Last week, 17 journalists made their way from across Europe to congregate at Google’s European HQ in Dublin. It was a noteworthy step taken by the tech giant, but perhaps not a surprising one.
After all, the company has had its fair share of negative press this year. The biggest issue has been the YouTube brand safety scandal, which broke in March after The Times published an exposé showing that brand advertising was being placed next to pornographic and extremist content on the video platform.
In response to the revelations, more than 250 brands, including HSBC, Marks & Spencer and L’Oréal, pulled spend from YouTube, with many refusing to come back to the platform until the tech giant improved things. The issue was also a hot topic of discussion during industry events that followed, including AdWeek Europe and the Cannes Lions Festival.
Having had a difficult year, Google is keen to clear the air and show it has been listening to the industry’s concerns. One way is by engaging with the marketing press, hence the charm offensive in Dublin. Ahead of the so-called ‘Better Ads Trip’, those attending were sent a recommended reading list including the letter written by Google’s founders in which they explain the company’s ‘Don’t be evil’ ethos – and further information on how it has expanded safeguards for advertisers and fought “bad ads” in 2016.
The trip itself saw the media immersed among 6,000 employees on-site. Through the morning, five Google employees presented on a variety of topics, from the changes it has been making to its policies to its investment into creating a “cleaner” ads ecosystem. The afternoon, meanwhile, featured an appearance from the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and Matt Brittin, Google’s president of EMEA business and operations.
Putting new safeguards in place
Almost every talk reverted back to the importance of Google having clear yet ever-changing policies in place, as well as the ramping up of enforcement as more people come online. Since the YouTube scandal broke in March, Google claims to have been “raising the bar” in terms of what it allows to be monetised.
In April, stricter YouTube partner programme criteria came into place, meaning that videos have to earn at least 10,000 views before ads are shown alongside them. In 2016, it took down 1.7 billion misleading or harmful ads – more than double the amount of ads taken down in 2015, and Google is on course to beat that again this year.
We need to have a common baseline for brand safety, and this has been more challenging to solve [than anticipated].
Dyana Najdi, Google
May, June and July were marked by updates in its efforts to fight extremism on its platform – for example, anyone viewing extremist content will be served videos to counter that information– and it introduced better controls for advertisers, as well as new guidelines on how to use them.
Speaking on brand safety, Google admitted getting these controls in place took a relatively long time, predominantly due to the fact there is no universal agreement on what is “safe” to advertise against.
“The minute you get into suitability, it becomes personal to every advertiser,” said Dyana Najdi, director of EMEA YouTube and video solutions.
“It has been taking a long time to define a common definition of what brand safety is. We need to have a common baseline for brand safety, and this has been more challenging to solve [than anticipated].”
Addressing transparency issues
The brand safety scandal has not been the only issue to hit Google this year. The company has been impacted by a wider pushback against digital advertising. It was started by Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard, who has called out both Facebook and Google specifically for “marking their own homework” when reporting campaign results and digital advertising more generally for its lack of transparency.
In response, Google has joined a variety of initiatives aimed at solving the issues. And it was particularly eager to talk about joining the IAB’s new ‘Gold Standard’ programme.
The programme aims to reduce ad fraud by implementing the ‘ads.txt’ initiative on all sites carrying ads. This means publishers and distributors are forced to declare who is authorised to sell their inventory, thereby improving transparency for buyers. It will also look to make advertising less invasive for consumers – which ties into separate but complimentary work done by the Coalition for Better Ads, of which Google is again a member.
Yet despite these attempts to show it is taking industry concerns seriously, Google is yet to fully subscribe to the UK’s Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards (JICWEBS) (a body created by the UK and Ireland media industry to ensure independent standards of measurement online).
In principle, we would love to have all different manners and standards of verifications. But we’re some way off being able to offer that as there’s so many different initiatives in so many different countries.
Matt Brittin, Google
While Google’s programmatic ad exchange is certified by the body’s Digital Trading Standards Group, YouTube is not yet accredited. When asked what is holding it back, Brittin said it is “challenging” to define global standards in a “fragmented” world. It is currently also working with third parties to offer transparency when it comes to video measurement – something it hopes to have a solution for next year.
“You have voluntary self regulation and different bodies with different codes. We’re trying to work with the IAB and WFA to try to put in place the right standards and codes,” he said.
“Quite often an independent party who has a set of tools and verification will say ‘We’re ready to do this’. And when the YouTube issues hit earlier this year, I was asked at AdWeek Europe by somebody in the audience – ‘We’ve got this, we’re ready to go’.
“[But] actually nobody has tech that’s ready in the way that needs to happen. In principle, we would love to have all different manners and standards of verifications. We think advertisers should be able choose standards and tools. But we’re some way off being able to offer that as there’s so many different initiatives in so many different countries. So we have to take this step by step.”
The impact on Google
The issues have had an impact on Google – both commercially and in terms of brand reputation. Reports suggested Google could lose £597m in revenue this year based on a 7.5% hit to its $10bn YouTube business. And the tech giant needs to ensure brands trust it – and keep spending their ad dollars.
“It is their network, their integrity matters. And eventually their revenues on the back end of that,” says Patrick Bousquet-Chavanne, executive director of customer marketing and M&S.com.
I don’t want to downplay the fact that any impression was not acceptable, but the scale of the issue was much smaller than the headlines suggested.
Matt Brittin, Google
Yet Brittin is quick to play down the impact. He told Marketing Week the reporting of the issues gave it more prominence than the scale of the problem deserved.
“Now let me be clear – any advertiser that is serving somewhere where they didn’t want to serve is a problem. And we take it seriously. But the actual scale of the issues we’re having, and I can’t talk for measurement issues on other platforms, was relatively contained. The vast majority of advertisers on YouTube continued as they were happy with what the platform was delivering,” he said.
When pressed further on the issue, he said not that many advertisers were affected by brand safety issues, and that for those that were the spend it impacted was minimal.
“We went to meet some of our customers affected … and they would ask ‘How much of my ad spend [has gone] against this?’ And it would be 43p. In many cases it was a very limited number of impressions. I don’t want to downplay the fact that any impression was not acceptable, but the scale of the issue was much smaller than the headlines that were seen at the time,” he said.
Indeed, most advertisers are now back on YouTube. M&S, one of the last to do so, says it is now “satisfied” the issues have been mostly dealt with.
“We have had multiple guarantees. Google has invested behind brand safety and brand security. It will never be 100% airtight and fool proof but I am satisfied enough at this point in time to go back on the network. They are demonstrating that they are hearing us,” M&S’s Bousquet-Chavanne adds.
Has Google done enough
The WFA’s CEO Stephan Loerke, however, told a slightly different story. He claims many of its members already knew about the problem before The Times scandal broke, but that there wasn’t “much interest from the wider ecosystem” to solve the issues. And despite Google’s best efforts, some brands are still not convinced it has done enough, he said.
“I am hearing from our members that the company has been engaging very swiftly with brands when the issue exploded in the open with a tone and humility which I think was welcomed by brands. But there’s not one point of view in our membership, the companies are just too diverse,” he explained.
“I still know a number of companies that haven’t gone back to YouTube, and others have but have actually demanded from their agencies that they make full use of functionalities that allow the company to set the level of risk they can accept. What I’m reading in the business press, YouTube is doing fine in number of brands that are operating with them, but what I see in my membership, there are different points of views.”
One positive to come out of the brand safety scandal is that it has shaken up the industry and forced marketers to better understand the digital industry and where their ads are appearing. Loerke said he feels “optimistic”, and that the fact brands have “taken back control” can only be a good thing.
Yet even Google concedes its work is not yet done. This week, it has launched a B2B campaign that aims to talk to brands and media agencies directly and convince them of the close relationships it has with its audiences.
Despite the setbacks, one thing is clear: Google remains committed to convincing the rest of the ad industry that everything is perfectly okay inside its walled gardens. It is up to marketers to decide whether that is enough for them.