Ad Lib: Pandora's head of ad innovation on what advertisers need to know about audio

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Lizzie Widhelm
Lizzie Widhelm Credit: Courtesy Pandora

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For someone who has "ad innovation" in her job title, Lizzie Widhelm is refreshingly frank about what it is she doesn't know. The Pandora svp—who was founder Tim Westergren's first hire for monetization, 12 years ago—is quick to say that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to measurement at the streaming audio platform.

What's most recently become "an important part of the conversation" with advertisers, she says in the latest episode of the Ad Lib podcast, is addressing the question of, "Hey, are we measuring audio right?"

"Many of them have no idea what they're supposed to be doing. They've ported over a TV measurement model, trying to figure out reach or frequency," she says. "That's probably the most interesting part of the world today: I'm not sure we have one answer for everyone. We've developed an audio playbook that says, 'These are the best practices'."

Key to that playbook: the durability of audio. A tough sell, perhaps, in a time of quick-wins and instant data. "We're telling people to wait, be patient," she says. With audio, she says, advertisers can reach audiences in moments where other media doesn't hit them.

Widhelm joins us at a time when the company is in the spotlight. Just over a month ago, satellite radio giant Sirius XM offered to plunk down $3.5 billion to acquire Pandora. It would seem to be a good fit for both sides: Sirius has more than 36 million subscribers in North America, mostly through cars and radio. Pandora has 70 million monthly listeners—mostly on mobile devices. Fewer than 6 million of them currently pay for the service.

"What's most exciting to me [about Sirius] is what should be most exciting to consumers," she says. "There's still a huge opportunity to carve out time spent in the car. And we rule the roost on mobile, so that's great for ways you can see us integrate there."

We discuss the state of advertising across the streaming space. Millennials, for example, name rival Spotify as their No. 1 platform for discovery and variety of music recommendations. We also get into the challenge of converting Pandora's free members into paying listeners, why she's bullish on podcasts—and what ad formats work best there. ("We don't know. The industry would tell you that host-read is the holy grail.")

She also explains how she never experienced noticeable gender discrimination until she reached senior leadership positions—and describes calling out colleagues for absent-minded chauvenism.

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