Do you know exactly where your ads are placed? Probably not, at least not all the time. The World Federation of Advertisers has published a global survey in August, covering 35 international companies with a combined annual marketing budget of more than 30 billion dollars. The survey names brand safety as the companies´ number two priority moving rapidly up the to-do-list with 70 percent of those surveyed saying that the issue has escalated during the last 12 months. A recent study by ad tech firm TailWind, conducted among senior ad executives in Central and Eastern Europe, confirmed the rapidly growing brand safety anxiety. It proves that the leading issue in programmatic advertising among buyers is the fear that ads might appear next to undesirable and unsavoury websites run or influenced by terrorists, supremacists or pornographers. The percentage of those who said brand safety was a challenge has doubled in the TailWind study within the last year.
400 hours of additional videos on YouTube each minute
These studies confirm that in our technology-obsessed, digitalized, automated and algorithm-driven world the marketing landscape has become a potential minefield. Dramatic proof of this appeared in March 2017 after The Times newspaper revealed that big brand ads had popped up next to illegal content and hatespeech. Around the same time the Wall Street Journal broke a story on ads that had been placed automatically by Google next to racist videos on YouTube. The news triggered a widening boycott. After browsing for only 15 minutes on YouTube the British Guardian found T-Mobile ads on videos dealing with abortion as well as ads for Novartis heart medication running on tapes titled “Feminism is cancer.” Major brands like PepsiCo, Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald´s quickly suspended their ads on YouTube. Havas, the number six advertising and marketing company on the planet pulled its UK clients´ ads and AT&T announced that it was removing ads from Google´s non-search platforms.
On the whole, around 250 companies pulled their ads from YouTube in March and April. One analyst forecast the damage for Google from this scandal to rise to 300 million dollars in net revenue by the end of the year. The brand safety scandal reduced direct ad spending on YouTube by 26 percent year-over-year in the quarter to June 2017. During the same time Google´s competitors registered an increase of 18 percent on average.
Taking back Control
The brand safety crisis triggered a frantic reflection and discussion on the risks of automatic ad placements, transparency in the ad ecosystem and possible ways to establish a sound monitoring framework that allows for the filtering of unacceptable content and reassurances that ads would not be placed next to extremist and hateful videos or similarly harmful content. In its August 2017 study the World Federation of Advertisers reported that 74 percent of the covered multinational companies had stopped spending in ad networks which they perceived to be an unnecessary risk to their brands. And 89 percent were limiting – or planning to limit – investment in networks eschewing third-party verification. For weeks after March 2017, major brands were waiting to receive guarantees from Google that their ads were safe. Some companies like JP Morgan started taking things into their own hands, whitelisting ad partners.
YouTube started to roll out a whole set of tools that allow to significantly reduce the risk of controversial ad placements. Among these brand safety controls is the option for brands to choose which types of videos they want to be associated with, a contingency that is based on keywords. The video platform also advises brands about categories of videos not considered being “advertiser friendly.” YouTube has also tightened the requirements for channels participating in its Partner Program. A partner needs at least 10,000 views before its content can make money through advertising. A team of experts and an artificial intelligence tool are compiled to screen content for ad customers. According to one of its spokespersons YouTube parent company Google is working with vendors to establish a third party ad verification system.
These and additional efforts seem to be fruitful. Starting in late August 2017, professional journals began carrying reports on YouTube winning over top advertisers again. According to Advertising Age US telecom giant Verizon resumed buying video ads on YouTube “after a five-month break” and hired “an outside ad analytics company to verify both that its only paying for ads that have a sufficient chance to be seen and that those ads aren´t running near anything offensive, violent or otherwise unsuitable.”
It seems there is hardly any major brand that isn´t screening its digital strategy for ways to adjust to this risk. Negligence regarding brand safety has become a major issue, not only because digital advertising “is now the single biggest chunk of media spend”, according to Marketing Week. The brand safety crisis in 2017 has made it clear that large parts of the industry were naïve when they didn´t start earlier to better control their automatic and algo-driven ad placements. It was P&G´s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard who in January 2017 – roughly two months before the start of the brand safety crisis – had called upon the ad industry to “clean up the media supply chain” and make sure that there will be an increase in transparency around media buying.
Relevant skills are a bottleneck
But stepping up standards and governance is easier said than done. It is difficult to add external talent to existing internal teams because the respective skillsets are highly sought after. According to industry experts many brands are hiring internally for positions they now want to fill. And several marketers seem to be intent on bringing programmatic advertising positions in-house.
The recent brand safety crisis has yet another angle. In a highly digitalized, fast-moving and politically charged world a single ad misplacement, an inappropriate tweet or a simple media post can create a hard to control shit-storm. If this happens, a well-designed crisis plan must be in place. The planning and strategizing must start well ahead of such a detrimental media scenario. Getting in front of a story before it blows up is crucial, not only when it has to do with ad placements.
It goes without saying that a sound brand safety plan needs to be part of the overall brand strategy and the ongoing campaign planning. Brands need to build an effective filter, choose a reliable and agile publisher and seek external advice to align the brand safety plan with their marketing campaign and set up a blacklist of sites that are not desirable- or act like JP Morgan and whitelist partners with preferred websites to place your ads on.