How Brand Suitability Works for Programmatic Campaigns: A Q&A with Experts from the Programmatic Trading Committee

Brand Suitability describes the practices and tools that are put in place in addition to brand safety controls to ensure that a digital advertising campaign appears against content that is deemed relevant and appropriate for the brand. It equally refers to the ability of a brand to choose the risk profile suitable to their brand – low, medium, or high risk. The scale was, as well, developed by the 4As and endorsed by GARM.

Eighty-two percent of marketers say appearing next to unsuitable content impacts a brand’s reputation, and one in four brands and agencies have experienced negative press due to brand suitability incidents, according to eMarketer. Brand suitability is, therefore, the answer to many of today’s toughest brand stewardship questions. Where traditional brand safety tools relied on cookie-cutter approaches to avoid unsafe or inappropriate content, brand suitability is more nuanced and attuned to individual brand risk sensitivities. It helps to identify the advertising environments that will help digital campaigns drive outcomes for the business and uses individual brand profiles, market research insights, and strategic positioning to find and target specific environments for advertising, using a customised approach. 

Nevertheless, we should not forget that while suitability is the new game in town, brand safety is an absolute basis which we should all be upholding day in, day out. Brand safety should be applied to every digital advertising campaign. Brand suitability is an important, additional layer.

So how does brand suitability work for programmatic campaigns? We asked members of IAB Europe’s Programmatic Trading Committee to share their experiences.

Q&A with Nick Welch, Programmatic Director Northern Europe, Integral Ad Science (IAS), and Tanisha Sakhawat, Senior Business Director, EMEA, DoubleVerify from the Programmatic Trading Committee.

Q1. What is the first step in applying brand suitability to a programmatic campaign?

“First and foremost, it’s important to understand the brand’s appetite to risk in relation to the context in which their ads are seen. Having established this, it’s then important to take a multilayered approach defining the brand’s tolerances at a topical, vertical and then at a brand/product or a services level.” Nick Welch, IAS

“Align your brand safety and brand suitability pre-bid settings with your post bid settings. This will help the buyer avoid unnecessary media wastage and enable the campaign to scale across authenticated quality media. Many may think, “Why do I need both pre-bid and post-bid brand safety and suitability on my activity?” And it is a good question. 

We liken it to a ‘seat-belt and airbag’ relationship with the pre-bid brand safety controls being the seatbelt — something that is always on and keeping the campaign safe — and the post-bid controls, which use blocking or filtering technology, are there just in case the pre-bid setting does not identify an unwanted impression.” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify 

Q2. What are the benefits of adding brand suitability to brand safety parameters?

“Brands invest a significant amount of time creating an image, cultivating consumer perception, and fostering long-term associations. Therefore, it’s important to ensure digital messages appear in safe and suitable environments. Not solely to avoid risk, but also to effectively reach the right consumers. All brands are unique and their definition of safety and suitability is driven by their own values and goals. 

Brand suitability is able to offer a more nuanced control of the context the brand may choose to appear against or avoid. With brand suitability, advertisers are able to address any topical or vertical-specific concerns. Additionally, the benefits of adding on brand suitability means that brands can avoid content specifically negative about their brand. 

Brands are consistently having to navigate social issues or global events such as the Euros or Olympics. In such instances, if a brand wants to avoid running ads beside certain contexts that may reflect negatively on the brand, a keyword-only or brand safety approach would not achieve this. It is only by applying robust technology that can execute brand suitability well that such content can be targeted or avoided. 

Not having the right parameters in place can have a huge impact on both the bottom line and the brand reputation in the eyes of the consumers.” Nick Welch, IAS

“Brand safety has a more universal floor that is widely adopted by brands and advertisers. Content like graphic photos or terrorism, for example, is seen as unsafe for almost any brand. But brand suitability is different; each brand will have its own specific brand suitability preferences and brand values to uphold. In other words, what may be suitable for one brand may not be suitable for another. 

Consider an article about finding cheap alcohol delivery. This most likely would not be suitable for a brand that maintains a family-friendly image. But a company such as Samsung may serve ads alongside such content because:

  • Their brand preferences allow for this type of alcohol-related content.
  • Their target audience may be reading it.

Brand suitability requires a more nuanced approach that enables brands to build suitability that fits their specific brand preferences. 

Understanding the article is about alcohol gives us context, but the type of article it is gives us more. For example:

  • User-generated content around alcohol drinking has much higher risk because of the unmoderated and unedited nature of that content. 
  • News articles around alcohol drinking give us less risk due to its editorial standards – but still may be inappropriate for certain brands. 
  • Educational content around avoiding binge drinking or drunk driving is more palatable to a wider range of brands.” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify

Q3. How does pre-filtering work? And what are the best practices?

“For programmatic buys, using pre-bid filters ensures that brands only pay for quality impressions that are suitable. Buyers then do not bid on impressions that will be wasted due to brand safety concerns. When pre-bid filters are applied, analysis occurs in the DSP ahead of the bid and prevents brands from buying on unsuitable impressions. Finally, pre-bid filters allow savings on media costs and data fees associated with those unsuitable impressions.

In terms of best practices, ensure that programmatic buys are protected with pre-bid brand suitability segments applied, to avoid appearing adjacent to risky content. Check that the content verification providers’ pre-bid targeting segments are integrated within all major Demand Side Platforms (DSP), allowing brands to target only safe impressions before ever placing a bid. 

When setting up brand suitability at the pre-bid level, ensure you have a good understanding of your risk tolerance across all levels; standard brand safety, topical, vertical, and brand-specific avoidance. Migrate away from using keyword-only approaches and use semantic solutions capable of accurately understanding the context as close to human beings as possible, and are able to determine the sentiment and emotion of the content.” Nick Welch, IAS

“Pre-bid avoidance tools (aka pre-filtering) sit within the DSP and tend to be powered by data provided through third-party partnerships between verification vendors and the DSP. It’s important to note that this is not referring to any kind of cookie or audience data. The data here is about content. These tools in the DSP allow third-party verification providers to determine whether or not to bid on a programmatic impression based on impression-level data it receives from the auction that meets the advertiser’s own brand safety and suitability settings, and in many cases is fraud-free. By knowing if an impression is fraudulent or will be shown outside of an advertiser’s brand safety requirements before it’s purchased, a brand can avoid purchasing it altogether — reducing wasted media spend and improving post-bid block rates. 

Again, aligning brand safety and brand suitability pre-bid settings with post bid settings will help the buyer avoid unnecessary media wastage and enable the campaign to scale across authenticated quality media.” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify

Q4. What are the main considerations for applying brand suitability to programmatic campaigns?

“Determine brand value and campaign goals

Determine the risk tolerance and set brand suitability settings, balancing this with campaign goals. 

Choose the right partners

Work with global digital verification partners that are integrated with all the major DSPs. Also partners with solutions that comprehend context fully using natural language processing and can deliver accurate sentiment and emotion analysis.

Reduce the reliance on keyword-only strategies

Migrate away from keyword-only strategies, both with the content verification provider and with the DSP. Rely on contextual segments in their place. Apply this approach at a post and pre-bid level in order to ensure brand suitability whilst minimising wasted budget on low-quality impressions.

Consider buying models and apply the same pre-bid filter against both OMP and PMP buys

Private marketplaces (PMP) are a great opportunity once key partners have been established. However, it is crucial that advertisers don’t lose sight of their brand suitability goals and ensure the quality of the media being passed via these curated marketplaces or PMPs meets their requirements for brand safety and suitability.” Nick Welch, IAS

“By knowing if an impression is fraudulent or will be outside of an advertiser’s brand suitability requirements before it’s purchased, a brand can avoid purchasing it altogether — reducing wasted media spend and improving post-bid block rates.” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify 

Q5. What are the technical challenges? 

“One of the challenges is bid stream transparency, as not all supply is fully transparent. On occasions, the SSP (Supply Side Platform)/ DSP or Publisher masks the URL, which means that content verification partners are prevented from seeing the actual URL at the pre-bid level. Typically, at the point of delivery, i.e. after the bid is won, the destination URL may be exposed, so a verification partner can still perform its role and determine if the context is suitable or not and take the correct action.

Secondly, with a greater emphasis on transparency in the media buying process, it’s important to mirror pre-bid brand suitability settings at a post-bid level too. If post-bid tags are enabled, brands can access programmatic reporting to get access to verification metrics at the DSP, line item, exchange level, and deal ID levels in order to effectively optimise supply paths.

Finally, it’s important that brands apply post-bid brand suitability filters where supply has passed via curated marketplaces or PMPs to ensure the quality of the media meets the advertiser’s brand suitability requirements.” Nick Welch, IAS

“In many native app environments, such as mobile app and CTV apps, brand safety and suitability can only be delivered at the app level, taking into account app store category, store rating, and age rating. More granular controls are being developed by some vendors to offer content level transparency to customers.” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify

Q6. What type of KPIs do you see with brand suitability being applied to programmatic campaigns?

“There are a number of campaign measurement parameters that brands should have in place when assessing programmatic campaigns. Some of these are a prerequisite despite the media buying method:

  • Identifying reduced block rate in post-bid reporting 
  • Reducing media cost, data cost and ad serving costs associated with wasted impressions
  • Diverting budget to more suitable content, minimising reputational and financial cost of advertising in inappropriate environments” Nick Welch, IAS

“KPIs will usually be reach and scale while targeting the right audience in the best environments. A significant reduction in post-bid blocks or incidents will be seen when applying brand suitability to programmatic campaigns, meaning brand equity is being protected.” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify

Q7. What are the must-ask questions when conducting a programmatic campaign with brand suitability? 

“There are many questions a brand should consider when conducting a programmatic campaign:

  • Are brands working with a content verification partner that uses natural language processing to understand page-level semantics, sentiment, and emotion in real-time? Is their solution and technology scalable, and able to work with billions of impressions across all the leading DSPs?
  • Has the brand migrated away from a keyword-only approach, both with their content verification provider and the DSP’s own verification settings?
  • Have they applied the same strategy on the pre and post-bid level for optimal results and efficiency?
  • Have they applied the same brand suitability principles against their PMP deals as well as at the Open Marketplace (OMP) level?” Nick Welch, IAS

“A key question to ask is ‘who is the target audience’? For example, you may want to target females for a new alcohol brand launch, but avoid pregnancy content that females will be reading. Pregnancy content wouldn’t traditionally be seen as ‘unsafe’, but it is not suitable for an alcohol brand to be aligned with. Another question to raise is ‘what is the brand’s stance on diversity, equity and inclusion’? Often, keywords are added to lists that exclude important audiences, for the wrong reasons. Revisiting the technology used behind blocking certain themes is paramount when it comes to brand suitability, so asking what methodology is being used is important (a deterministic methodology is key!).” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify

Q8. Any examples of how brand suitability has advanced the targeting and outcomes of a programmatic campaign?

“Brand suitability has most certainly advanced and become much more nuanced. For example, when the global pandemic hit in 2020, Vodafone Italia found that their campaigns were not scaling as well as they had previously. This was primarily because their brand safety settings were being triggered too aggressively as content related to the pandemic — both positive and negative — dominated the news. DV worked closely with them to help develop an enhanced brand safety and suitability strategy for their campaigns — enabling them to strike a better balance between protection and reach.

By quickly reacting to higher block rates, Vodafone Italia saw a significant increase in campaign scale. Daily blocked impressions immediately declined by 49% and quickly returned to Vodafone’s Block Rate benchmark. Also, campaign performance increased materially in the week after implementing solutions — seeing increased sales and a 26% reduction in CPA.” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify 

Q9. Finally, what’s the future of brand suitability?

“As audiences continue to flock to CTV, advertiser demand for transparency in CTV is accelerating. When it comes to brand suitability, advertisers should ensure they can safeguard their investments from unsuitable environments through measurement and protection controls at content category level — such as Crime, Violence, Copyright Infringement, Inflammatory News and Politics, and many more. 

Advertisers will also want to partner with verification companies that allow them to monitor and optimise away from unsuitable CTV apps based on user age ratings, star ratings and app store categories like ‘Kids and Family’ or ‘Adult.’  

With continued innovations in CTV measurement and controls, advertisers can exercise more refined and nuanced avoidance strategies catered to the brand while preserving campaign scale.” Tanisha Sakhawat, DoubleVerify 

Thanks to the committee for their views on how brand suitability works in the programmatic environment. As well as IAB Europe, there are already a number of business groups actively contributing to the Brand Safety & Brand Suitability conversation:

  • Trustworthy Accountability Group: TAG is the leading global certification program fighting criminal activity in order to increase trust in digital advertising. TAG recently acquired JICWEBS, which has a brand safety certification program. 
  • The 4A’s Advertiser Protection Bureau (APB) is a group formed to enable agencies to share the collective responsibility of achieving Advertising Assurance, which is how the association defines its efforts to create environments where brands and consumers can coexist with trust. 
  • The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA)’s Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) initiative: This collective brings together advertisers, agencies, media companies, platforms, and industry organizations to improve digital safety. 
  • Media Ratings Council (MRC) has a number of auditing programs for measurement as well as for brand safety. 
  • IAB Tech Lab focuses on ad tech standards, including those intended to support brand safety capabilities in a consistent and common manner; Tech Lab partners with other industry organizations to enable their efforts in standards.

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