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How far along are we on the road to brand safety?

Brand safety

In-Depth

How far along are we on the road to brand safety?

Brand safety. A term that has at least two things in common with Kim Kardashian. It broke the Internet and it keeps people (mostly agencies and advertisers) awake at night – although for entirely different reasons.

A recap

The topic of brand safety shot back into the limelight with two events that occurred in close succession this year:

1. The Times investigation into brands whose ads appear alongside offensive content. The headline alone was enough to get attention: “Big brands fund terror through online adverts”. Published on February 9, 2017, the investigation found that “some of the world’s biggest brands are unwittingly funding Islamic extremists, white supremacists and pornographers by advertising on their websites.” These brands include Mercedes-Benz, Waitrose, Honda, Thomson Reuters, John Lewis, Dropbox and Disney.

2. Then, in March 2017, The Guardian announced it would stop spending on Google and YouTube after it found its ads appearing next to extremist content on YouTube. Soon enough, agencies and brands followed suit, with Havas UK deciding to halt spends on the platforms until Google came up with a satisfactory solution. Among the brands that pulled out were General Motors, Domino’s Pizza and the UK Government.

But the reaction wasn’t just restricted to the UK; soon, major advertisers in the US, including AT&T, Verizon, GSK, Pepsi, Walmart and Johnson & Johnson, also started pulling out. With five of the US’ top 20 advertisers and more around the world halting spends on Google, experts at the time estimated a potential loss of $750 million for Google.

The reaction

Google was quick to respond – and apologize. It launched a review focused on three key areas: policies, enforcement and controls for advertisers. Google UK’s managing director Ronan Harris and Google’s chief business officer Philipp Schindler both put out blog posts on March 17 and 21, respectively. “We believe strongly in the freedom of speech and expression on the web – even when that means we don’t agree with the views expressed. At the same time, we recognize the need to have strict policies that define where Google ads should appear,” wrote Harris. Although “we know we can and must do more”, he stressed that such instances happen only in “a very small percentage of cases”. Since then, Google execs have been meeting with advertisers and agencies to reassure them and find solutions, such as “increased brand safety levels and controls for advertisers, more fine-tuned controls, increasing resources, accelerating reviews and improving transparency,” as mentioned in Schindler’s post.

Matt Brittin, Google’s president of business and operations in EMEA, promised to “raise the bar” on policy by examining which areas are judged to be safe for advertising, and on controls by making them simpler for advertisers to use, with default settings at a safer level. Regarding enforcement, he claimed that 98 percent of flagged content is already being reviewed within 24 hours and that 300 million YouTube videos and hundreds of thousands of websites were removed from the advertising ecosystem last year. However, he acknowledged that there is still room for improvement.

Speaking to Communicate back in April, Dani Afiouni, head of consumer engagement and media MENA at PepsiCo, said: “We are committed to engaging consumers in the digital world and that will not change. Obviously, it’s very important to create a solution for brand safety and our committees globally and locally are in touch to resolve it. But it won’t change the way we look at digital investments.”

General Motors, on the other hand, was very clear about its decision to halt spends on Google and YouTube globally and in the MENA region.

Who fault was it?

The obvious answer to this is Google and, by correlation, there’s also programmatic media buying and fake news to blame, which extends the conversation to other publishers and platforms, such as Facebook and Snapchat. The latter also faced issues with ads appearing within stories containing nude content. However, since then, all tech companies have formed partnerships with the likes of Moat, DoubleVerify and Integral Ad Science.

Going back to where it all started, Google’s Brittin said at the opening day of Advertising Week Europe: “This is a good opportunity for me to say sorry. Tthis should not have happened and we need to do better.” He also visited Dubai to reassure key clients. Many advertisers also believe that Google needs to do more and do better. “The networks need to come up with better algorithms which have some human element,” says one marketing professional in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Google, YouTube and Facebook should take full responsibility for their actions,” adds Andy Powell, sales director, Middle East, Africa & Turkey, InMobi.

“If they [Google and Facebook] create an ecosystem and people abuse it, then, as the owner of that ecosystem, they need to take responsibility,” says Alistair Burton, digital media director, Initiative.

However, that responsibility doesn’t necessarily come in the form of content monitoring on their user-generated platforms, but stricter controls on content available on their advertising platforms.

Powell suggests two directions for tackling brand safety: systematic checks and human checks.

Even then, “clients can’t afford to have Google and Facebook play defendant, judge and jury,” says Michel Malkoun, COO, DMS. This has been a topic long under discussion and, finally, both Google and Facebook have paid heed by bringing in third-party measurement firms such as MOAT, but it’s not exactly a happy ending just yet.

“What happens to the investments made already? Should they be shifted to TV like Pritchard [P&G’s CMO] suggested? It’s important for the clients and their agencies to manage this conversation because they have already invested, so [if they agree to stop] do the budgets get cut?” questions Malkoun.

Here’s where the role of agencies becomes all the more important. As mentioned by Google execs, the sheer volume of content makes it impossible to monitor and control all of it. As Ayman Haydar, CEO of MMP (MENA Market Place), puts it, “User generated content can’t be 100 percent monitored. I don’t blame YouTube or Facebook in case an ad ran next to harmful or low-quality content. I blame the brand and the agency.”

And that brings us to the less obvious answer to the question, “Whose fault was it?” Surprisingly, the answer may be agencies and advertisers.

Trust issues

While the basic problem starts with a network’s ability to whitelist sites and ensure stricter advertising controls, agencies and advertisers have a bigger role to play than one would imagine. Agency execs have anonymously expressed concern over advising clients to halt digital spends because, on the one hand, agencies risk losing those budgets and, on the other, what’s the alternative?

Traditional media doesn’t deliver the same ROI, while Google and Facebook together command upwards of 70 percent – depending on the market – of digital spends. “One of the brands’ main reasons to hire an agency is for that agency to secure the right and safe environment when reaching out to its target audience; [but] are agencies really doing that?” questions Haydar.

There are mixed signals from advertisers with regard to trusting their agencies and publishers. The need for transparency has been a key issue all through 2016 and, to be fair, there has been some progress on that front. Yet, “as far as I know, no third-party company is able to measure ‘brand safety’ on the ‘walled gardens’,” says a senior executive from one such third-party company. Moreover, “agencies are smart enough not to jeopardize their relationship with their clients and thus should be very careful when protecting brands and their safety,” adds Haydar.

Advertisers too have unintentionally compromised the safety of their brands every time they’ve opted for cost over quality. As Powell notes, some advertisers “ignore brand safety in the chase for the greatest scale and clicks at the lowest cost,” while others may just be ignorant about the issues and its potential consequences. In fact, several media execs have mentioned that some of their clients don’t even know what brand safety really means. Initiative’s Burton chooses to be optimistic about clients’ ignorance, calling it “an opportunity for agencies to educate advertisers and take a lead on topics such as brand safety and move the conversation away from a solely price-based (reduce CPC) conversation.”

Haydar, however, is quite straightforward when he says digital education is a major issue in the region, which is slowing the growth of digital. “Today, there are safe handpicked private market places” – which are not cheap – “but if you want to go the cheap way, you will fall into uncertainty,” he asserts. And while some brands learn, others don’t. “They invest a lot to create a brand and then decide to risk its safety only to save some money,” he adds.

Now what?

Between Facebook inflating its video views, agencies’ and tech platforms’ lack of transparency, underhand deals between media agencies and publishers, and now brand safety, it has been a rollercoaster year for the advertising and marketing industry.

In fact, the UK’s Home Affairs Committee has published a report, which is currently awaiting government response, criticizing social media companies for not just failing to take down offensive or illegal content promptly, but also making money off of it.

“We recommend that the government consult on a system of escalating sanctions to include meaningful fines for social media companies which fail to remove illegal content within a strict timeframe,” says the report.

As all parties work together to find solutions, measures are being put in place. All of the tech giants now have third-party measurements and Snapchat has also formed the “Snapchat Brand Safety Coalition”, which, unlike its content, didn’t disappear in 24 hours. Agency networks like Omnicom and WPP are also developing their own safety programs. As a result, there are two other things that are happening; one good, one bad (kind of).

New opportunities

“There’s now an opportunity for premium publishers and PMPs,” says Initiative’s Burton. But there’s a caveat: “Programmatic offers a spectrum of options, ranging from super-targeted in a brand safe environment to the cheapest. It is the advertisers’ responsibility to understand what they’re buying and the relation between lowering price and quality,” he adds.

It is this price/quality relation that makes all the difference. “No matter what you do or how careful you are, if you use the open market, you will fall into the trap of pricing over quality,” says Haydar. And so, even though clients may not trust programmatic completely, they “are hesitant to pull campaigns from programmatic, because direct sales cannot match the scale and targeting offered by programmatic,” says Powell. “To safeguard their investment, advertisers are increasingly turning to PMPs,” he adds.

In fact, some exchanges have seen an increase in investment in PMPs since the brand safety issue took center stage, but, “we are far from getting where we should be,” says Haydar, even though “globally PMPs are becoming the norm.”

The potentially damaging consequences of a brand being present in an unsafe environment is (hopefully) pushing advertisers to spend more on quality inventory. In fact, according to eMarketer, 74 percent of US digital display ad dollars will go to PMPs and programmatic direct setups in 2017.

Flipside for content creators

“Safe content” may differ very vastly from brand to brand – and it’s unlikely (for now, at least) that an algorithm can efficiently differentiate between these types of content. Additionally, as AdAge reported, Google now has five – instead of the previous two – filters available to advertisers for content exclusion. These five exclusions, include “sexually suggestive,” “sensational and shocking,” and “profanity and rough language”. “Curious if any other YouTubers saw a

“Curious if any other YouTubers saw a massive hit on monetization in last week,” reads a tweet by Dave Rubin, who interviews provocative political thinkers for his “Rubin Report” videos. Blair White, a twentysomething transgender woman with sometimes unconventional views, responded by saying she had videos “demonetized.” “Not massive but still frustrating,” she wrote. Meanwhile, some channels that don’t even dabble in politics saw videos taken out of circulation for advertising, such as Ethan Klein’s H3H3Productions, which makes comedy videos. Other creators, too, have taken to Twitter to vent their frustration on increasing views and declining revenues.

YouTube did warn content creators that the site could “demonetize” videos, but for now, it’s trying to find a fine balance between keeping its content creators – those who create the content brands advertise against – and its advertisers – those who pay for that content – happy.

The brand safety debacle has served as a wakeup call to all the players in and outside the media landscape. Also, the mainstream media attention could mean it is going to be harder to delay or ignore it any longer. Despite all of these measures, there’s a still long way to go. As Tom Fishburne of the Marketoonist says in a cartoon, “Now that our digital ad has been wordsmithed, screened, proofed and finally approved by legal, let’s cross our fingers it doesn’t get placed on a site next to porn..”

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