Unilever and Blockchain: Q&A With Babs Rangaiah, IBM iX


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Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed announced on Monday at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s annual leadership meeting that he’s exploring a blockchain-based system to vet digital media buying transactions and increase transparency.

To help insure brand safety and avoid what he called toxic content, Weed is partnering with IBM iX, IBM’s business strategy arm, to develop a blockchain solution to simplify the digital ad supply chain and provide more transparency and thus build more trust.

Babs Rangaiah - IBM iX

IBM iX’s executive partner of global marketing, Babs Rangaiah, is overseeing the blockchain ad partnership with Unilever—where he spent 14 years, based in London, before joining IBM in 2016. As Vice President of Global Communications Planning at Unilever, he oversaw a team that worked with its global brands to infuse new media strategy and integrated channel thinking into the creative development process.

Under his leadership, Unilever was recognized for innovation in the media and digital space. In 2007 and again in 2011, Unilever was named “Digital Marketer of the Year” by Ad Age and in 2008 was named CPG marketer of the Year by MediaPost. In May 2016, he obtained a Masters in Science Degree with a focus on interactive technology from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

Rangaiah shared more insights on the blockchain partnership with Unilever in a Q&A:

Two-thirds of large corporations plan to integrate blockchain into their businesses by the end of this year, according to Juniper Research. IBM has applied blockchain to shipping and other industries; how are you applying blockchain to digital advertising with Unilever?

We expect blockchain to be able to provide a single source of truth to any given media buy. Currently advertisers, their agencies and the publishers buy ad inventory and incur significant costs with data reconciliation activities. These are due to the sheer number of middle-men as well, as the highly manual approach and number of data sources. This creates complexity, disputes and a feeling of distrust among the network.

Blockchain can help restore confidence in digital ad buying by providing greater transparency for advertisers, making it clear which players are involved in each transaction and how to more seamlessly reconcile data and financials. The solution will keep an immutable record of how media is purchased, delivered and how target audiences interact with the ad in order to provide reliable measurement metrics.

Using IBM Blockchain and designed by IBM iX, the solution will start with basic financial solutions for digital media buying and will lay the foundation for solving multiple problems across the ecosystem.

Who decides what is “toxic” when it comes to digital advertising? An algorithm, the brand, the community?

The brand identifies it beforehand and the terms then get included as a guideline in the smart contract that provides validation.

What is the value of this to other brands, and how do you expect the ecosystem to evolve?

There are a number of potential business models that could happen:

1) A single brand acts as a founding member—in this case, one brand (Unilever) would fund the blockchain, establish all guidelines, rules, etc. Those who want to join, can, including other brands who might want to join a plug and play model.

2) The creation of a consortium or public blockchain. We would expect that in the beginning, brands will build their own private blockchain MVP’s and then as they get learning would come together.

Most importantly, blockchain will provide greater transparency for advertisers. It is time for the industry to drastically reduce inefficiencies and significantly improve measurement standards. Using blockchain, we hope to revolutionize the media buying industry.

How will this provide more transparency?

Blockchain inherently provides visibility and transparency—key ingredients to build trust. Blockchain can help restore confidence in digital ad buying by providing greater transparency for advertisers, making it clear which players are involved in each transaction and how to more seamlessly reconcile data and financials.

The IAB just released its first whitepaper on blockchain technology, highlighting how it believes it can improve the buying and selling of video ads across platforms and devices. So in your test with Unilever, blockchain can follow video advertising wherever it goes: mobile, etc.?

Yes, one of the potential use cases is to track content/ads to understand its total audience across devices using encrypted data and/or identity.

This isn’t the first partnership between Unilever and IBM using blockchain. Can you talk about the food safety alliance?

One of the most pressing issues facing the food industry today is the threat of foodborne illness. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 48 million get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year. For businesses, a recall can on average $10M—and that’s not including damage to brand or public image.

To combat this issue, IBM decided to team up with major food brands and grocers to apply blockchain technology to help identify and prioritize new areas where the traceability and transparency inherent in the technology can benefit the global food ecosystem and inform a new solution.

Blockchain technology is ideally suited to help address the challenges of the food industry because it establishes a trusted and transparent environment for all transactions. In the case of the global food supply chain, participants across the supply chain—from farm to fork—can gain permissioned access to known and trusted information regarding the origin and state of food for their transactions.

Get more insights in our Q&A series.

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