Why Google and Facebook should heed Unilever’s warnings

Keith Weed’s demands that digital platforms focus on “winning back trust” may not elicit huge change, but Google and Facebook need to show they are listening to advertisers, consumers and governments or risk regulation.


It is starting to feel like there is something in the water at the IAB’s annual leadership conference. Last year, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer Marc Pritchard issued an ultimatum about the need to clean up the “murky” digital media supply chain through greater transparency; now Unilever’s marketing chief Keith Weed is demanding digital platforms win back consumer trust or risk losing its ad dollars.

This is not the first time Unilever has called out digital media. However, where in the past Weed has focused on industry specific problems around the ‘3V’s’ – viewability, verification and value – he is now raising the societal issue of whether consumers trust what they see online and the impact this has on the content and the ads associated with it.

Speaking to Marketing Week, Weed explains: “As a brand-led business, Unilever needs its consumers to have trust in our brands. We need to ensure we do everything we can not to damage that trust, including the choice of channels and platforms we use. But the lack of trust in the digital ecosystem is no longer just an industry issue, it has become an issue that is very much core to our society.”

It is hard to fault those comments or the very real challenge facing digital platforms. According to Edelman’s trust barometer, social media is now trusted by less than a quarter of the UK population (24%), mostly driven by a sense of inaction around important issues.

Some 70% of Britons believe social media companies do not do enough to prevent illegal or unethical behaviours on their platforms, with extremist content and cyberbullying of particular concern. Over a third believe social media is not good for society, while 64% think it is not sufficiently regulated, 63% that it lacks transparency and 62% that platforms are selling people’s data without their knowledge.

With the rise of fake news and revelations about how the Russians used social platforms to influence both the US election and EU referendum, the need for change is pressing, both for the platforms and for the advertisers that support them.

Weed adds: “I believe that the Googles and Facebooks of this world started with the same intentions as our founder William Lever, to make the world a better place. But what we’ve seen recently is the technology-driven rapid acceleration of these unintended consequences. What we need to see is an urgency to address the unique challenges these platforms face.”

Unilever lines up its media spend with its business objectives

Unilever is one of the few companies that can talk about cleaning up a supply chain with some authority. It has built its brand on a platform of sustainability and Unilever has been working for years to clean up its manufacturing supply chain. It should therefore come as little surprise it would look to do the same for its media supply chain – where it invests €7.7bn a year.

Liz Miller, senior vice-president of marketing at the CMO Council, says: “The threat is perfectly in line with many of Unilever’s brand promises. The [company] behind Dove’s Real Beauty campaign can’t and shouldn’t stand for the brand being adjacent to negative, hate-filled or divisive content.”

However, the comments have been met with a mixed response from the marketing industry. For the call to action to work, Unilever really needs other brands to rally round but these have so far been few and far between.

A survey conducted by the CMO Council found that while 52% give the risks associated with social media reputation management as the primary concern around safeguarding their brands online, the industry is yet to reach a tipping point where the risk outweighs the reward of reaching consumers through digital platforms.

I believe that the Googles and Facebooks of this world started with the same intentions as our founder William Lever, to make the world a better place. What we need to see is an urgency to address their challenges.

Keith Weed, Unilever

Pernod Ricard, for example, says it is working with digital platform providers to make sure its content appears in the right space and in front of the right audience but that it has no plans to pull spend.

Glen Brasington, director at Chivas Brothers, one of Pernod Ricard’s brands, says that while brand safety is “always important to us and will continue to be”, its marketing has been “pretty consistent over the past 10 to 15 years as we’ve become more capable in the digital arena”.

Yet there are signs that others in ad land are concerned about the fake news and toxic content now found on digital platforms. Tanya Joseph, the architect of the This Girl Can campaign at Sport England and now a consultant, has argued that change is needed, suggesting the need for an independent body to determine what content is brand safe.

READ MORE: Tanya Joseph – Brands need an ASA-style watchdog for harmful online content

And, Mainardo de Nardis, executive vice-chairman of Omnicom Media Group, called out Facebook and its approach to toxic content in an update on Twitter. Responding to criticism of the media’s coverage of Facebook’s role in Russian interference in the US elections by Rob Goldman, Facebook’s ads vice-president, he said that the social network is “not in a position to preach”. He added that “enough damage has been done over the past 2+ years”, before suggesting that “in the absence of real actions silence would be appreciated”.

Why Facebook and Google should listen to Unilever

All the commentary would suggest the spectre of toxic content and fake news is becoming a major problem for Google and Facebook. They have both acknowledged this, Google by placing a greater emphasis on tackling problematic content and Facebook by allowing more meaningful social interactions.

Yet it is not the ire of advertisers that has drawn this action but that of consumers and policy makers. In reality, the likes of Unilever are not able to dictate terms to digital platforms.

Matti Littunen, a senior research analyst at Enders Analysis, explains: “[The speech by Unilever] marks the first time we have seen a big pushback on the political side [from a big FMCG brand]. But advertisers have less of a role to play here [than when calling out measurement, the supply chain and transparency].

“When it comes to issues such as misinformation facilitated by the platforms, it is true that some lapses in oversight meant big ad budgets were accessed by dodgy sites through the programmatic exchange or Facebook Instant Articles. The funding problem comes from advertisers and they can fix that side of the problem. But the broader issue is really a matter for the political system to deal with.”

Facebook and Google also won’t be that worried about their business models should Unilever pull out. It would generate some big headlines, but they are less reliant on big brands for ad dollars. Any hole created by a company like Unilever pulling out could soon be replaced.

“We’ve heard of less PR-conscious advertisers taking advantage of lower ad rates on some of the platforms as big brands withdrew spend [after the YouTube brand safety issues] – typically direct response-heavy players who don’t use TV as much as the FMCG advertisers,” says Littunen.

It is also the case that Unilever really has few options beyond Facebook and Google if it is looking for global scale. While the latest results from Twitter and Snapchat suggest there is some hope they could at least provide some competition for the big players and Amazon is increasingly touted as a growing force, the digital duopoly make up the vast majority of spend.

And in reality, the web beyond Google and Facebook’s platforms are even more dangerous to brands and their advertisers.

Unilever knows this, hence the lack of an ultimatum. It is good for the brand to be seen to be speaking out because it, more than many others given its focus on brand purpose, is more exposed to the negative PR associated with appearing next to toxic content.

“Because of the pivotal role Facebook and Google play in all areas of online advertising it is difficult to completely do without them. It is in [Unilever’s] interests to be constructive with them so while they might threaten them in public it is another [matter] altogether to pull spend away,” says Littunen.

That comes across in what Weed tells Marketing Week. While the implication is still there that spend could be pulled if necessary, Weed talks about how Unilever has been “dynamically allocating media resource for years”, making it sound like this is simply a continuation of an ongoing strategy to ensure its ads appear in the most effective places.

“We have been very clear about what we want to achieve, and we are spending more money with partners who will help us do that. Similarly, when we talk about responsible platforms that have a positive impact on society, our spending will follow what we think is important when building our brands,” he adds.

Yet that doesn’t mean Facebook and Google should not heed the warnings.

Weed’s comments show that concerns over fake news and toxic content are rising up the agenda for advertisers, as well as consumers, politicians and policy makers. It may not be Unilever that proves to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it is just the latest sign that all is not right in the digital world.

Without major changes from the digital platforms, governments will be left with little choice but to regulate. And neither Google nor Facebook wants that.