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BEN chief Ricky Ray Butler on brand safety, lockdown & influencers

The entertainment world is continually re-examining its relationship with advertisers as it looks to make maximum revenue while proving it can effectively engage with consumers in various ways, and that has become all the more vital during the international pandemic.

Ricky Ray Butler is the chief executive of The Branded Entertainment Network, an artificial intelligence-powered company that provides product placement across media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch.

An effervescent gent with a beard you can’t miss a mile away, his passion for product placement comes through strongly in the latest instalment of The Drum's 'A cup of tea with...' video series.

From his strategically-placed base in Los Angeles, he said: "We believe that the future of advertising is going to be more so inside the content than outside the content based on the trends of ad blocking technology."

Butler discussed a wide range of topics that face advertisers working with content creators, including the continued problem of brand safety, how brands have handled production constraints in lockdown and the ever-growing value of data.

“There are more influencers now than ever before. I remember when I first started, I was able to count on two hands the amount of influencers that had over a million followers. Today, I cannot count, there's literally millions of them from YouTube, to TikTok to Instagram, to all the other niche platforms that are out there. So, because there's this decentralization of content, there's more data now than ever before and specifically, unstructured data.

"And so when we look at data, there's structured and unstructured; unstructured is not data like views or the public metrics that you get from the platform that you put on a spreadsheet. Unstructured data is actually the audio, the visual, the actual video content. And you have to use very sophisticated AI, specifically a form of machine learning called deep learning, to be able to take all this unstructured data and to make sense of it to build to make more accurate predictions for ROI. And so right now during this pandemic and during this crisis we're seeing more innovation around content than we've ever seen before.”

He cites live concerts being conducted by world famous artists from their home studios, and DJs remote broadcasting sessions, as new forms of entertainment born of lockdown necessities, not least Travis Scott’s appearance on Fortnite that has caught global attention not just within the gaming community. And with the freezing of production, Hollywood is also reacting with late-night chat show hosts such as Jimmy Fallon also broadcasting from their couches.

“It's a beautiful thing to see a lot of these content creators and these celebrities step up to the plate and make things happen to make it so people can you know, have the more positive distractions while they're dealing with such a weird strange time.”

Butler revealed that the business is still helping brands prepare for the forthcoming launches that will surge forward when production fully begins again in the film and television space, but is also seeing influencers and online creatives fill the void during the production close down.

“There's other companies for example, in the fitness sector, that are being very innovative and trying to work with as much as many content creators as possible. And then you also have brands that have done a really good job on creating positive messaging through these celebrities and through these content creators, where they sponsor them to do good and to serve the community, this is a really powerful time for brands to bring more normality to the table. But also to... show empathy as well as empowering content creators to do good and to do something very positive."

Asked about how he sees brand safety measures evolving, Butler is positive that understanding is improving generally as are processes through the introduction of technology: “You have to have very strong systems and processes to make sure there's brand safety, making sure that you're aligning with partners and influencers that don't have a sketchy past or history. Now that there's all these different creators and different celebrities out there, Aria (Accessibility Rich Internet Applications) actually navigates and monitors what's going on. But also when we're looking at working with different celebrities or influencers, it actually goes and does a high level background check to figure out if there's any controversy that has happened in the past from this content and the content creators."

Butler also discussed working with the founder of BEN, philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, as well as offering a glimpse into what he believed was to come for online platforms and the entertainment industry including the growth and continued emergence of tech players from Asia following the success of TikTok.

“They're really good at being calculated and growing and learning from others’ mistakes and others’ wins and are able to optimize what they're currently doing to build to become relevant and to grow.”

Watch the full interview with Ricky Ray Butler in the latest episode of A Cup of Tea With… in the video above. Other subjects of the series have included Publicis chair Maurice Levy and S4 Capital's Sir Martin Sorrell.

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