The Science of Attention with Khurrum Malik, CMO of Integral Ad Science

nextcmo14 Jul 2023
PodcastsThought Leadership



In this episode of The Next CMO podcast, we speak to Khurrum Malik, the CMO of Integral Ad Science (IAS) and the science of attention and how it impacts your advertising strategy. IAS delivers the industry’s most actionable data to drive superior results for the world’s largest advertisers, publishers, and media platforms.


In this episode of The Next CMO podcast, we speak to Khurrum Malik, the CMO of Integral Ad Science (IAS) and the science of attention and how it impacts your advertising strategy. IAS delivers the industry’s most actionable data to drive superior results for the world’s largest advertisers, publishers, and media platforms.

Learn more about the IAS research study on attention here:

Learn more about Khurrum Malik

Learn more about Integral Ad Science

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Produced by PodForte

Peter: The next C M O podcast explores topics that are on the minds of forward thinking marketing executives from leadership and strategy to emerging technologies, and we bring these topics to life by interviewing leading experts in their fields. The next CMO is sponsored by Planful for marketing. A leading marketing performance management solution that automates marketing, planning, financial management, and ROI optimization, and hosted by me Peter Mahoney, an experienced C M O C E O board member and executive advisor.

In this episode of the next C M O podcast, I speak to Krulik, the CMO of Integral ad Science. Integral ad science is a global leader in digital media quality. We talk about some fascinating research that Kru and his team have done on attention. When it comes to consumers viewing and interacting with ads, we talk about the future of generative AI on the advertising ecosystem and his advice for current and aspiring CMOs.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy the show.

Hey Corrum, thanks so much for being on the next C M O podcast. Really excited to chat with you today, and maybe we can start with you telling us a little bit about corrum, give the background.

Khurrum: Sure thing, Peter. Thanks for having me. Excited to speak with you and your audience and listeners. Yeah, I I am. C m o at Integral Ad Science been in mobile data and marketing for 20 plus years having been both a product manager product marketer. And even running a sales team to get to the point where I am now.

And what I love doing is launching and growing technology products. And that’s one of my kind of favorite favorite things to do. Besides that, I’m a suffering University of Virginia fan. We always make it to the tournament and get bounced early, but I went there three times, so I can’t get over that.

And I’m happy to. Dive right into all forms of marketing. I’d just end with, I’m one of those marketers that is one of those B2 B2C marketers, and I can touch on what that means. But basically, our technologies help other marketers better connect with consumers,

Peter: Excellent. Well, I would be great to dive into a little bit more of your bonafide, because they’re significant here, Korum and I, so tell us a little bit about some of the roles that you’ve had before Integral Ad Science. I know we’ll talk about that in a second, but it really will help the help us understand because you’ve got a fantastic background all around the advertising ecosystem.

Khurrum: So I’ll touch on a couple things. I’ll both touch on academic and then I’ll go through the professional side for context. From an academic side, you know, I disappointed my parents didn’t go to med school because a lot of my friends back in the day, many decades ago, were going to work at Anderson Consulting, now Accenture, making good amount of money.

And so I decided to forego medical school with basically a science degree. What I realized was I loved mobile, I love marketing, I love technology. And so I got a master’s in information technology, which is a basically a light computer science degree on the weekends. And then I got couple years later a master’s in MBA focusing on finance with sounds counterintuitive, but I could just see that marketing was going to be more quant and less are.

So, so that’s kind of the academic route now on the. Professional route. You know, I’ve spent many years in strategy consulting with Accenture, but really one of the key portions of my formation was being a product manager at Microsoft and really getting to understand how engineering teams.

Think about and build product and the role product plays in getting something out to market that solves a customer pain point. And then from that, I’ve spent time leading marketing at comScore which really you know, decade plus ago was a leading provider for digital measurement and media analytics.

I’ve done some startup work with a company called X Accelerate and Compass. And then, you know, the platforms that many people have probably heard of is that I ran North America product marketing for Facebook’s and now met as advertising business. At the time was eight to 9 billion in ad revenue, just on the direct response products.

And then before I came to Integral Ad Science, I ran global business marketing for Spotify’s ads business, which was about a 1.4, 1.5 billion business. But when I joined it, it was around four or 500 million. So I really, you know, though I’ve seen what I call the behemoth companies. And I’ve seen what a small Israeli ad tech startup can do and everything in between.

I feel like with ias I’m in a happy medium right now.

Peter: Well, that, that’s fantastic. And I think your background is gonna be really relevant to a lot of people based on the things that people are worried about these days, cuz they’re a lot changing in this world that I think you can help illuminate for us a little bit along the way. But man, I have to say I disappointed my parents too from on many levels.

But I also did not go to med school. But it’s funny I I have my Degrees in physics and computer science. And so I went that way too and and actually almost went to Accenture, right outta school. And it was, you know, there, there are two places I could go and I chose it. I ended up going to I b m right outta school instead of Accenture.

But that was the other the other path. And spent some time in the day. In fact, gosh, your com score. Russ Fraden. I dunno if you know Russ is was a colleague of mine back in the early days. So lots of interconnectedness in in the world is usually happens when you start to talk to people like you.

So, super excited about that. Now, just to do a little bit more table setting just give us the high level nickel pitch of what is, does to set some context.

Khurrum: Yeah, sure. So is a technology company that really is a, has a media measurement. An optimization platform and it provides marketers and publishers with data to drive results for them. At its most basic, if I want to make it even more basic, it’s a technology company that helps marketers understand what’s working.

That’s the measurement side. And the optimization is what to do about it, specifically on digital media. And so our data is something that, you know, the industry uses to activate their digital media, measure, their digital media drive both sales and brand lift. The other thing that I just say is that, you know, we’ve been around a while 10 plus years, and have just recently expanded all around the world.

So excited to be here. And that’s the nickel version.

Peter: Awesome. And public company. So, at reasonable scale. So, so that’s, and obviously with your background, that’s not surprising that that they tap someone like you for a great needy role to to be the CMO of a company like that. So that’s exciting. And what’s really interesting, by the way just spending a beat here on, on your path to the C M O, which I think is interesting to a lot of our listeners is one you really touched on the financial side, which I think is incredibly important and I think I separate the.

Quant from the finance, cuz it’s really two very different things. But having this appreciation for one analytical thinking in general is critically important. And obviously in your world, it is everything that you do in your, for your business anyway. And, but then the financial IQ is something that is not.

It is not completely common across all CMOs. And I think it’s gonna be, become increasingly important to have strong financial iq.

Khurrum: I wanna share a story around that just to kind of, when I was at at business school, I remember one of my favorite professors, there was a gentleman named Paul Ferris. Now Paul is a a C P G savant, and I remember he walked in the door and he into the kind of introductory marketing class, and he said, I expect everyone here to new finance better than their bankers.

And be able to do marketing because if you don’t, you’ll be a marketer that will not be able to allocate get capital allocation, or to drive impact. And that Stu stood with me and that actually helped drive me to take more finance classes than marketing classes, which sounds odd. But it goes back to your point and that’s how Paul was even thinking about it back in the day.

Peter: Yeah it’s amazing and I think it’s incredibly important, and I think CMOs have historically avoided financial accountability and it’s becoming I think I. Any active C m o is not avoiding financial accountability right now, but it’s gonna get worse and harder for them if they don’t have just a strong, rigorous understanding of at least the financial principles behind their company and how sort of all the the pipes work inside the money side of their business without understanding that they’ve got a big issue.

So, God, we have so many places where we could go, but I did wanna spend a minute on this research that you guys did that I spent some time going through that was really interesting. And let me foreshadow some things I want to talk about. How about if we do that? I wanna talk about that because some really interesting stuff.

And you did some research on basically idea of attention or people actually paying attention and inter and interacting with ads. And what does that mean for the effectiveness and business impact of the ads. And then one of the things that I think is really topical right now that I’d love to hear your view on, that we can get into after that is sort of how the whole world of AI is gonna affect the.

Learnings that you’re seeing from this kind of report and in general, how new ad creative and optimization of ads is gonna happen in the future. But let’s start with the a little bit of maybe you can give us the high level view of the core thesis for the research that you all did recently.

Khurrum: Yeah, so, I’ll give the kinda overview on it and we can go a bit deeper. People can go to inter and download the white paper call Taking action on attention. And

Peter: And we’ll put a link in the show notes by the way, so people can find it easily. But yeah, go ahead.

Khurrum: Yeah, so I think the, before getting into the core thesis, I think it’s important to just recognize like, why are people caring about this thing?

All attention. And then I’ll go into the core thesis. The reason why the term attention is getting a lot more attention is there’s some macro trends in the marketing industry that are. Forcing marketers to look for other indicators of value and signal for value when they make their capital investments in media.

So couple things. Cookie deprecation basically tracking mechanisms for media are going away. And a lot of that has to do with, of course, privacy first principles. There’s content oversaturation, there’s so much content out there. It’s hard for marketers to find where to invest. Beyond that, there’s tons of competition.

There’s creative copy. There’s just, if you think about your day in a given day, The number of media channels that one engages with, it’s just hard to cut through. So that’s what’s brought us to what what is attention, which is, you know, answering the question, is a piece of content resonating with someone and are they taking a action as a result of it?

I noticed I said a piece of content. Now we just happen to think about that piece of content in terms of an ad unit. But the learning could be applied to any piece of content, not just advertising. Now, the within that the core thesis is that attention is that index. That can help inform whether a piece of content is capturing someone’s cognition and driving some sort of action.

And we believe that there are a couple of variables that matter, and those are visibility situation of the ad unit or the content unit and interaction. And so that’s what the paper is about. It lays out why is attention important, what is attention. And what are the variables that are the composition of attention so that marketers can get smarter about where to make their media investments and why to capture attention.

Peter: So it’s fascinating that you started with the idea of generically thinking about content because I’ve been thinking about this a lot, that the idea of an ad. Has obviously evolved pretty significantly over time. So it used to be, you know, an image that was a static thing that you stick in front of, you fill a hole in a page with an image.

That’s what it was back in the day, obviously. And that’s changed a lot over time in the ad format world. But e, e, even. Much broader than that. It’s turned into ways that you interact with lots of different things. And one of the things I was curious about is in your world of attention, have you really, have you been able to crack the understanding of.

How the idea of sort of embedded native kind of, of of sponsorship that’s really deeply embedded in the content. Can you measure that? Right, because that is where you’re starting to see things like influencers integrating in a very elegant way, the concept. And so it’s hard to tell where the ad begins and end.

Is that part of your work or is that too hard to measure still?

Khurrum: Yeah, you know what? It’s a great question. I’d say it’s early days for that. We haven’t gotten to that level yet, however, and it’s not in the paper yet. However, we do have technology. That does frame by frame analysis of video. In that frame by frame analysis of video, our technology has the ability to create metadata for the images that are going across the screen.

Now that metadata can include what are the brands you’re seeing, what are the brands you’re hearing? What is the sentiment of the video? What’s happening in the video? I’ll give you an example though, of how that can work. You can e example of imagine watching a soccer match and you can see the different brands that show up on the soccer match banners.

So as a marketer, the technology, what that gives you is what is this content? Is it safe? Who’s in this content already? And then we can start to do analysis on is that content having impact on sales or impressions? So we’re getting there, but we haven’t released our research on it just yet.

I I’ll I’d be remiss to not call out. A industry colleague of mine, Omar Al that some of you may know has just launched a company called Rembrandt. It’s early days for it, but I wanna put a plug for them just cause it’s so cool. What they’re basically doing is working with creators to inject.

A ad unit, imagine a soffit beverage injected into the feed of their content. And so it’s early days for that. But we’re certainly thinking through it. That’s not been in the paper for the attention white paper that’s coming now, but it’ll probably be in the next version of it.

Peter: So when you look at that. So really interesting stuff and I think the idea and it’s real. I’d love to geek out later at a different time. We don’t have the time. Your analytics is really fascinating because I think that’s gonna become increasingly important in not only on the, on, on the output in analytics side, but on the input and creation of those things.

Cuz that’s where I think you’re gonna start to see. The the the generative content stuff show up is in really subtle ways where where things are gonna show up in influencing what seems to be organic media. That media that may not be so organic which is gonna be fascinating to watch.

The. But of the three elements that you talk about, right? So it’s visibility, situation, and interaction or the three things that you talk about. And you know, one of ’em seemed to me that well, yeah, if you interact with something that’s good, right? So if you stack them up next to each other, is one of them a stronger indicator or is it really a complex, you know, ml like cocktail of things that you can’t really tell what it is that drives the outcome?

Khurrum: Well, great question. The short answer is, it is like a cocktail, and it depends on the context and it depends on the format type. I wanna break apart each one to kind of give the listeners who haven’t read the papers so they get a understanding of the co core components. And then I wanna talk about some research that was done 15 plus years ago.

By comScore that the listeners may find interesting. So like visibility very much is like, has, is the ad unit or the piece of content viewable? How long was it viewable and was it in a full screen? An environment situations very much around ad density, meaning. How many other pieces of content were around it, right?

Where on the page was it? Is it brand suitable? Is it relevant to the content? And you see interaction is like, is there engagement with it? There’s a fourth variable that feeds into interaction, which is eye tracking, which is the gaze. The problem with the gaze is that the gaze comes from a panel, it just doesn’t scale, right?

So you have to constantly balance signals with scale. Like, and so, so I, so the short answer to your question is it’s the interaction. Yes, it matters. It can be a leading indicator, but we have a ton of research that shows, and the paper shows this, that even visibility onto its own has a big impact.

But now that brands are asking for visibility is not enough, we need to make sure that it’s in a brand suitable environment should be also be a variable. Those two together, probably even more than interaction often or indicators. Cuz sometimes you can get a false indicator on interaction where it’s like I’m hitting player pause to try to shut the video off.

Now the other thing I’d share is there is a really interesting paper that’s, I think it’s 10, 15 year old years old by now called Natural Born Clickers. I don’t know, Peter, have you read that paper or do you know of

Peter: No, I’ve seen it. I have not read it. Yeah.

Khurrum: So it’s a very interesting thesis, right? So the hypothesis for internet behavior back in the day was clicks equal engagement and therefore equal value.

And what comScore showed through the research was actually there’s a preponderance of people that interact inordinately with ads and internet content that drive a majority of the clicks. Cause the clicks are a false proxy for for true engagement. And so I think that still resonates and that’s why we believe like interaction is one of them.

But the other ones are also quite important.

Peter: So was Russ Fraden involved in that research by the way? He had to be because I’ll tell you.

Khurrum: He’ll.

Peter: Yes I’ll tell you that that I think the statute of limitation is over, and I can disclose some of this, but back in the late 1990s I was at a company called Engage that was part of the C M G I network of companies.

We bought a company called the Fly Cast Network or Fly Cast. And that’s where Russ came from, I think is where he was. And their whole model was. That they had this optimization technology that basically they’d run a bunch of ads and see which ads got a response and a response back then well as a click.

That was really the only thing that you could measure. And then basically they would, it was very simplistic. What they did is they’d take a list of the sites, That drove highest clicks and delete everything below a certain level. So that would give you a boost in an optimization that back in the day was the way optimization happened.

Now, what they figured out at some point was that there was some Southeast Asian country where all the traffic was going because they all clicked. And it was a cultural thing at the time, but it was this bias built in, and it was a geographic and cultural bias that was basically an amplification of this generic model that seems to work, but it’s really fascinating.

The other thing that people may not understand and it’s, I can’t remember if it’s explicit or just implied in your research quorum is the. Is the idea, it’s like if a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it? If an ad is shown below the fold in the page, does anyone see it?

And for people not that close to the world, I don’t know how much of a problem it is anymore, but it historically has been a problem for some publishers, especially where advertisers get charged for ad units that are never, ever seen by a human being. And that, that’s one of the factors in here.

Is that correct?

Khurrum: That’s right. Yeah. I mean, our core measurement solution looks at whether an ad was viewable was it in the right geography, and was it. Human traffic and we kind of splice out non-human traffic. And so we, you know, we’re one of the good guys and we’re here to help as a third party marketing investors get the right.

Fraud free experience for their advertising. And we also partner with publishers to show them where the traffic could be coming that is fraudulent, right? And so I think about that as like elevating the internet experience of it. And we play a role in it. We’re not the only company playing there, but that that for us is where we started.

And the thing that I’d say is that, What’s next That’s coming that folks that are on the call should be really paying attention to, pun intended, is connected TVs. And so connected TVs are, if you take your mobile phone, turn it sideways and expand it to 70 inches and put it on the wall.

They’re a connected platform that is getting a tremendous amount of of people’s eyes, ears, and also eventually advertising dollars. And there’s a great way to invest and connect with audiences. But the similar experience that we went through with display and video is now taking root within the connected TV experience anyway.

That point being that the, you know, it’s back to the future with CTV and we’re spending a lot of time thinking about attention, not just on mobile devices, not just on PCs, but on on connected TVs as well.

Peter: Yeah, I should put in a plug for, we actually interviewed on the show back probably four or five months ago, Dan something or other who was the head of product at Roku. And yeah. So, so in, in fact I think he was involved with my friend Mike Baker is the guy who was the c e o of Data Zoo, which was the technology that was sold to to, to Roku, to to become part of the part of their world.

But yeah, it’s a fascinating it’s a fascinating thing because there, there are lots of complexities and as I, I thought we’re, you were gonna go quorum, is that the idea that not only do you have actually the native TV thing, but you’ve got the mobile thing. Someone’s got a tablet and there’s.

They’re actually mirroring their tablet on their TV through the TV device or an over the top device or something. So it gets really complicated. And and in, in some cases you actually wanna know if someone is, if it’s a group viewing thing for you know, for the content that you may serve in, in the right environment.

So, I’ve gotta control myself in this discussion cuz I get too excited about it. But the I did wanna make sure we touched a little bit on, if you put your Nostradamus hat on I’d love to hear your perspective on, you know, two, three years from now. What role do you think this whole generative AI stuff is gonna have in this world?

I can see it impacting many places, but what are the things that you’re most focused on right now?

Khurrum: Yeah, so I’ll put my Nostradamus hat on in. I always wanna break apart the industry in the kind of two bo, two big buckets. I think on the supply side and on the creator side. I think generative AI could play a massive role in not only either creating. Content, but also complimenting content.

And so I think the creators, both enterprise creators like the biggest in the world, like a Disney or the creators of one, are gonna need to figure out how can AI compliment the story that I’m trying to tell here? Whether it’s through visualization, through graphics to through text or am I, how am I gonna compete with someone that’s just pushing that out?

So I think on the supply side, you’re gonna see there’s gonna be an opportunity. For much more content at scale to come to compete for people’s people’s attention. Now the problem that comes with that is gonna be verification of the content and like, what is this truly coming from this person? Is this person who they say they are?

Right? There’s a huge set of things to think through. Now on the. On the advertiser side I think a lot of the generative AI work, this is the, I believe the, I don’t wanna say dirty little secret, but like AI work is already happening on the demand side. And what I mean there beyond using AI and generative AI to create content for messages for advertising for advertisers, both on the tech side or video.

AI’s being used by platforms today to do propensity models, to do lookalike models to automatically optimize for conversions. And this has been going on for four or five years now. It doesn’t have the sexy title of. Generative ai has conversion optimization. So my my, what I’d say outside of the creative side, on the demand side, I expect the optimization models for media buying to get stronger and and the creative to get more more tasty and more more personalized.

So it’s a fun and fun time. And, you know, we wanna play a part in helping people still answer those core questions. What, what’s working for me and what do I do about it?

Peter: Oh that’s great. And it’s interesting you brought up the idea of personalization, cuz I think personalization is clearly an opportunity for this. If you can get into sort of the audience of one kind of personalization with some of these systems in real time and and say, Hey, quorum, here’s an ad for you, or whatever the version of that

Khurrum: what I’d say though, yeah, just to build on that though, Peter, I think what’s happening though, the arc of content. And media has, was very high on the personalization side, I’d say 2017 through 19 or 15 through 19 or even 13 to, but now we’re moving towards highly contextualized. So I put it a different way.

It’s like making sure that the context that’s provided to an audience is formed in such a way that they’re consuming things that they enjoy because. The one-to-one is gonna be harder to do. And so there’s that, that, that nuance. But I agree with the sentiment.

Peter: Yeah. So it’s really contextualization versus personalization is where you’re gonna see it, as you’re saying. Yeah. Very interesting. And and you can see that there’d be some fascinating applications of that if you have some ability to. Really understand and read the context for in relative real time for where the creative is being rendered.

And then adjust that in real time to to to make it, like you said, it’s more relevant, it’s gonna feel more natural in fit in. And then I think the interesting thing Is there, there’s gonna be this comparison between deeply integrated and feels natural, so that much that it may fade into the background, it’s something that is just brash and out there and not contextual will stand out.

And I’m sure that people like you guys at i a s are gonna figure out how to measure the difference between those things and optimize it.

Khurrum: that’s.

Peter: Okay, well that’s great. Well, believe it or not, we’re almost at the end of our time, and it always goes so quickly for me anyway. And quorum is saying, thank God, I thought this was never gonna end.

But the the one question that I wanna make sure we ask, that we ask everyone quorum is is what advice would you give to current or aspiring CMOs.

Khurrum: Girl, so, so many ways you can go with that. I my there are two pieces of advice. One is like, you have to be relentlessly curious and constantly learning, especially in the marketing space. There is more innovation and variables in marketing than a lot of other functions and disciplines.

And I know my CFO friends don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. So the state, but the other one is, Synthetic thinking is more important now than ever before. Everybody thinks about analytic thinking and breaking apart problems and doing like a discreet analysis, but as a marketing leader, you have to really.

Do great synthetic thinking and turn that into stories that people understand. And I think that those marketers that can do analytic thinking, but then turn that into synthesis and write never has been the power of writing well been more important. Because as the world gets more complicated and there’s more data points, et cetera, writing a good story, synthetic thinking is just crucial.

And I think CMOs are looked to do that for a lot of companies.

Peter: So you’re saying along with your science degree and your your your finance degree, you also need a good liberal arts education.

Khurrum: It. I’m telling you, writing is the new black.

Peter: Yeah, it is. Absolutely. Well, thank you so much Korum, for being on the podcast. We’re really excited to have you join the next cmo. And we’ll make sure we add links to the resources that we talked about, including a way to get your hands on the research that is did around attention, which is really interesting stuff.

So I recommend it and make sure you all follow the next C M O and plan full. On Twitter and LinkedIn and all those places where you might follow us, and if you have ideas for topics or guests, you can email us at dot com. So thanks for joining me again.

Khurrum: Thank you for having me, Peter.