In October 2016, Nick Welch, business development director, UK, ADmantX, argued in an ExchangeWire article, that brand safety shouldn’t take a backseat to revenue safety, explaining the importance of making brand safety a focus before it hits the bottom line. Fast forward nine months – and the brand-safety furore that has occurred within that time – Welch once again reiterates the importance of brand safety and why revenue shouldn’t be the main reason for putting the correct safeguards in place.
ExchangeWire: A few months ago, you argued that brand safety was a lower priority for advertisers than revenue safety. Things have almost changed beyond recognition since then – did you expect this?
Nick Welch: Absolutely. It was only a matter of time before an advertiser was exposed as ‘supporting’ terrorism or funding ‘extreme’ content by proxy. As I mentioned back in October 2016, advertisers have been preoccupied with ensuring they buy audiences at scale, as cheaply as possible, without feeling deceived by fraudulent deals or unviewable ads. And, unfortunately, brand safety – with the potential to further limit the all-important scale – has taken a back seat.
To better understand why brand safety was catapulted into the headlines in February, we need to look at the media landscape. Large media owners, such as Rupert Murdoch, have long been concerned that Google and Facebook are stealing their share of advertising revenues by offering audiences at scale; which, by comparison, they are unable to match via their own properties. The Times’ expose could be seen as Rupert Murdoch’s way of signalling to advertisers that buying audiences at scale via Google (in this case specifically YouTube) is unsafe; and by escalating this issue to one of national importance could force advertisers to take some kind of action – which they did. Fast forward to June 2017, and YouTube has, yet again, found itself at the forefront of the ad misplacement debate. So, it’s safe to say, the industry still has a way to go.
For too long, brands and their agencies have embraced the efficiencies and scale of programmatic without considering the specific (i.e. page-level) context of their chosen ad placements. Given the nature of programmatic, when not implemented in conjunction with contextual analysis – coupled with a complacent attitude to brand safety industry-wide – it was only a matter of time before another high-profile breach occurred.
In contrast to programmatic – which has continually evolved to deal with the mounting pressure for inventory to be monetised more effectively – outdated brand safety tools, such as keyword filters, blacklists, or even archaic whitelists, have proved too primitive to protect against the misplacement of ads and also inhibit scale.
The recent Google/YouTube debacle has served yet another reminder as to the importance of brand safety. And, while the major players may not have experienced any revenue limitations as yet, I hope the mere fact that several household brands have maintained their suspension of advertising contracts will shake up the industry enough to compel both platforms and brands to reassess their brand-safety strategies going forward.
What is ‘full brand safety’ and are we any closer to achieving this, given the recent furore? Is it moving the needle?
Full brand safety means allowing brands sufficient visibility into ad campaigns as they happen, the ability to protect from obviously inappropriate content, as well as proactively targeting away from harmful content related to a specific industry or product. This can be achieved by using pre-bid analysis tools and AI technology, such as full Natural Language Processing (NLP), a cognitive semantic technology that ‘reads’ content as a human brain does. But we can’t rely on machines alone to evaluate the suitability of any given placement. For example, until the industry agrees on exactly what constitutes fake news – i.e. factually incorrect information versus hate speech – ad suitability will remain largely subjective, and human input will, therefore, still be necessary to assess ad placements.
For tech giants, whose revenue seems to have remained unaffected at present, there is little real incentive to take action. Google may have doffed its cap to the issue by announcing plans to address violations on a more granular level, but considering this technology has been available for at least the past five years, it’s amazing the tech giant has been so slow to incorporate page level analysis – solely looking at the domain completely misses the point! A domain can be considered safe, but the content within the domain at a page level could be toxic. In fact, most holistic verification businesses who offer fraud, viewability, and so-called ‘brand safety’ solutions do not use full NLP at the page level, meaning Google, Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are still providing woefully inadequate protection for brands.
Brands and agencies must insist that the tech giants open up their platforms and integrate with truly protective verification technologies, rather than accepting the status quo of inadequate solutions.
In all honesty, do you believe it was the reputation of these brands that was more at stake, than the ultimate goal of 100% brand safety? Or are they one and the same?
Advertisers are aware that the majority of consumers will not consider the role of programmatic in inadvertently funding inappropriate content. The reality is, the moment a misplaced ad is viewed, a negative association has already been made, and the brand’s reputation is tarnished in an instant, regardless of the circumstances. The Times expose helped to catapult this industry issue into the public domain and created a snowball effect. Given the uncertain times we live in, brands run the risk of being exposed time and time again without adequate controls in place – and will continue to find themselves making the national news for all the wrong reasons as long as these large news organisations feel threatened by the tech giants.
One could argue that the brands that distanced themselves from Google and YouTube following the breaches were demonstrating their commitment to brand safety; although, by this point, the damage had already been done and it could be quite easily construed as a meaningless gesture.
The only surefire solution for a brand to protect itself from future potential damage is by taking appropriate brand safety measures – at the page level, rather than only at the domain level using NLP technologies that understand the context – before the possibility for exposure occurs in the first place.
Before, it could be argued that the importance of brand safety trailed behind ad blocking and ad fraud due to its limited underlying impact on revenue. Has the bottom line of these advertisers now been hit as a direct result of brand-safety issues? Is the importance of brand safety rising up the ranks?
Only time will reveal the true impact of safety breaches on brand revenue. The important thing, for now, is that the entire industry – from brands to media agencies to ad networks – has been forced to consider the wider implications of improper ad placements, fake news, and the questionable transparency of programmatic as a method of delivering ads without safeguards in place.
Ultimately, understanding how these issues can compromise customer loyalty is slowly but surely resulting in the industry shifting the spotlight towards brand safety.
The way some advertisers were affected highlighted again the importance of context in brand-safe environments, which needs to be assessed before it’s too late and the ad has appeared in an unsafe environment. How can a ‘real time’ element be built into achieving a brand-safe environment?
Many brands seem to rely on post-campaign analysis to inform future strategy, but this does not protect them from a placement appearing alongside misaligned content. Pre-bid analysis tools allow advertisers to assess available inventory in real time and make immediate decisions before securing ad placements, such as not bidding on ad placement on a particular page that contains content that would be deemed contradictory to your carefully crafted brand message.
There are many factors to consider when assessing inventory, such as context, sentiment, relevancy, or partisan political stance. All of these will vary depending on a brand’s specific brand-safety requirements, and can be evaluated in real time with the help of cognitive semantic technology such as NLP.
Once the dust settles on a brand safety exposé, the industry goes quiet – are we going to continue to see this cycle?
If no action is taken, then these types of breaches can, and will, happen again and again. Not enough of the right safeguards have been put in place; and we mustn’t become complacent again. We need to continue to spread awareness of the dangers of prioritising issues, such as ad blocking or fraud, over and above brand safety, especially where advertisers are forcing the hand of agencies and trading desks to deliver audiences at scale.
In time, the message will filter through that buying programmatic alone cannot facilitate an effective yet safe ad campaign, and that ‘real’ contextual analysis – rather than matching keywords to a page – is necessary to ensure the best placements possible. Only then will brands be able to rest in the knowledge that agencies, and more importantly ad platforms, are doing all they can to ensure their reputation remains intact.