plan because it's so hard to measure," said Dan Keat, director of investment at m/SIX.

"My concerns with Accenture are that if it's difficult to measure [product placement] on something with the scale of terrestrial TV, what would be the incentive for advertisers to do it on a more micro, targeted level? In theory, it's a good idea but just because the tech is good doesn't mean it's going to deliver a strong part of a communications plan and in turn deliver business results."

It was a sentiment echoed by Essence managing director Mark Syal, who said quite simply that "there is no killer need for this" as demonstrated by the limited use of technology already available that can place products into content post-edit..

"For expensive, on-off deals, brands spend a lot of time considering the quality of content and the environment they'll end up in. If it's a series of micro-deals, you need the scale to aggregate and then how to you predict the environment you'll end up in?," Syal asked.

"There are brand safety issues now with programmatic advertising and we have a tonne of companies monitoring this for [advertisers]. This is a whole new untested system based on an AI-algorithm, which sounds a bit vague, but maybe [Accenture] have cracked it."

Likewise, Nnamdi David, media strategy director, at MullenLowe Mediahub said the jury was out. "The fact is that product placement while often effective (many brands have done it successfully for years) the value is largely subjective and the process is irregular, often needing clearance from a number of stakeholders. Simplifying and automating to an extent will bring benefits, however the nuanced context of the placement is a job every advertiser would want human judgement on," David suggested.

"A watch out for us, would be to ensure that the advertiser or the agency can create controls over the context and behaviour of the buy. Whilst this may affect scalability, we believe it's imperative that a brand is maximised within the format in order to truly gain that unfair share of attention."

After revealing the technology in Cannes, Accenture is planning to further roadshow its technology at the Dmexco trade show scheduled to take place in Germany in September.



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