Interactive Advertising Bureau
05 December 2022

Member Guest Post With IAS - Hey, Media Planners! Don’t Let Your Brands’ Safety & Suitability Settings Undermine The Drive For Social Good

In this week's member guest post we caught up with Ben Miller, Agency Success Director at IAS. Ben gained an abundance of agency-side experience working at WPP and Publicis. He shares his insights on how agencies and brands can cultivate brand safety and suitability technologies to drive more inclusivity in media placements.

A media planner is the voice of the advertiser within the agency

Of all the ways to capture the essence of the media planner, I’ve always found the most fitting to be the voice of the advertiser within the agency. Recently, more than ever - and perhaps for both altruistic and selfish reasons - these voices are being used to consider, discuss and deliver initiatives, projects and operational models that, speaking broadly, deliver more social good than previously. The zeitgeist is brimming with drives promoting diversity, inclusion, environmentalism, the need to fund quality, pluralistic journalism and more. Whether or not all of these efforts deliver more advantageous commercial returns is a debate hotly contested by many of our favourite marketing scientists and personalities but less debatable is that there is bountiful kudos in this space and it’s easy to see the argument that having outward-facing positions on many of these topics, backed up with rigorous action, is fast-becoming table-stakes in polite corporate society.

How we got here - Media planners will work with strategists and investment teams to infuse these ambitions into campaign plans and media choices and that’s as it should be. There is, however, the potential for a disconnect where brand safety and suitability settings are concerned if digital teams don’t get the full ‘social good memo’ and if planners aren’t fluent in all of the ways in which safety and suitability can be tailored. It started with keywords. At the dawn of programmatic, keyword exclusions were identified as a means of navigating risk by blocking inventory where ‘negative’ keywords were present. People got very excited; it became an instant modus operandi default and traders would collect keywords via lists like Pogs, or Beanie Babies. However, it didn’t take long for the limitations of keyword blocking to manifest and, more importantly, technology to progress.

The limitations of keyword-based technologies - Keywords are seldom just negative per se, and so not a good proxy for identifying and navigating unique suitability contexts. That they lack context is the essence of their limitation. Consequently there is a known issue with brand safe content getting blocked (false positives) and brand unsafe content not getting blocked (false negatives). The former comes with an opportunity cost; the latter a brand risk; both erode media budgets. Maintaining negative keyword exclusion lists is an arduous task and it’s practically impossible to do so comprehensively, objectively and at the speed of culture. Think of it as a sledgehammer. Fearful of sounding like a jaded ex let me be clear; keyword-based technologies have, and do, serve a purpose and certainly help brands to stay away from the darkest parts of the internet.

The coming of contextual understanding and classification - Surveying web pages by the entirety of their textual content makes a lot more sense and this is now possible thanks to technological advances in crawling and semantic analysis alongside the capability to understand objects - both in isolation and how they’re interconnected - resulting in comprehensive knowledge graphs from which to scale learnings as new content comes online. Some providers, including IAS (yep, I had to get in just one shameless plug), also detect the sentiment and emotion of a page which is crucial when we consider how the meaning of words vary between application. What’s even more exciting is that this methodology is jumping quickly from just text to multimedia, but that’s a story for another day. For now, though, we have a brilliant and precise rock hammer that allows advertisers to quickly and simply select buckets (segments) of content that they would rather avoid bidding on and/or block after a winning bid surfaces something unsafe or unsuitable. Note: if you’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption then you know what a rock hammer is!

Marketing Leaders are very busy; should they really care about this ‘little’ thing? - Many large - especially global - advertisers have now transitioned fully from solely brand safety (sledgehammer) to brand suitability (rock hammer) approaches. That is to say they have reduced their keyword lists from thousands or hundreds of terms to just a couple of dozen because they’ve adopted contextual avoidance pre and post-bid across topical, vertical and brand-specific segments. They’re more protected than they were with keywords but not overly so. One of the variables these advertisers have in common is capacity; they have teams or individuals dedicated to digital standards and so they can get into the weeds on this stuff and prioritise landing these projects with their agency counterparts. Not every advertiser or agency team has this at their disposal so what follows is a few anecdotes to bring to life why this matters; why smaller advertisers should pay attention.

  • Words like ‘lesbian’ and ‘homosexual’ are used on keyword block lists. This certainly will protect brands from appearing alongside salacious content, as was intended, but what about brands who wish to showcase their LGBTQ+ bona fides then unintentionally block content offering positive representation?
  • Think of the brand who wants to fund quality journalism by prioritising investment into newsbrands and how they missed a massive opportunity to do this by being part of the national conversation about some of the more positive aspects of Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns (such as Clap for Carers) because their keyword lists blocked any and all related pandemic content.
  • A brand wanting to reach harder-to-find and/or underrepresented audiences may do so successfully by expanding their publisher base but, with a Muslim audience in mind in this instance, how much perfectly fine content is inadvertently blocked when the word ‘Muhammad’ is on a block list?
  • Andrew Tate, now famed misogynist, came from nowhere and embarrassed himself at scale, dominating certain newscycles for several days. How much brand messaging was served on Tate-adjacent-content in the time it took for a brand to consider, update and add ‘Andrew Tate’ etc. to their keyword lists?
  • The inverse of the above can also be true. Think of a keyword list containing the word ‘Manchester’, added for entirely understandable and justifiable reasons in the immediate wake of the 2017 bombing, but the blocking of the term - a proper noun with countless applications - is now entirely superfluous, driving wastage and reducing overall campaign ROAS.

So you see how entirely feasible it would be for a marketing leader to be on a stage at a conference, waxing lyrical about how the creative, audience and media choices they make are promulgating the social good without knowing that something as small - on the grand scheme of things, of course - as their brand safety setup is actively running counter to their stated agendas. This is an entirely understandable position to have arrived in; the modern CMO is busier than ever before. The good news is that it’s relatively quick and fairly straightforward to put the sledgehammer down and pick up the rock hammer.

Take action: it’s not a heavy lift - In my experience with these endeavours two is company and three is absolutely not a crowd, it’s perfect. If ever there was a time to get clients, planners and digital leads in one of those fancy agency rooms with a flipboard, this is it:-

  1. Clients should showcase everything about the brand’s current and future social good initiatives and their risk threshold
  2. Planners should explain how current comms frameworks, campaign strategies and media choices are reflective, or not, of said initiatives
  3. Digital and/or programmatic teams should iterate the current brand safety settings and performance stats (even dusting off the keyword list in the contract) and detail what technologies and tools are available

Now, the magic happens. This hands-on collaboration will surface gaps, blind spots and opportunities galore and ultimately produce the stimulus for this crucial triumvirate to co-create and coalesce around a full and complete brand suitability profile that protects the brand whilst contributing more positively to the digital ecosystem and removing that CMO trip-hazard at the same time. Win, win, win.

“The move from brand safety to brand suitability is crucial to drive more inclusivity in media placements that were previously excluded due to how the technology worked. It is not easy but done right results in an increase in reach to placements which would have been excluded.” Samir Shah, Managing Partner - Data, Technology & Programmatic (Zenith WW)

Planners as leaders - As a former media planner myself I personally think this area represents a tremendous opportunity for planners to proactively approach clients; to surprise and delight them with enthusiasm, foresight and true partnership ethos. If this is an endeavour you’re inclined to lead on for the advertisers in your agency, or indeed you’re thinking about a suitability ‘floor’ for a multitude of clients, get in touch with me to kickstart this project; I will gladly be the ‘Red’ to your Andy Dufraine.


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