July 27, 2018
No time for BS: why is brand safety still such a big issue?

No time for BS: why is brand safety still such a big issue?

ADmantX and prominent industry leaders met in a roundtable to delve deep into the issue.

Nick Welch, VP of sales and business development, UK and North EU


Over a year since Alexi Mostrous’ controversial investigation into ad misplacements sparked controversy across the industry, the protection of brand safety is still proving an issue. Remaining a hot topic in the press, it seems many are still vulnerable to reputation-altering ad misplacements and – despite continued pressure to address the problem – brand safety is still a major concern across the entire ad landscape.


So why is this the case?


In an attempt to gain clarity on the issue, discover why it has not been sufficiently addressed, and decide what needs to happen next, ADmantX hosted a roundtable discussion. Including prominent publishers, advertisers, and agencies, and industry bodies (IAB, AOP, ISBA), the roundtable aimed to delve deep into the issue and gain insight from those living and breathing it every day.


Here’s what the industry players think:


What actually is brand safety?

The fact is, as Ana Pak, Global Digital Strategy and Innovation Director at Vizeum Global explained, “brand safety means something slightly different for each” client – a point supported by Gregory Cristal, Advertiser Solutions Lead, at Adform, who explained how, in a former role, a client from Durex, was happy to “run their stuff in all sorts of places other advertisers don’t like to run their ads… For some brands it’s about finding a match between the contextual side and where they want to place their ad and it isn’t necessarily about putting anything in a ‘bad box’.”


We all know different brands have different goals, missions, and perspectives on what is safe for them, but this ultimately means there is no one-size-fits-all definition of what a brand safe placement is for brands.


Add confusion over how brand safety fits alongside other transparency concerns into the mix and another layer of complexity is added. Transparency covers a variety of issues – including fraud, viewability, and ad misplacement – and while these are often included in the same conversation when it comes to finding solutions, they are preventing clarity when it comes to brand safety itself.


Next, we consider how brands are constantly weighing up their priorities – revenue safety over brand safety, or environment over scale for example. As Pak confirmed this often means, “unless something happens, they (clients) don’t ask” for brand safety to be included in the contract as a KPI. Interestingly, Pak also raised how brands give disproportionate guidance on brand identity such as ‘font size’ than they do to brand safety guidance, which is clearly a cause for concern.


With so many different considerations at play when defining brand safety, it is no wonder there is confusion on exactly what it means and ultimately how it needs to be addressed.


Agencies aren’t psychic

Next comes the issue of responsibility. Where does the blame lie when a brand is exposed as having advertised alongside inappropriate content and why is it still happening?


A brand marketer within the electronics industry explained how the complexity of the digital ad landscape makes it difficult for brands to grasp what will make their ad placements safe, and why agencies must have a responsibility to train and advise customers on brand safety strategy. No one can deny how complicated this ecosystem can be, so hearing from a brand that this has an impact on how far they delve into securing appropriate brand safety solutions shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. And, as discussed, the media agencies advise on the media mix, so “shouldn’t they advise on brand safety strategy too?” But is this really feasible?


As Richard Reeves, Managing Director at The AOP, points out, “agencies aren’t psychic.” They need to be clear on their clients’ needs, and what topics and placements are going to have a negative impact on the brand. Brand safety isn’t just about avoiding obviously controversial topics, it’s about ensuring content does not contradict the brand’s values – something a brand itself must understand and relay to their agencies.


But it isn’t all about the agency / brand relationship. Alex Kirby, Head of Programmatic and Audience Data at Dennis, suggests more thought needs to go into safety for media brands, “in a world where we might integrate far more partners than we would a few years ago… it’s increasingly difficult to manage the types and the style of advertising coming through to your site.” Despite having strict rules on the advertising that comes in to them, many publishers will still find ads on their site that are potentially damaging to their reputation – raising concerns over the media aspect of brand safety as well.


Is it a black and white issue?

So, while a brand may be clear when an ad placement will have a negative impact on their company, it is not all that simple. Some placements will obviously be inappropriate but others may not if, for example, a brand aims to be controversial or the product itself could be considered inappropriate for certain publications.


Perhaps then, the answer is not in finding a single solution for brand safety, but rather implementing industry-wide guidelines from which brands can define their own brand safety needs.


However, as Steve Chester, Director of Media, ISBA, explained, there has been a framework for brand safety in existence for the past four years, the JICWEBS DTSG Good Practice Principles, but “although there is now in excess of 100 companies who are signatories to JICWEBS, of which 61 have been DTSG certified, there are still many more businesses in the supply chain who should be complying with the standard to demonstrate they are taking individual responsibility for brand safety.” There is a need for the industry to seek out the guidelines provided by their bodies and make better use of these to inform their brand safety decisions.


Another suggestion was that agencies should be focusing on context and this in turn will fix the brand safety issue. Jay Rajdev, VP, Brand Solutions at Videology (now acquired by Amobee), explained, “we so frequently look at these problems, which are not new problems, through the sole lens of digital, not providing brand safety either way.” He continued that the conversation should be focused on context over format or channel, “and the minute we frame it around context, it becomes an agency problem and an agency solution.”


Rajdev claimed this makes fixing the problem a planning conversation, but Winnie Palmer, Brand Consultant and Digital Advisor, argues that context becomes a conversation for the CMO – meaning it is not in fact to do with planning, rather brand messaging and can represent an unacceptable level of risk for the advertiser. An industry body representative explained that while two people can look at the same piece of content, their views will be different and what is appropriate for one may not be for the other.


So what’s next:

It’s clear that brand safety is a very complex issue and perhaps that’s why it is still so prominent. It seems there are some key takeaways:

  • Collaboration is key: There is no single person responsible for a brand’s safety, as agencies understand the landscape, while brands can identify their needs and values. Ultimately, every individual needs to be prioritising brand safety and ensuring the topic is brought up as early in the process as possible. Brands need to be clear on what is brand safe for their own, specific and unique needs, while agencies need to be highlighting brand safety in the pitching process to make sure it is incorporated into the campaign as standard. Chester highlighted that “individual responsibility for brand safety needs to be taken throughout the entire supply chain and agencies must be clear with clients about what controls are available and what level of brand safety is achievable based on the buying strategy and tools applied.”
  • Brand Safety needs to be considered as a separate issue in its own right and is not bundled together with procurement issues such as fraud or performance metrics like viewability.
  • There is not a single definition of brand safety: It is not possible to define each placement as safe or unsafe as the nuances between brands, audiences, and formats are too large to define as such. Brands need to be aware of what makes a placement unsafe for them specifically, be it the people it will reach, the content it appears near or other factors.
  • There’s still more to be done: We are not yet at a point where brand safety is going to slip off the radar for brands. While many assume brand safety is a given, there is a need for brands and agencies to converse more on the topic to ensure this and keep damaging placements out of the headlines.


To address these issues we need further conversation. It is vital brands, publishers, and agencies work together to protect themselves and their partners. If the discussion is not started early in a partnership – making brand safety the foundation of a campaign and not an after thought – there will always be a risk of unsafe advertising. All parties involved must be clear on the goals of any advertising to allow the conversation to evolve.