We’re not even halfway through the year but already 2017 has been one of the most turbulent years for the marketing industry. When fake news started to make daily headlines in the wake of Trump’s election campaign, brands began to worry about just what type of stories their ads were being placed next to, but it turned out, that was just the tip of the iceberg. When The Times’ investigation exposed ads from worthy brands such as Marie Claire, The Guardian and Waitrose, were running on websites potentially funding extremists, white supremacists and pornographers, advertisers, agencies and publishers began to take note.
If these had been a few isolated incidents, it’s possible that technology would have been made the scapegoat – the advertising automation sector often (and unfairly) gets a bad rap for delivering reach over context. But when it came down to it, this unsavoury content was appearing on sites that were on the top of everybody’s media plan – YouTube and Facebook – the type of inventory advertisers bought in droves precisely because it offered both large audience reach and wide familiarity, lending it an air of brand safety. In the fallout, it is agencies that have shouldered most of the blame, vilified as being careless and irresponsible with their clients’ media placements.
But the reality is that automation and agencies are poor scapegoats when even the biggest media platforms represent a risk. How can advertisers and agencies work together to protect their brands? Whether you’re an advertiser or agency, there are some things to consider when putting measures in place to protect your brand:
Agencies can only do what they have the tools to do – they can strategise over the best sites for their client’s ad but they can’t analyse the context of a page in real-time. Moreover, in a world of increasing investment in walled gardens, agencies are often at the mercy of said walled gardens to provide the necessary tools.
Despite taking the heat for the recent YouTube furore, the truth is YouTube simply has not historically provided the granularity of controls necessary for advertisers to eliminate this type of risky content. Shying away from programmatic technology is not a solution – human media plans are equally susceptible, as the YouTube case demonstrates. Brands, agencies and technology partners need to develop a closer relationship so that everyone understands the potential risks and has the technology to manage them in a systematic way. If the brand and the agency have direct access to the technology, they can work together with the technology provider to optimise audiences, define appropriate context for placements and improve measurement.
It’s clear advertising automation providers must put protective measures in place, but these must go beyond just measurement. Moreover, overly broad tactics like whitelisting aren’t effective at separating safe content from dangers, especially on properties with diverse content such social networks and news sites. While not 100% fool proof, page-level crawlers and predictive algorithms are a more effective and efficient way to help advertisers, agencies, and their tech partners evaluate web pages and apps before they buy. As a general principle, content should be guilty until proven innocent, which means it must be evaluated as brand safe before letting an ad run on it
Digital is only gaining share of consumer media time and brands that want to achieve both reach and relevancy know that pulling ads from digital is not a long-term solution. Sure, many believe, as P&G’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard said, even a couple of thousand impressions served up next to inappropriate content is “a couple thousand too many”. But how many advertisers are willing to abandon critical digital touchpoints to eliminate those couple thousand impressions, a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face?
Rather than blame automation, publishers, or agencies for the risks that come from a fast moving, fragmented media environment, advertisers should be looking to strike the right balance between mitigating risks and getting their message to consumers. This means accepting a small degree of risk and aggressively managing the trade-offs between risk and reward.
To be clear, advertisers, agencies, publishers, and tech companies can (and should) be doing more to keep brands safe. As an industry, we have a shared obligation to put the right checks and balances in place to stop that from happening to advertisers – and technology, when used correctly, is the most robust way of ascertaining whether a potential placement is housed within a suitably brand safe environment.