Shira Atkins Founded Wonder Media Network to Amplify Underrepresented Voices

Adweek's Podcast Executive of the Year pairs podcasts with bespoke ads

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A bespoke ad is like a bespoke garment: An off-the-rack version may get the job done, but the custom piece that matches its context will prove far more memorable.

When Shira Atkins co-founded Wonder Media Network (WMN) with fellow Brown graduate Jenny Kaplan in 2018, she wanted to amplify underrepresented voices and provide them support from the largest sponsors in the marketplace. As chief revenue officer, she paired podcasts like WomanicaI Was Never There and Moments With Candace Parker with customized, host-read ads for companies including GE, Pfizer and Mercedes-Benz.

That approach gave Atkins and her team at WMN an advantage over larger players like Apple, Amazon and iHeart. Her continued work maintaining that edge earned Atkins Adweek’s Podcast Executive of the Year honors.

“So much of it comes down to finding the right people to say yes,” Atkins said. “Once we find the right people to say yes, figuring out ways to merge content with brand voice … that part is like the fun part.”

In WMN’s earliest days, it produced integrated ads for Skype that featured Atkins and Kaplan recording fake Skype calls to each other that Atkins now considers “embarrassingly bad.” Since then, WMN’s ranks have grown to nearly two dozen employees, with a full production team creating ads, while marketers learn what makes audiences “not hit the skip button.”

In Kaplan’s Womanica podcast, for example, WMN has worked with Nike to create “custom bonus” trendsetter episodes featuring Nike footwear creative director Tania Flynn and president of consumer product and brand Heidi O’Neill. With Mercedes-Benz, it created a Women’s History Month episode centered on Nicolette Lambrechts, vp and managing director of sales and marketing for Mercedes Benz Vans USA, and mother-and-daughter Mercedes dealers Juanita and Grene Baranco.

WMN’s Brand Studio arm, meanwhile, built a podcast series for Pfizer called The Antigen that began discussing maternal vaccines but shifted to Covid-19 vaccine episodes as the pandemic progressed. Audiences have responded.

“We get emails from listeners if they’ve heard an ad that they feel doesn’t resonate or that’s annoying,” Atkins said. “We know that host-read ads that are hyper-targeted based on our customer or our listener is what wins in terms of leveraging existing relationships with advertisers to make them better.”

From corporate partners to progressive institutions like Act Blue and Planned Parenthood, WMN has encouraged advertisers to start small and find their voice within existing shows. It gives them time to learn listener habits, forge trust with listeners and hosts and, if they’re comfortable afterward, move to more custom content. That helps Atkins gauge partners’ commitment to both shows and their message while ensuring they’re “not going to create content that clogs the podcast space, which is already so overcrowded.”

While WMN’s relatively small size makes it challenging to convince ad salespeople to join it instead of a larger company, its mission and success in wooing brands like Microsoft have helped grow the ranks. Amid cultural shifts that included a pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the repeal of Roe v. Wade, WMN found listeners, hosts and sponsors more interested than ever in its underrepresented voices.

“For most, especially big corporate brands, our mission is palatable,” Atkins said. “It’s not too polarizing, per se, and I think that’s also a benefit when it comes to sales conversations and partnership conversations.”

Not everyone wants a bespoke ad, and trying to sell one to the wrong company is “a total uphill battle,” but Atkins is still working her way past the agencies that say no to the less risk-averse decision-makers who see the value of yes.” WMN remains a hungry startup in many ways, and Atkins said she and Kaplan are still moving forward based on relationships they built by going to conferences, sending cold emails and getting friends to make phone calls.

“We’re still a small business, so every new connection matters,” she said. “We’re building a network, not only of shows, but of people who really believe—and it’s been super rewarding. 

This story is part of the Audio Awards special feature.

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