Clearstream is a Chicago-based startup that aims to ‘tame’ what it calls the ‘Wild West’ of online video advertising by evaluating the video content and page context in which a video ad is shown. VAN spoke with Clearstream CEO Brian Mandelbaum about what Clearstream will be bringing to the market and about why he believes Clearstream can make buying video online an even safer place for large brands to buy.
One of the issues parts of the video advertising industry needs to improve on is providing a brand-safe environment for advertisers. Yes, there are already many perfectly safe and transparent places to buy. But much of the market is still fragmented and and in the absence of full transparency, it’s only natural for brand advertisers to question where their ad is going to be shown and what kind of content it’s going to be show against.
It’s important to stress here that this isn’t just a problem for unscrupulous ad networks – larger networks and publishers can get caught out too. Just last week YouTube and Lions Gate were held to account by the ASA in the UK for showing an ad for the 12A rated film Abduction.
The ad appeared before an animated clip called ‘The Duck Song’, which was being watched by a two year-old, and according to the adjudication report included ‘action sequences that involved shooting, vehicle chases, punching, a couple kissing and a man who kicked his way through a glass window. The voice-over stated, “An assassin wants him dead …”, which also appeared in text on screen. So a negative context for a brand’s ad doesn’t necessarily require the ad to be placed adjacent to sex, profanity or violence, but the ad could be what causes the viewer to take offence if it’s run against inappropriate content.
Clearstream CEO Brian Mendelbaum believes his company will be able to solve the problem by evaluating where ads are shown and by assessing the video content they’re shown against. Speaking about the US market, Mandelbaum said: “After CBS, NBC, ABC and Hulu, online video inventory quickly turns into one big blind spot for marketers,” said Mandelbaum, formerly of Razorfish and Saatchi & Saatchi. “For the Procter & Gambles of the world to get comfortable with online video, they have to have the same level of confidence as with a television buy,” he noted. “That’s something we can provide.”
How It Works
So how do they do it? Mandelbaum explained: “We’ve developed a proprietary video ingestion system that is able to suck down a monetized video stream and spit out two very important scores, one being the quality, which is what we use to determine the quality of the video stream, and the context, which is based on the IAB taxonomy so we can be quite broad in terms of what we’re looking for or be more granular.” So Clearstream looks at: (a) the page context; (b) the video’s audio which is scans using voice recognition software; and (c) the video’s content, which it scans to see if any of the frames contain potentially unsafe objects.
So could Clearstream detect, say, a penis? “Yes,” says Mandelbaum. “We can everything from parts of people to specific people, or objects like guns, or fire, or in the case of audio we can detect profanity?’.
On Clearstream’s accuracy, Mandelbaum says ‘Contextually, it’s really accurate. As far as identifying the spoken word in the stream, we’ve got that at about 99% accuracy. With [identifying] objects in the stream, we’re in the 90% range. We’re actually increasing that every day though as we add objects to the dictionary of objects we’re looking for within the stream. The more streams we evaluate, the smarter the system gets, so it’s a self-cycle benefit that keeps going forward.”
Winning TV Budget
Mandelbaum stresses that if video is going to win budget from TV advertisers, the industry need to go beyond thinking about whether content is brand safe or not: “We’re telling you what the quality is and what the content is about, which is where you start getting TV-like transparency and that’s when you’ll see TV buyers saying ‘maybe I can shift some of my budget into this trusted video advertising space'”.
He also believes Clearstream could help advertisers match their ads to the brand-appropriate contexts, giving the example of how alcohol advertisers devise messaging specific to sports by sponsoring the breaks during the NFL play-offs, linking their brands to the half-time show. “That’s a content and context relationship, so if you’re going to recreate this kind of environment like it happens on TV, you need to get close to that on video TV too if that beer brand can sponsor video sports content as well,” he said.
More Advanced Than Display Verification
Mandelbaum is keen to set Clearstream apart from the verification companies working in display advertising: “Display verification is, in my opinion, a very rudimentary technology. We’re dealing with a whole different type of technology here. We’re also dealing with sight, sound and motion and that’s a whole other box you have to unlock,” he added.
“We don’t like to use the word verification. We think that’s a very nasty word. We think the verification companies have made that word mud in our business. We prefer to use the word ‘evaluation’, because we think it’s more meaningful to the advertiser han just asking ‘is this good or is this bad?’ which is black and white. We say there are shades of grey and it’s up to the advertiser to determine what they’re comfortable with and what’s going to bring them the most value with their advertising message,” he added.