Saturday 12 June 2021 8:40 am

As seen on screen: How a London advertising firm uses AI to place products in films

In Call My Agent, the hit French TV series about perennially pressurised talent agents, two characters are seated at the boardroom table in their swanky Parisian offices, a mug of Carte Noire coffee sat squarely in front of each.

At first glance, this appears nothing more than some straightforward product placement — a form of advertising that dates all the way back to the genesis of film. Except the mugs aren’t actually there. They’ve been inserted using artificial intelligence (AI) by Mirriad, a London-based firm that believes it has found the future of video advertising.

‘Biggest white space ever’

Mirriad’s technology is as complex as its concept is simple. The software scours through films and TV shows to identify possible spots for ad placements. It then analyses where the scene is set, as well as the emotions of the characters, to determine the context and finalise the inventory, which can then be sold to brands. For example, a breakfast scene in a family kitchen could provide the ideal canvas for a cereal brand.

The technology was originally developed for special effects and won an Oscar for the 2010 film Black Swan. Now, though, Mirriad is hoping to take advantage of a huge untapped market. While adverts are mostly crammed into mid-show breaks, the vast majority of our viewing time remains largely ad-free. 

“The content is where people are engaged and passionate,” says chief executive Stephan Beringer. “That’s the space we’re working on. It’s the biggest white space ever… the opportunity is quite vast.”

For brands, the prospect of so-called in-content advertising offers its own benefits. As more and more people skip or block adverts, and the prospect of cookie-free browsing presents fresh challenges for targeting consumers, product placement offers an attractive way to reach potential customers. 

“However you look at it, people don’t like ad breaks,” says Beringer. “People just don’t watch ads anymore… they don’t really see them because you’ve been educated as a consumer that ad equals annoyance in most cases because they’re interrupting your viewing experience.”

Streaming success

But far from dropping generic ads into films and TV series, Mirriad is hoping to develop the technology further. It is working on a way to deliver ads programmatically, meaning different products would appear for different people. That way, while one viewer of Call My Agent might see a Carte Noire mug, another would be shown, say, a can of energy drink. This, Beringer says, is where the ad market starts to change “radically”.

The potential benefit for production companies is also significant. As the streaming wars drive up production costs, content owners can generate fresh revenue — even from old material. Mirriad recently signed a major deal with an unnamed international producer, and is on the hunt for further partnerships.

For streaming services, too, this new form of advertising could spell changes. As the number of new platforms proliferates, some are opting for cheaper — or free — ad-funded models. Yet in-content advertising could remove the need for ad breaks. The new source of revenue could also help to ease the burden of production costs, and reduce the need for services to hike subscription prices.

Constructive personalisation

Mirriad placed ads for Mexican beer brand Tecate in a music video for Colombian crooner Giovanny Ayala

Of course, the technology has its detractors. The prospect of AI-driven advertising could spark concerns that in future all film and TV will be littered with brand names and logos. Or, worse, that modern brands could be shoehorned anachronistically into old classics. 

But Beringer is quick to brush off these concerns. “We can’t put an iPhone in Humphrey Bogart’s hand in Casablanca, it just makes no sense,” he says. 

“If you compromise the viewing experience the advertising impact will be poor and the content will be poor and, as a consequence, the value of the advertising solution for the content owner’s standpoint will be reduced as well. So nobody wins if we compromise the viewing experience.”

Niki Grant, director of search at media agency The Kite Factory, says consumers are “increasingly aware that they can take control of [their] value by not voting with their thumbs and withholding engagement from a brand”.

But she adds that viewers now expect “constructive personalisation… so content — and the products within it — need to be appropriate for the channel, the audience and the context all in one to really hit the sweet spot.”

And while Mirriad’s technology has so far focused on film and TV, the company sees opportunities in all forms of video content. In February, Mirriad signed a deal with record label B-Unique and management company Red Light Management, which counts Kaiser Chiefs, Primal Scream and Lionel Ritchie among its clients, to insert ads into music videos.

This, Beringer says, presents a huge opportunity both in terms of increased scale (music videos can rack up billions of views on Youtube) and access to that crucial hard-to-reach younger audience. 

Nor does it stop at music. Mirriad is also looking to take on London-listed rival Bidstack with a move into gaming, while sports and live entertainment are also key areas of expansion. “We haven’t even scratched the surface,” says Beringer.