Brand safety online: Can it ever be guaranteed?

An investigation by The Times has thrust the spotlight on the murky world of brand safety but there are steps marketers can take to alleviate the risks.

Adverts from some of the world’s biggest brands are appearing next to content by pornographers, extremists and white supremacists, helping to fund their causes, according to a report in The Times.

The newspaper’s investigation found that brands including Waitrose, Marie Curie and Mercedes-Benz were unwittingly appearing on hate sites and next to YouTube videos created by supporters of terrorist groups, including so-called Islamic State. It estimates this could be generating thousands of pounds for the creators.

That brands’ ads are appearing next to unsavoury or illegal content should come as little surprise. A similar investigation by The Sun in 2013 found that ads were appearing next to pornography, while a report last year by the Financial Times found that a jihadi website was selling ad space on its website using a service provided by Google.

Brand safety has always been a part of advertising. There are numerous cases in more traditional media of ads appearing next to content that might not be in-keeping with a brand’s positioning or might not work contextually, for example an airline ad next to a story about a plane crash.

The instances found online by The Times are more serious but they still boil down to the same question of how, or even if, advertisers can be sure where their ads are appearing.

Advertisers must take control

Much of the report blames ad agencies and the rise of programmatic advertising. The digital ad world has become increasingly murky as more and more ad tech companies look to take a slice of brands’ ad budgets.

Where once a client might just go to a publisher, either directly or via their media agency, to buy an ad, there are now various intermediaries. These include software providers and demand-side platforms as well as those promising to verify viewability, brand safety and check if traffic is fraudulent or not.

According to Pete Edwards, chief strategy officer at Engine UK, The Guardian found that when it tried to spend £1 on digital advertising on its own site, by the time it went through all these systems it actually delivered 30p in ad space. He says that while all these intermediaries are claiming to add value, it is unlikely that value adds up to 70p.

Brand owners need to apply caution in relation to their overall digital media investment.

Stephan Loerke, WFA

The rise of programmatic, which is now a near $20bn business according to Magna Global, has only made this even murkier. Just last week, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard called out the “antiquated” media buying ecosystem that he said “was not built for this technology revolution”.

“We serve ads to consumers through a non-transparent media supply chain with spotty compliance to common standards, unreliable measurement, hidden rebates and new inventions like bot and methbot fraud,” he told an audience at the IAB US conference.

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Pritchard is not the only one concerned. Stephan Loerke, CEO of the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), says this lack of transparency is rising up marketers’ agendas, in particular because it is only the brand that loses out – agencies, intermediaries and publishers still get their money.

Loerke says: “It is incumbent upon the ecosystem, including publishers, ad networks, programmatic companies and agencies, to prove that the capability to effectively deal with challenges such as ad fraud and brand misplacement is in place. As it stand this seems not to be the case. Until this time, brand owners need to apply caution in relation to their overall digital media investment.

Engine’s Edwards believes advertisers themselves must also start taking responsibility. “The levels of abdication of ownership of the digital ad space by some clients is shocking,” he said, speaking at the Westminster eForum on priorities for digital advertising this morning (9 February).

“[Marketers] must rule tech or be ruled by it.”

How the industry is addressing the problem

The ad industry is listening to the issues. Media agencies such as GroupM have set up units dedicated to protecting brands online and worked to educate their clients on the tools available to them.

There are also a number of industry-wide initiatives aimed at tackling the problem.

JICWEBS is a body created by the UK ad and media industries and is responsible for creating standards and codes in digital media. It works with industry organisations such as the IPA, IAB and AOP to come up with solutions to issues such as viewability, ad fraud and brand safety.

In 2013, it set up the Digital Trading Standards Group (DTSG) and outlined best practice in areas including viewability, brand safety and fraud. Any publisher or tech company that adheres to these standards is awarded a certificate. They are also regularly audited to ensure they doing everything they can to mitigate the risk.

The standards are informed by a wide range of sources including bodies such as the IPA and AOP, big digital brands such as Yahoo and Google and ad tech firms including Ad2One.

JICWEBS’ chairman Richard Foan says he hopes The Times investigation will “catalyse the debate” and showcase what the industry is already doing.

“We hope this gives advertisers and agencies a Kitemark on what ad tech to trust,” he says. “We are looking for global solutions to these issues.”

The industry is working with the police to determine illegal websites and blacklist them. And the IAB’s director of data and industry programmes Steve Chester says the ad industry may need to look at funding a police division that is dedicated to this as the finance industry already does.

Publishers also need to make sure they are accurately tagging content. If YouTube, for example, does not flag up that content is not suitable then ads will appear next to it.

Google told The Times: “When it comes to content on YouTube, we remove flagged videos that break our rules and have a zero tolerance policy for content that incites violence or hatred.”

A GroupM spokesman explains: “As it relates to YouTube, brand safety measures are only as good as the coding of content by Google. If Google fails to correctly identify content, it becomes impossible for advertisers to completely exclude risks in their buys.”

And in reality it is almost impossible for brands to totally eliminate that risk. Foan talks about “realism over idealism”, explaining that the sheer volume of sites and the pace that the industry is moving makes it “unrealistic” to say this is an issue advertising can entirely stamp out.

Bethan Crockett, digital risk director at GroupM, agrees. The only way to be 100% risk free, she says, would be for clients to talk directly with publishers and know exactly what content their ad is appearing next to at all times, almost impossible given how much content is created even on premium publishers.

What should marketers do?

salary survey questions

While there may always be a risk, brands can mitigate it. The WFA’s Loerke points to an increasing number of marketers limiting the amount of ‘run of exchange buys’ within their investment and shifting to private exchanges that promise better quality inventory.

Crockett recommends a frank conversation between clients and their media agencies to find out what steps they are taking to ensure brand safety. Marketers should also make sure brand safety is written into contracts with agencies and ad tech providers with penalties if guarantees are not met.

Would you buy a car from a reputable garage or do you go to the guy round the corner because he is offering cheaper cars?

Bethan Crockett, GroupM

However, it is up to each individual brand to determine where they are comfortable with ads appearing and in what context. Many gambling brands are perfectly fine with their ads appearing next to pornography. High street retailers less so.

Marketers must also stop the focus on price. Ensuring ads are viewable, not susceptible to ad fraud and appearing on the right sites will cost more than allowing ads to appear anywhere.

“It is common sense, brand safety common sense,” says Crockett. “Would you buy a car from a reputable garage, that can prove where it has come from, that it has a MOT and isn’t two cars welded together? Or do you go to the guy round the corner that you haven’t heard of because he is offering cheaper cars? That’s the decision for the marketer to make.”